Welcome to our new monthly feature looking at one of our members, their writing and writing practice. Former intern Clare Rankine will interview a member once a month for an in-depth look at how, where and what they write.
On anti-heroes, Melbourne the noir city and tips and tricks for writers.
It’s a cold, wet Friday evening when I meet writer and photographer Kat Clay at the Writers Victoria office in The Wheeler Centre. Outside, the rain, intermittent all day, begins to make heavy tracks along the windows. It’s perfect noir weather. The city streets glisten, neon lights flicker and the buildings turn grey from the rain. Inside, we’re warmed from the heater, cups of hot tea and a fantastic conversation.
Originally from Sydney, Kat moved to Melbourne with the intention to meet writers and become involved in the writing community. Not long after she moved, she became a member of Writers Victoria and put an ad in ‘The Victorian Writer’ for a science fiction writing group where a group membership allowed her to book a meeting room. Soon the group was full and venturing beyond the room, attending national sci-fi conventions and book launches. Kat met many of her close friends in the group. “For introverts, going to something alone can be truly terrifying,” she says. “Yet I got a lot of confidence through meeting people who got me and my love of books. Don’t be afraid of going to things where you don’t know anyone, it’s easy to hide but I like to say that I went out and met my tribe.”
From there, friends challenged Kat to start putting work out into the world and collect all the rejections she received and treat these as little wins. With their moral support, she took heart in these letters, the generic rejections turned into personalised rejections, then acceptance letters. “Writers are terrified to put themselves out there into the world, even one rejection usually means going back into the writer’s cave. But these rejections were like little wins. You can’t get an acceptance letter if you don’t first write and send out your stories.” Soon Kat was published in academic publications like 'The Weird Fiction Review', and her fiction was shortlisted and published in speculative fiction magazine 'SQ Mag'. Her debut novella ‘Double Exposure’ was published by Crime Factory, winning rave reviews from crime fiction authors and reviewers.
This year, Kat was longlisted for the CWA Debut Dagger Award for her unpublished manuscript ‘Victorianoir’. The idea started with a birthday present from her husband; a book on the history of True Crime Detective Magazines. Reading the introduction, Kat learnt that tabloid journalism began in the mid 19th century. With a trip to her local library to research these newspapers, an idea started to form. “The idea had legs and was walking out the door, I had to chase it otherwise it was going to leave. When you get ideas like that, you have to chase them.’
Set in nineteenth-century London, ‘Victorianoir’ is about Richard Garret, an intelligent, dastardly newspaper editor who investigates a murder. Richard Garret, like many of Kat’s characters, is the anti-hero, the rogue, the guy you love to hate. “Richard is your quintessential interesting, complex, but likeable character – your Han Solo, your Jack Sparrow. You’ll follow them everywhere because they’re so entertaining. I love fantasy, the hero making good decisions to save the world, but in reality, if you stuck a person like Richard into a bad situation, they would make decisions to save themselves.” For Kat, the decisions her characters make drive her story. “Noir is like watching a train crash occur and enjoying it. Constantly upping the stakes. Living vicariously through characters who are continually making bad choices, seeing which decisions come into conflict with their personal values and seeing how far the character will go to get what they want.”
Kat is a genre fiction writer, with a Venn diagram of genres that constantly cross over. She writes about the macabre and dark human nature, the weird horror fiction. Growing up, Kat loved to read novels by Australian author Victor Kelleher. She remembers reading ‘The Green Piper’ and thinking that a severed-off finger was, "gross, but really cool to read about when you’re in primary school."
The book is noir with a twist. “Most films and television shows recreate the literature of the era, writing in the voice of Charles Dickens or Wilkie Collins. I was done with the period stylings of TV shows and movies depicting the time. There’s always a girl in a corset, there’s an opium den flooded with red light, but everything is clean, neat and tidy. I wanted to set the story in nineteenth-century London, but write in a contemporary voice.”
Real stories found their way into the book, stemming from intensive research of everything from first-hand accounts from members of the Thames River Police, to murder maps of nineteenth-century London that Kat had to hide whenever guests came over. Blood runs down the street from the meat market, there are coffee carts on every street corner. The ambulance is just two men and a wheelbarrow and everyone is terrified of that awful frightening monster of the deep – the octopus. Even the acts of violence in ‘Victorianoir’ are based on truth. Additionally, the representation of women in the book was carefully considered by Kat. The women aren’t perfect femme fatales, they’re determined, they’re strong. There are no “Women in the refrigerator” moments; that is, the death of a woman isn’t just a plot device to depower the woman and enable the man to vow revenge and begin his journey.
We take time to drink our tea, as the rain continues to fall. Today, Thursday, is Kat’s writing day, and I ask her how she structures her days. “It’s a balancing act,” she says “because I’m balancing two art forms: photography and writing. This year has been a big writing year so I set myself strict schedules. As I’m a morning person, I usually task myself with a quota of 1500 words and write from eight in the morning till about one in the afternoon, then I reward myself with lunch. I usually research in the afternoon, and manage my social media and website. Sometimes my schedule changes, yet I always do what’s right for me. I encourage writers to rest their minds, but don’t think you’re doing nothing and feel guilty. Only do what you can do.”
My head is swimming with images that Kat has conjured up and now I’m itching to get my hands on a copy of ‘Victorianoir’. She’s passionate and incredibly dedicated to her stories. Even though she writes supernatural, noir and horror fiction, her research makes her books richer, she gets the facts just right. “I can see the story,” she says, “I feel like I’m inside it, I can see the gun smoking from the shadows.” We laugh together and I walk with her to the door. We say goodbye and Kat steps out into the noir city of Melbourne, a city of twisting laneways and hidden places. As I take our cups back into the kitchen, The Wheeler Centre goes dark and quiet. I get goosebumps.
You can keep up with Kat on Twitter @kat_clay, on Facebook at Kat Clay Creative and on Instagram at @tropicofcamera