Dan Rabarts is a writer, editor, sometime narrator of audio fiction, and serial award-winner on both sides of the Tasman Sea. After years publishing short stories in magazines such as Aurealis, Andromeda Spaceways and Beneath Ceaseless Skies, his first novel, Hounds of the Underworld (about which, more below), was released last year by Raw Dog Screaming Press. We caught up with Dan to get the skinny on his 2016 Australian Shadows Awards win, the joys of collaboration, and more besides…
Your story Tipuna Tapu, from And Then… The Great Big Book of Adventure Stories, won the Paul Haines Award for Long Fiction in last year’s Shadows Awards. Congratulations!
Can you tell us a bit about the story (without spoilers, of course)?
It’s either a dieselpunk love adventure disguised as a horror story, or the other way round. That’s up to the reader to decide. In the aftermath of the Second World War, the world has been overrun by whatever monsters the local mythologies and geography dictate, so while the UK is plagued by giants, New Zealand has become the hunting ground of taniwha. Tipuna Tapu, which is Māori for Sacred Ancestors, is the story of a couple of hunters who seek out ancient burial grounds and steal the bones, because bones make wherever they lie tapu, sacred ground, and the taniwha cannot enter sacred ground. Then they sell the bones to the highest bidder, so the power of the bones will keep whoever possesses them safe from the taniwha. Naturally, this can only go on for so long before either the taniwha, rival hunters, or the restless dead decide things need to change.
Is there some interesting backstory to the idea?
My whanau (family) trace our Māori roots back to the Coromandel Peninsula, and we still occupy some of the same land our ancestors did hundreds of years ago, in a time when our dead were prepared for burial in the Pre-European method of having the bones stripped and dried and then laid to rest in a secret, sacred place, in woven flax kete. The knowledge of the whereabouts of this place is governed by a rule of three: only three living members of the whanau at any time know the location, which is considered tapu.
So I got to thinking about a world where that power could be the difference between life and death, between freedom and terror, where it might become a currency of sorts. A world where the bones of the dead which have lain so long in dark, secret places take on a value akin to glittering hoards of buried pirate treasure. How far would we be willing to go to violate those sacred places, and what would it really cost us?
Is this your first Shadows Award?
It’s my first for my own writing, yes, but not my first Shadows Award. In 2014, Lee Murray and I shared the honour of the Shadows Award for Best Edited Work for our anthology Baby Teeth – Bite-sized Tales of Terror, as editors.
It was a real honour to take this award for Tipuna Tapu, not only because the story itself came from a very personal place for me, but because I love Paul Haines’ writing, and so many people who knew him speak very highly of him, both as a writer and as a person. I have a huge respect for him, and I’m honoured to have my name mentioned alongside his.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’ve just wrapped up a round of edits on Teeth of the Wolf, the second book in the Path of Ra series, co-authored with Lee Murray, which is a crime-noir supernatural thriller series published by Raw Dog Screaming Press (USA). I’ve also been putting the final touches on a dark fantasy novel, in the hopes of finding it a home, and I’ve got a couple more novellas in progress which I need to sit my butt down and finish. Not to mention a folder full of short stories variously abandoned or forgotten about which I plan to dust off this year. But right now, I’m gearing up for StokerCon in Providence, Rhode Island, in March. Big adventure on the horizon.
Speaking of the Path of Ra series, which you’re co-writing with AHWA Vice-President, Lee Murray, you’ve also co-edited two award-winning anthologies together. What is it about collaboration that keeps you coming back for more? Can you tell us a bit about your process?
Sometimes you fall into a synergy that’s unexpected, unplanned and highly productive. I was lucky enough to find myself in just such a partnership in 2013 with Lee when I kicked off the Baby Teeth project, and she brought a level of insight, experience and expertise regarding the indie publishing arena to the table, which turned BT from an excitable concept into a real thing. The stage was set. After At The Edge, our NZ/Aussie anthology of dark fiction, we decided it was time to make words happen together.
As it turns out, writing fiction as a team was something we could also do with some degree of competency, despite the bickering. I’d love to say that Hounds of the Underworld just poured out of us, each only having to do half the writing; a burden shared is a burden halved and all that. But the fact is it was still work, possibly more work, than writing alone, yet work of a completely different dynamic. I’ll write a section in my character’s voice, Lee will write the next section from her character’s POV, and so it goes back and forth. The creative process is both co-operative and conflicted, the challenges of trying to keep the narrative together as a collective force balanced out by the anticipation of reading whatever new surprises will emerge in the next scene the other is about to deliver. To date, we’ve kept the planning of the books fairly loose and, with some key plot points and character arcs in mind, pretty much let the story play out however the heroes and villains felt it needed to. I have, anyway, which might be where the ‘conflicted’ part I mentioned above comes in, as Lee would much rather we just stuck to the plan, please Dan. What, too many explosions, Lee?
For Book 3, I may need to behave myself, as we have a whole lot of threads to bring back together to wrap up the mystery. Pantsing will only get you so far when you’re working together, and then you really have to plan things. Merged consciousnesses between writing partners may help, but I sent away that $5 mail-order coupon in the back of Weird Tales magazine for the special silver box that helps you read minds, and it never showed up. Disappointing.
What do you see as the value of the AHWA?
I’m a strong believer in writing communities, and in feeding back positive energy. As writers we’re already on the fringe, and as writers of dark fiction and horror we’re even on the outer edges of that ring. Out here, this far from the sun, where we spin so fast, it’s easy to get cast into the black, lose our momentum, and drift into oblivion. We watch small keen publishers start up, flare bright and strong, and burn out. We struggle to survive, struggle even harder to thrive. When one of us falls by the wayside, gives up writing, dies, we’re all diminished by the loss. But there’s strength in numbers. People can be difficult, yes, and we like to think of ourselves as being loners and recluses and all that, but there’s a time and place for isolation, and a time and a place for working together. This isn’t a competition, awards or not. Out here at the edges, we are each other’s gravity. We hold each other in place.
Whether it’s being involved in a community group like a local crit meet-up, or volunteering on a committee for groups like SpecFicNZ or AHWA, or being part of a Con-Com, there are all sorts of ways for writers to tap into what, in my experience, has generally been a very positive and productive resource – the collective experience and enthusiasm of other creatives doing what they love, making the magic happen. And by participating, you feed back into the vibe, keep things humming. Like some inexplicable source of renewable energy.
For me, writing has always been about achieving that balance of making words happen and getting them published, and taking part in the community, giving back for all the props I was given to help get me started. Because it’s not about my success, it’s about the success of this weird, warped thing we do. It’s about achieving the critical mass of good material and solid readership and a viable publishing paradigm, and that cannot happen in a vacuum. We really do need each other, and we need to prop each other up and help each other out, if we’re not all just going to be swallowed up by the void.
And one thing I know for a fact, having done quite a lot of work behind the scenes, is that a hell of a lot gets done in the background that even the active members of a group never see, all of it for the benefit of the whole. The best way to see how that all works, is to take part. Feed back the vibe.
You can find out more about Dan and the books he writes, edits, or bickers over with Lee, at http://dan.rabarts.com/.