Marlee Jane Ward is a writer, reader and self-confessed weirdo from Melbourne, Australia. She grew up on the Central Coast of New South Wales and studied creative writing at the University of Wollongong. In the summer of 2014 she attended the Clarion West Writers Workshop in the United States. She took out second place in the 2014 Katharine Susannah Prichard Speculative Fiction Awards with her story The Structure. Her debut novella, Welcome To Orphancorp, was one of three winners of Seizure’s Viva La Novella and is available in paperback and ebook formats.
Firstly, tell us a little about yourself Marlee?
I live in Melbourne, studied Creative Writing at the University of Wollongong and grew up on the New South Wales Central Coast. I attended the Clarion West Writers Workshop in Seattle last year and it was the best thing that could have happened to me as a writer and as a person. Since then I’ve completely overhauled my life and focused a lot more on writing. I got a glimpse of the kind of life I want to lead while I was there and now I’m working on making it for myself. I quit my office job and moved cities and my life is very different now, which is wonderful.
How has growing up in a small town shaped you as a writer or informed some of your writing?
Growing up in a small town shaped me in a lot of ways. It’s a really claustrophobic way to grow up, especially because I was a total weirdo and queer and I spent a great deal of time feeling very out of place. The longing I felt, knowing there was a world out there that I couldn’t get to, was intense and real and I feel like I am able to use that longing to inform my writing. Being bullied and feeling trapped has given me a lot of compassion for people going through the same things, but it’s also given me the determination to represent myself as I am, as often as I can, so that girls who are weird, or bi or whatever can see that. I wish I had had something like that when I was that age.
Can you tell readers about your short-stories such as The Walking Thing and Who’s A Good Boy?
I wrote The Walking Thing at Clarion West. I went into writing it with a lot of themes I wanted to explore – the small-town thing, parental relationship stuff, that whole thing where you care too much about people who don’t care about you. And I love writing about the end of the world, so I tried to jam it all in there. I was worried that such an Australian story wouldn’t have a market outside of the country, but I was wrong, because I guess those themes are universal. The only issue was that none of my American readers knew what a ‘ute’ was. I get messages now and then from people who have read it and who can’t get it out of their heads, which is basically the best compliment I could ever receive.
You debut novella Welcome to Orphancorp was published in August 2015, how did it come about?
The whole idea for the story came from a throwaway line in another story I’d written – that the character had grown up in an Orphancorp. When I went to Clarion West last year I was desperately looking for ideas to take with me, and I remembered that, so I wrote three words into my ‘ideas’ file – ‘welcome to orphancorp’.
I wrote the short story it was based on while I was in Seattle, and Kij Johnson, our instructor for that week told me she thought it could be a novella. When I got home, I found the Seizure Viva La Novella contest and had two months to extend it and edit it. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with it if it didn’t win, but it did, and I’m glad I didn’t have to think about it!
I worked really hard with my editor, Zoya Patel, to get it into shape and make sure it was saying everything it needed to say. I wanted it to be as inclusive as possible, and diverse, as well as touching and relatable. I wanted it to be everything it could be.
Can we expect a sequel or have you moved onto something new?
I am writing a sequel and really struggling with it, but trying to battle through. I’ve got a third in mind as well, because everyone loves a trilogy and I’ve got this foggy image of a few different settings in wider world that I’d love to explore.
Can you discuss some of the underlying themes in the book and where these ideas came from?
I had a lot of themes floating around in my head when I wrote Orphancorp. I think the corporatization of the world is terrifying. When corporate interest overwhelms human rights, that’s a really scary thing and it’s not just some dystopian future, it’s happening now. I also thought a lot about children in detention, which is a pretty current, topical issue in Australia right now. I’ve always been haunted by the articles I’ve read about Ceauşescu’s Children, kids raised in orphanages in Romania under Ceauşescu’s regime, so revisited those articles before I wrote the story. I also read a great article recommended by Kij Johnson about homeless children in Miami and the fascinating mythology they’d created. I jammed all of that into my brain, let it simmer a bit and then wrote with it all in mind.
I also really wanted to incorporate characters with diverse sexualities. I didn’t have many queer characters to identify with when I was growing up, so Mirii’s bisexuality grew from there. I wanted to talk about consent and safer sex in a way that didn’t sound too preachy and I hope I pulled it off, because seeing those kinds of conversations in fiction is rare but very much needed. Finally, after years of raging against the whole ‘one true love’ narrative in a lot of fiction, especially YA fic, I thought a character who embraced polyamory and the changeable nature of love and lust might be a fresh perspective.
Do you write purely for yourself or with an idealised reader in mind?
I guess just for myself or for people like me. I just try to write the kind of things I would want to read, or wished that I could have read when I was younger. One of the most valuable things I’ve learned is that writing to a market is the killer of creativity. I can’t force anything, so I just write what I want to and if people want to read it I consider myself lucky.
Which writers have influenced or inspired you?
I am very attached to Stephen King – the characters he writes are so vividly imagined and many of them have stuck with me, piping up in my mind at odd times as if they were real people. I love Neal Stephenson’s worlds and complexity. I’ve just real 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson and the ideas in that novel captivated me. I’m also really into writers who create masterful short stories: Kij Johnson’s ‘26 Monkeys, Also The Abyss’ is a favourite, and Karen Joy Fowler’s ‘Pelican Bar’ rips me apart every time I read it.
I’m also really inspired by the success of my peers, especially my Clarion West class and the writers I went to uni with in Wollongong. When I see a familiar name pop up, it excites me into the kind of state I was in at the time, which gets me in the mood for writing.
Do you find as a writer you are more analytical or critical of other writer’s work?
I am, I can no longer abide lazy or bad writing. There are some books that I may have enjoyed years ago, that now I just put down after a few chapters because the style grates so much. At the same time, I feel like I’m so much more forgiving of authors because I know how bloody hard it is to write.
What is your writing process like and/or what is a typical writing day like?
I have no real set process, but I do find it very hard to write at home, which means I spend a lot of money at cafes around Melbourne trying to get work done. On a typical day I’ll get up and haul my ass to my favourite café and spend the next few hours gnashing my teeth over one story or another. I prefer to write in the mornings, I’m definitely a morning person.
What is the most difficult aspect of writing and how do you overcome these challenges?
At the moment I’m having a hard time expanding my ideas into longer format stories. I’ve worked so long at short stories that I’ve really pared my writing way back, and going longer is a struggle. I know I’ll get there, though.
I’m a terrible planner and often have no idea what the hell I’m doing. I feel like an awful writer a lot of the time. But things, and stories, seem to come together, so I’m learning to trust that. Just because I don’t write like other writers, doesn’t mean I’m a bad writer, just different.
When I get an idea, instead of jumping on it right away, I need a little time to process it. It’s as if I jam it down into my subconscious and let it sort itself out down there, let it swirl around with all the information I already have and make the connections that it needs to. Then, it will come back up at some inopportune moment, often while I’m in the bath or driving, and I can finally start to get it out. It’s been hard to learn to trust this process, and relax into it, but it’s how I work and instead of fighting it, I’m trying now to foster it.
Are you working on anything at present / any future writing projects?
I’m currently writing the sequel to Orphancorp, which has a working title I’ll never be able to use because it’s a swear. I’m also working out an idea for a novel that I started writing at Clarion West. It’s about a band of former teenage assassins forced back together for one last caper, which sounds like a sexy, raucous blast but it’s got a lot to do with being lost in early adulthood and living with things you’ve done that can’t be undone. I’m always working on short stories as well, because I love writing them.
Follow Marlee on twitter @marleejaneward