Ian – Thank you for agreeing to have a chat.
Tell us briefly what your new book, The Fatal Gate is about?
It’s Book 2 in my new epic fantasy trilogy called The Gates of Good and Evil. Book 1, The Summon Stone, was published last year, and began the sequel to my epic fantasy quartet The View from the Mirror which was published almost 20 years ago.
The story begins with Sulien, a nine-year-old girl, having a nightmare in which she sees the greatest warrior race of all, the Merdrun, gathering in the void between the worlds to invade her world of Santhenar. But Sulien has also seen the Merdrun’s one weakness – and they know it. This innocent child must be killed before she can reveal the secret.
Sulien’s parents, Karan and Llian, have to find a way to save her – and get that secret before the invasion begins.
In The Fatal Gate, the invasion has begun but the Merdrun’s gate has gone astray. They’re desperately trying to regain contact with the deadly summon stone that brought them to Santhenar, so they can reopen the portal and begin the slaughter of humanity. And Sulien, who still hasn’t been able to recover the secret, is lost at the far end of the world, and hunted by enemies and allies alike.
How does one prepare to write a series? This series for example.
With a lot of worldbuilding, character creation and story planning – and this series was particularly difficult because it’s the sequel to my most greatly loved fantasy story. I was very conscious that few sequels are as good as the original and I didn’t want to let my readers down. It was also difficult because the original series was written in an elevated, high fantasy style and these days I have a simpler and more direct style.
I worked on the idea of The Gates of Good and Evil for about a year, on and off, before I began detailed planning, then did many drafts of the 60-page outline before I was ready to start writing.
Once the outline is done I like to write the first draft very quickly, typically in 4-8 weeks, then do 3-5 more drafts over the next few months before I send it to my editor for her first look.
Do you have a set method of working? Do you have a usual time, place or word count to reach?
No, though the way I work is dependent on the deadline for delivery of the manuscript. If it’s only a few months away I push myself harder. However I find that when I write the first draft really fast it takes a lot less revision, I guess because I’m in the heads of the characters all the time, and the whole plot is in my mind. Typically I would average around 4,000 words a day doing the first draft, though there will usually be a few days in each book where I’ll write 10,000 words a day or more. Long, hard days, but exhilarating too, seeing the story being created out of nothing.
Why fantasy? Was it something that you followed as a child?
Not really, though in primary school I read whole encyclopaedias full of myths and legends, which I suppose one could see as fantasy for the readers and listeners of ancient times. I barely read any fantasy as a kid, though I read a lot of SF in my teens. I discovered fantasy at uni (The Lord of the Rings, the Earthsea series, Jack Vance particularly the Dying Earth series, Fritz Lieber’s Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser series, Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast and others – this was before the great fantasy boom which began in the mid-70s with Stephen Donaldson, Terry Brooks etc) and fantasy became the literary love of my life.
You’ve had huge success for an Australian writer. In many ways, you were at the beginning of the sci-fi/fantasy boom. There didn’t seem to be any genre writers in the eighties and prior. Yet it still took 14 years to get A Shadow on the Glass published (if I’ve read correctly). How on earth did you remain so driven? Especially as you seem to have written many other books during this period.
There were a few genre writers in the eighties though there was no way for them to be published in Australia by the big publishers unless they wrote for children, as Isobelle Carmody did with her Obernewtyn series. It wasn’t until the early-to-mid 90s that the big publishers in Australia were prepared to invest in Australian speculative fiction writers, and after a few false starts quite a few writers did very well: Sara Douglass, Traci Harding, Kim Wilkins, Kate Forsyth and myself, for example – and all did well internationally as well. From 1995 to 2010 was a true Golden Age for Aussie writers.
It took me 12 years to get published, but I knew it was going to be difficult when I started. I guess I’m a determined person; but also, by the time I’d written the first book of The View from the Mirror I knew storytelling was what I wanted to do with my life. Each rejection was painful for about a day, but I’m an optimist and after that I just started another draft. I only wrote the 4 books of The View from the Mirror in that period, but I did draft after draft, more than 20 of Book 1, A Shadow on the Glass, just learning the craft of storytelling.
After so many books, (31?) how do you remain enthused? Is getting older influencing your mindset in any way?
I’ve written 32 novels, plus an anthology of fantasy short stories, and I’m working on the final book of the current series plus a completely new trilogy – – an alternative history fantasy. Age and experience, and writing different books for different audiences (13 books for children/YA and 3 eco-thrillers about catastrophic climate change) has changed and simplified my style and what I write about, but ultimately I’m still writing big adventure fantasies. That’s what I like to write and what my readers like to read.
Are people really reading less?
I think people are reading less fiction, certainly. Partly because there’s so much other stuff they’re reading, social media, for instance. And partly because there’s so much more of other media available to be consumed, so cheaply – such as Netflix and its ilk offering all you can watch for a tiny monthly fee.
But that’s not the real issue for novelists. Publishing used to be expensive, and distribution required a big organisation to do successfully, and was costly, expensive and inefficient (often, a third of the books printed would be returned unsold). The huge changes since 2007 are (1) anyone can now be a publisher, for little or no cost, and (2) distribution is also easy and cheap.
Additionally, until a decade ago most books went out of print in a couple of years, leaving around 300,000 English language titles available for readers to buy new. But ebooks and print-on-demand books never go out of print; there’s now 10 million+ titles available to buy and the number is increasing at a million or more a year.
So every year it’s going to be harder for new authors to be discovered, and for existing authors to make a living, because each title is selling less and the price is being pushed ever downwards.
Have you ever been approached to write a screenplay or someone tried to option your work?
No. I’ve had a few enquiries about options for my books, but they haven’t come to the contract stage. A few years back I wrote a screenplay from one of my fantasy novels (Vengeance), just to understand what makes a screenplay work, but I haven’t sent it anywhere. It takes years to learn how to write a worthy screenplay.
Is there something, perhaps not even associated with writing, that you feel you would like to achieve?
I have a number of personal goals, however, my creative goals really relate to becoming a better storyteller. I’ve been studying the art of storytelling for 30 years and I’m still staggered at how much I have to learn.
And writing as many more books as I have in me. Quite a few, hopefully.
Thanks for the chat. I hope the series goes well.
Thanks very much, Anthony.