Garth Nix has devoted his career to the written word. He was a literary agent, marketing consultant, book editor, book publicist, book sales representative and bookseller, and he has now been a full time writer since 2001.
Garth’s books include the award-winning young adult fantasy novels in the Abhorsen series (Sabriel, Lirael, Abhorsen, Clariel and Goldenhand); the dystopian novel Shade’s Children; the space opera A Confusion of Princes; and a Regency romance with magic, Newt’s Emerald.
His fantasy novels for children include Frogkisser; The Ragwitch; The Seventh Tower sequence (The Fall, Castle, Aenir, Above the Veil, Into Battle and The Violet Keystone); The Keys to the Kingdom series (Mister Monday, Grim Tuesday, Drowned Wednesday, Sir Thursday, Lady Friday, Superior Saturday and Lord Sunday); the Troubletwisters series (Troubletwisters, The Monster, The Mystery and The Missing); and the Spirit Animals series (Wild Born, Hunted, Blood Ties, Fire and Ice, Against the Ties, Rise and Fall and The Evertree, all co-written with Sean Williams).
More than five million copies of his books have been sold around the world, his books have appeared on the bestseller lists of The New York Times, Publishers Weekly, The Guardian and The Australian, and his work has been translated into 40 languages.
- As a child, Garth was influenced by the works of Alan Garner (The Owl Service, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and Elidor), Ursula K. Le Guin (especially The Earthsea Cycle) and, inevitably, J. R. R. Tolkien. He also read Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Eagle of the Ninth and Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons series.
- In this interview, Garth reflects on his time as a literary agent at Curtis Brown and muses on why he had to give it up.
- Garth would invite Tolkien, Alexandre Dumas and Jane Austen to his ideal literary dinner party.
- Garth has been fortunate to meet his childhood literary heroes Susan Cooper and Diana Wynne Jones.
Nic Brasch: Garth Nix is one of Australia’s most successful writers. His novels have sold more than five million copies worldwide. That includes the series The Old Kingdom, The Seventh Tower, The Keys to the Kingdom, and Troubletwisters. His latest is Frogkisser. Garth, welcome to The Garret.
Garth Nix: Thank you, it’s good to be here.
Nic: Let’s go back a little while. When you were 10 years old, what where you reading? Who and what were you reading?
Garth: A lot of the books I read at 10, I’m probably still reading again today, to be honest. I love re-reading. I guess around that stage, some of the most formative reading, some of the most formative books I’ve read would come in that period.
I would include… I’m reminded of this because it’s the fiftieth anniversary of The Owl Service by Alan Garner – his books are very influential: The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, Elidor, and so forth. Alan Garner is a wonderful fantasist. Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan and The Farthest Shore. Lots of science fiction and fantasy. Tolkien, sort of the obvious one of all fantasy writers. It’s always 50-50, love or hate, but still very influential one way or another. Lots of historical fiction as well. I loved Rosemary Sutcliff, The Eagle of the Ninth and other books, people like Arthur Ransome, Swallows and Amazons. All kinds of stuff, but I also even back then I loved non-fiction as well. I loved particularly history and natural history, and they’ve all been very important in my own writing as well.
Nic: Everything you’re saying can be seen in your writing, so there’s an obvious link between what you’re reading at 10 and what you are now.
Nic: I’m wondering if then maybe through your teens, did you explore other avenues particularly, other genres?
Garth: Sure. Well, I’ve always read very widely and I love basically all genres. I love thrillers, I love murder mysteries, I’ve read lots of romance as well. I don’t disdain any genre based upon the worst examples of it. I think it’s good to keep an open mind because there are wonderful examples… Books should not be defined by where you put it on the shelf. So, all kinds of things, lots of classics too. I’m a huge fan of Dickens, Alexandre Dumas, Jane Austen, many, many often obvious candidates. But I’ve always read widely. I hope to continue to do so.
Nic: Unlike most writers I’ve spoken to, you actually had several roles in the publishing industry. You worked in publishing. Tell us about your path into that industry, and also whether your views of the industry are different from the perspective of a writer to how you found it when you were working within publishing.
Garth: I decided I wanted to give writing a very good go when I was 19 and I was travelling around. I worked for a year after I left school and I saved my money, and then I did the classic Australian thing of wandering around Europe, mostly the United Kingdom. I bought a beat-up old Austin 1600 with a gold flame stripe down the bonnet – made it go much faster – and I drove around and I re-read a lot of my favourite books, particularly the children’s books, actually where they were set. So, I read Arthur Ransome in the Lake District, read Dickens in London, read A Wizard of Earthsea in Cheshire. I went and had a look to see if I could find any of the landmarks, which was a tremendous experience for me, and at that time I thought, ‘I will try and write a book’. And I started writing a fantasy novel, and I actually wrote my first published short story during that time as well. But I was also always very interested in the business of publishing, and how it’s done, and in writers’ lives. And I liked biographies of writers and editors and publishers, so I already luckily knew enough even at 19 that I would need another job.
Nic: You’re a total book nerd, aren’t you? Biographies of editors and publishers –
Garth: Absolutely. I’m a quintessential book nerd. My whole life is immersed in the book business, my whole adult life. So, I realized I would need a day job, and I’d get a better day job if I had a degree. So, when I came back to Australia I thought, ‘Okay, I’m going to write, but I’m going have to equip myself to get a day job. So, I’ll have to go get a degree’.
Bizarrely, because I grew up in Canberra, I didn’t realize that what was then the Canberra CAE in fact offered the only writing degree in Australia at the time. Once I realized it, I thought ‘That’s for me, that’s perfect’. So, to cut a long story short, I went to what’s now the University of Canberra, I did that professional writing degree, and during that time I wrote half my first published novel. When I came out, I still needed a day job. I worked in bookselling, I worked for Dalton’s bookshop in Canberra which I absolutely loved. It was like a breeding ground for writers, actually, several of my old friends and cohorts from there are very established novelists and screenwriters and so on. From there I went into publishing in various roles, beginning as a sales rep through various editorial roles, ending up as a senior editor with HarperCollins. Then I had a hiatus for a while because I was sick of being poor. Publishing’s very badly-paid.
Nic: [Laughter] Yep, it certainly is.
Garth: I had one book published which really didn’t make any money, The Ragwitch, and so then I went to work and thought ‘how can I use my skills?’ I travelled again and I came back and found a job working in the PR business for IT companies, mainly American tech companies, which was massively better-paid. But after several years doing that – and still writing, I was always writing all the time – I realized that it was interfering with my writing, and even though it was highly-paid, there were other aspects of it I didn’t like.
So, I became a full-time writer for the first time in 1998. But I wasn’t psychologically equipped for it, so I had to go back to work a year later, part-time, which was when I was an agent at Curtis Brown. It’s a convoluted story.
Nic: When you were working in publishing, particularly as a senior editor, was there ever – you were a writer at the same time – was there a sense of envy of working with these writers who were getting published and being promoted and sold?
Garth: Yeah no, not really. I’d had one book published at that time. I think authors vacillate between extreme self-belief and extreme self-doubt. This is the natural order of things. You have to have insane self-belief to actually sit down and finish a book, and typically at various points through the writing of it, and when it’s finished, you’ll also have the extreme crippling self-doubt as well.
Nic; That’s right.
Garth: But in my work I always felt it was completely separate, and possibly it had something to do with my mental make-up. I was always able to separate the things. So, I was always very happy to work on, and I wanted to work on, very successful books. And I loved – and this was also the same when I was an agent – I always had a great sense of achievement when I found brilliant manuscripts, when I found a brilliant writer, and I could help them get their book published, and help make it a better book. I absolutely loved that. It’s kind of a separate thing from my own books.
I suppose possibly that drive from being in the industry and knowing that you can’t make books work, you can’t make books be successful. All you can do is believe in your own, and when you work in the industry, believe in the ones you choose to work on and try and make them better. But you can’t make them be successful. They either will or they won’t be. So, there’s an element of fatalism involved, except that I do believe that if you do all the basic things right, and you do the work, you increase the chances of it.
Nic: Of course, of course.
Garth: All you’re doing is adjusting the probability, so you should do all these things, you should do everything that helps. But it won’t definitively make something happen, it will just increase the chances. It’s all little probability adjustments.
Nic: You said at 19 you decided to give it a go, so presumably before then, you had been writing and considering it. Was this your main goal through school?
Nic: Tell me how you came to that decision and when you started writing?
Garth: Well, I started writing stories very young, and in fact I have a little book that I self-published when I was 6 or 7. I have it with me, actually.
Nic: [Laughter] Oh, really? Fantastic.
Garth: Well, I have a facsimile of it, because I use it at my festival talks sometimes. I didn’t today, but I have it on standby. So even back then I was writing very short stories, you know, a couple pieces of paper folded together and stapled. But even back then, I not only wanted to tell stories, I also wanted them to be made into books. So, there’s a number of books I made when I was a child, but it was never something I thought about actually doing until I was 19. In fact, in my late… in the last few years at school, I actually thought I was going to be a professional army officer. I thought I was going go to Duntroon and do that, but I joined the army reserve when I was 17, and being a part-time soldier convinced me I didn’t want to be a full-time one.
Nic: Fair enough.
Garth: For a whole lot of reasons. I actually liked being a part-time soldier, but it was a good realisation. So, then I had to work out at 18, ‘Well, what am I going do?’ I was always thinking I was going do this, and I didn’t have a clear idea. I went to work in the public service in Canberra as a salary clerk for the Department of Aviation, which was a fairly soul-destroying kind of job. It was actually filling out computer forms. I can still remember the code for changing someone’s salary. It’s burned in my brain. So, it was quite like being a Keynesian-era clerk, sitting on a high stool and filling out a ledger. But it enabled me to save money and then go travelling. It really was, an epiphany is perhaps too strong a word because it grew on me slowly, but travelling and re-reading and thinking about stories and seeing where they were set, it made me think ‘I want to write a book’. That was it, but with the common sense part of my mind saying ‘but yes, you will have to plan another career’, because most of the time you can’t make a living from writing. Then my other career was in publishing. So, I’ve had this concurrent publishing and writing career up until about seventeen years ago, sixteen years ago when the balance of the two became impossible and I had to become a full-time writer, which was a very fortunate circumstance. It wasn’t really the writing consideration, it was actually the other stuff. It was the promotional side…
Nic: All it takes.
Garth: And the demands, and also the nature of my job at that time. I was an agent with Curtis Brown, and as an agent you’re the business partner and promoter and champion of authors, and you can’t say to one of your clients, ‘I can’t read your manuscript. I’m going to America to promote my new book’.
Garth: It just doesn’t work. It’s not right. So, I reluctantly had to give that up. I loved being an agent, I loved finding new authors, I loved helping them sell their books and solve their problems and the whole process and so on, but I had to give it up.
Nic: Was your first novel always going to be fantasy?
Garth: Probably. Probably. The first novel I wrote while I was travelling, I didn’t finish, because I hadn’t learned the very important lesson – which all professional writers know – that you have to finish stuff. If you don’t finish it, nothing can happen. A finished project represents possibility. You’ve made anything possible once you’ve got a thing in your hand, or on your screen, on a disk. But if you’ve got two-thirds of a novel, that’s nothing.
Nic: It doesn’t matter how finished it is in your head.
Garth: No. It’s got to be finished for other people. You can’t transfer it direct. It’d be good if you could.
Nic: It’d be nice, it’d be very handy.
Garth: Avoid a lot of work.
Nic: It would.
Garth: But I hadn’t learned that at that stage. I went back and looked at it a few years ago, and it wasn’t good, but it wasn’t terrible. I actually think it possibly, if I’d finished it, I might have got it published. I got started relatively young anyway, but I would’ve got started even younger. But it’s a lesson, it’s one of those lessons you have to learn as you go along.
Then The Ragwitch, my actual first novel, which was published in 1991, was the one that I began when I was studying at University of Canberra. That took me quite a long time, because I was still learning you have to finish. I did finish it in the end. For that I guess, I did what I’ve always done, which is written the kind of book I want to read myself. And back then I was very much trying to emulate the books I loved the most, which were typically children’s fantasy. The Ragwitch in many ways is my take on Narnia. I always thought that you’d be much more terrified if you suddenly were in this fantasy land, it would be actually be much scarier than it is in C.S. Lewis’ books. I possibly succeeded too well with The Ragwitch because it was first published in America as horror, which surprised me a lot. People often tell me that they find it among the scariest of my books. So that’s kind of interesting; maybe I didn’t really know what I was trying to achieve with that. But yeah, I was trying to write the kind of books I liked to read, though I liked to read everything. I suppose I felt I could write that more effectively because I’d read so much in that area. Perhaps I felt I was more equipped to write that kind of book than I might’ve been to write something else.
Nic: You’ve been at the forefront of the fantasy genre for more than two decades now. The industry has changed a lot, tastes changed. I’m just wondering – Sabriel really launched your career as the first of The Old Kingdom series. Was that written and promoted in those days as a YA, or just as fantasy? How has the whole landscape changed in that respect?
Garth: Yeah, it’s changed, obviously.
Nic: Because I’m just trying to remember, it just seems to be there was just fantasy rather than YA, and there’s this extra complication…
Garth: YA was just beginning. It was a really new thing. And Sabriel was published as young adult initially, though actually since then new editions have been published either straight into the fantasy shelves or into YA, or there’s two that exist in different markets. There’s quite a funny thing when my American publisher decided to try and reach more a broad audience, they’d do an edition for the fantasy shelves for Barnes and Noble and so on. So, they did Sabriel, Lirael, and Abhorsen and they called them in the catalogue ‘adult’ – Sabriel, brackets adult – and Amazon was selling them with the same description, Sabriel, brackets adult. And I got this email from people saying ‘So what’s in the adult version?’ It’s exactly the same book, different cover.
Nic: It’s like the directors cut, isn’t it?
Garth: The director’s cut, it’s like ‘Oh no, it’s the same book.’ That’s always been, even in the very beginning when young adult was a very new category, and even now it’s always a difficult decision about whether something should be published as young adult or whether it should be published as adult. In fact, the later Old Kingdom books like Goldenhand and so on, on the back it just says fantasy, it doesn’t say YA. It could go either way, and in fact they are shelved often in both. My preference is good booksellers, clever booksellers, shelve them in both – even the big online booksellers – in multiple categories for them.
What it comes back to is always, and this is the classic publishing decision-making thing, of looking at a book and seeing where – in your opinion, which may not be right – the opinion of the marketing people, editorial team – where is the best place for that book to go, where it will strike the best initial market, the keenest, most fervent initial market. You always hope it’ll spread beyond that, but you want to hit the hottest spot first, and if you get it wrong, then it can’t grow because it won’t ignite the interest of the zeitgeist or whatever. So those category decisions are always interesting.
It’s the same with whether you should do a genre book that has a literary style, do you publish that as literary fiction, do you publish it in the genre, where is it going to get the most readers first which will then spread outwards across to a wider audience.
YA often, well that’s always the ultimate decision, sometimes it’s easy because some of the key parts of the text will just spell it out – a young protagonist, coming-of-age story – these things tend to incline towards YA, but it doesn’t necessarily mean they absolutely have to be. It’s like all categories, it’s not really content by content based. People think they are, if it’s YA it must be meant for teenagers and not for anybody else necessarily, but it’s not really about that at all. Categories are just selling tools and it’s good not to get too hung up on what they mean. I’ve met people who say, ‘I love Sabriel even though I don’t read young adult fiction’. And that’s just one label, it’s a category for selling books. It’s not a definition of who will like this book.
And all my books, while I think they do have that initial core audience target, they are for everybody. Even my children’s books like Frogkisser, and there’s a lot of discussion on Frogkisser because it’s been published as young adult in the US, even though to my mind it’s actually a children’s novel. But it’s a children’s novel for all ages, so it’s a children’s novel for adults.
Nic: Absolutely it is.
Garth: Scholastic, my editor at Scholastic’s argument was that it would reach more adults if it was published as YA than if it’s initially published as children’s, and we’ll get the children’s anyway because of their vast book club reach. Which seems to be true, so it’s interesting, all this placement issues. That’s the business side of the book which often doesn’t really have a lot to do with the writing.
Nic: You touched on something that I think is very important, I guess a trend in publishing that’s not necessarily positive, is the rising power of the sales and marketing people, as opposed to the editors and publishers, over the last, well certainly within the last twenty years, but even the last decade.
Garth: It’s probably the last forty or fifty.
Nic: Well, I meant they now hold ultimate power within a lot of publishing companies. Would you agree?
Garth: It varies enormously. I think yes, as a general rule it’s true, but I think the thing about publishing which is always worth bearing in mind is, and the same way I would say the answer to any publishing question, is always ‘it depends’. There’s never any strict answer.
I quite often talk to beginning writers, or early career authors in particular about issues or problems, and I’m on a big mailing list, an American mail list with about three hundred authors, so there’s people of very different stages. People pass around information about different publishers and ask questions and so on. Really, the answer to almost any question that arises is ‘it depends’. There’s no one true path or one correct way.
Even within the same publishing house, you might find someone saying ‘the marketing and sales people have done this and there’s nothing I can do about it’. Somebody else at that same publishing house, particularly the very big ones, will say, ‘well I don’t have that problem because my particular editor or publisher is more powerful than that one’. Often people forget that there are people doing these jobs, and it always comes back to the people involved. So, for example, I think it’s generally better to be with a very powerful and very smart publisher at a slightly worse publishing house than to be at a better publishing house with a not-so-powerful publisher and editor.
Nic: That’s interesting.
Garth: It’s not as homogenous as it looks from outside, but of course, when you’re getting started, you have no idea about any of it.
Nic: You take what you’re offered, really.
Garth: Well, hopefully you can negotiate and so on, but you won’t have… It’s hard to find this knowledge. And of course things change all the time. You work with a wonderful publisher for a decade and then they go somewhere else, and you have to – maybe the new person is worse or maybe they’re better in other respects.
Nic: It’s a big decision to make.
Garth: You can’t control these things, but you can just hope. You hope that they’ll work out.
Nic: Sure. Now, fantasy readers – obviously a big part of reading fantasy is an escape from the real world into this world that the author has created –
Garth: Well, reading is…
Nic: Reading is, but I’m wondering particularly fantasy because no other genre is so much, except perhaps science fiction, into this creation of a different world. Physical world.
Garth: I would slightly argue with you because I’d say the world of a cozy detective mystery is a created world.
Nic: It is, but it’s the real world.
Garth: I’m giving you a hard time.
Nic: No, no, this could be the topic of a future podcast, actually. But I’m wondering whether as a writer of fantasy, do you also escape into that world while you’re writing? Is there a need for you to have one foot firmly planted into the real world in the creative process you’re going through, and you don’t have the luxury of being able to escape in the same way as a reader does?
Garth: I think it’s very true that for fantasy to work, it needs to be actually deeply rooted in reality. It needs to have a foundation of reality, anyway, so you do have to ensure that. And I am writing something, I’m not transcribing my dreams or anything, so there’s the craft and art elements. So, you do have to be aware of all those things whilst you’re making it. It’s not the same experience as reading a great book where you fall into it completely. Of course, when the writing’s going really well, when there’s a scene that just totally works and it comes effortlessly out – which is never the case for a whole book, sadly, but it is for some parts – I do get carried along by the rush of that. But even then, you’re still writing a book. You’re not totally lost in an invented world. But everyone’s different. There may well be people who are, and in fact probably that would apply to people who write anything. I’m sure there are people who find themselves inhabiting the character, their main character for example, very closely. I kind of do, but I’m also still thinking about them as a character.
Nic: So, it’d be fair to say then that you have a bit of sense of where they are going, then the other writers who almost become their characters and see where they go?
Garth: Not necessarily.
Nic: Not necessarily, okay.
Garth: No, no. I guess this comes back to what the Americans like to call plotters or pantsers.
Nic: Yeah, that’s right.
Garth: I’m sort of in between in that I do like to do outlines, I do chapter outlines for a book, but actually then I don’t follow them.
Nic: That’s almost the ideal way, with the a flexibility there to at least get you started.
Garth: Well, it’s a zen process. I have to write the outline in order to ignore it. But it is handy because – if you look at one of the outlines for one of my books, you’d be reading the outline, ‘Well, what book is this from? Because it doesn’t appear to be any of your books’. It often goes completely in a different direction. But I find the process helpful, even though I don’t follow it.
I also sometimes will be lost in a book where I can’t work out where I’m going, even though I always know the end, but I don’t know how to get there. I can go back to my outline and I can see, well, Chapter 2 to 10 did not happen, that story is not the story I’m telling. However, Chapter 11 does have some things I wanted to get to, and I can use them. So sometimes coming back to the outline, even though I’ve mostly not followed it, is helpful to find the way forward again.
Nic: What about in regard to a series? When you’re starting the first one, are you already thinking of the books to come, or do you just – this is one, and there might just be a standalone, or do you go ‘nah, this is one of five and I know where I’m going?’
Garth: Well, it depends.
Nic: Tell me your experience of the different series.
Garth: Well, The Old Kingdom for example, Sabriel is a standalone novel. I had no intention of necessarily writing any more. I had no thoughts about any more books in that, and when I came back to it, I wrote Lirael and Abhorsen, the next two, actually as one book. So really there’s a standalone, then there’s one enormous book which became split in two. And of course, they’re also kind of Old Kingdom: The Next Generation anyway, in that they take place eighteen years later.
Nic: Then there was a huge gap…
Garth: Very big gap.
Nic: So, what happened there?
Garth: Well, I had the idea, I actually wrote some notes about Clariel when I was writing Lirael back in 1999, and I kept meaning to come back to it, but I had other books in between, and then other books. I kept thinking ‘I’ll come back to it, I’ll come back to it’. Both my publishers and readers were very keen I come back to it, but I hadn’t worked out enough of the story I wanted to tell. I knew some of the key elements, and then by the time that I had is when I came back to it, I was like ‘Oh wow, ten years have gone by without me really noticing. I better write it now’. I also knew quite a lot of the story of Goldenhand, but I couldn’t write Goldenhand which continues straight on from Abhorsen until I’d written Clariel, which is actually a prequel six hundred years earlier. So, it was like a structural series problem there.
Nic: Sure, sure.
Garth: But The Keys to the Kingdom for example, Mister Monday, Grim Tuesday, et cetera, I knew that would be a series. I actually didn’t want it to be a seven-book series because I thought that was too long, but the nature of the narrative where each day is so significant, I was thinking maybe I could do Monday to Friday and then the weekend.
Nic: Get out of an extra book!
Garth: Well, one less book, actually. But ultimately, I had to accept that if you’re going to write a book where each book is called after one of the days of the week, and it’s such an important part of the structure of the whole narrative and the antagonists in the series, then it’s going have to be seven.
Nic: Looking back, you could’ve done Monday, midweek, Friday, and the weekend, and you would’ve just had to do four.
Garth: Or Monday/Tuesday, Wednesday/Thursday, Friday/Saturday, Sunday. It just doesn’t work.
Nic: Nah, it doesn’t work nearly as well.
Garth: So sometimes planned, sometimes not.
Nic: The whole world creation in fantasy, does it take part mainly in your head, notebooks, butcher’s paper, bit of both? None? Where does it all happen?
Garth: That’s a good question. I’m not like Tolkien in the sense that I work out the whole world. He famously worked out his entire world, the languages, the history, the huge mass of it all beneath the story. All that submerged iceberg stuff with 10 percent as the visible story, then there’s all this other stuff – he actually worked it all out. I like to give the illusion that I’ve worked out all that 90 percent of the iceberg, and I think it’s important in fantasy.
Nic: Of course.
Garth: The reader has to feel like all the rest of it is there. But actually, I didn’t work it out beforehand. I don’t work it out for any of my stories. I work out a few key details, and then I discover the world as I go through with the character. So, it’s new to me as well. Of course, writing something like The Old Kingdom, progressively more and more is known through the books, and I’ve also implanted more and more little hooks to things which I think I might need later. I don’t actually work out what they’re connected to, I just put down those streamers which I might pick up later or not.
Nic: Well, have you had the opposite chronological thing happen where you discovered something about The Old Kingdom that you go ‘Oh, I wish I’d known that one before, I would’ve been able to change this in this way, or…’
Garth: It’s happened a few times where I thought I wish I hadn’t set this up in a particular way. But I have also to accept that, again it’s about this building on a foundation of reality. Once you’ve established the bounds of your fantasy world, and set the rules as it were, changing them invalidates what you’ve already done. The suspension of disbelief is out the window. So, I have to accept that ‘Okay, while this is cool and I’d like to do it, I can’t because it doesn’t fit in with how this world works’… Any more than if I was writing a contemporary realistic story where if I suddenly introduced fantastical elements where there had been none and there were none thereafter, it’d also break the reality of that story. But a much nicer thing is every now and again I’ve had particular ideas come into my mind and I’ve thought, ‘Oh I’d love to do this, but to do that I’d have to set up – oh, I have set it up’. Either my subconscious is remembering some very small detail from a book from years and years ago, or back then I was thinking of what I’d just thought then. I don’t know how it works, backwards and forwards.
Nic: How nice is that?
Garth: It’s very nice when it happens.
Nic: You seem to enjoy writing strong engaging female characters. Is this a desire to empower young women, or is it simply an acknowledgment that maybe more of your readers are girls than boys?
Garth: Totally an accident, in the first case. It’s kind of a happy accident. With Sabriel I actually wrote the prologue and at that point I was thinking I’d probably – which is where she’s born, her father brings her back from death – and I was thinking I’d probably write the book about him, about the Abhorsen. But by the time I’d written the prologue I thought, actually she’s much more interesting. Then I had this beginning image of her as a grown-up schoolgirl at 18. So that really was a happy accident, and I got a lot of reviews at the time which complimented me on being different and having a female protagonist, and I hadn’t even really thought about it. I was very pleased to be complimented on it, it was very nice, but I hadn’t actively thought about it.
Then later on with Lirael, and nearly all my books which do have women protagonists, they were just characters that came to me. I guess it’s part of how my books work, is that I often know or have an inkling of the main character, and often it’s relatively visual. I can see them in a setting, and I don’t know anything about them, and I try and work it out. So, with Lirael it really came from an image of this disgruntled teenage girl who is head and shoulders above all these other girls – who I knew were the Clayr, these women who can see the future who all have brown skin and have blonde hair, which itself goes back to some young women I saw in Pakistan many years ago who were brown-skinned, but dyed the front of their hair blonde where it came out under their scarves. So, the Clayr came from just that one little image, the corner of my eye just caught on the street. So, I had that image of her, and I thought, who is she? And she’s black-haired and she looks like Sabriel, she doesn’t fit in. Who is she?
Garth: So really it was all story-driven, and it’s been good because the world needed more women protagonists in fantasy and science fiction. But I also have other books, of course, which have male protagonists, or have the duo where there’s two. So, it’s more a story-based thing. I do find it interesting, people ask not so much why I have them, but some of those people will say to me, how do you write female protagonists? I always think, what do you mean, how do I write female protagonists? No one asks me how I write bizarre monsters made out of grave mould and blood. Or how I write strong women. Well, how do you write strong women? They’re all around, I grew up with strong women. I can look around me in life and draw on life. It’s super easy. So, I do find that question puzzling.
Nic: Yeah, yeah, I can totally get that. World-building is such an important part of fantasy and science fiction. You’ve written them both in long-form, but also in short stories. How hard is it to write a short story in those genres where you don’t have that capacity to really build the world to the same extent as you do in an extended story?
Garth: I love short fiction and there’s, particularly in science fiction, there’s a very strong heritage of short fiction…
Garth: … of famous science fiction short stories, and in fantasy as well. I think I write short stories often as an antidote to the long novel haul.
Nic: Just to get something finished, just to go back to what you were talking about before, you’ve got to get something finished.
Garth: Well, it’s because I need to go away from the novel. I think often you need to go away from the novel to think about it and have fallow time, but then it’s still good to be writing something. So, it’s not like you’re not doing anything. I’ll write a story instead.
In terms of the world-building aspect of it, I think you can do a great deal just with a few small details. This is actually true in the novels as well. So even if you’ve only got three, four thousand words, you can do a great deal just with a few small details. You don’t need to explain anything, you don’t need to expand upon it, you can just give a few small details, a few key little things which make the reader think about it.
Nic: Trust the imagination of the reader.
Garth: Yeah, trust the imagination of the reader, absolutely. And it does work, and this includes things even like made-up words, if the resonance of it is right, people will figure it out. So that’s kind of fun. Someone, a critic, once said of my most recent collection of stories To Hold the Bridge – I think has eighteen stories from about the last four or five years which have been in various other publications – and one of the reviewers said nearly all the stories feel as if they could turn into novels, they feel like they’re part of bigger things. Which I was very pleased about because I want them to feel as if they are a real thing, as if they could be part of some bigger story. So, I was pleased by that.
Nic: Have you ever had the situation where you want the choice to go ‘No, this is a novel’, or at some point you just don’t – or vice versa, you just don’t know and you’ll give it a go?
Garth: Yeah, often.
Nic: So, what is it that turns it into the other?
Garth: I think what turns it into the other is the amount of story that you have and how it’s going to be told. I often begin lots of stories, and I put them away, and some of them I come back to and some of them I never come back to, some wait a very long time. Things like Clariel, I actually wrote the beginning of that years and years before I wrote the rest of the book. Frogkisser, I wrote the beginning thinking I was going to put it away, and then got it out again straight away basically, out of my mind. I should’ve put it away because I had another book to write, which was actually contracted. Frogkisser wasn’t. But luckily my publishers forgave me and it’s all worked out. But it was one of those stories that demanded to be written. When I wrote the first chapter I thought it was going to be a short story, and then I just realized that I had a lot more to tell than I could fit into even quite a long short story.
It is always very interesting because sometimes they become novellas, or very long short stories, sometimes they’re very short. Sometimes they’re too short to actually really use. Though nowadays of course, there’s many more venues for flash fiction and very short fiction. I’ve written things which are kind of like a mood piece which worked for me, but probably not a complete story, and I don’t know why I’ve written them. Maybe they’ll be useful later on, maybe they’re sort of harbinger of something else that’s to come. You end up with a lot of stuff. If you’ve been writing as long as I have, there’s a lot of, you know, the hard drive is full of bits and pieces.
I have always been my own ideal audience. Some authors have an idealised reader who is not them, and again this illustrates everyone’s different. Which is great, and everyone writes differently. There’s no one way to write a novel. Many people have a particular reader in mind which may in fact be a real person. Well, I guess I’m a real person. But I am the reader that I want to satisfy.
Nic: Festivals and promotional time aside, can you take us a little bit through your writing routine? Do you write six hours a day in office? Do you go to a café for half an hour? What’s your story?
Garth: Well, it’s changed a lot over the years. I think it’s important not to get hung up on a particular routine. It’s good to have a routine, I think actually having a discipline or a routine is about as essential as anything in writing, though again there’ll be people who don’t have one that works for them.
Garth: But for most people, it’s good to have one. But of course, I wrote my earlier books, probably my first fourteen or fifteen novels were written while I had very busy day jobs, and during that period I used to write a couple nights a week. I’d write for three or four hours a night, and I’d write as many Sunday afternoons as I could. By Sunday afternoon I mean from about 2pm to about 11pm. Very, very concentrated work. That worked for quite a few years, that’s just what I did. Then when I became a full-time writer – the second time I became a full-time writer, because the first time I could be a full-time writer I left my incredibly busy PR job and that was the year I did less than any other year of my whole writing career, because ‘I’m a full-time writer, I’ll do it tomorrow. I have all this time.’ Then about halfway through I panicked because I had a deadline and so we’ll forget that part. But since roughly 2001, I’ve had a separate office and I have a corner of the spare room at home.
Typically what I do is I walk to my office, which is about a fifteen-minute walk, clears the mind and so on, I answer emails and stuff around with admin, which there’s quite a lot. Again, if you’re doing it a long time and things are working, it’s a small business that has its own demands and so on. Then usually what I do, and again this varies, but most of the time I will look at what I wrote the previous day, and I’ll noodle around with that. I’ll ease myself into it and start writing new material. I guess in terms of either editing, revising, or writing new material, I would do about three or four hours of that a day in my office. Then I go home early, often about 4pm to see my boys when they come home from school, then most of the time I resume work for a little bit around 9:30pm or 10pm for an hour or so. But when I’m towards the end of a novel, I will resume work probably like 8:30pm and I’ll work ‘til midnight or 12:30am or 1am. As the momentum of the novel is increasing, I’m approaching the end, I do much more work at night.
Nic: I was going ask, because a lot of people actually also find as they get older, they go from being the night worker to actually doing the early morning. So, you haven’t made that transition?
Garth: No, no, and I very much doubt whether I will.
Nic: Still, you’re a young man.
Garth: Well, thank you for that. I’m not really. But no, I like working at night. Maybe that harks back to when I had to work at night because of the day jobs. And I guess also sometimes I may spend a whole day not writing in my office, doing other stuff, all the things associated with being a published writer and so on, and fulfilling those demands. Which is not as important as the writing, because the writing is the real thing, and all the other stuff is just probability adjustment, as it were. But it’s still important. Sometimes people get hung up and think doing other stuff is more important than the writing, which I don’t think it ever is, but there’s a healthy balance there. Certainly there’s things I don’t do and won’t do and I say no to. But there’s also lots of things where ‘Yes, this will help the books, you know, I should do them’.
Nic: For actual writers, from history or contemporary, who would you have over for dinner and why?
Garth: That’s a very interesting question. I guess from working in publishing, and my wife is also a publisher, and being a writer for a long time, I actually know an awful lot of writers I have had dinner with. So, I’ll cut those.
Nic: Cut those. You’re giving this more trouble than it’s worth.
Garth: I would like to talk to Tolkien, though I believe that he was not actually a great conversationalist. I know people who knew him and who studied under him. Apparently his lectures were… he’d face the blackboard and mumble. But I figure that would be very interesting. I would like to… Alexandre Dumas I’d like to meet. Jane Austen, I would like to have a dinner very much. All the living writers I’ve had various chances to meet, including some of my childhood heroes like Susan Cooper and Diana Wynne Jones, I’ve had the opportunity to meet, which was tremendous and kind of amazing. Just to see them as a person, even though I learned long ago and got over the glamour of authors long ago from working in publishing, it still certainly applies to some of my childhood loved books.
Nic: You’re very brave, because there is that adage, never meet your heroes.
Garth: Though you never know. It’s true I may have sussed out beforehand what some of these people were like, but yeah all the – and I have met people whose work I liked, and I didn’t like them. That certainly happens, which is a disappointment, but there you go.
Nic: There you go.
Garth: I’d love to have them, that’d be great.
Nic: Yeah, there’s some great names there. Look, Garth, we could talk for hours. It’s been an absolute pleasure talking to you. Thank you so much for your time.
Garth: It’s been fun. Thank you very much.
Nic: Thank you.