Ferne Merrylees has a PhD in English from the University of Newcastle, Australia, and has had short stories published in multiple online magazines. She writes a blog at fernemerrylees.com that reviews young adult literature and speculative fiction books, and she has a growing Twitter following @fernemerrylees.M
Hi Ferne, please tell us a bit about yourself.
I found this question the trickiest. How can I sound interesting without coming across as pretentious? I’ll start with saying I have a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Newcastle, Australia. The biggest perk of that so far has been being greeted as Doctor when I boarded a flight and then having a quiet meltdown worried there would be a medical emergency. My main hobbies are reading and writing (no surprise there), though I love to travel and my day job at a university means I get a few months off a year to do so. I have a weakness for Korean dramas and own fifteen plants, all named, and one is an actual tree thanks to a friend who overestimated the size of my shoebox apartment. I drink far too much tea and for my birthday I got a tea-pet in the shape of a sea lion (it has a lion head and a fish tail). I’m a new aunt and my nephew is currently being plagued with handmade knitted beanies that he will very quickly grow out of. I’m skilled in the art of reading and walking at the same time.
Are there any horror/fantasy/sci-fi tropes or sub genres which you feel are played out? And vice versa, what tropes would you like to see more of?
If done well, I don’t think tropes can ever truly be played out. Robots, space travel, and aliens can always be given a fresh twist, and I’m always keen to get my hands on any stories about time travel. That said, it’s rare I’ll read something that really pushes the boundaries, but I do find it more in short stories than in novels. Perhaps this is due to the medium being the perfect length to explore these ideas and the reduced consequences of rejection.
The tropes I would like to see less of tend to be about characters. My biggest pet peeve in fiction is the love triangle, but thankfully those tend to be few and far between in speculative fiction. Young adult speculative fiction, on the other hand, is often a fertile ground for these kinds of relationships, which I believe is doing a disservice for young readers. What I would like to see is more character variety, not just regarding race, gender and sexuality, but specifically a character’s circumstance. Recently I read a novel where the main protagonist was a heavily pregnant supernatural private detective (Angela Slatter’s Verity Fassbinder series for anyone who’s interested), which was a pleasant change from the norm.
To what degree do you feel everything has already been written, in some form or another? Have you ever started writing a story, only to discover someone has already written it?
I very much agree with others (Stephen King and Neil Gaiman to name a few) when they comment that an author’s mind is like a compost heap. Everything we experience, from our own everyday lives to the things we read and watch, filters through our subconscious to create a rich, imaginative soil in which ideas can take seed and grow. I just finished reading Hope Mirrlees’s Lud-in-the-Mist (first published in 1926) and was delighted to realise how much it inspired and influenced so many other fantasy authors. Jessica Townsend’s 2017 children’s fantasy novel The Trials of Morrigan Crow is heavily influenced by J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, which in turn has its roots planted in the works of authors such as Ursula K. Le Guin and Diana Wynne Jones.
Sometimes, though, I do have a sinking feeling when I read something that strikes a little too close to something I’ve written. I completed a creative project as part of my PhD in 2015, and in the following year I read a book with very similar themes and an ending that echoed my own. After I got over the sudden bout of hopelessness, I realised it could be considered a good thing. Here is a novel exploring similar issues and ideas and, if it had been accepted for publication, then maybe there is a need for this kind of fiction? While ideas can be repeated, it is impossible to replicate an author’s voice, and in the end, reading widely can only be beneficial for a writer’s creative process.
What books are beside your bed right now?
Far too many. I’ve almost finished the short story collection Invisible Planets: Contemporary Chinese Science fiction translated by Ken Liu and I’ve got the last two graphic novels of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series to get stuck into. I’m currently reading Patrick Ness’s The Ask and The Answer and Neil Gaiman’s The View from the Cheap Seats. I suffer from tsundoku (a Japanese word for the buying of books and then letting them pile up unread), but I’m doing my best this year to overcome it.
Given the wide amount of fan fiction being published in countless places online, what are your thoughts on fan fiction in general?
I generally see fan fiction as a huge compliment to authors. Fan fiction demonstrates how great writing can linger long after the book is put down, making readers consider what happens to the characters afterwards or what if something happened differently. Readers have not only fallen in love with these characters and worlds but also want to share their obsession through writing their own versions. If an author’s work can inspire their readers to write, even if it is just playing with characters that already exist, then that can only be a good thing.
Do you have any particular writing rituals you are comfortable sharing?
Most of my rituals have evolved to become mostly practical. I’m crazy for spreadsheets and lists. It’s ridiculous how much joy these things can bring me, and they definitely play a huge part in how I write. My current goal is to write 1000 new words a day, and I update a spreadsheet every evening, which keeps me motivated. It’s not always about quantity though. I also reread the last chapter I’ve written, polishing and tweaking it before I begin the next section. It helps me get in the right mood and jumpstarts my last train of thought.
I write in Google Docs so, as long as I have internet, I can write anywhere from any device. I also don’t need to worry about reliving the horror of 2012 when my ancient laptop died and with it a good portion of my honours thesis. I usually write in dribs and drabs all day, or if it’s a rare day when I’ve no other commitments, I set up a Pomodoro timer and write for 25 minute stints for a few hours. The problem of writing in Google Docs is the easy access to the black hole that is the internet, so using the Pomodoro technique can keep me focused. These are not so much rituals as tested techniques, but I have to admit I’ve had days where I listen to the same song over and over again because without it I honestly believe I’ll get writer’s block.