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Joel Shepherd is a successful Australian science fiction author, most well-known for his ‘Cassandra Kresnov’ and ‘Spiral Wars’ series. His interest in the genre began from a young age, beginning with a passion for science fiction films; which he followed when he studied film and television at Curtin in the mid-90s.
Since finishing uni, he’s travelled wide and far throughout Asia, and has even interned on Capitol Hill in Washington. His writings have been shortlisted for various awards, which mostly involve superhuman soldiers travelling through space; intergalactic warfare; and space crimes.
Grok spoke to Shepherd about where his sci-fi journey began, and how his time at Curtin contributed to his career today.
You studied film and television arts at Curtin University. Was the original plan to make science fiction films?
At that stage I was 19 when I started. I probably started around 1993 or 1994. My favourite films at that point were anything by James Cameron. This was back in the good old days when they made good science fiction films like Terminator and Aliens. That was the core of my film interest.
Films was my original passion, but I always read a lot. But I was just as much into in films as I was into books. Film was always that much more of an obvious thing to be interested in, the idea of becoming a novelist came later.
What are your memories of uni or student activities then?
Not many [laughs]. I was definitely not very involved in any of the student extra-curricular activities. My experience of high-school was not a particularly enjoyable one, so I had as little to do with formal education institutions as possible. I went to uni to study and then I went home.
What was it like being a young man in the 90s?
I was just doing regular teenage stuff. It was a very different era. I remember for example they used to play good music on the radio back then. I haven’t heard anything like that for a while now. I used to love all the music stuff. There was a lot of grunge, it was a rock-era. You had Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins, and all these other great bands. They really defined that era, when I actually felt like I was involved in popular culture to a degree.
I certainly liked science fiction films. Mainstream entertainment I found more engaging than what there is now on things like Netflix; there’s a lot of proliferation of films that I don’t know how much I enjoy now.
What made you want to become a writer? And why science fiction?
I’ve always been a science-fiction fan; I guess it was a matter of finding something that you like and that you’re good at. It’s something that I’ve been involved in with since I was quite young. I always had this strange dream it would be the perfect life—making a living doing something I actually enjoy. I’ve only very recently just gotten to the point where financially I’m doing well; but now that I’m here, it’s great, I’m enjoying it.
Your first unpublished manuscript was shortlisted for the George Turner Prize in 1998, and your manuscript for Crossover was shortlisted again for the sci-fi division in 2001, for the Aurealis Awards. Were you always sure that your novels were going to be a success?
I was probably naively optimistic [laughs]. I eventually managed to get into traditional publishing, and Australian publishing treated me really, really well, but there’s hardly any money in Australian publishing; and there’s precious little even in international publishing.
Recently I went to Amazon, and they publish e-books, and instead of giving away 93% of your royalties to the publisher, they give you 70% of them. As a result of that I’m doing enormously better financially. I might be the most successful Australian science fiction author in publishing; that’s just a guess, but I haven’t seen many other Australian science fiction authors.
So, thank you Mr Jeff Bezos… obviously apart from what’s happening with his employees in the US!
Cassandra Kresnov novels, by Joel Shepherd.
Did you start writing these manuscripts while you were studying?
I’ve been messing around with writing since I was there at uni, and even before that, I was writing short stories. And most of them are quite embarrassing when I look at them now. But even the stuff that I didn’t do well, it’s all the experience you get from it with how you visualise successful storytelling; it made you aware of what you were good at.
For example, when you’re shooting a movie, you’d spend hours and hours just to shoot this little 1 second shot, to 1-minute scene. But if I’m writing something like that, then it takes me half an hour to write the same thing. In a science fiction film, it would take me tens and millions of dollars, and take years and years to produce, but there’s no financial or technical restrictions on your imagination with your writing.
What’s your most successful novel or series to date?
The ‘Cassandra’ series has been the most successful ones in traditional publishing; but the most successful one overall is the series I’m writing now, ‘The Spiral Wars’. That’s available on Amazon.
I like to write hard science fiction which is where you take science fiction quite seriously, very unlike your mainstream sci-fi, like Star Wars and Star Trek. But then on the other hand I also feel like a lot of the hard science fiction stuff limits itself in the kind of story it can tell; its limited to the big space opera, melodramatic stuff of Space Wars. I thought I would come up with something that has aspects of hard sci-fi but not quite the melodrama and the broad scale of Star Wars, something in the middle. That’s gone extremely well for me.
Despite the out-of-this-world nature of the story, did you draw on any real-life experiences or emotions for inspiration?
No, that advice ‘write what you know,’ has always been terrible advice [laughs], especially for science fiction writers. How can you write what you know with science fiction? Always write you can imagine. Inevitably parts of your personality end up in your books, but I think the fun thing about science fiction is to try and move away from what you know and write about what ‘isn’t’.
Renegade: The Spiral Wars.
Reviewers have called your character Cassandra Kresnov an “intriguing heroine” and a “strong female character.” How did you put yourself into the perspective of a woman?
There have been so many examples of women who write great male characters, and vice versa. No one raised an eyebrow at J.K Rowling writing Harry Potter. As a man, I think there are many female writers who have done male characters extremely well. It all just depends on how well you know your character and your story.
Do you think your degree helped shape your career into what it is now, and how so?
It’s hard to tell. I did Creative Writing when I was there; in many ways that’s helped too in the sense that you find out what you like and what you don’t like. Those are important experiences. It teaches you about what the formal way of creative writing is… I remember getting into a discussion in my writing class and I ended up disagreeing with my tutor [laughs]. I always liked breaking the rules. But you have to learn the rules before you can break them.
What’s your advice on becoming a great writer?
There was a lady who took her son to an author’s signing, and she asked, “what can I do to ensure my son grows up to be successful like you?” And he replied, “make sure that he has a miserable childhood” [laughs].
I don’t know that I’d go quite that far, but I think ultimately, it’s about taking an interest in the world and realising that there are no uninteresting subjects, only uninterested people. Also, remember that any number of authors started when they were 50 or 60, so it’s never too late to start.