Can you please tell us about yourself?
Hi! I’m a speculative fiction writer from Wellington, New Zealand. I only started writing fiction about five years ago after having my three kids and I’ve been having a lot of fun experimenting with different lengths and genres, which is terrible from a marketing perspective but a great way to learn what works and what I most enjoy. My day job is in public policy and it has been really interesting to see where the skills in that kind of writing overlap with story-writing, and where they don’t at all. Some of that is quite obvious, like having a particular insight into the way government structures work for world-building, and some of it maybe less so like thinking about audience expectations and how to communicate in the best way for them. It was definitely an adjustment writing prose and dialogue. I’ve had a reasonable number of short stories published all over in places like Strange Horizons and Daily Science Fiction and I’ve published five books, most recently a short story collection Alt-ernate and a witchy novella Against the Grain. You can find me at https://www.melaniehardingshaw.com/ or on social media.
You have dedicated yourself to the NZ SFF scene, winning the Sir Julius Vogel Award for Services to Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror. How do you juggle these commitments, as well as time for work, husband, family, and down time? (presumably you have down time!)
I’m super lucky to be able to work a three-day week in my day job, but the juggle of family, job, and writing is something I’m learning will always be in constant flux. It can be hard not to feel like you’re always letting someone down, but week-on-week or month-on-month different things are going to need to take priority. Being able to say no to things is really important. Sometimes that might be leaving the dishes in the sink for the morning to write, sometimes that might be leaving the family for the weekend to speak at a festival, and sometimes that might be passing over an event opportunity to someone else who’s in a better space to do it. I was so honoured to win the award for services given how many amazing people there are in our NZ SFF scene. If there’s one thing I try to do, it’s to make people aware of just how many of us there are out there. I’ve hosted a crowd-sourced list of new release NZ SFFH works since 2019 for just that reason, which you can find here: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1xm06wC-wC6IzKPkyqVBgN8BceJU4_5yqNLQKSlVKWpE/edit#gid=278734441
What is your latest book, Against the Grain, about? Can you tell us about the decision to release it during Coeliac Awareness Week?
Against the Grain is about a coeliac mountain biking witch Trinity and her shapeshifting demon familiar Saifa facing a dark trap in Wellington while trying to find a life and a place to call home. When I was diagnosed with coeliac disease about six years ago it came totally out of the blue and I had no idea what the disease was. The only treatment is an incredibly strict gluten-free diet that many people and restaurants struggle to accommodate and it can be really socially isolating. By making Trinity coeliac and releasing on awareness week, I was hoping to share a bit of understanding of the disease with a wider audience. I was really grateful when Catherine Woulfe at The Spinoff accepted my pitch for an essay on coeliac disease and the book during awareness week. Between readers of the book and the article, I got exactly the kind of response I was hoping for. As an added bonus, I was also honoured to be invited to be an Ambassador for Coeliac New Zealand. I promise the book isn’t all about coeliac disease though! It’s just another aspect to Trinity’s life and character, not the main plot.
What makes Trinity inspirational to you?
Autoimmune conditions like Coeliac Disease often clump together with others and I had a lot of fun figuring out how one might affect a witch’s magic and how to play with the idea of mind, body and soul in that space. It’s actually Trinity’s fictional autoimmune conditions and how she changes in the way she handles those that is most inspirational to me. I don’t know that I can explain it without spoilers, though. You’ll have to read it! It gets to that question of social isolation, the habits we fall into, and the way we sometimes miss the forest for the trees.
How did you find the experience of self-publishing?
Against the Grain was the fifth book I’ve self-published and was part of a collective indie publishing project called Witchy Fiction. A group of us got together virtually in the first NZ lockdown during April 2020 and put the project together. We’re now at 12 authors and 15+ books and counting. All the stories are novellas set in New Zealand featuring witches and a dash of romance. During lockdown we wanted to be writing stories that were shorter and happier, and we wanted to be doing it with a strong support network. So the experience of self-publishing Against the Grain was one of friendship and community. We shared skills. Every book had two beta readers, a proof-reader, and a formatter from the group. We negotiated group discounts with the cover designer and printer. And there were always cheer-leaders on hand when we ran out of steam. I am incredibly lucky in the friends I’ve made through writing.
What was the biggest lesson you have learned?
Put the damn kiss in at the end if you’ve got a romance sub-plot! lol. That probably should have been more obvious to me (Thanks Cassie who kindly pointed it out in beta). But more seriously I think this project reinforced a whole range of things I’ve been learning about writing and self-publishing. Most importantly, surrounding yourself with knowledgable people who will both support you and tell you when you’re messing up.
Which writer has been your biggest inspiration?
That question is just cruel! One writer? There are a whole bunch of writers I could talk about, like discovering Tamora Pierce when I was a kid or Nalini Singh last year (why on earth did that take me so long?). But for me right now, my inspiration is the writers with the careers I want and the approach to their writing life that I admire. Career-wise for me that would be someone like A.J. Lancaster, who is a kiwi indie author killing it internationally without doing a lot of the stuff that everyone says is ‘essential’ and that I struggle with (if you haven’t read the Stariel quartet yet, go do it right now. It’s a wonderful gas lamp/fantasy of manners with fae). And in terms of approach to her writing life, the wonderful Cassie Hart (who also writes as Nova Blake/J.C. Hart). Cassie gives so much back and I don’t know how she does all the things she does, but she is a constant inspiration. She’s also a kick-ass writer and everyone should go buy Butcherbird and Sekhmet’s Desire right now. Yes, I realise I just snuck four writers in there. Sorry. I could easily keep going.
Can you tell us about your charity work?
I can’t really take any credit for this whatsoever, but I’m super proud of my tiny part in helping out with the Black Dogs, Black Tales charity anthology as an assistant editor and contributing story author. We raised over $1,000 for the Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand. The anthology was the brain-child of the amazing Tabatha Wood, who co-edited it with Cassie Hart, and it was published by Steve Dillon at Things in the Well Press. If you like horror stories featuring dogs that don’t die you should check it out.
What is next for you?
I am partway through drafting an Urban Fantasy Romance trilogy that I’m really excited about. These will be my first published full-length novels when I release them, which I’m hoping I’ll be ready to do from late 2022. Part of balancing the different parts of my life is making sure I don’t put too much pressure on myself so I’m planning to finish at least the first drafts of all three before I start releasing. I started plotting around March this year and I’m about 75% through book two right now. This series for me is about re-finding the joy in what I’m doing after a stressful few years. It has so many of my favourite things in: enemies-to-lovers, post-apocalyptic Wellington, sexy winged people, semi-sentient strongholds, necromancy, and found family to name just a few. Watch this space!
Do you have anything you want to plug?
I think I might have sneakily managed to plug all the things in my answers already. 🙂 Buy a book by a New Zealand author for someone for Christmas! Year’s Best Aotearoa Science Fiction and Fantasy Volume 3 is out now from Paper Road Press if you want a sample of the best kiwi short speculative fiction from 2020, including two of my stories. And if you’re buying for kids or teens, there have been so many awesome releases in the last year, including The Last Fallen Star by Graci Kim, A Wolf for a Spell by Karah Sutton, Hine and the Tohunga Portal by Ataria Sharman, Falling into Rarohenga by Steph Matuku, and Our Violent Ends by Chloe Gong.
Thank you so much for your time!