What was your highlight from AussieCon 4 and why?
Throwing sweets at the audience! Seriously, I’m not keen on that ‘them and us’ divide. I really like connecting with the audience and I will always do my utmost to interact with them so that it doesn’t turn into a panel of four published writers chatting. There are loads of other writers in the audience, who may not be published, but have plenty to offer. So I enjoyed breaking the ice very quickly by slinging those terrible tasting sweets at everyone, getting a few laughs and instantly forming a sense of fun between us. It made for an easy atmosphere in the room and I thought ours turned into a good panel on romance in fantasy with loads of great questions and audience interaction.
Who is one of your favourite fictional characters and what makes them stand out for you?
The Fool from Robin Hobb’s Farseer story is unforgettable. He/she was incredibly intriguing, mysterious and I found I was always looking forward to the Fool appearing, which means Hobb made me invest in that character from the very outset and then I was hooked for nine or 12 books as it turned out. And while the Fool was not the main character, I tend to consider he was the most magical in every sense of the word including how he affected me emotionally and was the most unattainable in a way because the reader sensed the Fool’s otherworldliness. I always felt safe for Fitz when the Fool was around too.
You have said that you don’t plan detailed outlines for your stories before you write them. How do you usually develop the initial concept or characters for a story to get you started with something to write spontaneously about?
Every publisher needs a synopsis of sorts to know what’s coming next. Mine are thin, that’s for sure and usually consist of a super vague outline of a couple of paragraphs that feels so fluid that Voyager probably knows not to trust it entirely. But I usually throw together three characters, make sure I know of some of the conflict between two of them and give a glimpse into the type of world and its magic. After that I’m gunslinging. Because I tend to rely on a setting that feels familiar from our own history, that makes it much easier for my editors to anchor themselves into my new world. I don’t do any development work. I know nothing about my characters and little about the story or where it’s headed. Perhaps that shows itself in the unpredictable nature of my tales but I struggle to plot or plan ahead. I have tried and failed miserably. So now I just go on instinct. It’s taken me through four successful trilogies that are selling worldwide, two children’s fantasies, a couple of crime thrillers and a couple of historical sagas. Based on that I know my curious approach works for me and is best not tampered with. And to answer your question on how I get going….I usually just imagine the character, who attracts me the strongest, in a situation within the world and leap straight in. So, for The Quickening, for instance, it felt natural and obvious to lead with a battle scene that quickly invests the reader into the life of the dying General Thirsk so that it leads us straight to Wyl and the trials ahead. And suddenly I was off. At the start all I could see in my mind’s eye was the torture scene of the Witch Myrren and the friction between Wyl Thirsk and Prince Celimus.
You have said that the key to fiction writing is cluing the reader up but also leaving them some responsibility to piece the story together themself. Could you discuss an example from one of your novels of how you have done this?
I just leave big gaps. I don’t tell the reader everything. I know if I give them one scene and then another, that they will build the bridge between them, I don’t have to lead them by the hand. I did it with great daring in Fields of Gold – a gap of many years that the readers easily skipped through because their subconscious and imagination did all the work for me. In terms of fantasy, I have Wyl Thirk as a youth, inheriting his status as a general and then the next time we meet him he’s an older, wiser but still a young man and I clue the reader just from a couple of conversations that he’s very much at odds with his Prince, whom he champions, but I don’t have to show any scenes from those intervening years. More recently in Valisar I allowed a decade to pass in my world between books in the series and the readers didn’t even blink – they filled in what had been going on from the clues I laid in the early part of the book – I think it was Tyrant’s Blood. In one of the crime thrillers, readers leapt from 1974 into present day and didn’t flinch. I want to get on with the story and I leave it to the reader to fill in the blanks, which they always seem to do with great verve and energy. I write in a similar way to how an impressionist paints. Up close, not much detail, just little clues. Stand back and let the viewer take the whole painting in and a wonderful scene emerges. That’s how I approach my writing….not much detail, lots of clues, hold back on the description, let the dialogue do all the hard work and let the reader’s imagination do the rest pulling together all of it to form the whole. I hope that makes sense!
You have said that the Valisar trilogy is about building a kingdom into an empire. What attracted you to writing this kind of story?
I like writing about power. It seems to emerge from all of my stories whether I’m writing about the power of a serial killer over his victims in a crime thriller to the seductive power of money perhaps in historical fiction. We discussed what makes a good epic fantasy with sovereigns and so on at Aussiecon and I reflected that writing about power was a mainstay in fantasy and why monarchs and realms made the best playgrounds. The next step up is empire of course. I’d dabbled a little with it at the conclusion of The Quickening and rather like this notion of ‘absolute power’ and answering to no one. Percheron which came next certainly reflected that – the Zar in my tale was answerable only to his god and some of the events that took place showed how power corrupts. It felt extremely natural to keep exploring the idea of empire in my fourth series but I chose to do this through the actions of one man, how he achieves empire and how it affects other people and ultimately him as the new emperor.
You have emphasised the importance of romance in fiction, as it is something that so many people can relate to. What is the key to incorporating romance into a story well, where the romance is not necessarily the central concern of the story?
Romance is rarely the central concern of my story but it is always at the core of my tales as a sense of balance, of hope, of taking us through to a new generation and perhaps the sense that the land we are leaving at the close of a story has a future. I think romance is a must to all fiction because it’s probably safe to say that virtually all readers are either in love or hoping for it, perhaps looking for it. Most of us can’t get through life without falling for someone, even if it’s unrequited, or a crush from a distance. So it’s illogical to think that the characters in an epic trilogy can move through that time and adventure in a vacuum devoid of relationships. Besides I would be bored stiff if my leads didn’t have some romance in their lives!
Magic can be used in a story to make anything possible. How do you think about the magic in your stories, and do you think about it in much the same way for the different novels you have written which include magic?
I like magic to be subtle. I rather like it to be sinister and not altogether explained. Again, so long as I clue the reader as to what this magic can achieve, I think they work very hard at designing it in their minds to suit the story they’re building. I don’t ponder magic for very long to be honest. It arrives or it doesn’t. I know some magic will occur in my fantasy stories so I just wait for its arrival, but I prefer it either to be part of the backdrop of the tale or showing itself as a character. While I do have people weaving magic in my stories, increasingly I like it as something that has a bit of a will of its own, something that won’t be entirely controlled, something that doesn’t necessarily have an explanation and that does have a darker quality to it. Magic is certainly not the first aspect I consider when I’m thinking about a new fantasy novel. In fact I don’t like to plan it very much – I know it will arrive when the story requires it. For instance the Blood Taster in Valisar is truly an evil sort. He just arrived in my story one day and I smiled with pleasure that such a cunning person could exist and I could have made a lot more of him, used him a lot more for plot purposes but I rather preferred him as a cameo piece and as I leave the story to shape itself, he just never fully grabbed the limelight and so he comes into and out of the tale, changing the course of the story with his appearances but never really being considered important by the people he tries so hard to impress. I thought he was a terrific character with a terrific magic and his obsequious nature only added to how much I loved to hate him.
What can you tell us about the children’s novel you have been writing recently?
I wrote The Whisperer so that I wouldn’t be the fantasy writer that was only known for being barbaric to her characters! I wanted something I could share with my grandchildren at bedtime. When it was shortlisted for the 2010 Children’s Book Council Awards, I was shocked and when the publishers came hunting for more of the same I realised that I probably did have a duty to write at least another good children’s book to follow on from The Whisperer for all those young readers and teachers, librarians and parents who have written to me to thank me for the tale. And so I’m now in the final five chapters or so of the sequel that will be published next August. It returns to Drestonia where the boy King we met in The Whisperer is now an older man with a child of his own, the tempestuous, Princess Royal, who is drawn unwittingly into a tense new adventure to save her father and their realm. It’s fun to write for middle readers – the characters can be very much larger than life and I’m giving readers more of Bitter Olof and Calico Grace, as well as Davren and Pilo, while adding some fresh new faces to the big cast. I’m having fun!
The Australian Literature Review