Watch out for the give-away question at the end of the interview.
Q: You come from Western Australia originally. That’s a long way culturally from Malaysia where you now live. As a child growing up, did you long for something different?
Yes and no. I was a farm kid and I loved – and still love – the Australian landscape. But I made up my mind very young that I was going to travel – a lot. It was more just wanting to get out there and have a look: I never dreamed that life would conspire to keep me away so long. But I am coming back, for good, next year. It’s time!
Well, my desert transport was inspired by the unlikely example of rainforest millipedes! Every book has a hundred different ideas and they are often inspired by my travels, not just in the rainforest. An understanding of ecology, of how things fit together and are reliant on one another, is an excellent guide to world-building.
Probably not. I find that after three books I want to do something new: new magic, new characters, new world. I reckon if I start something brand new, then my writing stays fresh and I feel rejuvenated.
Although I’m not going back to the Isles of Glory, I am visiting another island archipelago in the trilogy I have just started to write. The middle book will be set on a tropical island. With spices and buccaneers and birds of paradise and general skulduggery. I have not managed to sell it yet, though…
And I am keen to go back to the Havenstar world – because I only ever wrote one book in that world! There’s room for more.
Q: I discovered The Mirage Makers when I was doing my Masters. It was particularly good timing as I was looking for books that explored the theme of discrimination. Do you consciously set out to explore themes, or do they creep up on you while you’re writing?
I’ve had it happen both ways. With The Mirage Makers the theme started as a combination of the Disappeared Ones of Argentina – when parents were murdered and the children adopted by the murderers and brought up to despise their parents’ politics – and the lost generation of Australian children, where Aboriginal children were forcibly removed from both their parents and their culture. So that was very deliberate, right from the beginning.
In The Isles of Glory, I set out to write a fantasy adventure, but themes crept in along the way.
Q: Your most recent trilogy is Watergivers. Like you, I can remember a time when our water came from a water tank. And we were only allowed an inch of brown water in the bath to wash. This trilogy sounds wonderful. ‘Ancient water tunnels, moving red dunes, singing sands, salt pans, settlements in dry water courses, waterpaintings, precious water.’ Do you find your books grow organically, or do you plan them?
Both. If I write a synopsis, then I often end up changing it substantially as I go along, especially by the time I get to book three. I keep on having better ideas! However, I think it is essential to know where you are going. If you don’t have an ending in mind, how can you push the story forward?
Q: I was prompted to start this series of interviews because there seems to be a perception in the US and the UK that fantasy is a bit of a boy’s club. Do you think there’s a difference in the way males and females write fantasy?
I do actually, although the moment you say something like that, someone else will find twenty different exceptions to the rule! However, let me take the plunge. I can’t imagine anyone but a male writer penning something like Joe Abercrombie’s The Blade Itself and the subsequent books set in that world. The level of violence and gore, the number and detail of the battles: it shrieks male author to me.
Women also write such scenes, but I think there is a subtle difference. In real life women tend to see victims as much as heroes when it comes to wars and fighting. And in fiction, the people who die are seen as more than just a body count to many (most?) female authors. Battle scenes written by a women always seem … sadder, more wrenching, and therefore less heroic, to me.
Women authors write epic fantasy just as well as men, but often differently, presenting more of the intimate and less of the big picture. Some male writers do this too, of course. In fact I’d say they do it more often than women write the more masculine heroic-scale story.
Have I said enough to earn myself a roasting in the comments yet?
Q: Following on from that, does the gender of the writer change your expectations when you pick up their book?
I think it does. And occasionally, of course, I am surprised. I’ve always been happy to read writers from any position along the gender spectrum, and it shocked me senseless when I was told that there were men who wouldn’t read women authors. I found it hard to believe that such extraordinary people existed. (I’m not kidding – I was absolutely astonished that there were men who happily wiped out half the human race from their reading. I guess I was once very naïve.)
One thing for sure, I’d never go too far into the future. I don’t want to know. And what if you transferred to 2100, for example – and the world had been wiped out by an asteroid in the meantime? And anyone who wants to go back in time ought to read Connie Willis to see all the things that can go wrong… Nah, no thanks.
What kind of fantasy (e.g. epic world-scale, rollicking adventure escapism, urban paranormal, romantic, historical, Havenstar world…) would you like me to write next and why?
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