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An hour-long conversation New York Times bestselling novelist Garth Nix, author of the Old Kingdom series, the Keys to the Kingdom series, Frogkisser, and many others: his books have sold more than six million copies around the world and been translated into 42 languages.
New York Times bestselling novelist Garth Nix has been a full-time writer since 2001, but has also worked as a literary agent, marketing consultant, book editor, book publicist, book sales representative, and bookseller, and as a part-time soldier in the Australian Army Reserve. He has written numerous books, including the Old Kingdom series, beginning with Sabriel, the Keys to the Kingdom series, Frogkisser, and many others. He also writes short fiction, with more than 60 stories published in anthologies and magazines. More than six million copies of his books have been sold around the world, and his work has been translated into 42 languages.
The (Lightly Edited) Transcript
Welcome to The Worldshapers, Garth.
Thank you, Edward, it’s great to be talking to you.
We’ve only met once. I think that was at a world fantasy convention in Toronto. Well, actually, technically, I think it was in Richmond Hill. But you could see Toronto in the distance.
You could see it very vaguely in the distance. It was a shock, I think, to quite a few international persons such as myself to discover that it was not quite in Toronto, despite being called Toronto.
It was a bit of a shock to me, even though I live in Canada, I was expecting it to be a little closer to downtown, as well.
Well, I think we did have the misfortune that the railway was being worked on and the other public transport. So I think if everything had been up and running it wouldn’t have felt quite so far away. But, of course, we were just talking about how with World Fantasy, it doesn’t really matter. That convention is a travelling community that pops up, and you tend to spend all your time with all the other writers and publishers and editors and agents all hanging out anyway. So maybe it doesn’t really matter so much.
It was still a fun convention, even though…
Yeah, it was great. Yeah, it was very good.
...though it wasn’t right downtown. And the other thing I always like to mention, you know, when I’m looking for connections…this is not exactly a connection with you, but I wrote a fantasy trilogy called The Masks of Aygrima as E.C. Blake, and some reviewer said that they liked my fifteen-year-old female protagonist, she was their favorite female heroine since Sabriel.
Oh, that’s a nice thing to say. That is a connection. Yeah.
I considered that a great, great compliment because I really love those books, so…
We’re going to start, as I always start with my guests, by taking you back in time. How…well, first of all, where did you grow up and all that sort of thing, but how did you become interested in writing and fantasy, and which came first? Were you interested in the fantastical and science fiction before you started writing, or did the writing come first and then you migrated into it? How did that all work out for you?
Sure, it’s a good question. I grew up in Canberra, which is the federal capital of Australia. It’s still a very small city, but it was a very small city when I was growing up there in the ‘60s and the ‘70s. Canberra is kind of like the Washington, D.C., equivalent, except that it’s a planned city. It really was only built from the, sort of, 1930s onwards. When I was growing up there, it only had about 200,000 people. It’s quite a small city, and it’s also in the middle…it’s in the bush, the Australian bush. It’s sometimes called the bush capital because it’s got so many trees. So it was kind of like a country town, but then it had the weird extra layer of all the federal government stuff and also all the things like Washington, D.C. has, on a smaller scale, like the National Library and the National Museum and Parliament House and all that sort of stuff as well. So it was an unusual city. It had a very, very good public education system then—it still does, perhaps not quite as good—which I benefited from, and a very good library system, which I also benefited from.
And my parents are readers. Both my parents were science fiction and fantasy readers, amongst many other things. My father is a scientist and my mother is an artist. So, from a very early age, I was exposed to all kinds of books. Our house was full of books. There was a library between my home and my school, which I stopped at every afternoon–a children’s library, a specialist children’s library. And I read everything. I love all kinds of books. I do love fantasy and science fiction, but I also love historical novels and thrillers and contemporary literature and classics, all kinds of stuff. And non-fiction as well. I’ve always been fascinated with all kinds of non-fiction.
I actually noticed, Edward, that you’ve written a lot of non-fiction, looking at your bio before I started to talk to you.
Anything for a buck, basically. But also, I do love that stuff. I love learning about things and writing about them.
And I think it’s good for writers, too. You need to read non-fiction as well as fiction to fill your mind with all kinds of information you can draw upon to create fiction. And non-fiction is very, very good fuel for that.
So, I was always reading, there were books everywhere. My parents read science fiction and fantasy. I probably had more than most people, in part because my father used to spend quite a lot of time in the U.S. working for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the United Nations and a few other…lots of international programs, some of which were run out of the U.S. (One mysteriously always had to meet in Hawaii every year. I wonder why that was.) But he would bring back American paperbacks, which we would not otherwise get, because Australia, particularly in that period, most of the books came from the U.K. So, I was actually exposed to many American authors that not all Australians would necessarily have been and would not have been known in the U.K. So, I guess in a way I had a perfect environment to become a writer of fantasy and science fiction because of that reading.
And I was always very keen on making up stories. I’ve always loved making stuff up and trying to get people to believe it. Sometimes I joke that if I wasn’t a writer, I’d probably be in jail as a confidence trickster, because I like to make people believe in stuff. I like to write stories that feel real. I like to tell stories that feel real. And there’s not a big step, I think, from making up those kinds of fictions to getting to some kind of complex scam making people believe things. But luckily, I haven’t gone down that road as yet. I’m sticking to the fiction.
So, you started writing pretty young then, as a child?
Yeah, I did actually start…I loved the idea of my own books. I made little books of my own from a very young age. In fact, I have one from when I was about six. Well, I actually do have one when I’m about six. I don’t take it with me. I have a sort of little replica that I bring with me I use in talks sometimes to demonstrate how far I’ve come in my writing since I was six years old. At least I hope I have.
So, yeah, I was making little books. I was writing stories. I wrote stories in school. But I didn’t actually plan to be a writer. I loved books. I loved writing. But actually, right up until the end of high school, when I was thinking about what I am going to do, in the last few years, I was thinking I would actually join the regular Australian army and go to our equivalent of West Point. But I actually joined the Army Reserve and I was a part-time soldier for about five years, and that convinced me I didn’t want to be a regular soldier. It was actually…it was a very good experience and I really mostly enjoyed it, with some reservations. But I also realized that the life that I would lead as a regular Army soldier would be more contained and closed, the environment would be more closed, than if I did something else.
So, for a few years, I was thinking that’s what I would do. I would go to what was then the Royal Australian Military College and be an officer and learn, and do a university degree, and become a commissioned officer. But then I realized that, “Hang on, I actually don’t want to do that. What am I going to do instead?
And I worked…I got a job after I left school, I worked in a government job for a year, and I saved my money. Then I went travelling in the U.K. and Europe. And while I was doing that, I re-read lots of my favourite books, particularly children’s books and particularly English ones, and I read them in the places where they were set. So a lot of classic fantasy like Alan Garner’s The Weirdstone of Brisingamen.
Yeah, it’s a fantastic book, in Cheshire. I read other children’s classics, like Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons in the Lake District.
Oh, thank you so much for mentioning that one.
Well, they’re wonderful books. I mean, I still re-read them. That also…I mean, those books made me interested in sailing.
You know, you get so much from those books. And then Rosemary Sutcliff, The Eagle of the Ninth, you know, historical novels, children’s historical novels, were also very much part of my reading. I read The Eagle of the Ninth while I was visiting Hadrian’s Wall and so on. And I while I was doing that, I also started to seriously write, whereas before I’d written stories off and on. I wrote a couple of stories and sent them out, and I also started a novel. I wrote half a novel while I was travelling around. And of course, this is back in the day. So, I had a portable typewriter, a Silver Reed typewriter, and I would type away in the various places that I was I was staying, or actually often not in the places, the youth hostels I was staying, because it would annoy people. So, I would actually go and type just, you know, by the side of the road or whatever, because I bought a little car. Terrible, terrible old car that…once the wheel literally did fall off and I also caught a light once. But it also got me around about 10,000 miles of travelling. And yeah, in the course of that time, I thought, I do want to be a writer. This is what I want to do.
But I also, because I was a reader and I loved nonfiction, one of the areas of non-fiction I read about was publishing and writers and writers’ biographies. And even back then, I realized that a writer’s…economically, a writer’s life is generally very difficult and you need a day job. So…and I’m actually kind of astonished, looking back, that even at nineteen I did have enough common sense to realize I would need a job. That was probably one of the few areas where I had sufficient common sense, but I did. And so, I made a plan to come back to Australia, go to university, get a degree, because that would enable me to get a better day job, and also just to continue writing, which is pretty much what I did.
And when I got back to Australia, I had great encouragement, very early encouragement, because I got a telegram—this was shortly before telegrams were completely phased out, and, in fact, I didn’t even know they still existed at that point until I got one—which was from Penguin Books in the U.K., saying, “We want to publish your story, ‘Sam, Cars and the Cuckoo,’ and we’ll pay ninety pounds.” Prepaid telegram, reply yes or no. And I hadn’t even sent it to them, so I was extremely puzzled, but also very happy. I unraveled this mystery many years later. I’d sent the story to the gaming magazine White Dwarf, because I also wrote, I had a little bit of a success, right, writing gaming articles about Dungeons and Dragons and Traveller and so on. And they, at that point, they did occasionally publish fiction. This is, again, a long way back, the magazine was very different. And so, I’d sent it to White Dwarf, so it was a great surprise to get this telegram from Penguin Books saying, “We want it for our magazine, called Warlock.” And, anyway, as it transpired, I discovered much later, an editor from White Dwarf had left to join Penguin, to work on their magazine Warlock, which was for their Fighting Fantasy books, was in support of their Fighting Fantasy books. And he’d actually just taken…I don’t know, I guess his submission inventory from White Dwarf with him, including my story. I met him years later and he said that he’d just taken his whole folder with him and bought some of the stuff for Warlock.
But I thought, “Wow, this is fantastic.” Ninety pounds, this is in 19…this was in 1982, I think, it was quite a lot of money, particularly in Australian dollars at the time. And I thought, “Wow, I can write a short story every couple of weeks and get this money and, you know, it’ll be brilliant.” But, of course, I couldn’t actually sell a short story for about another five years after that. I wrote about forty without being able to sell any of them. Which is, again, of course, a very common experience. But at least I had the early encouragement of that first short story sale.
I reacted to the Arthur Ransome reference because they were books that were very important to me when I was growing up and I spent my…in Canada, we got a family allowance. I think it was $10 a month per kid. And my parents gave that to me as my allowance and I saved that up and bought all the Arthur Ransome books.
And in my last book before this, my current one is Master of the World, book two in the series, but in the first one, Worldshaper, there is an occasion in which there is a…they get on to a sailing yacht, and I named the yacht Amazon and there’s some reference in there. So, I do try to reference those books when I can.
Yeah, well. These things, books, your childhood books are so important for what you do later. And I think whether you even consciously reference them, they’re there, they’re deeply embedded in the reservoir you call upon to write. So, they’re always present. And sometimes there’s conscious references and sometimes there’s conscious resonance and sometimes it’s unconscious. But having read them is the necessary is the necessary part of the equation.
Now, you got your B.A. in Professional Writing. What kind of a course was that? Is that a creative writing course or is it more of a journalism course or what? I haven’t quite seen that phrase before.
Yeah, well, it’s very old. They don’t actually offer that anymore. But at the time, that was the only writing degree offered in Australia. Again, a very different time. Of course, everywhere offers creative writing or writing degrees now. But at the time, what was then the Canberra College of Advanced Education, that’s now the University of Canberra, it was the only place in Australia that offered any kind of writing degree. And principally, it actually was a journalism school. And most people there were majoring in journalism, but they also had a screenwriting stream, which included a small element of prose writing, fiction writing. So, when I was looking at what I could do, I wanted to get a degree mainly as a kind of ticket to show at door to get a better day job. I thought, “Well, I might as well do a writing degree.” And it was luckily in my home city, Canberra. so it was just much more doable in terms of, you know, I could stay with my parents, which I did most of the time, and…you know, it was just logistically easy. So I was very lucky it was there.
And it was actually a really good experience. I majored in screenwriting, and I guess it’s like a lot of those writing degrees, in the sense that someone once said, “You can’t be taught writing, but you can learn.” And really, I think the most valuable thing for me was that it set up an environment in which you’re expected to do a lot of writing and you were in the company of other people who were very keen to write. So, I met some very good friends there and reconnected with some old friends who coincidentally just happened to be there, I had no idea, old school friends who also wanted to be writers, and being in the company of those people and also having the workshop experience, which is he typical one of where you pass work around in a, you know, tutorial group or workshop group and discuss it, very much as many workshops do now, that was very valuable. To be honest, most of the actual lectures and so forth were not particularly useful. But being in an environment where you need to create work all the time and it has to be on time…because they treated it like a…the journalism strain was very strong…it was treated as if it was a job at a newspaper. If you didn’t file on time, you got zero. That was it. There was no, “I’m sorry, I’ve been ill,” or whatever, it was just zero, because they said, “This is what will happen at the newspaper.” You have to…if you’re told to write something, that’s your job, you’ve got to write it. So that was all very, very useful. So, it was a good three years.
And I started theatre there as well and did some productions. I ended up directing a production of The Crucible in my last year. And it was all…it was fun and it was good experience. And…I think I probably would have kept writing anyway. But it really did help shape some of the discipline to do that. And I wrote probably half my first published novel, The Ragwitch, while I was doing that course, for that course, too. So that was also a good thing.
I’m interested in the theater experience. I’ve talked to a number of writers who have some theater experience and I’m a theater guy myself—I’ve written plays and I’m a professional actor and I’ve directed—and I always like to ask if you find that the theater experience helps you in your fiction writing. Orson Scott Card is one who says it does, and I just talked to James Alan Gardner, and he said it does. What was your experience?
Well, I think it all helps, to be honest. I think all the cross-media stuff helps. The screenwriting experience is also very helpful. I mean, to be honest, I think everything helps. The experience of life helps. Reading books helps. Strange knowledge of rock formations might help. You know, anything can help, but particularly in terms of writing. I think experience of different ways to tell stories and convey stories to people, whether it’s visually or aurally or, you know, using different senses…and theater in particular is often very good for experimental ways to communicate stories. People are always looking at different ways to stage and perform. And that makes you think about, well, “Hang on, maybe I could do something different just on a page, as well.” So, it was very useful. And, I mean, I directed a play, I performed in plays. I’m a terrible actor, but it was probably useful experience and useful for, again, also useful for something that’s very much part of a modern author’s life, which is, of course, talking about your work, because we’re all expected to do that nowadays and need to do that, whether it’s in person at bookshop events or it’s on YouTube or even in a podcast like this. I’m sure some of that early actor training, even though I was a terrible actor on stage or screen, it probably helps me play myself, as it were, and to get across what I want to get across. And it was just interesting. It was just a good thing to do.
I also worked as a stagehand after, briefly, after university, as an additional job. I worked in a bookshop, but also I worked as a stagehand on a couple of different productions with a very good friend of mine, also a writer. And that was a good experience, too, which I’ve not drawn upon directly for a story, but I think some of the conversations we had working on that show and the sort of cynical realism of backstage people, it was an exposure to characters you might not otherwise have been exposed to, and, as with anything somewhat out of what you normally do, was very useful. And some of the old, literally old, as in they would probably be in their 60s, people who worked in the theater, and had done for forever, were such interesting characters and had some very interesting stories to tell. So things like that. I think everything’s useful.
Yeah, theatre people have lots of interesting stories to tell if they’ve been in it for a while.
Absolutely. Yeah. Yeah.
Now you mentioned The Ragwitch, which was your first published novel. When did that come about? You went on to work in publishing. How did that all line up?
Well, as I said, I realised I would need a day job, and I was at university and thinking about what I could do. I did actually think about journalism for a while. Many of my friends were journalists.
I did it!
Yeah, well it’s…and of course, again, it’s a very sort of standard sort of thing. So I toyed with that, but I found that I didn’t…while I could adequately write everything, I could write whatever was required, I actually didn’t particularly like having to stick to the facts, which is a bit of a drawback in journalism, or it should be a drawback. And so I was thinking, “What else can I do?” And I was still fascinated with books and really interested in publishing, so I thought, “OK, well, that’s what I’ll do. My day job will be publishing, and” (I was still, you know, I was writing all the time) “I can continue to write.” And those would feed off each other. And one of the classic ways—and then looking around to see how I could do that, of course, one of the classic ways, and it’s still one of the best ways to get into publishing, is to get a job in a bookshop. So that’s what I did, and I worked in a wonderful bookshop where quite a number of my friends also worked in Canberra, and that then led to…I got a job as a sales representative for a very small publisher, which was in Sydney, so I moved to a much bigger city, but all the time I was writing and at that time I was finishing The Ragwitch.
So, from that small publisher, which was a small trade publisher, I then moved to an academic press on the production side as an editorial assistant. And while I was there, and I was sort of working my way—I worked my way up there to be an editor and then actually the publications manager there—but during that time, when I was at that academic publisher, I got The Ragwitch published. But in the usual way. I researched publishers. I looked at who was publishing that kind of novel. I submitted it to seven publishers, most of whom rejected it. Two, I think, never replied at all. And then one day I came home and there was a message on my answering machine, again back in the old days, a cassette answering machine, from a publisher saying, “Can you come and talk to us about it?” And so it was picked up and published in 1991. Which is a long time ago.
But there’s been several since then.
More than several. Yes. Yes, I’ve managed to keep going, which is basically the whole secret, really, as I often say to people. The answer to any publishing problem is to write another book, you know, whether it’s problems of success or failure or things not working out as you would hope. Write another book. It gives you another chance. Another spin of the wheel.
Yeah, I think it was maybe Stephen King that said…it’s usually either Stephen King or Ray Bradbury who says these things…
That the difference between a published writer and an unpublished writer is that the published writer didn’t give up.
They probably both said that in different ways, actually. And it’s true. Though it can be extraordinarily difficult to keep going because of all kinds of factors. And I’ve been very fortunate across the board, really, in terms of who I am and my background and where I live and even such things as, you know, the fact that we have essentially free health care here in Australia makes a massive difference. I’m very well aware of many of my American friends who are successful authors, but they can’t give up their day jobs to write more because they need the day job for the medical insurance. So there’s, like, those kinds of factors. And I’ve been very lucky.
Well, we’re going to talk about your creative process and we’re going to focus on your latest, which is Angel Mage, which unfortunately I have not had a chance to read. But that’s OK, because I’m going to get you to synopsize it for people who haven’t read it, like me.
I’ll just read it to you on the podcast, Edward. It’s only going to take about eighteen hours. That’s all right, isn’t it?
Oh, sure, I’ll just release it as multi-part podcast.
I wouldn’t dare do that because it’s actually, the audiobook has been read far, far better, anyway. I actually, I recently distilled the sort of elevator pitch for the book, even though I don’t really believe in elevator pitches. But with the help of various people who’ve already reviewed it and commented about the book, the sort of simple summary is that it’s The Three Musketeers crossed with Joan of Arc, crossed with angelic magic, crossed with kick-ass woman heroes. And that kind of sums it up on a variety of levels. But, yeah, Angel Mage is very much inspired by Alexander Dumas’s The Three Musketeers and the Richard Lester 1973-1974 films of The Three Musketeers and The Four Musketeers.
I love those movies.
I love those movies, too. I mean, they’re brilliant movies and brilliant adaptations of the book. Very much inspired by that, but it’s not a retelling. Angel Mage is the story of Liliath, who is an angel mage. She’s able to summon angels using icons that she makes. And she, Liliath, is perhaps the most pre-eminent angelic mage who’s ever lived. Unfortunately, she has already destroyed one kingdom in an effort to do something, which is unclear, involving an archangel, the archangel of that kingdom. And this all happens before the book begins. She did something which caused a terrible plague that killed most people or turned them into monsters. She was thought to be killed by it as well, or something to have happened to her. But, in fact, she wasn’t. She just went into a long sleep to have another go. And the book is actually about her awakening from her long rest to try and put in motion once again and so successfully carry out whatever her plan is to get closer to her beloved Archangel Palleniel. And this is in the new kingdom of Sarance, which is pretty much an analog of 17th-century France, but with some important key differences. And to do so, Liliath needs to gather to her and direct four key individuals who are young people who are just embarking on their careers in the capital of Sarance, which is a sort of Paris equivalent. So, she is setting up her plan again. She is manipulating these four characters who are brought together. They don’t know why, you know, what their connection is. They feel a connection and they, Dorotea, who is also an angelic mage and a very gifted maker of icons, Simeon, who’s a medical student at the hospital, Henri, who’s a clerk of the cardinal–the cardinal is a woman, incidentally, and one of the, I guess the key differences in Sarance is that it’s an equal-opportunity kingdom, as such, as most of my fantasy worlds are. Women can be all the things that men can be as well, as of course they can be in reality if they’re not constrained by social barriers. And…who have I forgotten?…oh, and Agnez, who’s a musketeer, a cadet of the musketeers. And so it’s an adventure story, it’s set in that alternate 17th century, influenced by Dumas, and I hope it’s just a great, enjoyable adventure that really takes you to another world, as Worldshapers is all about. I hope it takes readers to somewhere that feels real and they can go along for the ride.
Most of your books, and this one included, are classified as young adult. What has drawn you to the young adult side of the spectrum?
Well, classifications are funny things. And in fact, Angel Mage is published as an adult fantasy in the UK and Australia.
Amazon shows it as young adult…
Well, in America it is published as young adult. It really, I guess, demonstrates the fluidity, particularly, of young adult as a category. I guess what I would say is that the clue is all there in the name “young adult.” It’s young adult, not all children. So, to my mind, you know, YA…and it’s confusing to people, because YA covers such a broad range of books from very young YA, as it were, to older books. And, you know, categories in publishing are about publishers trying to find the sweet spot to connect core readers to a book. They always hope that the book will go beyond those, that core group. And you always hope that that’s just the kindling that starts the fire to reach everywhere, as it does with the really big bestselling books. They always go far wider than whatever their categorization is. But, of course, to make that happen, you do need to connect with the people most likely to read the book. And that’s partly about genre classification as well, which is why if you try and categorize a book as something that it doesn’t really fit, which happens occasionally where publishers want to try and position a book somewhere else, but it doesn’t…you know, readers are put off from it because it doesn’t match their expectation. That’s probably the cardinal problem. (Cardinals on my mind, obviously, too many cardinals.) That’s the biggest mistake you can make in publishing, because if you try and sell a book as something t isn’t, you know, the people who would love it don’t buy it, and the people who you’re hoping to try and get to love it typically don’t buy it either. So the safe method is always trying to connect to a core audience.
And partly, of course, what happens is, if you’re known for a particular genre or category, if your book can even halfway fit into that category, that’s where publishers will try and put it. In the case of Angel Mage, I’m absolutely fine with calling it a young adult book. I do think it’s a young adult book, but at the same time, I think it’s important to be aware that doesn’t mean it isn’t for older adults as well. And, in fact, all the data shows that most of YA is in fact being read by 18-to-35-year-olds, anyway, and older. It’s not actually being read by teenagers, which is a whole other discussion, because there’s a whole discussion of how teenagers are actually being marginalized out of a genre that’s out of…not a genre, a category…which is meant to be for them. But, so, it’s not as straightforward as it may seem.
I just write the stories. I mean, going back to answer your question more directly, I just write. I write for myself, and I guess I write for myself as I am now and as I was at 20 or 15 or even a bit younger, where I would have read a book like Angel Mage with no problems whatsoever, in the same way I was reading completely adult titles with no problem whatsoever. But I also, I do write children’s fiction as well, and when I am writing the children’s books, I’m really writing for myself as I was at 10 or 11 or 12. But again, good children’s books work for all ages as well. And they work for all the readers, as well. It’s not the primary audience, but in my view, all the best children’s books will also work for an adult reader because they’ll be, there’s just more to them. There’ll be multiple layers of story and meaning which make them work, and a child reader who may not be as practiced or experienced will just take that top layer of story and meaning, and they will love it and be carried along by it. And later you can come back to it. They’ll come back to it later maybe and get some more of the subtext and more of the other layers of story. And an adult reader, a sophisticated adult reader, will, you know, we’ll get all of that straight away.
Getting the balance of all those things right is the difficult part, except that most writers, I think, do it by instinct. So I think if you start thinking about it, it won’t work. But if you’ve equipped yourself by reading, certainly, lots and lots of the right books, and by the right books, actually I just mean any books ,really, except that you probably should have read lots and lots of books in the area in which you want to work as well as everything else. Then you will have equipped your storytelling and writing instincts to be able to do that without having to think about it too greatly. And, of course, then the editorial process helps as well.
I’ve kind of run into the classification thing myself with the aforementioned Masks of Aygrima trilogy with a 15-year-old protagonist. It was published by DAW Books, which does not have a young adult line, and so it was published in the adult market. And I got people who said, well, you know, “This is really a young adult book.” And then there were young adult reviewers who said, “Well, this is too grown-up a book, but it has a 15-year-old protagonist. So, yeah, the whole genre classification thing, can…
And, well, it’s important not to get too hung up on it, I think. I mean, that’s…when people start thinking, “Oh, I can’t read this because it’s YA” or “I can’t read this because it’s adult” or “I’m not going to read this because it’s science fiction and all science fiction is terrible.” You know, those preconceptions just cut you off from reading good books. I think it’s very important to look at books on their own merits. The whole categorization, the labels that are put on books, are all about how to sell them. They’re not actually about what the qualities are, literary qualities or narrative qualities or whatever, they’re labels to help you find a book, but they are not exclusive labels. So I do think it’s very important for people to…reading about a book that sounds interesting, it probably is interesting. Have a look at it. Read some pages. Don’t think, “Oh, it sounds really interesting, but it’s YA, so it’s not for me, or “It’s children, so it’s not for me,” or “Dang, I didn’t realize it was romance, so I’m not going to read it,” because it could be absolutely the best book for you to read. It could be a wonderful book to read. Just because of some selling labels on it…I think preconception of genre and category just really narrows people’s reading habits, sometimes. Though, many people, of course, don’t care, which is good.
So, going back to Angel Mage, you talked about the elevator pitch, but that came after the fact. So, how did the original seed for this all come together? And is that typical of…the way that Angel Magecame together, is that typical of the way that your stories generally germinate?
That’s a good question. The way I typically develop stories is that I will have an idea for something. And often, it’s just about a character in a situation. And I really don’t know anything about it. I know, I have a…it’s like having a still cut out of a section of film. And I can look at it in my head and think, “Oh, well, there’s this person in this situation and this appears to be the setting,” but I really don’t know any more than that. And then I will start writing something about that. And often, these little fragments I don’t end up using, but that has helped me work out what the story is or what the story might be. And sometimes they become full-on prologues or opening chapters, which, again, I might not, but it does help me set the scene. And I work out, you know, who that character is and what part they play, and if they’re going to be the main character. And I also work out the feel of the setting, the sort of tone of the setting, even if I don’t know many details. And after I’ve written a little section like that, typically I don’t do anything on it for a while, maybe a few weeks, maybe a few months. And my subconscious is working on it, and every now and again, I might make a few notes about that particular idea.
And if it is going to come to something, then at some point, the next thing I usually do is write an outline, which I won’t actually follow. That’s one of those Zen outlines, the act of doing the outline is more important than what it’s going to be used for. I will write an outline and then probably will write the beginning, which I may have already written, and I’ll just rewrite it, or it will be something completely different, but I will get that first chapter or prologue or prologue and first chapter down, and I will then revise the outline again. And at that point, I will have something which I will think, “Well, okay, that’s gonna be my next book, or is going to be the one I’m going to write after the one I’m writing now.” And that’s when I’ll share it with my agent and so on and start talking about it being the next book. And I should say, sometimes when I’m writing these, I begin this process where I have a little idea and I write a little bit, it becomes a short story and I will write it, and then, usually within a few weeks, it’ll be complete in itself. And then I know, “OK, well, that’s done. That is a story. It’s not going to be a novel, it’s not going to be anything else. And then I’ll try and do something with that story.
So, once you…if you decide to go on and write a novel…what does your actual writing process look like? Do you write, you know, 24 hours a day?
Do you sit under a tree with parchment and quill? How does that work for you?
Well, I actually did…I wrote many of my early novels longhand first, so I would write a chapter in longhand, pen on paper, in my favorite black-and-red notebooks. So I’d write a chapter longhand and then I would type it up on various computers over the years and then I would print it out and I would correct the printout and take in those corrections to the electronic file, and then I would write the next chapter longhand and then just repeat the process. I stopped doing that probably about fifteen years ago, except that I still do write some sections longhand first. So, I still write difficult chapters.
What does writing longhand do for you or for your prose?
It just seemed to be a good process. I mean, I think I started it because, when I was traveling, and I first started writing when I was traveling, I could just write in my notebook wherever. And this is long before, you know, laptops or, actually, I mean, it was really the early days of personal computers. I mean, when I came back from that trip, I got a TRS-80.
Not portable, no, at all. I got my first Mac maybe the year often. And it was actually one of the very first Macs, the Mac 512K. It was…which was a miraculous thing. I mean, what you see is what you get on the screen. And printing out was astonishing compared to what I’d been using. But yes, not at all portable. So, I think it stemmed from that ability to write in a notebook wherever I was. And on that trip and then later on another trip 10 years later, in the early ‘90s, I mean, Sabriel, I wrote part of, I wrote chapters, you know, I wrote a chapter sitting on the wall of a Crusader castle in Syria, I wrote in a Roman amphitheater in Jordan, under a medieval bridge in Isfahan, in Iran, in the Khyber Pass, and so on. And so, being able to write anywhere, it was, I think, what drove that. I just got into the habit of it and it worked.
But I think also, writing longhand and then typing my longhand, and as I typed, I would correct, as well, did give me an extra layer of revision, which wasn’t just reading, a sort of tactile revision, not just looking at it on screen and going through. But that said, I always wrote short stories pretty much straight on screen, all my short fiction. And then later I did just start to write just, you know, on the computer. But I still write longhand. I still write notes longhand. And I will occasionally, particularly if I’m having difficulty, I will take my notebook and pen and go and write a chapter, often somewhere outside, somewhere in some sort of natural environment, not to sit at my desk. So I mix it up.
And once you get to the end of the book, the first time through, what does your revision process look like?
Well, I revise all the way through. Typically, what I do, in fact, is…say I’ve written Chapter 1. Before I write Chapter 2, I actually will revise…in my writing session, say I finish writing Chapter 1 on Monday, and I would have done minor revision at the time, just going backwards and forwards with every writing session, on Tuesday I will read Chapter 1, revise it and then write Chapter 2, and then when I come to write Chapter 3, I’ll revise Chapter 1 and Chapter 2 before writing Chapter 3. So I’m constantly revising all the way through. But of course, what that means is Chapter 1 will have been…say the book’s got 40 chapters. As part of my normal process, Chapter 1 will have been revised 40 times, by the time I get to the end of it, but Chapter 40 will have been revised, notionally, once, but in actual fact at least two or three times. And then, when I have a complete manuscript, I will go through it again, usually two or three times before it goes to the publisher, with a little bit, as much fallow time as possible between revisions, which in practice normally means only two or three days, because of, just, time constraints and needing to deliver it. But then, I also typically don’t look at it again until I get the edit back from, when I get the top-level edit letter back from my editor, I just won’t look at it at all. So, I’ll normally have at least a month or six weeks of having totally forgotten about it, with luck, before it comes back again.
And in that time, I’ll be writing other things. I’m always writing something. And I usually am writing a couple of short stories or sometimes a screenplay at the same time as writing the novel. The novel will take 80 percent of the time, but I will spend 20 percent of the time working on other projects, and then, once the novel is off my plate temporarily, I’ll be working on those other things and of course also starting the next one. So, it’s always…there’s always the shuffling, short-order-cook-type shuffling of things around on the stove.
Every once in a while, as a full-time freelancer, I remember the song from My Fair Lady, where Eliza sings, “Words, words, words. I’m so sick of words.”
Well, you do get sick of, absolutely, you occasionally do get sick of words, like Eliza. And then when that happens, it’s time to do something else for a while. Go for a walk, watch a movie, you know, anything that refills…or perhaps leeches the chamber of loathing for words.
What…you mentioned the editorial letter that comes back…what sorts of things do you usually find yourself having to work on when the editor gets a look at them?
Well, it varies very much from book to book. I guess…I mean, I’ve always felt greatly complimented by editors who tell me that my books don’t need much revision. And they usually credit that to the fact that I do a lot of revision myself and I do pride myself on delivering a very clean and…you know, a manuscript that’s been revised as much as possible. So, it varies from book to book. Usually, they’re things like tightening up particular sections, which…you know, the pace may have dragged or, very occasionally…one famous editorial letter pointed out that I had a character who could be completely deleted from the book without making any difference whatsoever. And therefore should be. Which…and of course, as always, you know, your initial reaction is, “Oh, ridiculous nonsense. What are they talking about?” And then after calm reflection and looking at the examples cited, I realized that, yes, that character was, in fact, completely extraneous and did absolutely nothing. And so I did get rid of them, and the book was all the better for it. So, occasionally, there’s things like that, but generally speaking, they’re mostly fine-tuning things.
But not always. Again, this is going a long way back. I benefited greatly from the editorial advice from my then editor…at HarperCollins. Because I delivered Lirael and Abhorsen actually as one giant book. And that’s how I write it, as one very large book. And she pointed out that it probably needed to be two. And it wasn’t just a matter of cutting them, cutting it in half. I actually needed to expand upon some aspects of Lirael’s early life, which I’d alluded to without going into. And so, I took the book apart, I broke it in two, and I rewrote both halves, adding and subtracting. And so that was quite a big task. But it was the right advice. It was very, very useful. So, yeah, every now and again, there’s big things, and there’s small things.
I always like to talk about what the editors contribute because there are beginning writers or wannabe writers who are scared that editors will somehow destroy their precious prose or something. And in my experience, they almost always make it better. Almost always.
Almost always, because you can unfortunately get bad editors who just don’t understand the book or who want to remake it in, you know, remake it into something that it’s not. That does occasionally happen. But of course, you deal with that. And I’ve actually been very lucky. I’ve not had that really at all myself, ever. But I was an editor and I did…while I don’t think I’m guilty of doing this myself either, I did work with many other editors and I do know of…and I also, just from being in this business for a long time and knowing lots of other authors, I do know of a very few examples where just the wrong editor was working on a book with someone and it was not a good fit. But that, as you say, that is not the norm at all. Usually, a good editor is very helpful and makes a big difference.
Well, we’re close to the end of the time here, so I want to move on to the big philosophical questions…
Well, I gotta go. Sorry. Time’s…oh, no, hit me. Hit me with a question.
It’s only one, really.
Oh, good. Okay.
With multiple parts, but…why do you write? Why do you write stories of the fantastic, specifically, and on a slightly broader level, why do you think anybody writes? Why do we tell stories? Why do you tell stories and why does anybody tell stories?
That is quite a tough question. Why do I write? Why do I tell stories? I think it’s because I have to, on one level, I’ve always told stories, I’ve always had them bubbling up inside me, and I feel like they need to come out, I guess. I did allude to this earlier when I said that possibly, if I didn’t write stories, I’d be in jail as a confidence trickster, because I do have all these stories in me and I have to get them out. Maybe this is how I make sense of the world, is by telling stories and by writing, or make sense of my world. But I do derive an enormous satisfaction when a story works out. I love it when I can successfully tell a story.
And I should say that never…nothing is ever as good as it is in my head. When I’m thinking up a story, it’s always truly amazing. And then when I write it, it goes from truly amazing to, if I’m lucky, kind of amazing. And I look at it and I think, “Wow, that’s great. I would like to read…if I came to this as a reader, I would like to read this. I would love this.” And that’s what I’m always trying to aim for. So I think it is that innate desire to tell stories just coming up inside me. Also, matched with that, the satisfaction of telling a good story and of making people…making people happy is perhaps not quite the right description, because, in fact, stories might not make people happy, they might make them feel all kinds of different things…but successfully transmitting a story from my head into a reader’s via the medium of text, I guess, is something that gives me great satisfaction.
As to why I write mostly fantastical stuff, that is also quite a tricky question. And possibly the best way to answer it is to say that, whenever I do try to write something that is contemporary and entirely realistic in terms of our contemporary world, it hardly ever works out. I mean, the story might work out perfectly well, but it will end up having some element of the fantastic, even a very slight one. It just seems to be something I do whether I plan to or not. I have set out to write entirely contemporary or historical stories and nearly always some element of the fantastic…I just suddenly get part of the way through, and I think, “This would be so much better if the supernatural intrudes or there’s magic,” or “Wouldn’t this be more interesting if that person is not, in fact, a human?” It just seems to be something, again, inside me that introduces these things. Though I have occasionally written things that do not have elements of the fantastic, my natural bent seems to be to want to include them.
And that sounds very familiar to me because that’s exactly what happens to me.
Yeah, I think it’s very…absolutely, I think it’s a, quite a shared trait of most fantasy writers. But not all, of course, everyone is different. There’s so many different ways to write, and write novels. And that’s also part of the fascination.
And the idea of having the amazing image in your head and then trying to get it…I’ve sometimes used the image of, it’s like you have a Christmas tree ornament and it’s beautiful and perfect and you can see it so clearly and then you smash it with a hammer and try to glue it back together with words.
Yes. And they might still be very impressed, but it’s not quite what you wanted to give them. Yes. Yeah.
So, what are you working on now?
Well, I’ve actually just finished my next book, which is kind of ahead of schedule for me for once, which is good. I’m revising it in response to the editorial letter at the moment. And that book is called The Left-Handed Booksellers of London. It’s set in 1983, and it’s set in a slightly alternative London, London with a…a United Kingdom with a slightly different 20th-century history. And it’s about a young woman, Susan, who comes to London. She’s an art student who will be starting art school later, but she’s come early to London to try and find her father, who she doesn’t know anything about, she just has some clues from her mother to follow up—her very vague mother. And she almost instantly falls in with one of the left-handed booksellers, called Merlin, who saves her from…well, they save each other, actually…from an intrusion of the mythic. And Susan is drawn into this world where the left-handed booksellers and the right-handed booksellers have a kind of secret organization that not only runs a couple of bookshops, but also works to keep the mythic and legendary elements of Britain under control and stop them from intruding disastrously into the contemporary world. And Susan’s quest to discover her father is connected very much with Merlin. Merlin also has a quest, to try and find out what happened to his mother, who was apparently killed by criminals, but there seems to be some connection with the mythic world as well. So that’s The Left-Handed Booksellers of London, which will be out, hopefully, this time next year.
And anything else that you’re currently in process on?
I’ve got some short stories. I’ve actually got a bunch of stories coming out in different venues over the next twelve months. I had a quite a little short-story writing frenzy earlier this year. So I think I’ve got five stories coming out in various places over the next twelve months or so, which range from science fiction to fantasy, different kinds of fantasy…well, actually, one horror, one is just straight-out horror, which I don’t write that often, but every now and again…and some fantasy stories and science fiction. And I’m also outlining a new novel and notes for other stories. And I’m working on a screenplay with a friend of mine, as well, who’s a very experienced, and has had many things produced, screenwriter. So, lots and lots of things on that stove top, as I mentioned before, I’m shuffling those pans around.
And where can people find you online?
They can find me at garthnix.com, on Facebook, it’s just facebook/garthnix, and /garthnixauthor. I actually have my very old personal Facebook, which I always just use to connect with readers, but it’s generally full up with the 5,000-friend limit. And then later I started the author page, which is just the /garthinix one. So Facebook, I’m there, but actually where I’m most likely to respond to people, and I’m much more likely to post, in fact is Twitter, where I’m also just @GarthNix. And if you want to ask me a question, Twitter is generally the place where I’m most likely to be able to respond in a sort of timely fashion. Far more than that anywhere else already.
All right! Well, thanks so much for being a guest on The Worldshapers, Garth. I really appreciate it.
It’s fun to talk about writing, isn’t it? You know, writing and publishing.
Yeah. Well, that’s why I started the podcast.
Yeah. Very good.
Right. Well, bye for now!
Bye bye. Thank you.