Women In SFF Author Spotlight — A. J. Ponder
A.J. Ponder has a head full of monsters, and recklessly spills them out onto the written page. Beware dragons, dreadbeasts, taniwha, and small children–all are equally dangerous, and capable of treading on your heart–or tearing it, still beating, from your chest.
Notable stories include: BlindSight, a Rapunzel-themed dystopian horror published in At the Edge; Dying for the Record, runner up for Arc and Tomorrow Projects’ competition, The Future Always Wins; And Ahi Kā (Prose and interwoven sonnet, Truth Lies in Fire and Dies in Flame), co-winner of NZSA NorthWrite 2013 Collaboration Contest. Wizard’s Guide to Wellington, and the Sir Julius Vogel Award winning short story, Frankie and the Netball Clone.
Welcome to the Hive, A.J. Ponder. Let’s start small: tell us about a great book you’ve read recently!
I read lots of great books before they’re published from some fantastic authors, including Lee Murray, Eileen Mueller, Charlotte Jardine and even my writing students come up with some really fascinating stuff. I really enjoying Denika Mead’s latest novel, with the bone warriors breaking out of her fantasy world and onto the Wellington Waterfront. For me it’s about the ideas and the fun just as much as the writing. Although there is nothing as beautiful as prose from a master writer like Frances Hardinge.
Brandon Sanderson’s Skyward has been the most recent commercial work I really enjoyed. I loved the intrigue as the character discovers what is really happening and why her people are planet-bound. Also, the sentient ship felt like a little nod to Iain M Banks. And what science fiction aficionado doesn’t love a little Iain M. Banks?
Okay, time to escalate things: reality warps and you suddenly find yourself leading a D&D-style party through a monster-infested dungeon. What character class are you, and what’s your weapon of choice?
Yay! A question I’ve prepared all my life for…
I’m a half-elf thief with a rapier. A thief with lock-picking skills can avoid traps and get all the treasure. With my great dexterity (from all the thief training) my character needs no armour and so the rapier is an excellent choice of weapon. It’s even better for me, because I’ve trained with both foil and epee and know how to keep my opponents at a distance.
So, I’m fast, I’m deadly, and without clanky armour I have a great sneak attack, which means any pesky adversaries had better watch out!
When you’re not trawling through dungeons, how do you like to work? (In silence, with music, or serenaded by the damned souls of a thousand dead shrimps? Do you prefer to type or to hand-write? Are you an architect or a gardener? A plotter or a pantser? D’you write in your underwear, or in a deep-sea diver’s suit?)
Tell us a little bit about your writing method!
When not slaying dragons, and the innocent occupants of dungeons, I prefer working in silence, or with the soothing tones of heavy metal, preferably instrumental, to insulate me from the outside world.
As for my method, it’s definitely chaotic-neutral—a heady mix of plotting and pantsing. For most of my novels, plotting will only take me so far before the characters decide they’d rather find another path. On the positive side, having temperamental characters does make writing a lot more fun. The process becomes a lot less like pouring plastic into moulds and more like a mad inventor creating something that’s part cat, part swordfighter and just a little bit dynamite.
What (or who) are your most significant female fantasy influences? Are there any creators whom you dream of working with someday?
My most significant female fantasy influences would have to be; Diana Wynne Jones, Ursula Le Guin, C.J. Cherryh, and Andre Norton.
And yes, I adore their writing, and I’d have loved to have met them, but I’ve never wanted to work with them. There are so many fantastic creators out there that aspiring to work with all of them would be too much. Don’t get me wrong, when the Hobbit movie was being written, I dreamed of working on the script. But the truth is I’ve worked with a lot of authors, either as writers groups developing work, or as a co-writer. And they’re all fun. They’re all amazing.
Peter Friend, Eileen Mueller, Charlotte Jardine & Lee Murray, to name a few have been amazing. As have my students. They’re all producing fantastic work, and I love being on this writing journey with them.
What was the last thing you watched on TV and why did you choose to watch it? Alternatively, what games have you enjoyed recently?
Let’s talk about games. From Small World to Wingspan, our house is bulging with games. There are so many fantastic games out there by truly creative people. Shout outs for Pandemic, Dixit, Small World, Raiders of the North Sea & Terraforming Mars—all awesome games.
[Beth’s a big fan of both Terraforming Mars and Wingspan!]
But recently we just tried something new.
Dungeons and Dragons online. I’m half-surprised we didn’t fall into traps of boiling oil, as we were all too busy running around to actually follow the DM’s instructions. I kept on losing my character behind stone walls. Not good. But what I really liked was being able to send the DM and other players secret messages. I thought as a perpetual thief that was an awesome mechanic, because normally when I pass messages everyone knows what I’m up to! Still, it wasn’t the same as playing together. And I look forward to that again, soon.
The world shifts, and you find yourself with an extra day on your hands during which you’re not allowed to write. How do you choose to spend the day?
Maybe that’s the day I’m meant to tidy the house and do all the admin work? Nah. Reading, walking and getting back into sword-fighting.
Can you tell us a little something about your current work(s) in progress?
Right now, I’m writing a YA urban fantasy with Eileen Mueller. We’re having a lot of fun taking the story Rose Red and Snow White, modernising it and adding dragonshifters. I’ve also been working on a what was originally intended to be a thriller, and part of the “Blood of the Demonspawn” series. But that was a little bleak, and so the story appears to be morphing into something a little more fun, maybe more of the meta post-modern humour that’s woven though The Sylvalla Chronicles. (Think if Discworld, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and Princess Bride were mixed up in a cauldron and dumped over epic fantasy.)
What’s the most (and/or least) helpful piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
The worst writing advice is prescriptive. We’ve all heard it, show don’t tell, avoid filters, do this, don’t do that…
Don’t get me wrong, it’s often great editing advice, and sometimes even great planning advice, but when it comes to writing the last thing you want is to be second-guessing yourself. So, I think the best writing advice is to read a lot and have fun writing! ?
Every writer encounters stumbling blocks, be it a difficult chapter, challenging subject matter or just starting a new project. How do you motivate yourself on days when you don’t want to write?
Walking is my superpower when it comes to writing. Stuck? Go for a walk. Need a break? Go for a walk. I know other writers who manage to get some pretty awesome housework done on off days. Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to work for me.
If you could visit any country at any point in history, where/when would you go, and why?
I’ve never really liked playing this game. Everyone always assumes they’ll be a part of the moneyed class with wealth and power and fine houses…. I’d like to live in a utopian future, instead. One with lots of forests that doesn’t get too cold.
Who are your favourite female characters in literature or pop culture? And do you have a favourite type of female character you enjoy writing?
My favourite female characters are inventors and sword-wielders. Women with agency. Often on the nerdy or mouthy side. Characters like Eowyn (Lord of the Rings books – definitely not the movie version), Mara (Servant of the Empire), Donna Noble (Dr Who) and Artemis (The Martian)
Tell us about a book that’s excellent, but underappreciated or obscure.
Verdigris Deep by France Hardinge. It’s a dark modern fairytale that’s supposedly for middlegrade, but appears to be more for fellow authors and librarians. Absolutely brilliant storytelling, and I would argue superior to the Costa Award winning “The Lie Tree” from the same author.
Finally, would you be so kind as to dazzle us with an elevator pitch? Why should readers check out your work?
Escape into a world of humorous fantasy, not so dashing heroes, and the adventure of a lifetime in a coming of age story that has everything, chases, escapes, monsters, and an ancient evil that threatens to destroy everything in its path.