Hillary: What is the most magical/terrifying place you’ve visited?
Lee: I’ve been lucky enough to have lived in New Zealand, England, France, and the United States, and I’ve done a lot of travelling, so I’ve had the opportunity to visit some absolutely wonderful sites, both magical and terrifying. A few favourites…
New Zealand’s Lake Tarawera, which is just 50-minutes’ drive from my home, is a site renown for the appearance of a waka-canoe paddled by a group of ghostly dog soldiers, so I think that qualifies as terrifying. It’s the context for my Taine McKenna novelette “Into the Clouded Sky”, which appears in my Bram Stoker Award®-winning collection, Grotesque: Monster Stories. As I explain in the book’s “Afterword,” the story is largely creative non-fiction, the information [about the lake’s haunting] drawn from actual reports by the characters themselves—specifically Dunedin businessman, George Sise, and his wife, Louise—who witnessed, firstly an unexplained seiche, and then a ghost canoe manned by dog-headed warriors, during their guided boat tour to the celebrated Pink and White Terraces in 1886. You have to admit, eye-witness reports of ghost canoes make for great story fodder. Add to that the volcanic geothermal nature of the Rotorua region, its blue-deep lakes, and bush-clad mountains, not to mention the missing eighth wonder of the world, and you have all the ingredients for a Taine McKenna action-adventure story. Sometimes, it’s that easy: with stories scattered across the New Zealand landscape like shells on the beach, I need only pick one up and wash it off to reveal its shape and colour.
Mount Luxmore in New Zealand’s Fiordland is another terrifying place, especially for someone like me who is terrified of heights. I once ran an ultra-marathon over this mountain, which resembles the landscapes of Mordor in Jackson’s LotR’s series of films. With narrow tracks bordered by shale, soaring cliffs, and sudden drop-offs, a misstep could send you plummeting to your death. Not for the faint-hearted. Typically, views of the alps from the mountainside trails are absolutely magnificent, but on the day that I ran the event, the clouds had gathered near the mountaintop, so I got little more than the occasional glimpse, which is probably just as well as I’m likely to have freaked out.
When I was first married, in the early 90s, my husband and I lived in Paris, France, and we spent our weekends doing various road trips exploring that fabulous country. One place that sticks in my mind from that era, and which I have yet to write about, is Étretat in the Seine-Maritime region, with its windswept chalk cliffs rising 90 metres off the beach, and the famous rock arches. The town itself is tiny; on the occasion that we visited, we stayed in the iconic Tudor building at its centre. The first thing we did when we arrived was climb the hills to admire those stunning cliffs. There was something terrifying and also magical about standing at the summit looking out to sea. It was humbling too, reminding me that nothing man-made compares to the diversity and opulence of landscapes created by Nature.
That said, there is one magical man-made place that I have visited, that I’ll mention here, and that is the beautiful Library of Celsus, Ephesus, Turkey. Much of the building and its contents were destroyed due to earthquake, fire, and war, but enough remains (and has been restored) to give visitors an idea of the magnificence of the building and the centre of knowledge and learning that it represented, and still represents to this day. What stories did it hold in those twelve thousand lost scrolls? The thought of those stories and the people who wrote them is a source of magic for me, making the library one of the highlights of my travels.
Hillary: How does place generally fit into your writing?
Lee: Despite living and travelling abroad, I consider myself a Kiwi writer first and foremost, so the majority of my fiction is set here in in Aotearoa-New Zealand. Landscape is integral to my work. And why not? With our mountains, fiords, geysers, glaciers, and beaches, when it comes to storytelling, there is simply so much to mine here. Add to that the constant threat of earthquakes (New Zealand is affectionately called the Shaky Isles, after all) and the widespread volcanic activity, and you have the backdrop for the perfect thriller. My Taine McKenna action-horror series (Into the Mist, Into the Sounds, & Into the Ashes), set in the Urewera, Fiordland, and Central Plateau regions of New Zealand respectively, takes advantage of this, with each book in the series drawing heavily on the geological and other natural features of those areas, including their mythological underpinnings.
It’s important to note that here in New Zealand the land has its own power, and our mythology, which is intimately linked to our landscape, is a living breathing thing. For example, about the time I was writing the first novel, Into the Mist, New Zealand’s Te Urewera Act was passed, making the land, once a national park, a legal entity with “all the rights, powers, duties and liabilities of a legal person.” Sometimes the landscape will pay such a powerful role in a story that readers will insist it has become a character in its own right, but in New Zealand we’ve enacted that idea into law. Our landscape has its own identity. So the task of incorporating landscape into my stories was made easier by our ideological tendency to treat these entities with respect and reverence in our daily lives.
Hillary: What is one place that is top of your to-go list and why?
Lee: One place I’d love to visit is the famous Marching Bear Group of effigy mounds in Iowa, which was the inspiration for my story “Daughters of the Bear” in Shadow Atlas: Dark Landscapes of the Americas. I’ve written about effigy mounds before, drawing on the magical nature of these intriguing man-made structures in my middle grade novel Battle of the Birds. In that story, I incorporated a specific eagle effigy mound, located in Madison, Wisconsin, as a time portal between America and New Zealand—a way of writing myself home at a time when I was feeling particularly homesick…
Dotted all over the American mid-west, effigy mounds depict animals such as serpents, bears, and eagles, but their true purpose remains a bit of an enigma. And, of course, they are as beautiful as they are mysterious. The whimsical, almost-sacred nature of this Marching Bear group of effigy mounds, comprising a procession of several bears (and an adjacent snake mound) marching along a mountain ridge was too delicious not to explore. I only hope I’ve done it justice.
Lee Murray is a multi-award-winning writer from Aotearoa-New Zealand (12-times Sir Julius Vogel, three-times Australian Shadows). A double Bram Stoker Award®-winner, her work includes the Taine McKenna Adventures, The Path of Ra series (with Dan Rabarts), and fiction collection, Grotesque: Monster Stories. The editor of eighteen anthologies, including Shirley Jackson Award-winner Black Cranes (with Geneve Flynn), she is co-founder of Young NZ Writers and of the Wright-Murray Residency for Speculative Fiction Writers, HWA Mentor of the Year 2019, NZSA Honorary Literary Fellow, and Grimshaw Sargeson Fellow for 2021. Lee’s debut poetry collection, Tortured Willows, is forthcoming from Yuriko Publishing. Read more https://www.leemurray.info/