An Interview with Clarion South’s Robert Hoge and Kate Eltham

From left to right: Mark Tremble, Alex Hong, Aidan Doyle, Stephen Turner, Brendan Carson, MacLaren North, Steve Mitchell, Ben Julien,Trent Jamieson (week 5 instructor), Angela Slatter, Suzanne Willis, Su Lynn Cheah, Angie Rega, Amanda le Bas de Plumetot, Lisa Bennett, Liz Adkins, Stephanie Wong, Tracy Meszaros.

Robert Hoge and Kate Eltham run Clarion South, the Antipodes’ answer to Clarion East and West. Based in Brisbane, Australia, Eltham and Hoge have quickly established their own signature brand of the classic six-week workshop. It has become an invaluable opportunity for emerging Australian science fiction and fantasy writers to achieve significant creative and professional growth. Recently, Tor.com interviewed the two about Clarion South, the latest iteration of which ended just a few weeks ago. Instructors were: Sean Williams (two weeks), Margo Lanagan, Jack Dann, Trent Jamieson, and Jeff VanderMeer.

Relevant links:
Clarion South website
Clarion South fund drive to offset unexpected costs
Student Aidan Doyle’s What I Learned at Clarion
Instructor Jeff VanderMeer’s posts on Clarion South and Australian fiction, both at Omnivoracious (parts one, two, and three) and his own blog (a teacher’s view, including links to student journals).

Why did you start Clarion South?
We started Clarion South because we recognised what an amazing opportunity it is for emerging speculative fiction writers. But as with many things, Aussie writers suffered from the tyranny of distance. At the time (and now) the currency exchange rate was abysmal and the cost of international flights meant an Australian would be paying close to $10,000 to attend one of the US-based Clarions. We wanted this opportunity to be available to Australian writers so we decided to create our own version. Before we started Clarion South, only three Aussie writers had attended the workshop. In our first year (2004), we increased that number to 20. And it’s really pleasing that in 2005, 2007 and 2009 we’ve had applicants from overseas attend the workshop as well.

How much contact do you have with the other Clarions?
When we were first setting up the workshop we had a lot of information and support from the staff at Clarion (Michigan). Since then we’ve had casual contact with the other Clarions, particularly board members of the Clarion Foundation, such as Kelly Link. We also had some great conversations with Leslie Howle of Clarion West recently at the World Fantasy Convention in Calgary. It has been really useful to swap stories and probe into the way the other Clarions run the workshops. We should probably do it in a more regular formal way, such as a mailing list, but we get so busy it tends to slip by us, as we’re sure is the same for the administrators of the US Clarions. We do know that if we need to ask them a question we have only to email.

How different is your approach from the other Clarions?
That’s a tough question to answer. The format and structure of Clarion South appears to be the same as the US Clarions. We were committed to that from the beginning. Early on, many would-be applicants found the six-week time commitment difficult and suggested we run a two- or four-week version. But we felt if we were going to call it a Clarion it was important to honour the format that had been so successful for the past three decades and that has certainly paid off.

We’ve borrowed a bit from each of the other Clarions over the years but we’ve also made our own decisions along the way about what was best for our own workshop. We probably started out with a bit more of a formalised structure and documented procedures—guidelines, information packs—because we created the workshop from the ground up, rather than having it evolve over decades.

Now that you’ve done it a few times, do you have any sense of Clarion’s impact on the Australian genre scene?

We think it’s been pretty significant—certainly significant enough that authors are keen to invest the time and money to come to Clarion South and improve their skills. Clarion South graduates have performed very well—short story publications, novels, award nominations and wins. For example, the recent HarperCollins anthology Dreaming Again edited by Jack Dann featured eight of our graduates. But many of the applicants are good writers when they come to the workshop; good writers who need to polish their craft in a professional setting and talk to successful authors and editors about writing and industry issues.

What’s the toughest part of running Clarion?
There are a few really tough elements—choosing participants can often be difficult. Clearly writers are serious enough about the workshop to pay their application fee and submit their work. It matters to them and you get to the point where you have to choose whether applicant A, B or C gets the final place in the workshop. It’s not a trivial decision and not one we take lightly. Sometimes you have to play referee in domestic disputes with participants, which can be tough. But thankfully that’s rare. And the four convenors run the workshop on a volunteer basis while juggling day jobs, so the logistics of having one of us in the room every day for six weeks, organising weekly meetings with the students, taking tutors out to dinner for a weekly de-brief and organising readings and other events can be a logistical challenge sometimes. Also, because we’re volunteers the ongoing workload of fundraising and administration gets pretty tiring at times.

What’s the most fun in running Clarion?
The students and the tutors. In that order. It’s tremendously satisfying watching 17 dedicated people turn up on a hot summer day in Brisbane and say they’re ready to commit to six weeks of writing, reading and critiquing. The journey some students take over those six weeks is quite profound in some cases. You can see people’s heads ticking over; see the supportive relationships they build with each other and with the tutors. Some students make quantum leaps in their writing craft and that’s both exciting and gratifying to witness. We feel a bit like proud parents by the end of the workshop.

And it’s great to be able to hang out—for just a little bit—with the wonderful authors and editors we’ve had at Clarion South. It’s amazing how much you can learn just by sitting in the critique room, listening, or talking to them over dinner. It’s also fun—and very very hard!—deciding on the order and balance of tutors. We debate that at length to ensure we create a cohesive, effective learning environment for the students. It’s incredibly fun watching that roll out as the workshop progresses from week to week, knowing that you’ve picked the perfect author or editor to take the students to the next stage of their workshop journey or to help them transition back to daily life after it’s all over.

What further plans do you have for the future, with regard to Clarion South?
Our current plans focus on putting the workshop on a more sound financial footing. We’re looking forward to hiring our first graduate as a tutor. We’d also love to be able to work with the other Clarions to exchange tutors every few years. Few Australian authors are selected to teach at US Clarions, most likely because of the prohibitive costs of international airfares. We’d like to explore an exchange program that sees more Aussie writers teach overseas. Finally, we’re keen to encourage more international students at the workshop. Over the years we’ve found that diversity among the students really strengthens their overall experience of the workshop. Luckily the exchange rate works in our favour there and we hope more emerging writers based in the US, Europe and Asia consider Clarion South an opportunity for professional development.

Thanks to Jeff VanderMeer for help with this post.

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