Lee Murray: A Literary Powerhouse in New Zealand

In conversation with Lee Murray For Women in Horror Month

In December 2023, the winner of the New Zealand Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement in Fiction was announced: Lee Murray. And for good reason. Not only does Murray work in several mediums and roles, but she often receives recognition for her contributions to the genre. She is also an Honorary Literary Fellow of the New Zealand Society of Authors for Services as well as being a life member of two organizations: Speculative Fiction Writers of New Zealand and Tauranga Writers, New Zealand’s longest-standing writers’ group. Over the years, she has won numerous accolades including a Shirley Jackson award, four Australian Shadow awards, five Bram Stoker Awards®, and twelve Sir Julius Vogel awards, including one for service. Not only that, but Murray returns to the Bram Stoker Awards® final ballot again in 2024 with three nominations: Superior Achievement in Short Non-fiction (“Displaced Spirits”); Superior Achievement in Long Non-fiction (Unquiet Spirits: Essays by Asian Women in Horror, co-edited with Angela Yuriko Smith), and Superior Achievement in Long Fiction (Despatches). 

In Lee Murray’s work as an author, she’s written more than 70 short stories and 16 novels and novellas in a wide array of genres, ranging from psychological horror to supernatural crime-noir. As a poet, she has contributed to numerous anthologies. And for those of us wanting more, we will soon be able to read her debut poetry collection Fox Spirit on a Distant Cloud, scheduled to be released next month from The Cuba Press. Lee Murray also works as a screenwriter, an essayist, and an editor. In fact, her editorial work on her interconnected anthologies—Black Cranes: Tales of Unquiet Women (2020), Tortured Willows: Bent. Bowed. Unbroken. (2021), and Unquiet Spirits: Essays by Asian Women in Horror (2023)—has greatly advanced the representation of female Asian voices in horror. In a 2023 interview for my retrospective on women in horror, Murray and I discussed her work with Black Cranes: Tales of Unquiet Women (2020), co-edited with Geneve Flynn: “For women, horror is subjective, subversive, and very, very personal. Women of colour face cultural barriers, so there are different fears there, too.” 

I’ve been lucky enough that I’ve been able to work with Lee Murray on multiple projects over the years: she wrote the story “Daughters of the Bear” for the anthology I co-edited for Hex Publishers (Shadow Atlas: Dark Landscapes of the Americas, 2021); she edited my poem “Carina, Carina” in her role as the co-editor with Lindy Ryan for Under Her Eye: A Women in Horror Poetry Showcase (Black Spot Books, 2023), and she contributed both a poem (“Temptation”) and a short story (“The Three Gifts”) to the first issue of The Orange and Bee, a fairy tale project I’m co-editing with Nike Sulway. Although Murray has never officially been my mentor, she leads by example. (Did I mention that she won the HWA award for Mentor of the Year Award in 2019?) Lee Murray shows us what can happen when women work together: we can raise awareness; we can celebrate diversity; we can lift each other up. And what could be more important than that?  –Carina Bissett

About Lee Murray

About Lee Murray

Lee Murray is a writer, editor, poet, and screenwriter from Aotearoa. A USA Today Bestselling author, her titles include the Taine McKenna Adventures, supernatural crime-noir series The Path of Ra (with Dan Rabarts), fiction collection Grotesque: Monster Stories, and several books for children. Her many anthologies include Black Cranes (with Geneve Flynn), and Unquiet Spirits (with Angela Yuriko Smith), and her short fiction appears in Weird Tales, Space & Time, and Grimdark Magazine. A multiple Bram Stoker®-, Australian Shadows-, and Sir Julius Vogel Award-winner, Lee is New Zealand’s only Shirley Jackson Award winner. A recipient of New Zealand’s prestigious Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement in Fiction, she is also a New Zealand Society of Authors Honorary Literary Fellow, a Grimshaw Sargeson Fellow, and the 2023 NZSA Laura Solomon Cuba Press Prize winner for unique and original work. Read more at leemurray.info

Interview with Lee Murray

BISSETT: What was your first experience with horror?

MURRAY: It’s no secret that I’m an anxious piglet sort, and also very small, so lots of things terrify me. I was probably in a state of half-fright from the moment I was born. One of my first experiences arose from the perfidy of my own body. You know that little pulse in your ear, the one that makes a soft crunch on the pillow when you’re lying in the dark? As a little girl that incessant pulse kept me awake night after night, squinting into the gloom, my eyes peeled for the threat until my eyeballs were burning. I even wished that the noise would go away. Like most kids do at some time or another, I believed there was a monster under my bed. Only mine was a big, yellow-eyed wolf, circling in wait for me, and the sound I could hear was the tread of its paws on the carpet. It was lurking under there, waiting for me to look away… It was ridiculous, of course, because there are no wolves in New Zealand. My parents assured me it was true. Maybe they thought my behaviour was a ploy to stay up a little later and read books. (I was a book worm even before I could read). That wolf stalked me. My heart would pound in my ear, and as time went on and I got more and more frightened, the wolf, smelling my fear, would speed up, its footfalls getting faster and faster. I knew I wasn’t making that up. The wolf was running, getting ready to leap. It was going to eat me. It was just a matter of time. That recurring nightmarish experience, which I now recognise as a manifestation of my anxiety (not diagnosed until I was fifty), was probably my first true understanding of fear. I wrote a teeny flash fiction piece about this experience a decade ago, the story appearing in charity anthology Baby Teeth. If you’re interested, you can read the story for free here

By now I’ve worked out that there is no wolf under the bed, but lots of things still terrify me, and I try to explore those fears in my writing. Things like otherness, intolerance, trauma, isolation, and ignorance. Misogyny. Earthquakes. Spiders. Climate change. Corporate greed. The usual things. 

BISSETT: What changes have you seen in the representation of women in the horror genre?

MURRAY: Women have been at the forefront of horror forever, and not only as its creators and consumers, but as a subject of terror, and also as horror’s victims. In publishing, representation appears to be on the rise, with more women working as agents, publishers, commissioning editors, and anthology curators. And over the past couple of years, we’re seeing more women on horror awards lists, improving the visibility of women’s narratives. Nevertheless, I feel those gains have been hard won, with women horror writers less likely to be published by a big 5 publisher or receive a significant advance for their work. And since publishers want to offset those advances with sales, they’re going to invest more in marketing those same authors. So while women horror writers are certainly in the mix, writing spectacular innovative horror with diverse voices and on important themes, often this means working with lesser budgets, fewer commissions, and lower fees. And there’s that insidious expectation that women will work for free, right? For the love of writing. So while I’d like to say, ‘we’ve come a long way, baby’, because we have, there is still a lot of work to do if we’re going to be the final girl who survives.  

BISSETT: What advice do you have to women working in the field?

MURRAY: Pull up your sleeves. Pull up a chair. Your horror sisters will make space for you. 

BISSETT: Horror is considered an inclusive genre. Would you agree? In what ways have you felt welcomed? Excluded?

MURRAY: I agree that horror, in general, is an inclusive genre. Horror folks are some of the kindest people I know. Whatever group you fall into, horror is happy to have you because horror has always been transgressive and subversive. It’s part of our purpose to shake up the status quo and confront the things that frighten us, and that means embracing difference and diversity. I will never forget turning up to my first StokerCon event in Las Vegas in 2016, the lone little Kiwi in the room, and having the incredibly good fortune to share an impromptu lunch with Monica Kuebler (Rue Morgue magazine editor) and Hillary Raque Dodge (co-editor of award-winning anthology Shadow Atlas). From that moment on, those two fabulous women made it their business to introduce me to everyone. For the rest of the weekend, I felt like an international guest of honour. They recognised me as part of their tribe, part of the village. There’s something truly special about being recognised, isn’t there? That unspoken understanding: yes, you’re a bit weird, but that’s okay because we are, too. I’m very grateful to them both, and since then I’ve tried to emulate their welcome in my own networks. 

It’s no secret that the Black Cranes sisterhood of Asian women in horror, which began with a chance meeting with Geneve Flynn at GenreCon conference in Australia in late 2019, has been a turning point in my life. The groundswell that can arise when two conscientious Asian girls turn up too early to a panel and start plotting to take over the world. [Cue evil laughter]. Okay, so it wasn’t quite like that, but being involved with the Black Cranes anthology, the follow-up collaborative poetry collection Tortured Willows, and more recently Unquiet Spirits: Essays by Asian Women in horror (with Angela Yuriko Smith) has not only meant I have felt seen, but it has also improved the visibility of Asian women’s voices in horror literature. The reception has been wonderful. People have wanted to read our stories and find out more, and as a writer what more can we ask for? It’s the perfect example of how horror has made space for Asian voices, including and acknowledging our stories, and letting us speak our truth. 

What makes me feel excluded? While horror and horror folks are generally inclusive, horror as a genre is often looked down on by the wider publishing industry and the reading public, and even among writers working in other genres. There’s a perception that horror is somehow lesser and not as worthy as other literary genres. There is something shameful associated with loving horror. Possibly that misconception is the result of the early ‘pulp’ magazines which were published on cheaper paper to allow for wide accessibility. Whatever the reason, those feelings of exclusion tend to come from outside horror, rather than from inside the genre. 

Another source of exclusion comes from living in a tiny country on the underside of the globe which makes the business of being a writer so much harder. International writers are frequently overlooked for opportunities, partly because our countries have very small markets, or we’re out of sight and out of mind of organisers, and sometimes because it’s simply not cost effective to include us. If someone is getting up for a zoom call in the middle of the night, it goes without saying that it is going to be the antipodean. 

BISSETT: You balance numerous roles in your life as an author, a poet, a screenwriter, an editor, and a mentor. How do you do it all?

MURRAY: I drink a lot of coffee! 

To be honest, I’m a bit of a chipmunk, collecting projects and then scrambling to get them done. However, I’ve been lucky enough to work with fabulous collaborators, people who do what they say they’re going to do, which helps to keep my projects on track. I love the variety that comes from working in different forms and styles, each switch serving as a kind of palate cleanser, so I’m rarely bored. 

Perhaps that makes me a jack of all trades and master of none, but I think being involved in different aspects of publishing, on different sides of the anthology equation (as editor and contributor) for example, having worn these different hats, gives me some insight into the tasks involved or the perspective of my editor, and these can serve as a kind of short-cut, allowing me to go straight to the issue in question.  

Also, I work hard. I stay up late reading. And I don’t bother to vacuum much. 

BISSETT: What are you currently working on?

MURRAY: I’ve already admitted to being a bit of a chipmunk when it comes to collecting projects, haven’t I? So please hold me accountable, everyone! Here are my current projects… [She takes a deep breath] I’m working on a new novel for the first time in about six years. It’s a horror-thriller with supernatural elements. I’m excited to be writing a longer work with space for added complexity again, and with a new group of critique partners who have re-ignited my passion for long-form writing. I also have an experimental narrative prose-poetry project with a New Zealand historical focus in its early planning stages. There is an exciting collaborative non-fiction book in progress with a co-author whom I admire and respect, and a proposed anthology project out on submission. And I’m working on a couple of screenplays, although I’m realistic that those may never see the light of day. As for playful, joyful writing, I’m loving our secret collaborative poetry project, Carina. [Shhhh]. Thank you so much for inviting me along for the ride!

About Fox Spirit on a Distant Cloud by Lee Murray (The Cuba Press, April 2024) 

Fox Spirit on a Distant Cloud is a triumph. The collection is an ancestral metaphor illuminating what it means to be a Chinese immigrant and a descendant of the diaspora. It is also a revelation of what it means to be adaptable creators, to be women whose voices are rising today with hope and agility.” —L. E. Daniels, awarded poet, editor and author

Wellington, 1923, and a sixty-year-old woman hangs herself in a scullery; ten years later another woman ‘falls’ from the second floor of a Taranaki tobacconist; soon afterwards a young mother in Taumarunui slices the throat of her newborn with a cleaver. All are women of the Chinese diaspora, who came to Aotearoa for a new life and suffered isolation and prejudice in silence. Chinese Pākehā writer Lee Murray has taken the nine-tailed fox spirit húli jīng as her narrator to inhabit the skulls of these women and others like them and tell their stories. Fox Spirit on a Distant Cloud is an audacious blend of biography, mythology, horror and poetry that transcends genre to illuminate lives in the shadowlands of our history.

Winner of the NZSA Laura Solomon Cuba Press Prize 2023.

Purchase a copy here

Carina Bissett

Women in Horror Month By Carina Bissett

Carina Bissett is a writer and poet working primarily in the fields of dark fiction and fabulism. She is the author of numerous shorts stories, which are featured in her debut collection Dead Girl, Driving and Other Devastations (Trepidatio Publishing, 2024), and she is the co-editor of the award-winning anthology Shadow Atlas: Dark Landscapes of the Americas. She is currently a Bram Stoker finalist for her essay “Words Wielded by Women” (Apex Magazine, 2023), a comprehensive retrospective of women in horror. Links to her work can be found at http://carinabissett.com.

Dead Girl, Driving and Other Devastations

 Dead Girl, Driving and Other DevastationsWomen in Horror Month

In this powerful debut, Carina Bissett explores the liminal spaces between the magical and the mundane, horror and humor, fairy tales and fabulism. A young woman discovers apotheosis at the intersection of her cross-cultural heritage. A simulacrum rebels against her coding to create a new universe of her own making. A poison assassin tears the world apart in the relentless pursuit of her true love—the one person alive who can destroy her. Dead Girl, Driving and Other Devastations erases expectations, forging new trails on the map of contemporary fiction. Includes an introduction by Julie C. Day, author of Uncommon Miracles and The Rampant

Praise for Dead Girl, Driving and Other Devastations

“Carina Bissett is one of my favorite speculative authors writing today—magic and myth, horror and revenge, wonder and hope. Her stories are original, lyrical, and haunting—Shirley Jackson mixed with Ursula LeGuin and a dash of Neil Gaiman. An amazing collection of stories.—Richard Thomas, author of Spontaneous Human Combustion, a Bram Stoker Award finalist

“Carina Bissett’s collection is a thing of wonder and beauty. It is a true representation of Carina herself: whimsical, visceral, lovely, and fierce. You can hear women’s voices screaming while roses fall from their lips. Dead Girl, Driving and Other Devastations is a triumph.”—Mercedes M. Yardley, Bram Stoker Award-winning author of Little Dead Red

“From fairy tale revisions to fresh takes on monstrous transitions and the absolute horrors of being female, no one knows how to write a story like Carina Bissett. Fierce yet fragile.”—Lindy Ryan, author of Bless Your Heart

“In a debut collection weaving folklore and fairy tale and told in magical, lyrical, irresistible prose, Carina Bissett inveigles readers with the breadth of her skill. A feat of woven wonder, with spells sketched in the air and strands stretched taut, Dead Girl Driving and Other Devastations is an enchanting tapestry of silken stories, the collection establishing Bissett as a world-class author of fabulism, fantasy, and horror. A must-read for lovers of Neil Gaiman, Angela Slatter, and Carmen Maria Machado.” —Lee Murray, five-time Bram Stoker Awards-winning author of Grotesque: Monster Stories

“Ravishing flights of fantasy.”—Priya Sharma, Shirley Jackson award-winning author of All the Fabulous Beasts and Ormeshadow

“Dark, often violent, Dead Girl, Driving & Other Devastations doesn’t lie to you about the nature of its stories. Between the title page and the Afterword lies a harrowing alliance of nightmare and fairytale. The pages are full of strange birds, resurrections, second chances, monstrous women, enchantments, and inventions. These stories explore a dark and permissive imagination, unafraid to disturb the monster at the back of the cave. It is a collection for the brave and forlorn, for those seeking escape, vengeance, transformation, or grace. There is wonder here, and freedom from shackles—for those fierce enough to wrench loose of them.”—C. S. E. Cooney, World Fantasy Award-winning author of Saint Death’s Daughter

“Carina’s short stories are absolutely luminous and deeply unsettling. Savour this collection like a fine blood-red wine. It’s absolute perfection and will linger long after the pages are closed.”—KT Wagner

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  • Carina Bissett

    Carina Bissett is a writer and poet working primarily in the fields of dark fiction and fabulism. She is the author of numerous shorts stories, which are featured in her debut collection Dead Girl, Driving and Other Devastations (Trepidatio Publishing, 2024), and she is the co-editor of the award-winning anthology Shadow Atlas: Dark Landscapes of the Americas. She is currently a Bram Stoker finalist for her essay “Words Wielded by Women” (Apex Magazine, 2023), a comprehensive retrospective of women in horror. Links to her work can be found at http://carinabissett.com.

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