NEW South Wales writer Sophie Masson has written more than 50 books ranging from fantasy to history, mystery to graphic novels. In 2011 her historical novel, The Hunt for Ned Kelly, won the Patricia Wrightson Prize for Children’s Literature in the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, while her alternative history novel, The Hand of Glory, won the Young Adult category of the 2002 Aurealis Awards. She has also written several novels for adults, and four romantic thrillers for teenagers under the pen-name of Isabelle Merlin.
Her latest novels are The Boggle Hunters (Scholastic), a fantasy adventure for young readers 8-12, and My Brother Will (AchukaBooks), a novel for adults and young adults about a year in the Shakespeare family’s life, as told by William Shakespeare’s younger brother Gilbert. Forthcoming are the YA fairytale thriller Moonlight and Ashes (Random House) and the historical adventure novel for younger readers, Ned Kelly’s Secret (Scholastic).
Your list of fairytale books is getting long! The latest, Moonlight and Ashes, is out this month. What was it about Cinderella that attracted you?
Well, I’ve always loved the story and been fascinated by it and how it’s probably the most common fairytale theme across all cultures and different times — the theme of the neglected, abused, oppressed young girl who is gifted a better life and love of her own. It is a common human longing. The versions of the story I know best are the classic French one, Cendrillon, as told by Perrault (with the fairy godmother); the English one, Tattercoats, collected by Joseph Jacobs (which has a flute-playing gooseherd as the magic-worker, and which I used for my earlier novel Cold Iron) and the German one collected by the Grimm brothers, Ashputtel , which has no fairy godmother or gooseherd but instead a magic tree which grows from a hazel twig that Ashputtel hears about in a dream sent to her by her dead mother. I always liked that version because the Cinderella figure there is much more active than many of the others, and a lot depends on her own strength of character. It’s that which drove the creation of my own Cinderella character, Selena — though I’ve pushed it even further with her. And I’ve made a complete setting for her too — a fully fleshed out world, which is actually an alternative-world version if you like of the late 19th century Austro-Hungarian Empire, with the main setting, Ashberg, based on Prague, which I visited a couple of years ago. Fairytales are extraordinary and always reveal so much when you work with them and this one was no exception. It was an intense emotional experience, writing it.
Your bibliography covers so many genres. In the recently published The Boggle Hunters, you seem to have mixed science fiction with fairy folk fantasy — did that pose any particular challenges?
Not really. What I’ve done is updated many fairytale and folklore motifs and given them a modern twist, so that the Fays and Grays, the rival faery tribes in The Boggle Hunters, invent all kinds of very science-fiction sounding gadgets and suchlike, but in truth they are jazzed-up versions of very traditional things: the IWish card is an update of three wishes, for instance; the ‘glammer’ which the boggle hunters carry with them is a cross between a magic wand, a computer, camera and many other things! It was immense fun to do!
With such a diverse back catalogue of genres and readerships, have you noticed any common themes? Or have you found that some genres suit different themes better than others?
Well there certainly are common themes — among them that Cinderella theme of the neglected and left behind winning through to love and happiness; also an examination of courage and its antithesis, which to me isn’t cowardice so much as cruelty; the world within the world rather than beyond it — I am firmly imbued with the idea of what the Welsh called Annfwn, the ‘In-World’ — the magic world is not outside of ours but living by it and behind it. I think my own experiences growing up as a child between two worlds — France and Australia — and two languages — French and English — have contributed to that. I am also very much interested in metamorphosis in all its forms, and dreams.
What Australian works have you loved recently?
Very recently, I’ve loved Kate Forsyth’s gorgeous riff on the Rapunzel story, Bitter Greens, which weaves three different stories within its historical and magical framework. Richard Harland’s extraordinary steampunk Worldshaker series is also a great recent favourite. And though it’s not brand new, I’ve just read Heart’s Blood by Juliet Marillier, which is a beautiful, suspenseful and unusual version of another of my favourite fairy tales, Beauty and the Beast, which Juliet has set in Ireland around the 12th century, I think — anyway, there are Norman invaders, so I thought probably that time. (Incidentally, I’m at present writing my own Beauty and the Beastnovel , titled Scarlet in the Snow, which is inspired by the Russian version of the story, The Scarlet Flower and set in a country called Ruvenya, within the same basic world as Moonlight and Ashes.)
What have been some of the biggest changes in Australian speculative fiction in the past two years since Aussiecon 4?
I’m not sure — but perhaps the biggest change, and challenge, has come actually from general trends in publishing including the global financial crisis, which sort of made things harder for both writers and publishers, and the disruption but also opportunity afforded by e-publishing. Things are still shaking down from all that.