I have been running a series of interview with female fantasy writers to redress a perception I came across – that fantasy was a bit of a boy’s club. It really isn’t like that here in Australia. We have many wonderful fantasy writers who just happen to be female.
Today I’m interviewing Richard Harland, author of the hugely popular Worldshaker books. I have been doing a series of interviews of female fantasy authors and thought it would be interesting to get a male fantasy writer’s perspective on the question of writing, gender and fantasy.
See Richard’s cool Worldshaker book trailer.
Q: In an interview on Readings you describe Steampunk as: ‘a kind of retro imagining of machinery and gadgets that might have happened. … Jules Verne in his own day imagined future technology, but nowadays it looks to us like an alternative technology of the past that never actually happened. Steampunk worlds usually have a 19th century or pre-WW I feel about them.’ To me it seems a genre you are ideally suited to write because of your English background and your penchant for waistcoats. (Richard has a page on Tips for Writing Steampunk). Reading Worldshaker and the sequel, Liberator, it feels like it comes very naturally to you. Is this right?
It comes naturally to me, for sure. I look back on my earlier novels and I can see steampunky bits creeping in – the early industrial scenery in parts of the ‘Ferren’ books, the Victorian elements in The Vicar of Morbing Vyle and The Black Crusade. Deep down, I always wanted to write steampunk, and the Worldshaker world was ten years in the planning before I began writing it, fifteen years before publication. I had no hope of getting it taken up by an Australian publisher until the steampunk trend started to build momentum internationally.
My interest in early industrial technology and Victoriana goes back to my childhood, which happened to be in England. But did it have to be in England? I look at some great steampunk writers in Australia – like Michael Pryor and Scott Westerfeld (as ‘honorary Australian’) and they don’t have that kind of background.
The one area where I’m sure my English background does count is in my depiction of class. The class system is strong and flourishing on the juggernaut ‘Worldshaker’ – and that’s something that doesn’t come in much with most other steampunk writers. I think you need to suffer under a class system to have a strong emotional feel about it!
See Richard talking about Steampunk at Bialik College, Melbourne.
Q: I see there was a point where you dropped out of Sydney UNI and ‘bummed around’ writing songs and performing them at venues around the city. I bet there’s a book in there somewhere. Are you ever tempted to write about this period (disguised of course)?
Yes, and I will. Promise!
Q: You are not a novice to winning awards with many final-listings in the Aurealis Awards, several wins and the Golden Aurealis Award in 2004. Recently Worldshaker won the prestigious Tam-Tam Je Bouquine award for best novel ages 10 -15. I bet you wished you were in France at the time to pick up the award. Did it come out of the blue?
I’d never even heard of the Tam-Tam Je Bouquine award until I won it! In fact, it never occurred to me that there were YA awards in France. (Makes me wonder whether it means much to anyone overseas when I can boast of winning those six Aurealis Awards.) My publisher and editor dressed up specially to accept the award on the night – and I’m sure they expressed our shared reactions to the honour of the award far better then I could have done. At least they could express them in understandable French!
See Richard reading from Worldshaker at Bialik College, Melbourne.
Q: You have written 145 pages of writing tips for aspiring authors. (Find them here). This must have taken ages, Richard. As a University Lecturer you have a background in teaching. Have you had a good response from aspiring writers to your Writing Tips pages? Do you get emails from people? (I know I would have devoured your writing tips when I was first starting out. I still find useful things in there whenever I dip into it).
Yes, I keep getting emails and positive responses – which makes me feel good about setting up the website. Because you’re right, it ate up an enormous amount of time – four months when I could have been writing my own novels. But the feedback makes it all worthwhile.
Q: And now Liberator is coming out. Having read an earlier draft at one of our ROR weekends, I know it delivers more Steampunkery goodness. Do you envisage a another book in this series?
Not immediately. it’s a duology that resolves in an almighty battle – and although there’s obviously more story to come, the Col-Riff romance has worked itself out by the end of LIBERATOR. Not much you can do with male lead and female lead after that!
So I’m taking a breather from that particular strand of history in the juggernaut world. The novel I’ve now started writing belongs in a different time and place, with different characters. I hope to continue the Worldshaker/Liberator narrative some time further down the track.
See the Allen & Unwin Worldshaker Book trailer.
Q: Wow, Richard I think I have book trailer envy. It looks like your Worldshaker has inspired quite a few people. Did you ever think you’d have book trailers?
I never thought much about book trailers. I see what people have done (in the UK, Germany and Australia), and think how clever and creative it is. But it’s an art-form I don’t have any personal connection to. I imagine my books almost like a movies unrolling in my head before I ever start writing them – that’s my form of visual imagination.
What I’d really like to see is a movie trailer!
See another book Worldshaker book trailer.
Q:You’ve been a busy man in the last ten years or so with the Wolf Kingdom books. (This won the Aurealis Best Children’s Illustrate Work/Picture Book). Have you been approached to write more in this series?
No, and at the moment I wouldn’t want to. I’m zooming in on steampunk and YA fiction. I don’t want any distractions!
Q: And there are many other books, some aimed at children, like Sassy cat one of my son’s favourites, right through Ferren and the Angel for teens, to the SF/Mystery series Eddon and Vail. Plus there’s the duology, The Vicar of Morning Vyle and, The Black Crusade which won Best Horror and the Golden Aurealis. You say you suffered writer’s block for 25 years. When you got over this, it must have felt like a dam breaking. How did you get over your writer’s block?
Many factors, including setting up a regular writing routine. And sheer bloody-minded stubbornness, because I bogged down time after time on my first novel – and went back to begin again over and over. I guess in the end I managed to live up to my own standards. Very stupid – I couldn’t bear to show my work to anyone until it was perfect … When I should have been learning how to improve by finishing imperfect stuff and getting feedback on it from other people.
I’m a very bad role model for other writers. My writing tips website is like a way of telling other intending writers how to steer clear of the traps I fell into!
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?
Do they really think that in the US and UK? Sounds like a hangover from the far past. No one could ever think of fantasy in Australia as a boy’s club. Here, the most successful fantasy writers are mostly women, as are the vast majority of readers.
Q: Following on from that, does the gender of the writer change your expectations when you pick up their book?
I hope I can change my expectations according to what I read when I open the book, but maybe I do expect some things things more from male or female authors. From male authors, wild supposition and fantastical imaginings; from female authors, a fullness of fleshed-out reality, a sense of detail, and being there right in the scene.
Having said that, of course, good fantasy writing has to have both. I can think of heaps of examples of male authors who can flesh out their creations until you’re right there in the scene; and heaps of examples of female authors with powers of the very wildest imagination.
Q: And here’s the fun question. If you could book a trip on a time machine, where and when would you go, and why?
The time of the French Revolution, end of the eighteenth century. The most exciting period ever, for me. (Anyone who reads LIBERATOR could guess that!)
I’m assuming that I’m guaranteed survival, though – or that I can hop back into my time machine and escape if the guillotine gets too close to my neck!