An Eidolon Interview with the Editors of
She's Fantastical

Justine Larbalestier on the Internet with
Lucy Sussex and Judith Raphel Buckrich

She's Fantastical is a wonderful new anthology of Australian women's speculative fiction, magical realism and fantasy. It is the first one of its kind in this country. I asked the editors of She's Fantastical, Lucy Sussex and Judith Raphael Buckrich, about the anthology's origins. The interview was conducted via email between Melbourne and Sydney. Judith had only limited access to email so some of the questions were only put to Lucy.

In the introduction to She's Fantastical you talk about Ursula Le Guin's role in Australian women's science fiction. Can you tell me about that?

Lucy Sussex (LS): Ursula Le Guin was GOH at the first Aussiecon (Worldcon 1975) and taught a writers' workshop. Her students included two of the authors from the anthology-Philippa Maddern and Petrina Smith. For a few years SF workshops were held in Australia, thanks to the impetus that the first created. Petrina Smith organised the 3rd, in 1979, which was where Judy and I met. Also at this workshop was Leanne Frahm. So, in putting this anthology together, we touched on some important moments in Oz SF. I like the feeling of a tradition behind this book, which was why we used the quote from Margaret Cavendish for the title, although it didn't come from her utopia. We were subsequently told that one of the lit board persons assessing the application was a fan of the Duchess, which may have been a plus for us.

Was it difficult getting Le Guin to write it?

LS: Just wrote and asked. Of course it helped that she's stayed in touch with some of the people she met in Australia, and remembered Pip and Petrina well.

The two of you go back a way. How did you find working together?

Judith Raphael Buckrich (JRB): Many people have asked us that. And often when they asked, they seemed to imply that we must have had some points of conflict. Oddly enough we never did. We basically agreed to disagree. If a point of contention came up we either included it if one or other felt really strongly about it, or excluded it for the same reason. Basically it was never a problem. It was really a boon to have two of us working on the project. We have known each other since the 1979 Sydney science fiction writers' workshop, and have always been very different people who knew they were different and so I did not expect unity. It was the diversity that made working together and selecting material interesting.

LS: We had disagreements with Sybylla, as is only to be expected between editors and publishers, but not with each other. We know each other too well for that.

So where did the idea for She's Fantastical come from?

JRB:. I had had the idea for some time, but had not really developed it past the having the idea stage, when Lucy and I were having coffee one day and we mentioned that perhaps we ought to do an anthology of women's Oz SF together. It turned out that Lucy had been thinking of it for some time too. From there it became a real idea and we discussed it each time we met until the fateful (but unplanned) meeting with Karen Porter of Sybylla who picked it up straight away.

LS:. That Judy wanted to do it as well suited me just fine, as I knew it would be a lot of work, and another person to share the load was desirable. And about Karen Porter-Judy just mentioned it casually to Karen, whom we both knew from being on the St Kilda Writer's festival, and before we knew it Karen was asking for a formal proposal she could put to the rest of the Sybylla collective. But I should emphasise that without an Australian Literature Board grant for production costs-which we applied for and got-this project wouldn't have eventuated. Sybylla couldn't have afforded to do it otherwise.

How important would you say SF has been to fantastical writing by women in Australia?

JRB: I think the '60s social revolution caused a revolution in writing too; especially in SF which had, in the 1950s, been very "boys' own adventure". Suddenly women such as Le Guin emerged in the US who were using SF to talk about societal structure and sexism and oppression. This made SF attractive to women readers and writers for the first time and I believe has influenced all women's writing here and elsewhere.

LS: I know literary women who tell me they went through stages of reading nothing but women's SF. But on the other hand, some of the writers in this volume (eg Carmel Bird, Gabrielle Lord) are firmly established in the lit mainstream and are not really familiar with SF per se. If you asked them about their influences they'd probably cite magical realist texts. However, I suspect they would have encountered SF at some stage, possibly through reading the SF texts aimed at teenagers. And so they'd be familiar with the themes and tropes, even though they weren't actively writing in the area.

In terms of anthologies do you see yourselves as being in the tradition of say Sargent's Women of Wonder anthologies?

LS: Yes! I particularly liked the way she included poetry. I intend to send her a copy.

Did you see the anthology as an antidote to the male face of SF in Australia?

JRB: Yes of course, we both did. But it was not the main reason for doing it. Mainly we felt that it was time to bring together the work of non-mainstream women writers and present it to Oz readers because it had not been done and needed to be done.

LS: I wanted to collect non-realist writing by Australian women as an in-your-face gesture, to say here it is and isn't it good! We could have made this purely SF, but it seemed preferable to cross genre, to increase the appeal of the book. The idea was to challenge publishing categories, to make people read texts without being able to put neat labels on them first. It's a sorry fact that if we had made it purely SF, a lot of people might not have picked it up and read it, due to prejudiced notions that SF is all rockets and rayguns.

Did you select the stories for diversity?

JRB: Not really, but we were not surprised at it; after all, the writers are not of one genre, or even connected in any way except they write non-mainstream prose and poetry.

LS: We basically asked everybody we could think of who a) were writing in a non-realist vein and b) were good. Not everybody replied, but of those who did we got a very varied response; which is good, as it meant there was potentially something for everybody in the anthology.

Do you think the tremendous variety comes from the intermingling of different genres?

JRB: I don't think so. I think the writers have had totally different lives from one another, come from entirely different backgrounds, are different age-groups etc.

LS: We did also try to include writers from the past, such as M Barnard Eldershaw and Henrietta Dugdale. Another area we wanted was black women's writing. I should add that we weren't completely at the mercy of what was submitted. If we perceived a gap, we went out looking for ways to fill it. And we got to be quite shameless and ruthless about extracting material from writers. Ania Walwicz hadn't submitted, and I happened to be drinking in a pub round the corner from where she lives, so I just turned up on the doorstep, smiling sweetly but asking where her contribution was. Editorial terrorism! But it worked.

The book is one of the most striking I've seen in a long time. Quite beautiful. Which came first, the cover art or the anthology?

JRB: The anthology came first, though we were on the lookout for a cover for some time. But in the end we did not find Deborah Klein until we'd had all the stories in.

LS: The cover came very late in the process, just when we were getting desperate. I asked art historian Juliet Peers for advice. She recommended a number of artists, and Deborah was the one who clicked with us, with the sub-committee we were working with from Sybylla (Sarah Endacott, Millie Dabrowski and Nerida Hodgkins) and with the collective itself. It's a very strong image, although not reflecting the theme of any particular story. Kerri Valkova designed the cover around the painting, this being her first professional book design. And Caz Brown of Sybylla had the idea of integrating cover with texts in the book itself, both with the blue ink, and the fragment of cover at the start of each story.

How did you go about structuring the book?

LS: There are a number of obvious things you do when structuring an anthology. One is to try to keep similar stories away from each other. Another is to alternate first and third person narratives, for variety. Start and end the anthology with a bang, that is strong stories at either end. I had the idea of framing the anthology by starting with the poem by Hyllus Maris (about the beginning of the world), and ending with Daisy Utemorrah's poem, which is about closure. Nadia Wheatley commented that feminist anthologies run the risk of being depressing, as if they open the floodgates, with a lot of anger and negative feelings being expressed. We didn't want the wrist-cutting stories clumped together, as the reader would have felt too depressed to finish the book. So the idea was to balance up and down. Some stories were complementary, like it seemed appropriate to follow Dugdale's story with 'A Tour Guide in Utopia', which is about C19th women writers of utopias, such as Dugdale, and indeed mentions her.

JRB: I thought it was very important to include the stories by M Barnard Eldershaw and Henrietta Dugdale to give a sense of continuity in Australian women's non-realist writing. There have been women writing utopias for as long as women have been writing. I thought too that the idea of it having 'a past' would also indicate that these kinds of writings had a future, and would stimulate interest in writers in this anthology and others writing in these modes, as well as give encouragement to women to write in the future.

Were there any writers you particularly wanted to commission stories from?

JRB: Yes. When we made the list there were a few who we really wanted work from. I don't really want to list them here, because it makes it seem as though the others were less worthy, which they are not at all. It was simply a matter of names we knew who we believed had done good work. We wrote to all the women we thought could produce suitable stories and who would like to be in such an anthology. We had the odd refusal, but always for reasons of "not being able to do a story just now". And everyone we asked was very pleased that we were doing such a book. In the end we were able to include some writers who we had not heard of, because they found us.

LS: I'm not going to name names, but there was one writer we asked, and we were very relieved that she refused.

Was 'Australianness' a criteria?

JRB: No. We put no boundaries on the brief as far as place went. Only the writers had to be Australian.

LS: We run the gamut from were-possums to pregnant spacemen. Location didn't matter so long as it was a good piece of writing.

Have there been any reviews yet?

LS: I had a rave postcard from someone who's reviewing it, but that particular notice won't be out for another month. Carmel Bird sent me a note to say it was a 'wild and wonderful thing'. Louise Adler's reaction at the launch was interesting-she was the launcher, and I rather imagine she arrived expecting 15 women and a dog, but there were instead 200 people having a fine old time. She said she hadn't seen so many people at a launch since Bob Hawke's biography. I thought it was interesting she was so complimentary about the anthology, when I know she's no fan of SF. Of course she published My Lady Tongue, but she told me very firmly at the time that it was fabulism. I wasn't about to argue with my publisher . . .

What about marketing? In Sydney I noticed it's been placed in the SF section of Gleebooks.

LS: In Readings it is in the window, beside The Penguin Anthology of Modern Women's Fantasy (which I'm in), in new books and also Ozlit. Not in skiffy, I notice. The idea was to produce a book which could be placed in different locations in the bookshop, by being cross-genre, to maximise the number of people who might pick it up and buy it.

Originally appeared pp. 59-63, Eidolon 19, October 1995.
Copyright © 1995 Justine Larbalestier.
Reprinted with kind permission of the author.