2012 Snapshot Archive: Isobelle Carmody

First published at Kathryn Linge’s LiveJournal.

Isobelle Carmody is a science fiction and fantasy writer, who began work on the highly acclaimed Obernewtyn Chronicles at the age of fourteen. The first book in the series, Obernewtyn, was published in 1987, while the seventh and final volume, The Red Queen, will be published in Australia in 2013. Isobelle has written numerous other books, series, and short story collections. You can finder her online at her website,http://www.isobellecarmody.net/, and twitter.

1. The seventh and final volume of ‘The Obernewtyn Chronicles’, ‘The Red Queen, will be published in Australia next year. ‘The Obernewtyn Chronicles’ established you at the forefront of fantasy writing in Australia – how does it feel to be reaching the end of such an epic tale?

Horrible! No seriously, it feels sad and strange and also good- sort of like finishing university or school. So much of your life is invested in what you have been doing, and yet here you are about to shuck it all off. But at the same time a part of you is eager to be free of the weight of it dragging at you, so you can see what else you can do. But I have to admit that one of the ways I prepared myself for the break was to sign a contract with Penguin for The Beforetime Chronicles, which will tell the story of Cassy who appears only as a secondary character in the Obernewtyn Chronicles, and always through the eyes of Elspeth, who dreams of her. The beauty of this prequel trilogy is that even as Elspeth dreamed of Cassy, so Cassy will be able to dream of Elspeth. That means I can return to her time and revisit episodes that were only told in the first series. I have also written a couple of short stories set before the Obernewtyn Chronicles and I am looking forward to revisiting that world in parallel stories told either by Elspeth or by other characters. So I guess you can say I will finish, but we will stay in contact.

2. Last year you co-edited the two-volume ‘Tales from the Tower’ with Nan McNabb. What inspired you to put these anthologies of fairytale retellings together, and did you aim for the two books to differ thematically (or in any other way)?

I have been asked more than once over the years, to come up with a collection of stories but in general I do not much like collections of different authors, because too often the contributors are asked simply because they have a name that will sell, rather than because they can write. And since the collection is a money making proposition, these is seldom any real and striking coherence in the collection that results. Which is not to say that some of the stories are not brilliant. It is just that the collection ends up feeling a bit random and thrown together. My preference is for collections by the one person. But having said all of this before, I had an idea I found really exciting and which excited me as a writer but also as a reader. By that I mean I loved the idea of being able to ask authors whose stories I had admired, to respond to the idea. I was excited by the idea of what they might come up with. The fact that not a single person I approached said no or even asked about money, told me the idea was as good as I thought – I had asked for 10,000 word stories because you can wing it for 3,000 words. But you can’t mess around in 10,000 words.

By then I had asked Nan McNab to edit the collection and so she had some input into the list of people. We had other names but we simply didn’t get to them because of the enthusiasm with which the idea was taken up. I had written asking each author to choose a fairy tale and engage with it deeply, in whatever way they liked, so long as the resulting story resonated to the original and the the dark potency and ornate psychological richness of the fairy tale form. We had thought people would choose traditional fairy tales, but some asked if they could choose some lesser known stories. We agreed and when it came time to compile the collection, we were looking within the stories for an organising principal. I tried to group together stories for the first volume, that were more obviously rising from better known fairy tales, and leaving the others to the second volume, which we saw as a secondary circle emanating from the original idea. The split was not perfect of course. Maureen’s story could have come in the first volume, but in the end we felt hers and Catherine Bateson’s story in verse were older and less obvious retellings, so for that reason, they also fitted into the second volume.

3. You have also just launched a new short story collection ‘Metro Winds’, with your 1996 collection ‘Green Monkey Dreams’ soon to be reprinted. Do short stories provide you with an avenue for expression that longer works cannot? Do you think your short stories appeal to a different audience than your novels?

I do think that short stories are a very different form. The story The Wolf Prince in Metro Winds is long enough to have been a book i its own right, and certainly it is longer than some books. Yet to me it is a long short story – or a novella. It is not a book. The same with The Girl who could see the Wind. For all its length and complexity it is a story, not a book. I have never tried to articulate exactly why that is and I don’t want to do that now, because I like the amorphous certainty that tells me this is a story and not a book. I don’t actually want to unravel a process that has always worked very intuitively, by trying to intellectualise it. But I will say that the feeling a piece will be one form or the other comes partly from the originating idea and partly from how I write. The process of writing a story is not linear at all. It is a circling inward and it is detail orientated where a book is more linear – an unwinding of a story into a road that can be followed. It is no surprise, then, that the reader reacts very differently to story or book. The form demands a different approach and engagement. In general, I would say books are easier to read and so one is inclined to lose oneself in the unwinding of the tale. The impetus catches the reader, who is entranced and borne along by the tale. But a story requires a deeper engagement and a willingness to accept that there may not be any sense of impetus or forward movement. The reader must trust more and accept that they will not lose the world as one tends to do in a book. Somehow the short story form does not allow that setting aside of reality. It requires the reader to straddle the two words rather dangerously and precariously. Reading short stories is seldom as comforting as reading a book. One never knows what one is supposed to do with ones hands and feet. They are there, and yet they are not required. There is a self consciousness that a reader cannot escape, unlike in a book. Of course there are books that fullfil all of this prescription, too, but they are not my books. Often I read a book such as A Visit From the Goon Squad, which is utterly brilliant, and works for me like a series of stories rather than as a book works.

4. What Australian works have you loved recently?

Hmm I find that a hard question because I don’t read nationalistically. I often don’t know what nationality a writer is. I prefer to say that I have adored discovering China Mieville – his Perdido Street Station is an incredible feat of original word building and I would kill for his vocabulary. And The City and The City was an incredible feat of intelligence and poetry – Kafka meets Raymond Chandler. And Embassyville was so brilliant and difficult to understand that I read sometimes clinging on by the fingernails of my intellect. What a mind that man has! I loved Lauren Buekes noir novel Zoo City, too – interestingly that has been described as a noir novel and also as Chandleresque. No surprise that I love detective novels, noir novels and Chandler! I also loved A Visit From the Good Squad, which was a brilliant story as well as brilliantly original in form. Being out of Australia, I tend not to know what is going on in the scene, and I usually read books by friends or books that friends have recommended to me. For instance I loved Richard Harland’s Worldshaker and Liberator, and Scott Westerfeld’s series which begins with Leviathan and I liked Michael Prior’s Steampunk books, Paul Collins Mole Hunt and Marianne de Pierres Burn Bright series. To name just a few!

5. Two years on from Aussiecon 4, what do you think have been the biggest changes to the Australian SpecFic scene?

This is again a hard question for me to answer, living overseas as I do at the moment. But it does seem to me that a lot of people in the speculative fiction arena are looking at going the e-book and self publishing route, in a time when only the big seller or potential big sellers, are being taken on and kept on by the big publishers. Because a run that is too small to be worthwhile for a publisher can still have an audience big enough to support the writer, if he or she e-publishes. I think this is a very positive move in a time of flux, when there is an opportunity for writers to take more control of their own careers than ever before. Despite all the doom and gloom being touted about e-books killing the book industry, it is possible that whole depressed mentality is something of a cover story. If publishers are intending to put more and more of their books up as e-books, they will actually make quite a lot of money for far less outlay and effort than it took to produce and distribute traditional print books. In short, they may sell less books, but given less of an outlay, they will make more money. The writers, getting the same percentages, will suffer. Of course there are a number of independent publishers who are seeing the writing on the wall, and are ready to reconfigure to face a brave new world of publishing with different expectations and ideas. After all, the reason most independents exist is because someone there is mad enough to love books! I am not sure the same can be said of big publishers, though of course there are always people working for them who are brilliant and forward thinking and who love books enough to see them as more than just commodities, interchangeable and mass producable as boxes of Wheaties. In general, it probably makes perfect sense that people in the speculative fiction world are far readier to cut away from the old model and try entering the Brave New World under their own efforts. Maybe it is the nature of those of us who write speculative fiction to be ready and even willing, to try something new. To go where no one has gone before…

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