ANDREW McGahan is one of Australia’s finest and most varied writers. His first novel, Praise, won The Australian/Vogel Literary Award in 1992, and his third, Last Drinks, won a 2001 Ned Kelly award for crime writing. In 2004 his fourth novel, The White Earth, won the Miles Franklin Literary Award, the regional Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, the Age Fiction Book of the Year, and The Courier Mail Book of the Year. His most recent adult novel is Wonders of a Godless World which won the 2009 Aurealis award for science fiction. In 2011 Andrew released the first volume of his young-adult fantasy Ship Kings series,The Coming of the Whirlpool, currently short-listed in the CBCA awards and the Australian Book Industry awards and an Aurealis finalist. The second volume in the series, The Voyage of the Unquiet Ice, will be published in late 2012.
Andrew lives in Melbourne with his partner of many years, Liesje.
Some writers use pen names when they write across disparate genres, but you haven’t. What have been the pros and cons of sticking with the one brand?
I did toy with using a pen name for Ship Kings, and I might indeed have elected to employ one if my previous books had been in a single non-fantasy genre. But as I’ve already strayed a little across the genres with the earlier novels, I didn’t think anyone would be too bothered if I ventured into yet another field under my own name. As for the pros and cons of it -– I’m not sure about either. I’ve never given much thought to myself as a ‘brand’, or better to say, by the time I realised that I should think about it, my brand was already too muddled to save.
What have been some of the biggest pleasures and perils for an avowed landlubber building a nautical fantasy world?
The perils are obvious enough -– that, in my descriptions of sailing, I make a technical error so obvious and outrageous that it snaps the reader out of the story. To that end, I’ve done as much research as I can on the basics of sail, but at the same time I’ve avoided full-on immersion in it, nor have I signed up for duty on a tall ship. Too much reality could actually become self defeating. For of course the Ship Kings series is not set in our world, or upon our oceans -– indeed, the Ship Kings ocean has quite different physical properties — so real sailing is only relevant up to a point. Therefore my premise has been that even though I’ll never fool experienced sailors, if I can reasonably convince fellow landlubbers that I know what I’m talking about, then that’s good enough.
The pleasures are manifold. Precisely because I have so little experience of the sea, it has remained a great unknown for me where imagination can roam as it likes, which no doubt is why I’ve always particularly loved seafaring stories — especially the more fantastic tales of whirlpools and sea monsters and baffling disappearances. The Ship Kings series is a gleeful chance to revisit and enlarge upon all those boyhood adventures I remember reading. I couldn’t be having more fun.
You’ve won an Aurealis award and been short-listed for another, and have some far more presitigious award credits to your name. Without necessarily buying into the recent fracas in your old home state, what have these various levels of accolade meant for you personally and your writing career?
I’ve been very fortunate with awards over the years and I’m always amazed by (and grateful for) the passion for writing that it takes to set up and run such things. The Queensland awards are a case in point. As you know, they’re going ahead anyway in community form –- and the lack of prize money aside (and ignoring the wider politics of their axing, and the whole question of the role of governments in supporting literature) they’ll actually be better awards for it in some ways, because they’ll be a product of ground level enthusiasm, rather than an obligation of government policy.
But to win any award, of course, feels fantastic, for all the obvious reasons –- the validation of your work, the increased sales of the book in question, and not least the raw cash, should prize money be included. There’s no doubt that all of it together gives you confidence to push on with your career, when royalty statements alone might make you question if it’s worth while -– and the bigger the award the better. But strangely it’s some of the smaller awards I’ve won or been shortlisted for that have stuck in my mind the most, because I’ve been aware that they exist only because a tight group of organisers, judges and fans care enough to make them exist. There’s something rather humbling about that.
What Australian works have you loved recently?
Of late, Scot Gardner’s The Dead I Know –- very interesting indeed. And far too belatedly, sadly, I finally cottoned on to Paul Haines, with The Last Days of Kali Yuga collection. Cracking stuff.
What have been some of the biggest changes in Australian speculative fiction in the past two years?
I’m the last person to ask as I’m not very well read in any realm of Australian writing, speculative or otherwise, and I’ve struggled life-long with a deep-seated phobia for group activities such as conferences and literary festivals, so that I rarely meet or talk with other writers, or even readers. Which all means I’m pretty ignorant of trends in the local industry.