Alexander Stronach’s first novel The Dawnhounds won the country’s top prize for science fiction and fantasy writing. Then it landed him a very big book deal. This is his story.
This essay mentions a suicide attempt; proceed with care.
About six months ago, my dreams came true. That phrase has been on my mind, dreams came true, like I walked out of the night and they came along with me, little wisps of colour clinging to my shoulders and shoes. It’s a funny phrase – like so many dreams, it’s got unexpected teeth.
I’ve lived pay cheque to pay cheque for almost my entire adult life; I woke up recently with more money in my bank account than I’ve ever seen. I still don’t understand. I have rarely been paid, much less paid well. How do taxes even work? I had to hire an accountant. She is lovely and I cannot understand a word she says. She dumbs it down for me and I still don’t understand. I smile though, and I think I might even mean it. The Spinoff asked me to put the moment in words and it took six months to get my head around. What did it feel like? Fuck mate, I dunno. Like breaking a mirror and putting it back together with your bare hands. You’ll slice your fingers to ribbons, but maybe, just maybe, you’ll put your reflection back together. I did both.
A few years ago I tried to kill myself, and when that didn’t work I wrote a book. They’re not connected unless you want them to be. One more unconnected event: on the night of the 2020 US election I got more drunk than I had in years, more drunk than I’d been the night the eight-eyed hillside came alive and swallowed me whole, and I woke up with an agent.
I was a Green Party intern during the 2017 election. I can’t say whether I was any good, but I felt useful. When Metiria got driven out, it sent me into a depressive spiral that I didn’t recover from for months, and that’s when the whole suicide thing happened. It wasn’t the reason, but it was the first event that culminated in it; things had been bad for a very long time and it didn’t take a lot to put me in a tailspin. The policeman who came to my house had a funny moustache. Think Magnum PI. In 2021 moustaches are back in and I’m wondering whether old mate might’ve been ahead of the curve, but in 2017 he looked like a time-traveller, a cartoon cop from the 1980s. I clung to the silliness. It made me want to laugh and laughter was better than the other thing. The Green Party election party was a few weeks after that, at Wellington bar San Fran. It was a bleak night for a lot of people. Somebody I didn’t recognise quietly took me aside and told me not to ask for work, because a lot of people were about to lose their jobs and it would be a bad look.
Unemployed and so sick with misery that I could barely function, I wrote a book. It was the only thing that made me feel good; it was the only thing I felt good for.
I’ve wanted to be a writer since as far back as I can remember. Mum was friends with Joy Cowley’s daughter Judy (who is lovely, and if she’s reading this: hi!) and we spent a summer at Joy’s place. She gave me a signed copy of Starbright & The Dream Eater and I knew what I wanted to do with my life. I didn’t really enjoy the book (it was too scary, too sad, too strange, a tribute to the frightening beauty of dreams) but I loved the thought of it.
I got my first publishing credit in 2010. The story’s about a kid from Nelson trying to convince himself that his mum is a mermaid who slipped back into the bay at night, because it’s a better alternative to acknowledging that she’s dead. Dreams with teeth, y’know?
The first dream to come true was the one with the spider. In 2015 I was flunking out of law school; after changes to student loans had dragged me home from Asia, where I’d had steady work as a teacher, I’d tried to reinvent myself and failed. I was on antidepressants, and I got very drunk at a party, and when those two things collided I went into a dissociative state and my body walked me home. I became convinced that the lights on the Wellington hills were the luminous eyes of a great spider ready to swallow me whole, and I welcomed it. I walked into its maw and found myself at home, reading an email from a friend of a friend I’d met at a party once, who wondered whether I could write a 1000 word story for the Esquire Malaysia Rocktober issue. Most of that night is a blur: I remember frenzied typing, floating above my body and knowing I was actually a coil of shadow who had tricked its way into the shape of a man; seeing a dozen dark figures standing around my bed, who I knew would kill me if they realised I could see them; getting up for a glass of water and finding my muscles so taut that walking was agony and I eventually collapsed on the kitchen floor. I only know about Rocktober because in the morning the email was still open, and in another tab I’d written a story about wizard-rockers fighting a demon army with kickass metal solos that literally melted faces, and I’d already sent it out to them. They loved it and it ran a few weeks later. I still wrote a story every week, as I had been doing since 2010, but I did not publish another for four years.
In 2017, having failed at being a teacher, having failed to become a lawyer, having failed out of politics and having failed to become the least-famous member of the 27 Club, I wrote a book.
Sort of. I’d written the first draft while living in rural Java in 2013. The neighbourhood uncles used to sit on the side of the road in plastic lawn chairs, chain smoking Sampoernas and telling filthy jokes. Decent blokes, I got them a carton of Marlboro Reds for Eid and they made sure nobody robbed my house. One of them brought out a wooden chair one time, they laughed at him and he protested, and within months the damp had ruined it and it fell apart into a thousand rotten fragments.
The day I was scheduled to leave the country, Mount Kelud blew its top and coated the entire region in a thick carpet of grey ash. I woke up and saw the world in monochrome, and I assumed it was just another nightmare and went back to sleep. Something in the ash made the mushrooms in the house go crazy, and overnight one punched its way up through the floor and through the bottom of my end-table, a pale little gift peeking up from inside the drawer. I think, anyway. Maybe it had grown slow and I was too depressed to notice – part of that particular sickness is how the world stops feeling real, how you see things and just let them slide. I’d written a terrible fantasy novel earlier that year, and in the weeks after the Kelud eruption, in my cramped new Kuala Lumpur bedroom that shared a wall with the elevator shaft, I sat back down and rewrote the first chapter, except now everything was mushrooms. The houses were mushrooms, the people were fungally-enhanced, the food wasn’t mushrooms because it seemed weird to eat the stuff you build walls out of. I didn’t expect it to go anywhere. That chapter is in the book that I wrote after I tried to kill myself. I threw the rest of the manuscript out.
In late 2017 I came back to the mushroom chapter. I had nothing else to do. Finding work seemed impossible. Hell, showering seemed impossible. Very few people knew how bad things were, of course, because I didn’t want to make a fuss. It would be nice to say the book grew quickly but like everything else it happened piece by piece, a pile of splinters organising themselves back into a chair.
After I finished, I read it back. I cried, and I knew this was it, this was the book I’d been trying to write for almost a decade, this was the song of my eternal golden poetic soul etc etc and then I spent the next year learning that it was crap and nobody wanted it. According to my spreadsheet it was rejected 35 times. One personalised rejection, two nearly-theres, everything else form-letters or silence. My mental health started to suffer, and that ruined my sleep, and that ruined my mental health. I recently read an old blog post from that time and couldn’t finish it, my misery is palpable, in the back of my mouth I taste ash.
I had a full-time job for the first time since I’d returned from Asia; I got so sick with stress that my body started to fail, my hair started falling out, my stomach refused to settle. Nobody at work ever spoke and I went fucking crazy. In that deathly silent open-plan office every audible gurgle of my awful stomach was another little humiliation. In my lunch breaks I’d send out queries to agents, and the few that replied barely replied at all. In September I gave up trying to sell it, and I got together with my mate Dave and we self-published it together. It was a modest success. It made back its printing budget. It got longlisted for an award. A writer whose work I admire said very nice things about it. It was the most successful I’d been at anything in my adult life. It’s a very comfortable level of success for the Kiwi ego: yeah nah, it’s alright aye. Not quitting my day job haha.
Then Covid happened. I was meant to be starting a new job and I somehow lost it without setting foot in the building. The book won the award it was up for, then the award got buried in controversy around how nobody was talking about the award – the convention’s failure to publicise the award ironically put it everywhere. I was desperate and broke and had nothing but time on my hands so I threw myself at marketing the book. That whole period felt dreamlike, a roiling scrap of Last Night that was never meant to see daylight. Dreams aren’t meant to be real; dream is memory that’s taught itself to dance.
On the night of the 2020 US election, it looked certain that Trump was going to win. I’d heard about the blue wave and I did not believe a word of it. I started drinking and did not stop; I wanted to erase the entire night from memory. Apparently, I went on Twitter in a blackout and yelled HEY I WANT AN AGENT and when I woke up there was a Democrat on the way to the White House and I had a half dozen DMs from real authors and agents, names I recognised, and one lovely Kiwi author had shoulder-tapped her agent about talking to me. Life is teaching me the wrong lessons about alcohol, but life is messy like that, it has no moral character, there’s no real structure, characters mill around for years being sad and doing nothing, then the guy gets blackout drunk and accidentally gets an agent by posting on fucking Twitter, the place words go to die? One star, nearly DNF’d at 27 years.
When Kelud blew, the ash stole all the world’s colour and I barely even noticed. It didn’t feel real, but nothing felt real – the world was a dream, all chaos and smoke, intangible, just another thing that barely survived the morning.
My agent told me to expect around $20,000 USD for the book. A life-changing amount of money. I could barely conceptualise it. We had a Zoom meeting with the editor who wanted to acquire the book. No lock-in yet, but a solid vibe. She was in New York, my agent was in Denver, I was in Wellington. The only time that worked for any of us was a bad time for all of us. Immediately after the meeting, I fell asleep. I woke up in the morning with an offer of $90,000 USD in my inbox – $125,000 NZD – half once the deal was finalised and half later. They want a trilogy, $30k American per book. When I saw the email I did not sleep for three days. I listened to the same one song on a loop for over 48 hours. Discreetly, in group chats and DMs with people I trust, I lost my entire goddamn mind. Parts of it are still out there somewhere, and I wish the wee bastards strong winds, clear skies, and dreams without spiders.
Since the deal could take months to finalise, I had to call MSD to figure out whether this sudden windfall meant getting cut off and having no way to make rent. “This has never happened before”, the woman said. Yeah mate, hard.
Which is to say, y’know, it’s been a weird couple of years.
What a fuckin understatement. I have no words, or I have about 2500 words but I don’t know what they mean. Life refuses to have any decent structure. How does it feel? It feels like trying to remember a dream the morning after, while it’s still clinging to your heels. Like putting your reflection back together in a broken mirror. It barely feels real, but what’s new? It feels like I need to put words around this great wordless thing, and when I try I choke on gratitude and I choke on everything else too, a thousand moments that felt like nothing until they meant everything. Ash, spiders, teeth, rain, chairs. It’s morning, and the dream is still dancing – a haze of bitter memory, sharp white teeth, and furious whirling colour.
Writing as Sascha Stronach, the author was in 2020 awarded the Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best Novel.
The Dawnhounds: Against the Quiet by Sascha Stronach is not available as an ebook until next year, when it will be released with Simon & Schuster. You may be able to find one of the self-published hard copies floating around; note that the forthcoming version has been extensively edited.