In this interview, Australian author J. Ashley-Smith discusses his forthcoming collection The Measure of Sorrow, published by Meerkat Press.
For those who might not know of your works, what does writing – and specifically what you write – have to say about you?
I'm always wary about reading too much into what an author may or may not be like, based on their writing. Of course, I fall into that trap all the time myself, wondering what aspects of a book or story are 'made up' and which are taken – or borrowed – from the author's 'real life'. It's a slippery slope, and one I've slithered down the wrong side of on more than one occasion.
In my late teens and early twenties, my good friend and I would sit up late at night, drinking tea, getting stoned, sharing our story ideas with one another. This was back in a time when I thought that making up an idea and discussing it in detail with someone else was about as good as actually writing it (which may go some way towards explaining why my output during that period was minimal in the extreme). Whenever I shared my stories, which were invariably about emotionally twisted people and their poor life choices, my friend would give me this worried look – a kind of, "He doesn't even realise how badly he needs help" kind of look. The kind of look that precedes a concerned friend calling the therapist on your behalf. He had fallen into the trap of assuming my stories were me and – perhaps quite sensibly – assumed I needed looking after.
It's a dangerous trap to fall into, especially with a horror writer. The reality of course being that many writers of dark fiction are hands-down the nicest people walking the face of this planet.
So what might you assume about me from reading a few of my stories?
That I'm a deeply flawed human being in need of electro-shock therapy. That all my relationships are unendurably toxic and I only know terrible people. That I'm crushingly, incurably sad. That I'm afraid of swimming, oceans, seashells, bushfires, bathtubs, old trees, open spaces, toys, telephones, children, uncles, woodlands, black goop, farmyards, farmers, nazis, kelpies, corner shops, time, terraria, siblings, sociopaths, warehouse parties, small-time criminals, and Enid Blyton.
It's a fair cop: I am afraid of almost everything.
The Measure of Sorrow is your debut short story collection – what made you decide it was “time” to put one together and why?
The prevailing wisdom about single-author anthologies is to wait years, until you've got a million and one stories to choose from, before pulling a collection together. Typically that's good advice. Like the first pancake, your first stories are likely to be rough around the edges, a little uncooked in the middle; you likely haven't yet found 'your voice'; you've yet to master this or that technique.
It will have taken years (around nine) from the first word of the earliest story in the collection to its release next month. This is more a product of my laboriously slow writing process than my artful following of sensible advice. There was a point around three years ago where I felt a kind of critical mass forming: a set of stories with a very specific kind of density; not exactly thematically linked, but recognisably from the same gene pool. Around that time I became aware that my new ideas were moving me in a different direction, and I suppose I wanted to compile and release a book that collected those like-minded stories, before my attention and my inspiration left them too far behind.
Once the idea for a collection is there, though, you can't let it go. It has its own gravity and, like a black hole, starts drawing all the light in the known universe towards it. I wrote one story on spec to 'complete' the collection, which had so much mass it ended up as the title novella. And I suppose that's the other important question to ask about a collection: When do you know it's done? The answer for me was, finding and finishing the story that, like Lebowski's rug, "really tied the room together."
What can people expect from The Measure of Sorrow?
Sadness. Strangeness. Heart. Darkness. Flawed characters building fragile islands of meaning to protect themselves from a vast, indifferent universe.
There's madness, pettiness, grief. Crackpot theories about the afterlife. A bushfire ravaged wilderness. A terrible cosmic 'instrument'. Possums, leeches, rats and ants. A possessed corner shop. An eldritch rave scene. The smell of dried meat and old taxidermy. A confabulation of moths. A crackling ball of light in a psychedelic black reef. And the literal embodiment of your most private shame.
It's basically the whole package.
You’ve garnered several awards over the years, including the Shirley Jackson Award – is there a formula for an effective short story?
Probably. But if so I've never worked it out!
If the stories I've written that have later won awards have anything in common, it's that I had to learn from them, directly, how they wanted to be written. One or two came out in a white heat, but then I had to go back and back to make sense of the molten slag left behind, working them over and over to tease out what they were really trying to convey. Others took forever, like a journey along a dark tunnel with no sense of what's lying beyond the end of the torch beam. Some stories you have to just trust in, even though they may seem to be taking you way outside your comfort zone, out to a place that doesn't even make sense to you. You have to have faith that some part of you knows what it's doing, and a willingness to follow wherever it might lead.
However out there the story takes you, though, there is one thing you need to do to ensure it lands: make a promise to the reader at the very beginning, and deliver on that promise by the end. The reader needs to get an early feel for the kind of story you're telling, to put enough trust in you to let go and suspend disbelief. That trust is a big deal. You can mess with the reader like crazy (we love it), be as ambiguous as you like, leave all kinds of threads just dangling. But you can't ever betray that trust. You've got to cross your heart and hope to die and always keep your promises.
Who are your favourite authors and what are you currently reading?
Oh man. I always dread this question. Not only does the list change as frequently as my obsessions, but my brain goes into a kind of stasis as soon as someone asks me. All that's in my head is the infinite dark reaches of space, and a spray of tiny stars, too distant to identify.
Recently, I've been on a bit of a Peter Straub journey. I re-read Ghost Story, then Koko, then the whole of the Blue Rose trilogy. I just love the sensitivity with which he writes: that darkness is shot through with so much compassion. Before that I was obsessed with Patricia Highsmith and read the better part of her vast back catalogue. On a whim, I read (by which I mean listened to) Dickens' Bleak House, and jumped straight out of that and into Our Mutual Friend, I loved it so much.
Having said all this, the writer that blows my mind most consistently is probably Donna Tartt. Every time I finish one of her books, I'm torn between mad flights of inspiration and just giving up the game as a lost cause. She's one of the few contemporary authors who will be remembered alongside the greats of past centuries.
Although a lot of authors hate being asked this question, what advice would you give to other authors just starting out, or who are struggling to find their voice, or struggling with imposter syndrome?
I love this question. As a mentor with both the Horror Writers Association and Australasian Horror Writers Association, I work together with writers at all kinds of stages of their practice. I love having the opportunity to talk about craft, to spend deep time with other people's work, but also to connect over those fears and anxieties that grip anyone exploring their creativity and sharing it with the world.
All of which is a long-winded way of saying, the struggle is real – and it doesn't go away. And you don't want it to! Because the struggle is the thing itself. The journey to find your voice is a life's work. It's not like one day you wake up and go, "Oh, there it is," and every story you write after that has 'your' voice. Though you come closer with every new piece of work, finding that voice is the process of life itself, and it won't be finished till you breathe – and write – your last.
The same is true of impostor syndrome. The deeper I get into my practice (I shy away from the word 'career', as I still feel like a dilettante), the more external validation I receive – a story acceptance, a book in the shops, an award on the shelf – the louder that little doubting voice becomes. The doubts escalate, as does the fear that someday soon everyone will finally figure out what I've been getting away with all this time.
The only way forward is to keep working. To write another story, and another. To keep your attention on your work and to love the process so much it drowns out all that other noise.
Where do you find inspiration for your stories?
Dude, you should have put this question at the beginning! I feel like you've already heard from me enough, and this question demands a whole book of essays and a PhD dissertation.
I’m going to sidestep the question with a shameless plug for Let The Cat In. A couple of years ago, Kaaron Warren, Aaron Dries and I started a podcast to discuss exactly this question. We've met and talked with a whole bunch of interesting authors, editors, and other creatives to riff on objects, inspiration, and those ideas that scratch at the door, miaowing to be let in. If you like listening to horror writers shoot the shit, goof off, and go deep, you should check it out!
What’s next for you?
I finished my first novel last year, and while that's out on submission I'm working my way into the next: a suburban cosmic horror, influenced by the work of one of my favourite authors, John Wyndham. I somehow felt that finishing that first book would make getting to 'The End' of another one quick and easy. Not so much, as it turns out. Still, I'm having fun with it. Enjoying the journey, wherever it may lead.
J. Ashley Smith is a British–Australian author of dark fiction and co-host of the Let The Cat In podcast. His first book, The Attic Tragedy, won the Shirley Jackson Award. Other stories have won the Ditmar Award, Australian Shadows Award and Aurealis Award. He lives with his wife and two sons beneath an ominous mountain in the suburbs of North Canberra, gathering moth dust, tormented by the desolation of telegraph wires. You can find him at spooktapes.net, performing amazing experiments in electronic communication with the dead.
The Measure of Sorrow is now available for pre-order from Meerkat Press: https://smpl.is/6y0jb