Your second children’s novel, The Rumpelgeist, the sequel to The Whisperer, will be released next month. What can readers look forward to in The Rumpelgeist?
I think the single reason I have written a sequel to this novel is because of the mail I received from so many youngsters requesting ‘another story like this one’. And that’s about the highest reward any author could receive from their readers in any genre or any age group. And then of course The Whisperer was shortlisted for the 2010 Children’s Book Council Awards so it seemed that the elements I brought together in that first novel for children hit the right note for the middle readers I was aiming at. The Whisperer was, from its outset, a wild adventure. It was high fantasy with children making tough decisions supported by a host of colourful adult characters. There was quite a bit of knockabout fun, plenty of magic, lots of emotion and high stakes. The Rumpelgeist follows that formula and reunites most of the favourite characters but I’ve set the story nearly two decades on from the original so that the landscape feels fresh and we have a new generation of lead characters in Ellin, Flynn and Lex. Drestonia is in trouble again, this time from the threat of a mysterious ghost rattler but far more sinister is the disappearance of a number of the realm’s children, which it is soon discovered is the ugly work of the Witch Grevilya … the same sorceress who had stolen the looks of favourite characters, Bitter Olof and Calico Grace in The Whisperer. But only the children have the magical ability to give the realm a chance to save itself from her vicious spell-casting and new found desire to snatch the Crown from King Lute.
Do you personally find it easier, more difficult or about the same to write a novel for children as opposed to writing a novel for adults, and why?
I find it slightly more difficult, I think. Not in the writing though. The actual crafting of the story feels no different no matter which age group or genre I’m writing in as I’m drawing on the same set of skills. However, children’s editors can be a little more intense about how a story unfolds and ensuring the characters are appropriate. For instance, I remember having a lengthy email discussion with one editor about Calico Grace smoking a pipe. The editor wasn’t keen because obviously it wasn’t politically correct to have a character smoking in a children’s book. But I disagreed – part of Calico Grace’s comedy is her pipe smoking and it seems to endear her to the younger readers rather than modelling a bad habit for them. And that’s just one hurdle we had to jump together. Children’s editors want fantasy books to be slightly scary too but when you bring in someone like me to write for children, the danger is that it’s too scary, which I’m hyper-aware of and work hard to avoid, substituting scary and violent for tension and suspense. So it’s always a bit of a balance with writing for children in finding the right path that won’t upset parents but most importantly, doesn’t patronise the young readers. All of that said, I would stop writing for middle readers if I wasn’t allowed to have a lot of the hallmarks of my adult fantasy in the tales. I just pull back on the violence as I’ve said and anywhere where there may be adult themes but that doesn’t mean there’s not romance, dire threat, mystery and magic. Everyone – children or elder – just want a great story to get lost in. That’s what I try and deliver whatever I’m writing but I have found I spend a lot more time in the editorial proofing and massaging on a children’s novel.
Do you foresee yourself writing more children’s novels in the future?
Yes but perhaps not in the immediate future. I have a queue of novels – all adult – in historical adventure-romance and in adult magic realism, so I’m not sure where in the next couple of years to fit another children’s novel but I do think Drestonia has at least one more tale to give us that includes the beloved magical characters of the previous two books – especially Davren the Centaur King and the fabulous ship, Silver Wind.
Your latest adult novel is The Lavender Keeper, set in WW2 France, and you have described on your author website how you researched what it was like to live in Paris under German occupation in order to tell your story with authenticity. What stands out as some of the highlights of this research for you?
What stands out the most is how much I personally learned in my quest to discover enough background detail to set up the ‘landscape’ of WW2 in the story. I spent time in Britain, France, Austria and Poland for this story that arcs over two books. I have a whole new attitude toward the French especially and how it must have been to live under Nazi occupation and I have a great sorrow that will probably travel with me now for keeps for all countries that were occupied and punished so badly. Obviously the most traumatic aspect of my research focused around the Jewish people. This is not a story of the Holocaust so I was extremely mindful of not allowing too much of what I learned about that aspect to creep into the novel, nevertheless, I had to learn about it to understand what to use and how to weave some relevant information into the background. The Shoah Museum in Paris, the Imperial War Museum in London, and of course my trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau were exceptionally emotional and painful experiences that I will never forget. I think the fun part was learning about lavender and the maquis resisters, which gave me a wonderful fortnight in Provence and I recall enjoying every moment of my research into the spy training that new recruits underwent before being parachuted into France and being expected to get on with it. The training was just under eight weeks from learning how to kill with a penknife to how to survive in the mountains with nothing but that penknife, to how to jump out of a plane in the dead of night and not break anything on landing! Amazing stuff. Walking the streets of Paris and learning about which hotels and buildings were important to the Nazis, and why, was intriguing, as was going to cities like Strasbourg and Lyon – that I might perhaps never have visited, if not for this pair of novels. I read a tower of books, watched an array of documentaries and covered a mass of overseas geography and don’t regret a second of it. In fact I feel so motivated by the research that I am certain I will write more novels based in this era as a result. So all in all I guess I’ve learned that I love the early 1940s as an author playground.
You have said that your inspiration for The Lavender Keeper came from Bridestowe Lavender Farm in north east Tasmania. Could you describe how the initial idea came about from a Tasmanian lavender farm and developed into a wartime novel set in France?
I had been surfing sightseeing opportunities for my 80+ parents to visit when they holidayed in Tasmania with us. I stumbled across Bridestowe Lavender Farm (pronounced Brid-ess-stow) and thought that would be a tour my mother would really enjoy. And so I began reading more about the lavender farm and discovered its fascinating history that revolved around the Denny family that brought true wild lavender from the mountains of Provence pre the world wars. The wars ravaged stocks, as did greedy growers and the pressure from perfumers, as well as the equally greedy hybrids that were planted for high production but ended up choking the true French wild lavender – lavandula angustifolia – and chased it back up the mountains to almost negligible quantities. But the Denny family had these very seeds and planted them in Launceston where the lavender flourished and these days the current ‘caretakers’ as they call themselves – Robert and Jennifer Ravens – are exporting the exquisite essential oil of true French wild lavender back to the French! It is worth more than gold and is in huge demand from the US, Japan and France. Anyway, so I’d read this marvellous background and wondered why no one had written a hugely romantic story about it. At the same time as I was thinking this, I was on my way to France for the Paris Book Fair and aware that I was arriving into the country when all the massive 70th anniversary commemorative celebrations were being held for the Liberation of Paris in 1944, Charles de Gaulle, etc. And as fate would have it, my publisher was wondering what I might like to write for Penguin next. On the flight to Paris I decided it would be fun to write a WW2 story where a lavender grower in Provence chooses not to capitulate to the Nazi occupiers but to join the southern resistance, known as the Maquis, and how his life is turned upside down as a result, but that he promises himself that one day he will plant his lavender again in peacetime….and of course he does just that but on the other side of the world in Australia. Mind you, as I was crafting the story I was enjoying all the characters being in Europe so much that I didn’t want it to end too soon so we decided to do a wartime novel in Britain and France and then a sequel set in peacetime.
The sequel to The Lavender Keeper is due out next year. What can readers look forward to in that book?
In essence, a hunt, and anyone who has read book one might already guess who the hunt is for . But the sequel focuses around four characters, each in their own way damaged through war, whom fate brings together. We learn what happened to Luc’s family and the story will reunite readers with Luc and Lisette in the late 1940s as they try and build a new family together in peacetime. The story begins in Britain, takes readers to Australia and ultimately will return them to Provence where it all began. There are all the usual hallmarks of my writings – adventure, action, death, tension and romance. I loved writing it as I wasn’t ready to let go of that tale, or its characters, when the war ended and so did book one. It’s published March 2013.
The Rumpelgeist is a fantasy novel and The Lavender Keeper is a realistic historical novel. How would you describe one of the biggest similarities or differences in the way you approach writing these different types of novels?
I think I have finally embraced that aspect of my personality that marks me out as a control freak. And perhaps my approach to the professional workload of my writing best demonstrates this sometimes enviable, often flawed trait, because I set out on the journey for each book in identical fashion with one major tool – no matter which genre, no matter which age demographic it might best suit, no matter which publisher I’m producing it for – and that’s the word count document that I live my writing life by. The word count doc is where every story begins for me and also where it ends; it is the glue that holds the writing journey together for me, keeps me focused and above all, motivates me. I am a gun-slinging sort of writer – with only a hairline thread of an idea usually. I’m essentially making it all up as I go along and this organic style tends to make the writing and the story itself unpredictable. But the word count keeps me disciplined and where the control aspect comes into play because I know precisely where I am every hour on the manuscript….sometimes every five minutes! Sad but true. And so I use the word count discipline for every novel….wouldn’t set out on the writing journey without it.
What is one of your favourite novels you have read in the past year and what made it stand out for you as a reader?
My problem these days, I’m afraid, is that I’m not reading many novels. This year I’ll publish three novels, so I’m reading mainly research books all year, but I have to say that they are every bit as absorbing and enjoyable. My most recent was called Tower: An Epic History of the Tower of London by Nigel Jones, and it read like a novel. I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough! Not only was I compelled to read, loving every bloodthirsty moment of it, but I felt newly educated at its finish. I must be at that age where I am loving the notion of learning new things, new information. Why else would I be knitting for heaven’s sake or suddenly baking furiously? Why have I taken up jogging down hills so late in life, if not to challenge myself? They all look easy until you come to tackle them. Reading history is as much a new hobby for me as it is part of my everyday work now, but every bit as fun as reading a latest favourite writer such as John Connolly, whose latest novel I bought and gobbled up as soon as it hit Dymocks bookshelves. By the same token I re-bought Enigma and The Ghost Writer for my Kindle because I felt like reading some Thomas Harris again while I was busy overseas researching my latest adult fantasy. And they didn’t disappoint in their quiet, tense ways. Sadly I’m not devouring the amount of novels I used to and I’m having to be exceptionally picky about what I do read when I give myself the time to get lost in a story. Oh there you are, I’ve just remembered and will admit to re-reading Game of Thrones by George RR Martin this year because, other than the Farseer Trilogy by Robin Hobb, I’m not sure there is a more rounded, more action packed adult fantasy series that crowds more brilliant characters or ideas, or brings to life an imaginary yet entirely credible landscape better than Song of Ice and Fire. Few other authors in the genre deliver such brilliant surprises or characters. And it feels fresh to read all over again and in spite of the magnificent television series it spawned that I have recently enjoyed and now gasping over the third series.
Your latest fantasy novel for adults, The Scrivener’s Tale, due out in October, is a standalone novel rather than your usual approach of doing fantasy trilogies. Why did you choose a standalone fantasy novel this time and what can readers look forward to in The Scrivener’s Tale?
I’ve always wanted to write a complete story in one book for the readers who’ve been loyal over the last decade and patiently waited for each of my three volumes to come out on the four big fantasy series I’ve written. The schedule of release of books and their regularity is not my decision of course – publishing traditionally presents fantasy in the favoured trilogy format and usually over three years for established authors. Nevertheless, I was very keen to give a standalone tale a go. It’s not nearly as straightforward as it felt when I set out, however. After years of writing epic tales over three big volumes, about three quarters of the way through I felt overwhelmed with how much story I had left in these characters and their trials. In fact I did something I normally would never do, which is to backtrack and reconsider where the story was going – I had to be sure I would deliver a conclusion within one book. As it turned out I loved writing to one volume and fortunately I’d begun to get some practice through the single volume fantasies for children and the more recently adventure style romance I’ve been writing such as The Lavender Keeper or Fields of Gold. That was excellent training for The Scrivener’s Tale, which could so easily have expanded and introduced more storylines and characters that would have happily journeyed it across three volumes. But it was rewarding to wrestle this story under one title give readers a whole story in one book. What can readers look forward to? Well, we’re back into the land of the The Quickening and particularly the magic that was originally in Myrren’s Gift. This time, though, it’s warped and twisted to suit a particular character’s desire and where the randomness that was Myrren’s magic is now under one person’s control. It was always a sinister magic but now it’s plain evil. I’ve also combined a contemporary world with a more ancient one, which was fun because we set off the tale in today’s Paris. I’ve never set a fantasy story in a real place previously so this was a challenge but one I thoroughly enjoyed and would do it again in a blink. The story will take readers back into Morgravia to the capital of Pearlis many decades on from when they were last there. A new sovereign, new problems, and new magics raising themselves.
My heartfelt hope is that fantasy readers who enjoyed The Quickening will love this one.
You can read more about Fiona McIntosh and her fiction at www.fionamcintosh.com.