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Interview: AJ Fitzwater on their new book, No Man’s Land

A conversation with Gail Ingram.

Gail Ingram: Kia Ora A J! Congratulations on the launch of your first novel No Man’s Land. It is described as ‘A queer love story set in historic Central Otago.’ and on the launching of your book, you acknowledged the hard times we’re in and you said, ‘Life is difficult, but we must carry on, to carry the joy and resistance with us into a better future.’ Is this in part the inspiration for your book — taking joy and resistance from the past into the future? Tell us about this, and some of the layers and other inspiration behind No Man’s Land.

A J Fitzwater: Absolutely, writing No Man’s Land was resistance to the received narrative of women’s contribution to the war workforce, and resistance to the hidden histories of queer people in Aotearoa New Zealand. I read a book about the land girls which made me angry that I hadn’t been taught women’s war history better. I had some idea about Rosie the Riveter as a feminist hero, but I didn’t realize until further research she was a real person, not just a caricature, and the massive part women played in the war effort across the globe.

This concept of hidden histories tied into my interest in hidden women SFF writers – they were always there, but the twisty knots of the patriarchy tried to tell us a different story so it felt like we were rebuilding a literary practice from scratch every generation. The deeper you dig, the more intersections of violence – race, class, ability, sexuality – become apparent. How do you make progress when it feels like you have to reinvent the wheel, answer the 101s, and soothe egos? It burns you out.

Removing a people’s history – their access to knowledge, resistance, education, economic power – is systemic violence. I’m part of a literary practice in SFF that is saying Not Today, Satan. There’s too much work to do in a short time. We have always been here, and what we know of ourselves from yesterday can inspire and support us into tomorrow.

GI: The novel is about Dorothea ‘Tea’ Gray who, with a brother serving in the Second World War, joins the Land Service and sets to work on a remote farm in the golden plains of North Otago. We come to realise that her story is one of both external and internal discovery. How did you go about researching the time and setting for this novel, and the world that Dorothea encounters, and how does that fit into your own story?

AJF: The biggest inspiration for the book is Dianne Bardsley’s The Land Girls: In a Man’s World 1939-1946 (Otago University Press, 2000). Browsing a bookshop, I picked it off a shelf of Aotearoa New Zealand women’s history at random, and was immediately struck by the image on the front cover of a buff woman shearer. The multi-layered title popped into my head, and I knew I had to write this story.

I sought out other books about NZ women in wartime – the Hidden Figures and Bletchley Girls stories were also becoming popular at the time – but Bardsley’s book was the one full of the most detail, from the uniform to the farming kit, wages to community and government attitudes towards the women. There was nothing in the book about queer women out on the farms, but other mid-century research and anecdotes told me they existed – the spinster aunties living together, the boys and their secret clubs, the bars and coffee houses across the Pacific. Safe zones, refuges, found families – they found each other, almost like instinct. Like magic.

I took that instinct/magic and turned it into fantastical magic based on some of Māori living culture – the taniwha, shape-shifters, protectors of the land and its people.

GI: Tell us about the dedication:

To the Girls,
The Queens,
And the ones who went unseen.

AJF: It’s about respect for sacrifice – for the land girls who didn’t get their due and did the hard slog in obscurity, the trans folx who fought for visibility and survival, and the ones who sought safety in silence.

GI: Launched this June (2020), No Man’s Land is your second book in two months – The Voyages of Cinrak the Dapper released in April. What a massive effort! There is obviously a bit of tongue-in-cheek in your Instagram bio that reads, ‘Writes a bit.’ Can you tell us about how long No Man’s Land took to write, and something about your process and your writing space.

AJF: I didn’t know that No Man’s Land was going to become a book when I started writing it. It began life as a short story that just kept growing the more I dug into the research and characters. There wasn’t even going to be any romance, but the characters had different ideas. I was mucking around with characters’ pages at one point when it suddenly clicked – Ohhh, Izzy is a butch lesbian. That changed the entire second half in the first rewrite.

The book was my first foray into writing a longer project as I’d positioned myself (in my mind) as a short fiction author, so it was an experiment and exploration of my abilities. In retrospect, the frustration of shaping multiple chapters was a reward in perseverance. Technically, I learned how to plot by trial and error, because I kept telling myself, “I’m not writing a book!”

My writing space is wherever I can grab some time outside the day job. Most often it’s in my office, which I’ve stuffed with all my favourite things (books, comfy chair, artwork, toys). The sunlight comes in at just the right angle mid-afternoon. Quiet, a good cup of tea, and a warm cat nearby is enough to settle the constant noise in my head for a bit so I can squeeze out something meaningful.

GI: The cover of No Man’s Land by Laya Martin Rogers is beautiful, featuring a tiny girl standing between two swirling eels. Can you tell us about the cover and how it relates to the novel?

AJF: I am constantly delighted whenever I look at the cover art, because Laya captured the essence of the book so beautifully. I originally shared land-girls poster artwork from the era, wanting to capture the colour and style, but it was Laya who came up with the eels. The images embedded in the giant eels do a lot of heavy lifting if you look at the detail – there are the Southern Alps, the river and shale bed, farmland, war trenches, barbed wire, and fighter aircraft. I love the blue vs yellow/brown of the sky vs land divide, surrounded by negative space – that digs deep into my Fury Road-loving heart and the movie’s use of the colours, space, and horizon divides for worldbuilding.

GI: Writing Spec fiction in a New Zealand voice and as a queer writer must bring some challenges in terms of finding the right publisher and taking your stories to a world audience. How have you found it?

AJF: I set myself a challenge because I’m stubborn, and I wanted to tell different stories to what was being upheld as “good SFF”. That challenge was set ten years ago, when the landscape of queer writers and stories was completely different. I’ve grown as a person and writer since then, and the industry has grown too. In some ways, it’s slightly easier because queer stories and narratives outside the US-centric SFF world are coming in demand. In other ways, I’m just as stubborn as before. I’ve shifted that stubbornness into other areas, like telling NZ stories (took me a lot to get over my cultural cringe), telling trans stories, and taking on the education, understanding, and work of uplift.

Overseas publishers struggle with NZ vernacular and ideas. We are a colonized country, brought up on received narratives of whiteness and language, but they still try to “Americanise” (with an S, not a Z!) us. I’ll fight for my Yeah, Nah and casual use of te reo til my dying breath.

I’m glad we have a few local publishers willing to take a punt of NZ speculative fiction. It’s great this year we have the focus of the world on us because of Worldcon! But, as with all pivots we’ve had to make because of the pandemic, we make the best of the situation.

I’d also like the greater NZ literature scene to be involved in a conversation about speculative inclusion, stretching and growing out of labels and ideas. Usually, a NZ- specific author finds their audience overseas, or has to downplay their kiwiness. It’s very rare for a NZ SFF book to be picked up here on a grand scale outside of YA.

GI: What are you reading now? Who are your favourite authors and influences in your writing?

AJF: It is SO. HARD. to read during the pandemic and All Of This. I’ve found it easier to commit to shorter works, so I’ve mostly been reading novellas. Not a bad project, in hindsight, since I want to write more novellas. I want to get a broad feel of what publishers want, and what I can offer. So, that’s been works like Sarah Gailey’s Upright Women Wanted, El-Mohtar and Gladstone’s This Is How You Lose The Time War, Wells’ Murderbot series (I. Love. Murderbot), Onyebuchi’s Riot Baby, and Chambers’ To Be Taught If Fortunate.

My influences go in very clear generations: Anne McCaffrey got me started seriously reading science fiction (and made me realize that I could write it), Joanna Russ and James Tiptree Jr brought me back in (and put me on the path to what I wanted to write about), and N.K. Jemisin constantly sets the bar and makes me want to be a better writer.

You’ll also find me reading a LOT of queer SFF and authors. Like, that’s where my people are at.

GI: You have just released two books online out of necessity. Are there any plans to do some live readings now that we’re in Level I? And what next? Have you any new writing projects brewing?

AJF: No Man’s Land book party at Scorpio Books, Christchurch, on Wednesday July 15 from 5.30pm! The Scorpios event was the first thing I put down on my promotional Want List, and I’m so happy they’ve kept us pencilled in place all throughout lockdown, even though we’ve been pushed back a month.

I have other things in the works that I can’t talk about right now, but ya know, it’s part of finding one’s joy during the Strange Times I talk about. Having something to look forward to helps keep my feet on the floor every morning, keeps me working, keeps me doing the work of hope.

I had a writing plan for the year, which included having work drafted to pitch to an agent, but it’s all gone up in smoke. I have a trilogy of connected novellas I want to write about a genderqueer brain ship. They’re all plotted, but I’m about six months behind on getting started. I also have a connected set of stories about queer NZ histories/people I want to research and write. I want my writing joy back!

GI: Thank you, AJ, wonderful to kōrero!

AJF: Nga mihi, e hoa.

No Man’s Land: Links

AJ Fitzwater lives between the cracks of Christchurch, New Zealand. Their work focuses on feminist and queer themes, and has appeared in venues of repute such as Clarkesworld, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Shimmer, Giganotosaurus, GlitterShip and in various anthologies. They are the author of rodent pirate escapades in The Voyages of Cinrak the Dapper, and the WW2 land girls shape-shifter novella No Man’s Land. With a background in radio, AJ lends their voice to podcast narrations, including for the Escape Artists universe. They enjoy maintaining a collection of bow ties. A unicorn disguised in a snappy blazer, they tweet @AJFitzwater

Paper Road Press link: 
Universal e-book purchase link: 
Except: https://paperroadpress.co.nz/2020/05/13/excerpt-a-j-fitzwater-no-mans-land/

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