From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

The Fantastic Has to Have the Texture of Reality: Dirk Strasser

Dirk Strasser has written over thirty books for major publishers in Australia. He won the Ditmar for Best Professional Achievement in 2002 and has been short-listed for the Aurealis and Ditmar Awards a number of times. His Ascension trilogy of novels — Zenith, Equinox and Eclipse — were published by Pan Macmillan in Australia and by Heyne Verlag in Germany. His children’s horror novel, Graffiti, was published by Ashton Scholastic. He has had SF/fantasy/horror short stories published in magazines and anthologies in Australia, the UK, the USA and Germany. His most recent publication has been to the Jack Dann edited anthology Dreaming Again and his most recent sale was to Realms of Fantasy. His story “The Doppelgänger Effect” appeared in the World Fantasy Award-winning anthology Dreaming Down-Under. He co-edited Aurealis magazine for over ten years and continues to co-publish it. Dirk was born in Germany but has lived most of his life in Australia. Dirk is currently employed as a Publishing Manager for Pearson Australia, and is living in Melbourne with his wife and two children. His short story, “The Vigilante,” appears this week in Fantasy Magazine.

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I would like to start by thanking you for taking the time to answer my questions. I understand that in addition to your own writing career, you also publish the well-received and critically acclaimed Australian magazine, Aurealis. In recent years, I have heard much about your magazine and Australia’s growing participation in the world of speculative fiction. As an Australian writer and editor, how does your home — your landscape — affect your writing? Did your Australian roots come into play in the writing of “The Vigilant”? Or, in your opinion, is a national identity irrelevant to fiction?

From when we started Aurealis in 1990 we grappled with exactly this question, and I’ve heard all sorts of opinions from other authors that range from the “national identity has no influence on speculative fiction” argument to “every piece of writing is totally dependent on where a writer comes from”. My view is more towards the latter. The voices in my head when my characters speak are unmistakably Australian (even when they’re originally not from this world at all). And I don’t think a writer can help but let the landscapes they know shimmer through in their works. In many of my works that are set outside cities, there’s always a sense of starkness and emptiness — which Australia pretty much is outside its urban areas. I don’t consciously think, “Hey, I’m going to make this landscape stark and empty because that’s what Australia is like. It’s just what I somehow gravitate to. “The Vigilant”, of course is urban, but in different ways is very Australian, and even more specifically very Melbourne. It’s set in the seaside suburb of St. Kilda, which I know quite well, and as I wrote the story I was picturing in my mind specific streets, laneways, tram stops, cafes and houses that I know. I’ve always seen St Kilda as a place quite different to the rest of Melbourne, where the sleazy and the trendy cohabitate and something quite bizarre could be waiting for you around any corner. I think this comes out in some way in “The Vigilant”.

So, what led you to write “The Vigilant”? Is there a concrete incident behind the story or was it simply a conglomeration of various influences?

I’ve been interested in Middle Eastern mythology for some time. This interest came from a novel I started writing some time ago set in a mythic city. I began working on the novel and not very far into it questioned myself as to why I had just automatically made it a European medieval-style city. Weren’t there enough of those already published? The thought then struck me that this city was a Middle Eastern one. I didn’t know much then about Middle Eastern mythology, so I did a Google search for “mythic middle eastern cities” and suddenly the trail to a whole new world opened up.

The city where “The Vigilant” takes place seems like a blank slate in many ways. It seemed there were no real identifying features other than a vaguely urban European feel created through some of the place names. Was this intentional? What are the benefits and disadvantages of using a generic setting in fiction? Most people are aware of the “Everyman” figure in literature. What do you think accounts for the increase in the utilization of an “Everywhere” as a setting in fiction, especially those stories that fall into the urban fantasy genre?

I suppose people consider Melbourne the most “European” of Australian cities. St Kilda has a strong history of Eastern European settlement and influence so perhaps that’s coming through. It’s interesting, though, that when my European relatives come to visit, they feel Melbourne has a very “American” feel. All the elements are there. I think it depends what you focus on. I had always assumed that “The Vigilant” was probably destined to be sold to an Australian market rather than an American or British one, and I made no attempt to internationalize any part of it. I felt I was writing something clearly set in a specific place I knew, and most Australians would have some familiarity with St Kilda so they would fill in the gaps. I’d class many of my other stories as having an “Everywhere” setting, but not this one. I think “Everywhere” setting stories can be quite powerful and evocative, but I always feel they need to still have a distinctive flavor for them to work really well.

One of the primary themes I picked up from “The Vigilant” was the coexistence of the mythic and the mundane. You can see this in the framework of the very first paragraph. It goes from the mythic:

The sorcery of the djinn was like a stalking beast. You had to stay downwind of it, even when you were the hunter. Antar knew, as always, everything depended on him seeing the unseen and focusing his eyes to reveal what lay in the membrane between the light and darkness.

Then onto the mundane:

As he walked through the strewn refuse of the alley, he smelled the stench of stale urine and beer that eternally impregnated the gutters.

Was this juxtaposition intended? As a writer, how do you mix these two worldviews (the realistic vs. the fantastic) without jarring the reader?

I think the setting up right at the start of the juxtaposition does the trick in this particular story (which is really about different worlds basically separated by the thinnest of membranes). “The Vigilant” would jolt the reader (in not a good way) if the either the mythic or the mundane suddenly appeared from nowhere for the first time in the middle of the story. It’s possible to have all sorts of combinations and variations though in the mix between the realistic and the fantastic. The fantastic has to have the texture of reality, and how better to achieve this than by including “real” bits?

The growing popularity of urban fantasy indicates that more and more readers are interested in this juxtaposition of the mythic and the mundane, the intersection of realist and fantasist. What do you think accounts for this trend?

Is it a reaction to increasing urbanization and materialism? Do we feel trapped in ever larger cities and know there must be something else? Do we expect cities now to provide us with absolutely everything, so we expect them to provide us with our myths as well? I don’t really know. Sorting that out would take someone’s Ph.D. thesis.

Without giving anything away, I thought that the world-building done in “The Vigilant” was very well done. With a novel, a writer has plenty of room for world-building. What, in your opinion, is the secret to world-building within the limited space of a short story?

My feeling is that for world-building to be effective in a short story, you need to have developed far more of the world than what you show in the story. If all you’ve got is what appears in the story itself, it’s bit of a house of cards. “The Vigilant” benefited from the huge amount of background research I did into Middle Eastern mythology for the novel I’m currently working on, The Djinn Hunter. The other side of world-building was the research I did into M-theory, the multi-dimensional extension of string theory. This is the origin of the image in the story of worlds as soap bubbles that share membranes and merge and morph.

Near the beginning of “The Vigilant,” Sasha shows kindness to Antar/Andy. We get a little insight into our protagonist’s mind with the following quote from the story:

Why didn’t she give up? Couldn’t she just not see him, like all the others? She kept trying to connect. Night after night she treated him like a human being – it put him in the wrong frame of mind.

This seems to indicate that, for Antar/Andy, humanity and kindness are distractions. He feels that he can only serve his purpose — his higher calling, if you will — without being touched, emotionally or physically, by others. He fears being human or experiencing human emotion. Was this something you put into the story intentionally, or did it just happen organically? What is the significance of this character trait?

This character trait was definitely intentional. It was the central internal conflict in the main character and in the way the worlds interact. Although I conceived of “The Vigilant” as a stand-alone short story, it was always in the context of something much larger. There are other Vigilants in our world and in other worlds, and they all have a calling to be eternally vigilant for breaches without drawing attention to themselves. The breach that occurs in the story is both a physical breach and a breach of Antar’s emotional protective mechanisms.

If only they knew what damage they were doing, thought Antar.” It seems that Antar/Andy feels that humanity is unaware of the consequences of their actions. This theme recurs throughout the story. The “breaks” or “wounds” between worlds seem to be caused by severe emotional distress or anger, and the ones creating the “wounds” do not know what they are doing. In your opinion, is this a valid view of humanity? Do you really feel that humanity as a whole has no idea of “what damage they are doing” through our various interactions? Why or why not?

It’s obviously not the only side to humanity. I don’t want to dismiss all the good stuff, but if we are going to do great damage to ourselves it will come from conflict and anger. I guess the story is saying we should be vigilant that this doesn’t happen. We have a propensity towards creating these wounds, and we have to look at the small things that are contributing to it as well as the large scale things.

I enjoyed the Arabian feel to “The Vigilant.” Your story is packed with Arabic and Islamic terms and mythology. The Middle Eastern flavor nicely contrasts the generic European feel of the city and the European folk practices detailed later in the story. What led you to use the Arabic/Islamic terms and references? What led to your decision to add the imagery of European folk practices late in the story? Is there any significance in the combination of the two?

It came partly from the setting. St Kilda has historically had a strong Eastern European influence, and Sasha has an Eastern European background. I liked the juxtaposition between a superstition from our world with (within the context of the story) weird stuff happening for real. I felt it somehow added verisimilitude to the situation.

So, what’s next for Dirk Strasser? Do you have any upcoming publications or projects you would like to mention?

I have a story soon to be published in Realms of Fantasy called “Stories of the Sand”. As I mentioned earlier I’ve been working on a novel called The Djinn Hunter for quite some time and am currently putting the finishing touches on it. It’s the first book in a series and is set in 570AD during the time of the Sassanid Persian Empire.

T.J. McIntyre has seen his short fiction and poetry published in numerous publications including recent appearances in Everyday Weirdness, Ruthless Peoples Magazine, and Scifaikuest. He is a member of various writing organizations, including the Science Fiction Poetry Association (SFPA), and serves as a moderator for the Lobo Luna writing community on LiveJournal. Until earlier this year, he published Southern Fried Weirdness, an anthology and web zine celebrating speculative fiction and poetry with a Southern perspective. He lives in a busy household in the muggy heart of rural Alabama with his wife, two young sons, an aging Doberman mix, five tiger barbs, and three salt-and-pepper catfish.

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