Author Interview: Sean McMullen

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Sean McMullen has just released his latest book, “Changing Yesterday”.

We recently took the opportunity to interview him, and in true writer style his answers were interesting and while it might look quite long it is definitely worth reading about this inspiring author:


Tell us about your latest book, Changing Yesterday….

The setting for the book is 1901. This was in the Belle Epoch, the elegant, optimistic time between the turn of the century and World War One. Fashions and art were modernising, and old attitudes were being pushed aside byt new ideas. Huge ocean liners could get from Australia to England in only six weeks, and life aboard those liners was pretty special. Crime fiction meant Sherlock Holmes, the first movies were being shown in the first movie theatres, and ragtime was the newest thing in popular music.

Australia had just become a nation, and this is where the trouble stars in Changing Yesterday. A British secret society called the Lionhearts is trying to commit acts of terrorism to provoke a war with Germany, and unify the British Empire. Two cadets from the future, Liore and Fox, have travelled back through time to stop the Lionhearts, because the war they provoke will last a hundred years and cost billions of lives.

Liore and Fox are helped by four teenagers from 1901. Daniel and Emily have rich, respectable parents and go to expensive schools. Barry is a school dropout who is training to be a petty criminal. Muriel wants to be an artist, and she does bohemian things like hanging out in coffee shops and posing nude for art classes. Together they stop the Lionhearts twice, but then things start to go wrong. Muriel dumps Daniel and runs off to Paris with Fox to become an artist. Daniel loses interest in life, so his parents send him to an English boarding school to have some sense beaten into him. Barry steals Liore’s laser rifle from the future, and sails for England to try to sell it to the king in return for a knighthood. Both Liore and the Lionhearts set off after Barry to get the plasma rifle

Most of the novel takes place on ships sailing from Australia to England, so we get a great view of life on a luxury ship just over a century ago. Not many authors have used the Australia-England voyage in their novels, which is really a pity because it’s a very romantic, exotic setting – a bit like Titanic, but without the iceberg.

The book is set in Melbourne in 1901, how did you put your mindset back in time to accomplish this?

Melbourne in 1901 was a very exciting place, and was so well known for its fashions, artists, theatres and intellectual life that it was called the Paris of the South. It had also just become the capital of Australia, so the city was having a huge party that lasted for months.

It was like the Year 2000 celebrations, only bigger, so thinking about how we celebrated the new Millennium was a good start for me. I then tried to immerse myself in the general culture of the time by re-watching movies like The Illusionist, Miss Potter and Titanic, watching newsreels shot in Melbourne back then, and reading magazines and newspapers from 1901. As you can imagine, I spent a lot of time in the State Library reading rooms. After a few weeks of this, I had developed a lot of empathy for people living in 1901.

In spite of all the restrictions of the time, I found I could have my characters do a lot of things that are pretty radical. Girls could rebel, like Muriel running away to Paris be an artist and Madeline running away to London be a detective. The boys have a pretty good example in Daniel, when it comes to the problems of growing up. Early in the book he is treated as a child, so he acts like one, but as soon as he gets away from his parents and older sister, he becomes a suave young man in a few weeks.

Women like him, because he is gentle, intelligent and has a sense of humour. It’s the same today. Young people are expected to grow up in the few months between school and university, and without much help from their parents. A lot of the attitudes from 1901 were quite a shock, because they were often quite racist, sexist and generally arrogant by our standards. I had to be very careful with all that when I was writing the book.

Sean McMullen

Who are your target readers?

Both Changing Yesterday and its predecessor, Before the Storm, were aimed at a core audience of about twelve to sixteen years old, but adults wrote most of my fan mail for Before the Storm. Terry Pratchett once told me it’s similar with his books.

They are written to be accessible to teenagers, but most copies are bought by adults. Kids studying Australian history are another target audience for me. My daughter once said that Australian Federation was boring because it just seemed to be about a lot of bad-tempered old politicians arguing with each other. This might be the down side of getting independence without a war or revolution. These two books make this important time in Australia’s history more exciting for readers by actually stopping a war that takes place in an alternate future.

How did you get started as a writer?

I wrote my first stories for school projects, but then I got mixed up with musicians and bands and I stopped writing. Girls were more interested in guys who were on stage with a guitar, not sitting at home writing stories. Years later found that I still liked the idea of telling stories, but I was getting tired of singing on stage.

That was when I decided to be an author. I went to conventions to meet real authors, wrote stories for amateur magazines, and entered every writing competition that I could find. My stories usually finished in the top three in competitions, which was encouraging, but I didn’t sell anything for the first five years, and this was not. Finally, I won the World SF Convention short story competition, and suddenly editors started taking me seriously and buying my stories. That’s what every writer needs: persistence, and the occasional big break.

You have been short-listed for the Hugo Award in the novella category for ‘Eight Miles’, can you explain what this is all about?

The Hugo Awards are the Oscars of science fiction, and are voted on by members of the World SF Convention every year. It’s about twice as hard for an Australian to get a Hugo nomination as an Oscar nomination, and about ten times harder to win. My novelette Eight Miles is in a style called steampunk, which is sort of retro science fiction with Victorian era settings.

Steampunk is a bit like medieval fantasy, because romance and fashion are about as important as the plot. Changing Yesterday is also steampunk, even though it is set a few months after Queen Victoria died.

The World SF Convention is a bit like a huge trade fair, where the readers and authors get together. The readers dress up in costumes, get their books signed by the authors, listen to readings and go to talks. The authors mostly hang around the bar, doing deals with publishers, agents and editors, and talking to other authors. I’ll be going to America in August for the convention, and I’ll be hoping to come back with Australia’s second-ever Hugo for a work of fiction.

You have done some work in the music industry, how does this compare to writing?

I used to think that music was way more exciting than writing, but now I’m not so sure. I actually earned my first money in SF when I sang in a science fiction operetta about a guy who invents a baby-making machine. The machine gets out of control and makes forty-one thousand babies in one day.

Aside from that I was in a couple of amateur teenage rock bands, then I graduated to classical music groups and choirs. After a year in the Victorian State Opera, I spent another year as lead singer in the professional folk-rock band Joe Wilson’s Mates before moving on to writing.

My problem was that I liked sorts of music that did not draw big audiences. Writing came a lot easier for me and paid way better. Even in my early years as a professional writer I would earn more in one year than in all my years of singing put together.

Still, those years on stage taught me to be an entertainer, and that is very important in writing. Stories and novels must entertain, but the writer must also be an entertainer in person. Publishers arrange readings, talks, radio interviews and TV appearances to promote the books, so you have to be able to put on a good show.

changing yesterday

You have some interesting skills and hobbies; tell us about some of them…

The word ‘hobbies’ may not quite do justice to this question. Currently I am a karate instructor at the Melbourne University club. I do that as a sort of community service, but in return I get to choreograph the action scenes from my books and stories with my students and see what works.

I have done a lot of other things in the past, like building musical instruments, fighting in medieval re-enactment societies, fencing , bush dancing and even astronomy. When I was a child I built my own radio telescope, and nearly set the house on fire when it shorted out. I also built and launched my own rockets, and the neighbours were very relieved when I gave that away and got into rock music.

All of that sort of thing provides great background material when one is writing stories, because the reader gets a lot more confidence in you. For example, a lot of authors write about tournaments, but practically none of them have ridden in armour, on a horse, with a lance. I have. I never jousted against another person, but even a practice shield suspended from a pole is pretty challenging. After that sort of experience you take the idea of jousting very, very seriously, and it shows in your writing.

Who are your current favourite Australian authors?

John Marsden has been my favourite for quite a while. His text for The Rabbits was brilliant, and the plot and characters in Tomorrow When the War Began and the rest of that series are a great lesson in how to write engaging young adult fiction. Beyond that, it gets a bit murky.

Ben Elton has spent a lot of time in Australia and done a lot of writing here. I love his work, but does he count as Australian? Peter Carey was a strong influence on my style in the 70s and 80s, but does living in New York now make him American? John Brosnan wrote all his SF after moving to England, so is he truly Australian?

Currently Australian authors are making a lot of money from writing romantic fantasy, but not in the style that I like. In terms of character development, I have learned more from David Williamson than anyone writing SF or fantasy in Australia.

Where do you get your inspiration?

From anything unusual and weird. I once had a dream that I was standing on the side of a street watching a protest march of cats going past. They were calling out –

“What do we want?”

“Cat food!”

“When do we want it?”

“Meow!”

Not long after this I started to develop a character named Riellen, who was the first student revolutionary on one of my fantasy worlds. She was not great on theory, and would urge her audiences not to be “prawns of the establishment,” and not to “just stand there and take it lying down,” but eventually she does bring down a kingdom and replace it with an electocracy.

That’s pretty typical of how I get my inspiration: I start with one slightly peculiar idea, then develop it to extremes. I was working in the State Library when I was doing a computer science postgrad, and one day I was struck by the idea that the entire library resembled a computer.

Humans moved the data and instructions around instead of electrons, but all the basic functions were the same. From this I developed the idea for Souls in the Great Machine, a novel about a caste of librarians who run Australia in the distant future, using a human-powered computer. They wear stunning black costumes and cloaks, are as ruthless as a pack of wolves, and settle disputes with flintlock pistols at forty paces. That went down extremely well with librarians, who probably wish they could run their own libraries like that, and the book has been my best seller so far.

In general I think too many authors don’t do enough with their basic ideas. You really need to trace through all their implications and see where that leads.

How long does it take you to write a book?

That depends. Doing a first draft of a novel takes about four months, then I’ll take about another four months to refine and expand it. That might seem like a short time, but after writing the first few novels you learn not to waste time on dead ends in plotting. I work full time in computers, so all my writing gets done after hours, but even so I can produce about two hundred thousand published words a year.

My girlfriend makes Gothic jewellery in her spare time, so we spend a lot of evenings together at the same table, working away at different things. Most of my friends are writers, or are in film and television, so my entire social life is pretty sympathetic to writing.

Do you ever get writer’s block, and if so, how do you combat it?

Writer’s block? I’ve heard of this disease, but I’ve never encountered it. It’s probably a bit like UFOs or ghosts. Other people seem to experience it, but never me.

Maybe I’m too much of a sceptic. I’ve always got ideas for over a dozen stories and novels going in my mind, with lots more clamouring to get in. My main problem is how to prioritise what I’m already writing. I always have way too many ideas and not enough time to type them out.

What has been the strangest thing you have ever done in the sake of book research?

That depends on what you think is strange. I suppose dressing up in medieval clothes and armour, then trekking in the Strezleki Desert would be a good contender. An outback police patrol was pretty surprised when they encountered me. I think they were also rather relieved when I said I did not need a lift. The drinkers at the Cameron’s Corner pub were also pretty weirded out when I walked in and ordered a beer. Later, on the same trip, I was trekking in the Arkaroola Ranges when a woman hiker reached out and touched me as I walked past – presumably the check that I was real. I learned a lot about medieval travel and wilderness conditions from that trip, but I had a lot of fun too.

Medieval clothing and armour is actually quite comfortable to walk in over long distances in extreme heat, which was a surprise. I got very, very protective about my feet, because I was always just one twisted ankle away from being stranded. I also learned that you get a lot less picky about eating food that’s gone a bit off when there’s nothing else to eat. Water was a big issue, because you need a lot of it, and it’s really heavy. About half of my pack’s weight was water when I set off.

If you could travel anywhere in the world, where would you go?

I was in southern France for a Gothic literature conference some years ago, and I noticed that every village had legends of local dragons, ogres, monsters, werewolves and suchlike.

They were also dripping with real history, like passing knights burning the place in the Middle Ages. You sit down on a wall to have lunch, then read in the guide book that it was built a couple of thousand years ago by the Romans. It really is like being transported to a magical world, – and the food and wine is exceptionally good too.

What does being a writer mean to you?

I love telling stories, and being a writer gives me an audience for my stories. I also get to create characters and worlds that mean a lot to other people as well as me. I’ve had people tell me that my books have been a great comfort to them, and even changed their lives.

One American soldier told me that my books were all that kept him sane during his tour of duty in Iraq. Some librarians tell me that they unofficially use the Dragon Librarian ranks from Souls in the Great Machine in their real-life libraries – although none of them have confessed to fighting duels with pistols over cataloguing rules.

That’s probably the ultimate thrill of being a writer: creating worlds and characters, then seeing them come alive for the readers.

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