Q1: You’ve been working on an MA in Creative Writing. What’s your focus there, and do you think it will be of benefit in your novel-writing career? And if not, why are you doing it?
I started the MA because I was interested in teaching creative writing as a sideline to writing, ie. a day job. There’s been a lot of side benefits along the way. The week I enrolled, someone offered me some tutoring work in a short story subject. That’s been my main income over the last 18 months, as well as a quite enjoyable and interesting part-time job, basically critting stories for a living. I’ve also had a wonderful time working with my supervisor, Nike Bourke, who’s been a great mentor to me.
My project was what they call practice-led research, where you write a novel (or some other such creative thing) and then write a relatively short academic exegesis which relates in some tenuous or not-so-tenuous way to the creative work. My exegesis was about novel writing processes and strategies. You know some people say they plan everything out and how could you do it any other way, and others say they “work organically,” etc. It’s something I’ve experimented with over time and I wanted to shed some light on it, because it seems to be a slightly loaded topic and people talk a lot of rubbish about it. So I surveyed about twenty novelists over email, and then I got kind of ill and I haven’t done anything about it since. I took as much sick leave as I could, which was a year, but really my heart has gone out of the whole thing and I’ve just withdrawn from the program. In fact, I’ve decided to go off on a bit of a different course and I’ve spent the last little while trying to get into a medical degree. I’ve jumped through most of the hoops and with any luck I’ll start next year. I’ll still finish the novel I was working on, of course, but I won’t finish the exegesis or the pesky coursework that I had left.
Q2: You wrote The Silver Road while you were still at high school, but it took a while for it to be published. How much changed in that time? and was it all for the good?
I started it in the last few months of high school. It’s gone through a lot of changing and mooshing around. At first it was two books, a pair running concurrently, that would be published as part of a series. That presented a lot of problems, to reconcile the dramatic aspects with continuity between both books. When I was at the Varuna Manuscript Development workshop, Linda Funnell from HarperCollins suggested slicing the two books up and combining them. I think that worked pretty well, but it took about a year and was a real slog. In case you were wondering, the original two books followed Yelela and Zuven respectively, and I wrote Haga, the third character, at the same time that I was combining them. That was the version Penguin bought, and then it went through a very substantial structural edit, and a line edit which was as heavy as some people’s structural edits, and proofs which had five things marked up on every page. I’m exhausted just telling you about it.
It was definitely all for the good. I basically rewrote that novel as I learned to write better, but because it took such a long time, by the time I finished I was quite distant from the story. About once a month I get an email asking me to write a sequel, or even an epilogue, but I really can’t imagine doing it. The expressive impulse for the story was from long ago, and most of the work I did in the last few years was just making it work.
Q3: Your next novel will ‘probably’ be called The Motherland Garden. Any hints as to what it will be about?
It’s a fantasy set in a world which is industrialised but relatively low-tech. The protagonist lives in a women-only hermitage studying magic, in a country which is a subject nation of a much bigger empire. She falls in love, gets her heart broken, works in a mailroom, fails to learn magic, gets involved with guerillas, etc. Plus there’s lots of weather.
Q4: I’m sorry to hear that you’ve had some medical issues recently – I hope it’s left you more time for reading! On which note, what’s the best thing you’ve read so far in 2007?
I try to get Small Beer Press books when I can afford them, (which is often, as many of them are pretty cheap). This year I’ve absolutely loved both Howard Who?, an old Howard Waldrop collection, and Travel Light by Naomi Mitchison. Some friends of mine in the US have also started a new press, Blind Eye Books, and their first book, Wicked Gentlemen by Ginn Hale, was really great, too. I also loved Sixty Days and Counting by Kim Stanley Robinson, and recently picked up one of his older ones, Escape from Kathmandu, which was more fun than it had any right to be. Last one: I read Houston, Houston, Do You Read? by James Tiptree Jr, which was really compelling and persuasive.
Q5: Finally, on a completely different tangent: if you could get it on with any fictional character, who would it be, and why?!
I had a lot of trouble with this question. I scanned my bookcase and thought about all the heroes, but they’re mostly troubled, in a way which arouses sympathy but is not really attractive; or enigmatic loners who I might like reading about but who, in real life, would be those people who take themselves too seriously; or they’re those comfy-love-interest fellows that you feel good about the protagonist ending up with, but I wouldn’t necessarily go for them myself.