Spotlight Sunday – Stephanie Gunn

Hi Stephanie,

Thanks for taking the time to answer our questions for Spotlight Sunday. Our Australian Speculative Fiction group is growing and we love seeing emerging Australian authors taking the spotlight.

Can you tell us about your novella, Icefall?

Icefall is, at its heart, a love story between two women, Aisha and Maggie. It follows them both as Maggie attempts to reach the summit of the Mountain, a peak on the planet Icefall that has never been summited or survived. Aisha, once a priestess of a religious order which sees mountains as sacred places, also used to climb, but an accident resulted in the loss of her hand and her priestesshood, as well as making it impossible for her to climb again. She has always supported Maggie in all of her climbs, knowing that Maggie is one of the strongest and most accomplished mountaineers alive, but she has always known before that Maggie would come back.

Where can we find more of your work, short stories or otherwise?

Apart from Icefall, my most recent publication is another novella, Pinion, which was published in ‘Aurum’, a collection of novellas from Ticonderoga Publications. Pinion is set in an apocalyptic steampunk world, which is also explored in another short story of mine, ‘Escapement’, published in the Aurealis Award-winning collection Kisses by Clockwork (Ticonderoga Publications). I have also written another story set in the Icefall universe, back when humanity had just begun its exodus from what became known as Old Earth, ‘This Silent Sea’ (Review of Australian Fiction, vol 24 issue 6), which was shortlisted for an Aurealis Award. I’ve also had stories published in Defying Doomsday (Twelfth Planet Press), Bloodlines (Ticonderoga Publications) and Hear Me Roar (Ticonderoga Publications), as well as in several other anthologies.

Your Facebook author page defines you as a speculative fiction author. Do you have a favourite genre that comes under that banner?

I read widely in all subgenres of speculative fiction, but my heart always belongs to urban fantasy – what was originally urban fantasy, with the more mythic stories, rather than vampires and werewolves in the modern day (though I have no issue with that subgenre, and will happily devour all manner of paranormal books). Charles de Lint’s Newford books are a perfect example of everything I love about urban fantasy: compelling characters with a deep mythology interweaving everything, and most importantly, magic that feels as though it could exist in the everyday world.

What is your current work in progress about?

I’m currently working on a contemporary fantasy novel about a woman who dreamed a city into being when she was young in order to escape a dysfunctional waking life, a city which became a place which other people could dream their way to in order to escape their own painful lives. As an adult, grown out of any belief in magic, a series of tragedies draws her back to her dream world where has to face the consequences of turning her back on it and those who found refuge there.

What kind of research do you do for your book? How’s that google history looking…

For Icefall, there was definitely a lot of reading! The development of Icefall is a great example of my research process. The initial idea came when I happened along a documentary about George Mallory and his obsession with climbing Mt. Everest as well as the modern-day search for his body and the mystery of whether he actually summited the mountain or not (The Wildest Dream, which I highly recommend). It absolutely fascinated me that this man, with a wife and family at home, could be drawn back time and time again to this dangerous mountain, which would almost kill him twice before eventually claiming his life. I read more and more, moving into reading about modern climbers, and became especially fascinated with the people who were attempting then-unsummited mountains. One of the things that became quickly evident was the disparity between how male and female climbers were viewed. Mallory, for example, was a hero, no matter that he left a wife and children behind every time he went on an expedition. You then look at a climber like Alison Hargreaves (who has a mountain named after her in Icefall which is particularly important to Aisha and Maggie), a brilliant mountaineer who reached the summit of Mt Everest unsupported and without oxygen, who was much criticised for being a mother who risked her life climbing (including climbing the north face of the Eiger while pregnant).

I also spent a lot of time reading about the medical side of climbing and how the body adapts to altitude (or doesn’t adapt, in the case of development of altitude sickness). My background is in biology, so it was far too easy to dive deep into this side of things, even though only a small fraction of that information actually makes it into the story.

In short, I probably do far much research, but it’s something that I enjoy and feel enriches any story.

What has influenced you most as a writer?

My own experiences, more than anything. In particular with Icefall, I really wanted to explore Aisha’s experience with disability (her lost hand) and chronic illness/mental illness (the PTSD she suffers after her accident, as well as the painful cerebral storms she lives with). Aisha had everything – she was a priestess and she was discovering her strength as a climber, and all of it was taken away from her with the loss of her hand. She finds herself living this liminal life where she’s had everything which she once used to define herself stripped away, and she basically lives through Maggie instead.

I don’t live with PTSD (though I have close friends who do) but part of my life has paralleled Aisha’s experiences. I trained as scientist, and have an undergraduate degree in molecular genetics and a PhD which mostly focused on immunology. Midway through my PhD I travelled overseas to attend a conference and got sick with what I thought was a bad flu, and never got better. I bounced between specialists for a few years, and from diagnosis to diagnosis, and limped through the rest of my PhD, in the end too sick to attend my graduation or pursue postgraduate studies or work afterwards. In the years since, I’ve learned to manage my chronic illnesses, but have never been well enough to return to full-time work. It’s a liminal world like the one Aisha lives in, existing with a chronic illness – you get to watch other people pursuing all the things you once assumed you would, all the while trying to carve out a new life for yourself within all these limits. I’m lucky in that I have a family who supports me, and I’ve been able to have two children and pursue writing with that support, but I’m still always aware of the spaces that I don’t get to occupy that I once took for granted.

What was the best money you ever spent on your writing career?

It’s probably a trite answer, but books. I read a lot of fiction and non-fiction, and try to read as widely as possible. I also read a lot of books on writing craft (and may have a slight addiction to buying them). If you want to write, you absolutely have to read as much as possible as well as learn to read critically.

It doesn’t cost money, but one of the other things that’s been a massive boon is judging for awards. I’ve judged the Australian Shadows Award in the past, and have now spent many years judging and convening various panels of the Aurealis Awards (I’m currently judging the Sara Douglass series award). Judging is a quick way to learn to read critically and widely, since you’re in theory reading everything in a particular area of speculative fiction published in Australia for the year (in theory, because works still have to be entered by publishers or writers, and there are always works that slip through the net, though the organising committee do their utmost best to make sure the entries are as comprehensive as possible). I encourage anyone who wants to be a writer to volunteer as an awards judge if at all possible.

Any advice you would give your past self or other writers just starting out?

Persist. You are going to write a lot that sucks, and that’s okay. You’re going to submit some of it well before it’s ready and the rejections are going to sting. Just keep going, keep writing, keep pushing yourself to try to write things that you don’t think you can, keep sending work out. Take all criticism on board, but always weigh whether it’s relevant or useful. Find a critique partner, find beta readers, find people who love writing and words as much as you do. No matter what happens, come back to the page. If you persist, you’ll get better and you’ll get there. Keep going.

If someone was to write your biography, what would it be called?

Not the Way She Planned (But what use are plans anyway?).

Is there anything else you would like to share with us?

Just how grateful I am to everyone at Twelfth Planet Press, especially my intrepid editor Alisa Krasnostein, who is an absolute wonder to work with (and whose editing I can already see has improved my writing skills immensely). A few years ago, I sat down and wrote out a list of goals for my writing career, one of which was to have something published with Twelfth Planet Press. I’ve followed them since their inception, and always been a massive fan of everything that they’ve published, and to have become a Twelfth Planet author is something that I cherish and am incredibly thankful for.

Connect with the author:

Also check out the review of Icefall here.


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