Author Interview: Award-Winning Lee Murray – Part 1/3!

In the bio section of her website, author Lee Murray describes herself as a New Zealand-based writer of fantasy, science fiction and horror. While this description is correct, with Murray publishing a range of award-winning speculative fiction, it doesn’t really capture the scale or importance of her role in New Zealand’s writing community.

Looking through previous Sir Julius Vogel Awards lists, one of the first things you’ll notice is the regularity of Murray’s name among the finalists. This includes her Taine McKenna series, now on its third book with Into the Ashes, as well as the Path of Ra series co-written with author Dan Rabarts. The initial installment, Hounds of the Underworld, has been called “a wild and gruesome treat, packed with mystery, action and dark humour.”

Murray’s work hasn’t been limited to the page. She’s helped to establish key writing communities in New Zealand, as well as editing several local speculative fiction anthologies including the award-winning Te korero ahi kā. And when she’s not writing, editing or mentoring, Murray helps organise events such as GeyserCon, New Zealand’s 40th National Science Fiction and Fantasy Convention.

To discover more of Murray’s work, check out her website here–or part one of our interview below. Enjoy!

You recently released Into the Ashes, book three in the Taine McKenna series. What first inspired you to write a thriller series with a local setting, and why do you think it’s been an overlooked genre in New Zealand writing in the past?

New Zealand inspired me! What better setting for an adventure? New Zealand offers landscapes and geology and legends which make it the perfect setting for a thriller adventure. The Taine Mckenna series features the Urewera mountain ranges, the soaring cliffs and icy channels of the Fiordland sounds, and the raw energy and bleak isolation of the Central Plateau. The series concept was, quite literally, inspired by our landscape, the idea coming to me while I was out running in the bush. Before sustaining an injury, I used to run marathons — completing 25 marathons and a couple of ultramarathons — which meant a lot of time running on trails.

While our New Zealand terrain can be dangerous, especially if weather conditions change rapidly, the bush doesn’t offer up a lot of beasties. There are no mountain lions, no snakes and no grumpy bears. Probably, the worst thing a runner is likely to come across is a wētā or two, or maybe a swarm of wasps. Out on the road, you might meet a stray pig dog, or a herd of cows on the way to milking, but I’ve never encountered anything on a bush trail. I was discussing this with some friends while running on a bush trail, and it occurred to me ‘what if there was something?’ and ‘what might that be?’ and the idea for Into the Mist evolved from there. I went home and opened a file which I optimistically called “Global Blockbuster” and that was how the series came about.

By the time I came to write the third book, Into the Ashes, not only did I have a contract to fulfill, readers were hanging out to see what would happen between Taine and Jules and whether Temera would regain his gift for seeing. Again, my inspiration for the third story came entirely from the New Zealand landscape. I was on a road trip with my son and husband and we were passing through the Central Plateau on a spectacularly clear day, and I remember thinking the region would make the perfect backdrop for a story. There were the mountains, the supervolcano, the lakes, the army training grounds, and all the wonderful local legends and mythology associated with the area. Adding to that, one of our greatest fears here in ‘The Shaky Isles’ is a dread of ‘the big one’: a massive volcanic-earthquake event. My mind was racing. Then my son said, “Mum, you should call your book Into the Ashes.” And that was it. The idea was born, and the eventual book became my personal favourite in the series.

I agree that too few adventure-thrillers are set against our local landscape though, and I’m not entirely sure why that is. I suspect those manuscripts exist, but with our local publishing industry’s focus on literary titles, genre authors are having to travel further afield to find homes for their work. As Bilbo Baggins says in Tolkien’s The Hobbit: “We don’t want any adventures here, thank you! You might try over The Hill or across The Water.” Often, New Zealand’s genre writers are published by smaller or foreign presses with smaller publicity budgets, which means our work is less likely to appear in local bookstores and libraries or come to the attention of New Zealand’s reviewers.

Pleasingly, there are signs that the situation is changing. For example, Craig Sisterson’s New Zealand Crime and Mystery Writers’ group is gaining some notice, with its annual Ngaio Marsh Awards showcasing new mystery-thriller works and authors, although the focus remains on real-world procedurals in the vein of Paul Cleave and Vanda Symon. Alan Carter’s Malborough Man is a good example, the novel starring UK detective, Nick Chester, who is forced to relocate to New Zealand after botching an undercover case. Gaining ground in the speculative thriller-adventure arena is Waikato writer Adrian J. Smith, the author of fast-paced New Zealand-based monster adventures in Nicholas Sansbury Smith’s bestselling Extinction world. Smith tells me he is writing an original title which also uses a Kiwi backdrop, so that will be one to watch for. Happily for me, the McKenna military thriller with its strong local focus appears to have filled a neglected niche in the market and its novelty may account, in part, for the series’ success, with Into the Mist and Into the Sounds winning the Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best Novel in 2017 and 2019 respectively.

For part two of our interview with Lee Murray, please click here.

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