An Interview With Douglas Van Belle

Douglas Van Belle is a pain in the ass/arse/backside/butt when it comes to getting something that might be called a bio. The biographical statements that have appeared with his fiction have described him as: Not Canadian; Genetically similar to a human; The winner of the 1973 Noble Prize in Quantum Astrology; Abducted and raised by a herd of hyper-intelligent buffalo and; That ‘special’ kid that was also sent to Earth shortly before Krypton exploded.

Asking him for something more believable doesn’t really help. He just uses that as an opportunity to deny any responsibility for ABBA, sweater vests, dogs that are smaller than cats, Baywatch, the ridiculous way the French spell things, Australia, El Nino, and Kevin Costner. He also insists that nothing happened in 1986, absolutely nothing, so quit asking.

Thanks to the Internet and the massive dossier that was eagerly provided by the CISE (the Canadian Intelligence Service Eh) – including this mugshot of Doug, taken from the CISE 10 least wanted list – when it comes to Doug’s fiction, it’s a little harder for him to deny, misdirect, and misinform. His 2004 novella, “A Small Blue Planet for the Pleasantly Insane”, is one of two stories that have been selected for Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine’s Best-of volumes and it was one of the key publications in the portfolio that won the Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best New Talent in 2007. He’s been a finalist in one or more SJV categories every year since then.

This year he’s offering two novels. The first is a limited, collector’s edition of The Care and Feeding of Your Lunatic Mage, which you can only get with a new or renewed subscription to Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine (ASIM) and the second is Barking Death Squirrels, published by Wellington publisher Random Static.

Two novels coming out close together, two different publishers, two different countries. Brilliant marketing plan, pure chance, or somewhere in between?

Actually, there were supposed to be three novels out this year. Rabid Pixies of Doom was pencilled in for a January 2010 launch in the U.S. and the idea was to use that as a foundation for helping both ASIM and Random Static get some market traction for the other two. However, Pixies never actually went into the production stream. It was frustrating at the time, especially for a magazine and a small New Zealand press hoping to leverage off that book, but it turned out to be a blessing. I was able to use the delay to get Pixies back in my hands and it looks like the new deal will be far better, for both me and the publishers of those other novels, all of the way around.

I take part in a weekly Twitter book discussion called “South Pacific Book Chat”, under the hashtag #spbkchat.* I mentioned the title “Barking Death Squirrels” on #spbkchat – purely on the strength of that title, people immediately asked where they could buy the book! How did you come up with such a great title?

If you look at what I’ve published you can probably tell that I like playing with titles. I like to try to find something memorable, a little bit campy, a little bit twisty and a little bit ironic, but still a title that reflects the heart of the story. I think I hit that pretty well with this one. I explain the meaning of the title near the end of the first chapter, but its origin is one of those stories of quirky bits and pieces coming together.

I was on a dinosaur dig in North Dakota and I discovered that they call prairie dogs barking squirrels. Other than a chuckle, I didn’t think much of it at first, but as I sat in camp one night and watched the prairie dogs darting in and out of their underground warren of tunnels, that connected to the work I was doing on living underground as the solution to the radiation problem in space colonization and that immediately connected to the stories I was just starting to put together about humans as the rodents of the universe.

I played with variations on Barking Squirrels until I settled on an alien invasion story as the first story and twisting the alien insult of Barking Squirrels into Barking Death Squirrels seemed like the kind of thing a makeshift guerrilla army might do.

The cover artist turned the Death part of the title into a graphic element that I liked so much that I decided to make sure I could carry it forward through all four books, so the other three books are now titled Dances with Squirrels, Squirrels Barking Dread and Dawn of the Squirrels.

What was the genesis (the xenogenesis?) of Barking Death Squirrels?

Vegas Baby!


My brother and I managed to get our respective business trips to overlap with a layover in Vegas and we were just kind of hanging out and wandering through the big casinos when I realized that Vegas in August (40+ Degrees C) was just as inhospitable as space. The solutions that Vegas architects applied to that challenge would translate into space colonization. So I took a serious look at the way the interiors of the gigantic casinos were being designed and the illusions of space being created and the way shopping malls worked, and the way that places like Cuba Street in Wellington could be recreated in underground caverns. I put those details into a story about someone who was part of the team building those kinds of spaces and eventually ended up with the novel.

The Care And Feeding Of Your Lunatic Mage is being published by Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine (ASIM), and will be available as a free giveaway to print subscribers to that magazine. How did that arrangement come about?

There was a discussion of what ASIM might do at the Aussie WorldCon and somewhere in there I offered to let them print a couple hundred copies of Lunatic Mage and give them away to new subscribers. I could justify it in terms of advertising and exposure and such, but I really just wanted to do what I could to help keep ASIM on solid financial footing.

I know that ASIM has been important in your career, and, looking at the fiction nominees for the Sir Julius Vogel Awards in recent years, it’s clear that it’s important for many other NZ speculative fiction authors as well. Why is ASIM so special?

I think it’s mostly because it’s a very democratic publication. Every story gets read by at least two slushers, so you get an automatic double check on the initial judgement. Stories that are recommended by at least one slusher get a reading by a third and fourth, and if one of them recommends it, it goes into a pool that issue editors select from. As a result, it’s very unlikely that a story will fall victim to the whims of any one person. Good stories consistently make it through and stories that aren’t ready not only get sent back to the author relatively quickly, the slushers usually take the time to offer at least a couple of comments on why it was rejected. All of that combines for a good experience for authors and a diverse collection of good stories for the readers. I think that is why it’s so prominent in both the Vogels and the Ditmars.

What got you started on writing fiction?

Never really started, I just always have.

I gather than you do your writing on the train to and from the Kapiti Coast. Have you thought of going for a position as writer-in-residence on the Wellington commuter rail system? What are the best and worst things about writing on public transport?

The key to writing on public transport is to create a microcosm of a normal working environment. The best way to do this is to announce, loudly and frequently, that you are an award-winning science fiction author. If you do this when you step onto the train and every time the train stops, people will respect your need for working space and they’ll leave all the seats around you empty. And the guy who works PR for Invisible Moses was kind enough to let me know that wearing rugby headgear is the accepted way to let everyone know that they need to let you concentrate on your work. It works really well. Train commuters are incredibly polite.

Eager readers of your novels might get a shock when they set out to order more of your work and discover that you are the lead author of, among others, Media, Bureaucracies, and Foreign Aid: A Comparative Analysis of the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, France and Japan. Do you find it easy to switch between the groves of academe and the wild woods of speculative fiction?

Uhm, no. In a purely functional sense, switching between the two types of writing is easy. You have to remember that the difference between them is more than just style. They are fundamentally different, but they are still just two different skill sets, two different things you learn to do. And to be honest, the academic stuff is really easy to write. Simple, formulaic, highly structured, step-by-step argumentation. Fiction is one hell of a lot more challenging. The difficulty is that the academic stuff is work, a lot of work. Fiction is a joy. Every year it gets harder and harder to put the fiction down and get some work done.

Are there particular writers whom you regard as being influences or inspirations?

If you look at my wall of books you’ll see a lot of old-school kinds of stuff, Heinlein, Asimov, Wells, Verne, Burroughs, Larry Niven, Piers Anthony, Greg Bear, Greg Benford, Ursula K. Leguin, and I’m a big fan of Vernor Vinge, but I read all kinds of stuff and I read a lot. I even have a rule about mixing in authors that I’ve never read before. Personally, I don’t think people take enough risks with fiction, either as readers or writers.

Unlike (as it transpired) the Cylons, do you have a plan – for your writing, if not for world domination? If so, are you prepared to share it with us?


As every manchild (ages 13 and up) knows, the key to world domination is to put all your armies on New Zealand, take Australia and use the bonus for owning a continent to build up a pile of armies big enough to go after either Africa or North America. The problem with that strategy is that building up your stack of armies in New Zealand is really, really tough. I’m pretty sure the New Zealand Air Force’s motto is “We never shoot at anyone” and they’re the aggressive branch of our military.

So I tricked the New Zealand government into training a massive army of possum commandos. They shoot at them, poison them, trap them, run them down with cars; it’s a brutal, Darwinian training regime, but slowly, generation after furry little generation, the survivors have been transformed into the ultimate marsupial fighting machine. The guys at Weta Workshop can’t understand why I want the little tiny tanks and guns to actually work, but as soon as they deliver I’ll ship all sixty million of the little buggers back to Australia and the West Island will be mine, all mine. Mwahaha.

Where to get hold of Doug’s novels

Barking Death Squirrels:

The Care And Feeding Of Your Lunatic Mage:

*Tim adds: The South Pacific Book Chat book discussion takes place on Twitter each Thursday evening at 6pm Japanese time/8pm Eastern Australian time/10 pm New Zealand time. If you join Twitter, you can then join the chat by adding the hashtag #spbkchat to your tweets at that time, and searching for other tweets with the #spbkchat hashtag. You can also see recent #spbkchat tweets online.

Getting Science Fiction And Fantasy Published In New Zealand. Part 2: Novels

This was going to be a post for NZ Speculative Fiction Blogging Week 2010, but Real Life intervened, and I don’t have Sandeep Parikh’s Bollywood-style fight moves (from 1:50) to drive it away.

So, where were we? In Part 1, I talked about the options for getting short speculative fiction published in New Zealand. In Part 2, it’s time to take on the longer stuff: novels.

New Zealand publishers have a track record of publishing speculative fiction novels for children and young adults – indeed, some of our most popular and successful writers in the field, such as Margaret Mahy, write speculative fiction.

But, rightly or wrongly, most New Zealand publishers believe that New Zealanders will not buy adult speculative fiction novels written by New Zealanders. I heard this at first hand from Larain Day, then of HarperCollinsNZ, while taking part in a discussion on RadioNZ (which also featured Helen Lowe) about New Zealand SF and fantasy.

We ran out of time before I could ask the obvious question: if publishers don’t publish NZ speculative fiction, how do they know New Zealanders won’t buy it?

Part of the issue, I think, is that, because New Zealand publishers don’t usually have speculative fiction specialists on their staff, they don’t really know the range that modern science fiction, fantasy and horror encompasses. Ironically, this also means that works that I would classify as science fiction are sometimes published in New Zealand as general/literary fiction. This is especially true of near-future SF, social SF, and satirical SF.

On the other hand, your galaxy-spanning space opera or your continent-spanning fantasy would be doing very well to find a home with a mainstream New Zealand publisher; then again, those are the novels that you have the best chance of selling to an overseas publisher.

But all is not lost! The estimable Random Static Ltd, far from resting on their laurels after publishing NZ short speculative fiction collection A Foreign Country, are now about to publish sf novel Barking Death Squirrels, by Wellington author Douglas A. Van Belle. (What a great title – I wish I’d thought of it! Give it to Smeagol – I wants it! It’s mine, I tells you, my precious!)

I hope Barking Death Squirrels sells lots of copies, both for the sake of publisher and author, and to show that yes, it can be done: SF written here and published here can be sold successfully here. I’m going to interview Doug Van Belle for this blog… just as soon as I get round to sending him the questions.

Incidentally, Random Static has also put out a call for novella submissions. Can they do no wrong?

On The Other Hand: A Defence Of New Zealand Publishers

I’ve been critical above about NZ publishers’ reluctance to publish adult SF. But, when you look at the economics of the publishing business, a certain level of risk-aversion is understandable. It costs publishers a lot of money to publish a book: it has to be bought (i.e. the author has to be paid, which in NZ usually entails a modest advance plus a royalty of around 10% of retail); it has to be edited, and a good editor can make all the difference; it has to be designed; it has to be printed, which involves making a difficult guess about the size of the print run; and it has to be sent to reviewers so they can review it by the release date, and to bookshops so that the eye-catching displays of the book greet the eager buyer’s eye at the time when publicity for the book is at its maximum. (I can tell you from experience that a good review won’t do you much good if your book doesn’t reach the bookshop until a fortnight after the review was published.)

Most books won’t be hits. A few will, and they subsidise the rest. And, in my experience, distribution – the physical process of getting the printed books out of the warehouse and into the bookshops at the right time – is the part of the process that is most likely to break down.

The current model of publishing, distribution and sales has been around since the Great Depression. It still makes surprisingly little use of new technology. NZ publishers are beginning to take steps into print on demand technology and ebooks, but at least until these methods are more established, the big publishers have little option other than to be cautious about the books they choose to publish. There’s a reason so many books are published here about All Blacks, kitchens, and gardens.

If you are interested in these issues from a publishing industry point of view, check out the Weekend Web Reading posts on Helen Heath’s blog. Helen is a poet who works as a publicist for Victoria University Press, so she sees both sides of the story. She also has some very good advice on the use of social media.

News From A Foreign Country

I’ve already blogged about new NZ short story collection
A Foreign Country: New Zealand Speculative Fiction, edited by Anna Caro and Juliet Buchanan. But now there’s more news worth sharing, courtesy of the anthology’s indefatigable publishers Random Static:

Au Contraire Competition

Many of the stories in A Foreign Country were selected via the open competition run in conjunction with Au Contraire.* Entries were judged by author and Au Contraire Guest of Honour Sean Williams, who commented:

“This was VERY difficult. Each of the top three was brilliant in its own way. Weird how themes of parenthood, dreams, and loss weave through all of them.”

And the winners were:

1st Place – ‘The Future of the Sky’ by Ripley Patton
2nd Place – ‘Dreams of a Salamander Nation’ by Susan Kornfeld
3rd Place – ‘Cry of a Distress Rocket’ by Brian Priestley
Honourable Mention – ‘Beneath the Trees’ by Claire Brunette

*(Tim adds: the other stories were solicited. By solicitors.)


A Foreign Country is now available from an ever expanding list of bookshops including Parsons, Unity and The Bookie in Auckland and Arty Bees in Wellington (some of these may not have it on the shelves right now, but they should soon). If your local independent bookshop is not on this list, please mention the anthology to them.

Bookshops which don’t have copies in stock will be able to order them in for buyers on request – you’ll need the ISBN: 978-0-473-16916-9. There will also be copies for sale at the Going West Festival, Armageddon in Auckland and other events to be confirmed.

Looking Forward

Random Static is currently catching its breath before tying off a few loose ends and continuing to market and sell A Foreign Country. They also have a few new projects planned – due for release soon is Barking Death Squirrels by Wellington based writer and A Foreign Country contributor Douglas A Van Belle.

(Tim adds: I’m planning to interview Doug for this blog in a couple of months.)

Random Static is soon to engage in a major overhaul of its submission guidelines: “Whilst another short story anthology isn’t on our immediate horizons, any of you looking for a publisher for a novel, novella or comic book may want to check our website in a few weeks.”

(Tim adds: Random Static is going from strength to strength! I’m especially pleased that they are looking to publish novellas – the novella is a great length for science fiction, but they are usually very hard to place. If only I had a desk drawer full of them…)