Nikky Lee is a multi award-winning author of science fiction and fantasy. She’s twice been placed in the Aurealis Awards for Best Young Adult Short Story and Best Science Fiction Novella. She’s been published in multiple presses and magazines, including Deadset Press and Breach Magazine.
Most of your works are rooted heavily in science fiction and fantasy, what is it about this genre that sparks your interest? Was it a conscious decision to stick primarily to one genre?
I’ve always been drawn to the unreal. I think it comes from my inner child who’s always wished magic was real. There’s a sense of wonder and wanderlust wrapped up in it too, I love exploring strange lands and different cultures—real or in my head. And intellectually, I enjoy playing around with ‘what if’ scenarios and imagining how worlds, technology, social structures and culture would develop if they have (or don’t have) certain magic or technology.
I don’t think it was ever a conscious decision to write primarily in the spec fic genre. It’s my favourite genre to read and I never imagined myself writing creatively in any other genre.
It’s no secret that you are a prolific short story writer, snapping up many awards and appearing in many publications, do you have any tips for writers who are looking to submit work to magazines, anthologies or short story competitions?
For the longest time I didn’t think of myself as a short story writer, my ideas were always these big, sprawling epics. Then I discovered that writing to a specific theme—be it a submission call out or even just a prompt—helped me narrow down my options and come up with a “small(er)” idea. The more short stories I wrote, the more I realised that limiting myself in this way actually makes me more creative.
It’s been said that learning to write a good short story can help tighten your prose and sharpen your plot in novel writing. How has your experience in short story writing helped you with writing your debut novel?
Not so much with my debut—I’d finished writing The Rarkyn’s Familiar before I fell in love with short stories. But writing short stories did make a massive difference when I was writing the second book in the series. I could rave for paragraphs about how good they were for experimenting with voice, style, tense—even just to practise elements that I knew I was weaker on or wanted to improve on. For example, Dingo & Sister, which won two Aurealis Awards, began because I wanted to prove to myself I could write a story with deep characters. Short stories have also been excellent for teaching me word economy.
On the project front, they have also been a great palette cleanser between bigger projects. Because they’re short, you can write one and then move on to the next idea pretty quickly. Plus the writer’s high you get from completing a short story is just as good as finishing something longer.
I know that you’ve been careful with which publisher you’ve chosen to work with. Could you talk us through your decision process? What advice can you give to aspiring authors?
I knew that I wanted to try and get published in the US or the UK since the markets there are so much bigger than little Aotearoa! I’d been querying The Rarkyn’s Familiar for about a year and a half, and had some nibbles of interest but they eventuated to nothing. At the same time, I was learning a lot about self-publishing and getting quite tempted there after seeing several Kiwi indie fantasy authors do exceptionally well. There was also the potential to earn a good return off a series, which is what The Rarkyn’s Familiar would be. However, the initial outlay to get even the first book professionally edited, formatted and cover designed was very off-putting.
Then I participated in #PitDark on Twitter and got an invitation from Parliament House Press to submit to them. I went to their website, checked out their books on Goodreads and Amazon and liked what I saw. The covers were fantastic and the quality of the interior samples was high, so I submitted. When the offer came through, I hired an agent from Australia to vet the contract and make sure there were no red flags that I hadn’t picked up. I also contacted a few of Parliament House’s authors to ask how their experience with the publisher had been. They all came back with glowing reviews—with the usual caveats of choosing to go with a smaller publisher: I’d be expected to do some marketing and self-promotion myself and not to expect bestseller sales. I was okay with that. I view publishing as a long game, it takes most authors several books to start earning a decent income. So I don’t expect to quit my day job anytime soon!
In other interviews, you’ve mentioned how you’ve drawn on your own experience with anxiety in The Rarkyn’s Familiar. From my experience reading your book, you dig quite deep into this topic and I can imagine it might have been difficult to write. What did your self-care routine look like when writing this book?
I was very fortunate to write the majority of The Rarkyn’s Familiar when I was in a good place mentally. I hadn’t had an anxiety flare up for a couple of years and was fairly confident I had it under control (all that changed when Covid arrived!). When I was searching for a way to deepen Lyss’s internal struggles, I realised my journey of understanding and accepting my anxiety was very similar to Lyss’s journey of discovering and accepting her magic: at first she doesn’t understand what is happening to her, then she initially tries to suppress it and fight it off, until she finally realises that accepting it lessens its power over her.
In terms of self-care, exercise is one of the best things for me. When I’m starting to feel stressed or anxious, it’s a sign I need to get up and move, even if it’s just a walk around the block. It does wonders for my sleep too, which then sets me up for the next day. Routine also helps (hence why Covid threw a spanner in the works). For managing a flare-up, I find square breathing works well along with making a conscious effort to set aside time for relaxation—be it some yoga, a hot bath and a book, or a short guided meditation. Lastly, the biggest leap forward in my self-care was the decision to go to the doctor and get professional advice—that has made a world of difference.
There are no real heroes or villains in The Rarkyn’s Familiar, which is one of my favourite aspects of your debut novel. To write such morally complex characters, what were some of the challenges you faced and how did you overcome them?
I’m of the belief that villains aren’t born, they’re made. When I started writing The Rarkyn’s Familiar, I wanted to do more than the standard good versus evil setup. The antagonist’s motivation needed to be more than “because they’re evil”. I wanted to show characters who are the product of their society and their experiences within it; characters who think they are the heroes of their story, even when from another point of view, their behaviour is heinous.