“Inspirations and Influences” is a series of articles in which we invite authors to write guest posts talking about their Inspirations and Influences. In this feature, we invite writers to talk about their new books, older titles, and their writing overall.
Today, we are super happy to welcome Angela Slatter to the blog, to talk about the inspirations and influences behind her debut novel, Vigil
Vigil did not begin life as a novel. It started as a short story, written in desperation one week at Clarion South, when my civilised veneer had been worn thin by heat, late nights, a gruelling critique schedule, and more than a little writerly self-loathing. It started as ‘Brisneyland by Night’ – a rough Hansel and Gretel core loosely wrapped in a noir aesthetic, and tied together with an urban fantasy vibe. That’s a long somewhat wanky way of saying I wanted to write – or at least ended up writing – a crime story set in a Brisbane sprinkled with fantasy elements. When I say ‘sprinkled’ I mean with the same subtlety as a five-year-old throws handfuls of chocolate chips into the cookies they’re helping Mum bake.
There was a touch of music too, in that short story. I heard INXS’ Never Tear Us Apart on the radio and the line ‘I’d make wine from your tears’ caught my attention; it gave me a little something new to add to the Hansel and Gretel core. I was also listening to Bernard Fanning’s album Tea and Sympathy, and its quirky happy-sad songs, it’s uniquely Brisneyland feel, helped me shape the characters of both Verity and Ziggi, her long-suffering driver and partner in anti-crime. Ziggi is like the grumpy uncle, and Verity has a bit of DNA from John Connolly’s Charlie Parker and some from Clive Barker’s Harry D’Amour – make of that what you will. I wanted a female character as fractured, yet tough as they were, able to deal with as many problems, and still not break. For Bela Tepes, Verity’s ex-boyfriend and boss(ish), I drew heavily on a version of Dracula – a real sort of vampire but without the bloodsucking – as I imagined the Count would’ve been as a younger man before life kicked everything but hunger out of him, and added a dash of of Barbara Hambly’s Don Simon Ysidro from the James Asher books.
And then there was the weather, that special brand of Brisbane summer heat that’s both searing and – when the humidity kicks in, which is just about always – wet. On the non-humid days you can step outside and watch the hairs on your arm crisp and curl in a matter of seconds; on the humid days you can step outside, see the arm hairs curl and learn what it’s like to try to breathe soup.
Of course, when it came time to turn the short story into a novel, there were even more influences playing in my imagination. I was fascinated by the idea of what’s underneath the city, especially a city that seems as harmless and relaxed as Brisbane. I was reading China Miéville’s The City and the City which toys with the idea of two cities, two civilisations living cheek by jowl, but with the citizens of each not interacting with or acknowledging each other, unseeing each other – in some ways this is how we look past the homeless or the helpless or the drunk or the mentally ill when we see them in the street. I was fascinated by the idea of an underbelly that might live in my city, hooked on the different ways we perceive cities and the various kinds of citizens the urban sprawl might house, how they differ from each other and how they might hide their secrets from each other; how they might hide the true nature of their very selves.
I’d also discovered Megan Abbott by that time, and the noir tones of Queenpin, Bury Me Deep and The Song is You left traces in my mind. So, I guess Verity’s got a touch of Abbott’s heroines, but hopefully she’s not quite as fallible as they tend to be. I liked the idea of viewing my city through that kind of dark, rain-swept lens of noir movie posters. Although I don’t think there’s a rainy street scene anywhere in Vigil!
When it comes to the actual process of growing the short story into a novel . . . well, that took some doing. I embarked on a project to write three novellas and another short story using the same characters. Let’s just put that on the ‘It Seemed Like A Good Idea At The Time’ pile, shall we? Each novella had its own thread: one about the high places of the city, another about the river and its floods and moods, the other about a creature on the streets of Brisbane bringing death and destruction. Then I had to weave them all together – not a process I’d wish on my worst enemy.
There were themes, though, that reached through all three novellas, and were shared with the original short story: ideas about colonisation and how an invading people bring their ghosts and legends and monsters with them into a new environment; about being different, being part of two groups but not entirely welcome in or understood by either; ideas about family and its importance, how we often make our own families when what we’re born into either doesn’t last or isn’t worth hanging onto; the damage we do by not being true to ourselves; and about ideas of home, what it means and what needs our homes fulfil in each of us.
In creating the Vigil mythology I picked at all the things I’ve been accumulating in my messy brain for almost fifty years, all the bits of mythology and legend, folk and fairy tales, religions and histories both real and apocryphal, ideas about golems and ancient books, protectors of knowledge, transformations, and strange appetites that might be hard to shake. I picked through the giant treasure chest of shiny things and started to put each fragment in place. It was a challenge – I was used to short stories, and the largest things I’d previously written were mosaic novels, but that particularly shape wasn’t going to work for this story. I cried, I whimpered, I complained to everyone who was willing to listen and several folk who weren’t, but I persevered. I kept at it because Verity is a voice in my head – not just the voice that demands cake – but the cranky voice that keeps me writing her stories, an echo of the voice in her head that keeps her investigating, that keeps her pulling loose threads until sweaters come apart.
About the author:
Angela Slatter is the award-winning author of the collections The Girl with No Hands and Other Tales, Sourdough and Other Stories, The Bitterwood Bible and Other Recountings and Black-Winged Angels, as well as Midnight and Moonshine and The Female Factory (both co-written with Lisa L. Hannett). She has been shortlisted for numerous prestigious prizes, including the Norma K. Hemming Award, and has won the World Fantasy Award, the British Fantasy Award and five Aurealis Awards. Her short stories have appeared widely, including in annual British, Australian and North American Best Of anthologies. Vigil is her first solo novel. Angela lives in Brisbane, Australia with her husband David.