What was your highlight from AussieCon 4 and why?
The highlight for me, as always, was catching up with all my old writer friends and making new ones. Good friends of mine who were at Aussiecon 4 include Kim Wilkins, Alison Croggon, Fiona McIntosh, Ian Irvine, Richard Harland, Marianne de Pierres, Garth Nix, and Glenda Larke, among many more, and the writers I met for the first time include D.M. Cornish, Joel Shepherd, and the American mega-star Kate Elliott.
Another highlight was when D.M. Cornish said, about me, Alison Croggon and himself, ‘we’re not trying to offer an escape from normal life; we’re trying to transcend it.’ So true and so beautifully expressed!
On your website, you have quoted Albert Einstein in support of fantasy in children’s fiction: “When I examine myself and my methods of thought, I come to the conclusion that the gift of fantasy has meant more to me than any talent for abstract, positive thinking.”What attracted you to writing fantasy novels, as opposed to other kinds of novels?
Who knows? Perhaps it is because my father was a scientist and my mother studied anthropology, with a particular interest in magic and symbolism, and so we had the most fascinating dinner time conversations when I was growing up. Perhaps it’s because I spent a great deal of time in hospital as a child, longing for escape and adventure. Perhaps it’s because I was brought up on the tales of my Scottish grandmother, a tradition rich in curses, changelings and magical otherworlds. Who knows the forces that shape us? I can tell you, though, that I’ve always loved books that draw upon history, mythology and folklore and these were always the kind of stories I wrote as a child.
You have discussed your childhood love of Enid Blyton’s stories and the Blyton-bashing of a range of contemporary literary critics in accordance with the sociopolitical bandwagons they’ve gotten on, as well as the appeal of the absence of parental authority for the child characters in Blyton’s fiction. Has the fiction of Enid Blyton and your other childhood favourites been a lasting source of inspiration for your own fiction?
Absolutely! I was a voracious reader as a child, sometimes reading several books in a day. Enid Blyton was one of my absolute favourites and I still find her a fascinating woman and writer. Did you know she was writing about 30 books a year at her peak? Many of these were her best work too, books filled with a joyous sense of adventure and endless possibilities. The Magic Wishing Chair and the Magic Faraway Tree are absolute classics, while I also loved the Famous Five adventures too. Other writers who I loved as a child include C.S. Lewis, J.R.R Tolkien, Susan Cooper, Joan Aiken, Elisabeth Goudge, Nicholas Stuart Grey, Lloyd Alexander, Edith Nesbit, and Ursula le Guin. You’ll notice they all write fantasy!
Could you give us an overview of the process you went through writing one of your novels?
Well, each novel grows in different ways. Some are written quickly, in white-hot intensity, others grow very slowly and can take years in the making. Usually I find you need three major ideas that have some kind of electrical charge when you put them together. For example, the first idea for The Puzzle Ring came when I read an article about the making of the first puzzle ring in a jewellery catalogue. The first puzzle ring was made, the story goes, at the wish of an Arabian king who was madly jealous of his young and beautiful wife. He wanted a wedding ring that would show if she ever took it off her finger. The court jeweller, after much tearing of hair, devised a diabolical ring that locked together into an intricate shape that would stay in one piece on the finger but fall apart into four loops if taken off. Only those that know the secret could put the ring back together again. I’ve always been fascinated by secret codes, riddles and puzzles and so was at once attracted to the idea. It would make an interesting thematic structure for a quest tale, I thought – a puzzle ring that had been broken and the four loops lost. I could write a story about someone who sets out on a quest to find the broken puzzle ring and fix it. But who would set out on such a quest and why? I wondered about this for a while, without ever really concentrating too much energy on it, until one day in an old, cobwebby second-hand bookshop I found an old book called The Book of Curses. I was at once intrigued by the title and picked the book up and opened it. The book fell open at a chapter entitled ‘The Brahan Seer and the Seaforth Doom’ which tells the story of Kenneth the Enchanter and the curse he cast on the Mackenzies of Seaforth in 1663, and how the curse at last came to pass:
“He said: ‘I see into the far future, and I read the doom of the race of my oppressor. The long-descended line of Seaforth will, ere many generations have passed, end in extinction and sorrow. I see a chief, the last of his house, both deaf and dumb. He will be the father of four fair sons, all of whom he will follow to the tomb. He will live careworn, and die mourning, knowing that the honours of his line are to be extinguished forever, that no future chief of the Mackenzies shall bear rule at Brahan or in Kintail.
After lamenting over the last and most promising of his sons, he himself shall sink into the grave, and the remnant of his possessions shall be inherited by a white-coifed lass from the East, and she is to kill her sister. And as a sign by which it may be known that these things are coming to pass, there shall be four great lairds in the days of the last Seaforth, the deaf and dumb chief. One shall be buck-toothed, another hare-lipped, another half-witted, and the fourth a stammerer. Chiefs like these shall be the neighbours of the last of the Seaforths; and when he looks around him and sees them, he may know that his sons are doomed to death, that his broad lands shall pass away to the stranger, and that his race shall come to an end.’”
Almost a hundred years later, Francis Humberton Mackenzie was born. He lost his hearing and powers of speech in 1766, due to scarlet fever, and succeeded as chief in 1783. His four sons predeceased him. Gambling losses and the failure of his West Indian investments then forced the sale of Kintail, the cradle of the Seaforth race. The “white-coifed lass” (a girl in widow’s weeds) was his eldest daughter, who returned from the East Indies fresh from the funeral of her husband, Admiral Sir Samuel Hood (a “coif” is a hood), to receive the remnants of her inheritance. A few years later, while driving her sister in a pony carriage, she lost control. Her sister died in the crash.
I read this story sitting on a stool in that dusty old second-hand book store, and was utterly captivated. My grandmother’s grandmother was a Mackenzie and I’d been brought up on many old tales of the Highlands so this story fired my imagination at once. I thought, ‘what would it be like growing up knowing that you were cursed? What would it have been like to be one of those four fair sons, destined to die young, or one of the daughters, fated to kill her sister. Wouldn’t you try and find some way to break the curse?’
At once it seemed to me a good explanation for why someone would set out to find a broken puzzle ring i.e. in order to break an ancient curse upon their family. I bought The Book of Curses and took it home, and began work straightaway on The Puzzle Ring. I decided the book had to be set in Scotland, and that it would involve a trip back in time. I then spent a long time reading up on Scottish history, searching for my historical period. I had always been fascinated by Mary, Queen of Scots, and so I began to read some biographies on her. Gradually my focus narrowed down to 1567, the year Mary lost her throne. I can still remember the surge of excitement I felt when I read that Mary had given her second husband, Lord Henry Darnley, the gift of a ring on the night he was murdered. What if that ring had been part of the lost puzzle ring? I could put my heroine right on the spot, witnessing the giving of the ring and later escaping the explosion that destroyed his house at Kirk o’ Field. Those serendipitous discoveries are what make writing a book such an exciting adventure.
What is one of your favourite novels released in the past year and what makes it stand out for you?
I’ll give you my favourites according to genre – I read far too many books to pick only one!
Dark Angels by Katherine Langrish. I was absolutely swept away by this book, which is a children’s historical adventure setting in medieval Wales. It tells the story of Wolf, who runs away from a cruel monk in a monastery and encounters a strange, mute elf-child, and a pack of hunting dogs owned by the local lord of the castle. The lord takes Wolf and the elf-child in, and his daughter Nest help him care for her and try to teach her how to speak. Then, one day, a passing jongleur comes by who ends up being far more than he seems … A beautifully written, atmospheric tale that draws upon folklore and history, Dark Angels is my favourite children’s book of the year so far.
Young Adult fiction:
The Poison Throne by Celine Kiernan. This is the first book in an utterly gorgeous YA fantasy series by Irish writer Celine Kiernan. Although the action takes place only over a few days and within the halls and dungeons and gardens of the castle, it is a compelling narrative, driven by the emotional intensity of the relationships between the characters. There is murder, intrigue, mystery, romance and a touch of horror, all written with a sure, deft touch.
Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett. This book was not published this year but I’ve only just read it and absolutely loved it. A tale of love, revenge, passion and war in medieval times, it tells the story of the building of a cathedral, and the intertwined lives of the people who dream of its magnificent completion, and those who plot to tear it down. You wouldn’t think such a storyline would make for such compelling reading but I literally could not put the book down, reading when I should have been sleeping, or working, or living a normal life. Utterly engrossing, all 1,076 pages of it!
The Sweetness At the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley. A murder mystery set in a small English village in the 1950s, it stars the utterly delightful (if rather dangerous) 11 year old girl-turned-detective, Flavia de Luce. The puzzle is wonderfully puzzling, the characters sufficiently eccentric and the asides about poisons and famous murders funny and fascinating. A wonderful read.
If you could go on your ideal 2-day fiction writing workshop next weekend, what would that involve?
I’d go on a writing retreat at Lake Como in Italy run by my favourite writers Tracey Chevalier, Sarah Dunant, and Joanne Harris, and involving much drinking of prosecco, eating of delicious Italian food, and talking about books and writing. Heaven!
You have written a number of fantasy series. What is the key to creating a story, fictional world or characters which can sustain a series of novels effectively?
Reading a good book is like stepping inside another world and living there for a while. You have to make the world and the people in it seem more real than reality. The reader has to like it there, they have to want to come back and hopefully never want to leave. This means creating ‘a vivid and continuous dream’, as John Gardner said. I try to enchant and surprise; most of all, I want to evoke emotion, ranging from fear to anger to joy.
What is the most important piece of advice you would like to give for new fiction writers?
Write the kind of book you like to read.
What is next for your fiction writing?
I am working on a historical novel that retells the original Rapunzel fairytale. The frame story is set in 17th century France, and tells the life of Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de la Force, who wrote one of the earliest known versions of the tale, Persinette. The main part of the novel is set in 16th century Italy, and tells the story of a girl who was sold by her parents for a handful of parsley and what becomes of her. It is a story of passion, revenge, love and redemption, and I am utterly obsessed by it!
The Australian Literature Review