Born just before the 80’s began T.B McKenzie grew up in South Gippsland, Victoria, where boys either surfed or played football. He did neither, and, as this was a time before the Internet, he found his escape in books. Somehow he missed the boat on Tolkien but discovered instead the works of Loyd Alexander, Terry Pratchett and Ursula Le-Guin, who all had a lot to say about things people seemed to have forgotten. He never looked back and ever since his first story — written in grade four about a monster, a sword, and a hero — he knew he wanted to be a writer. He lives now with his wife and young son in Melbourne, where he teaches Art at high school by day, and swings a sword in a Western Martial Art class by night (turns out this is way more fun than surfing or football). Every now and then he even finds the time to write.
You devote a large part of your blog to the process of writing, approaching it from directions that I had never even thought of – such as the concept of Kishōtenketsu. Could you tell us a bit about your process, and how some of these methods have helped with your writing?
I was a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants (panster) writer for the first few years, and only when I had an editor did I realise how much time I’d wasted. Then I became what George RR Martin calls a Gardener, and spent most of my re-drafting weeding. Along the way I became very interested in plot structure, using the three act arc as a guide to inject conflict and tension in every scene. My book was published and just as I sat down to repeat the process with the sequel, along came an article on Kishōtenketsu. It was a bit of a revelation as it’s structure of KI (intro), shō (follow), ten (twist) and ketsu (consolidate), fit more closely to what I loved most about my genre. I’ve read somewhere that we don’t gravitate to a genre of book, so much as the emotion we want that book to give us. Romance fans want love, Crime and Horror readers hunger for fear and suspense. I think with Science Fiction and Fantasy, what I’m looking for both as a reader and writer is a sense of wonder. Kishōtenketsu, I believe, has wonder at its heart. Perhaps no better example is the movie ‘My neighbour Totoro’ which I think might be the most pure adherent to the structure that I have found.
Using this lens has made me see more clearly what I want my writing to do, both on the micro scale of scenes and chapters, and the macro with the individual novels and the series as a whole. Originally I was going to wrap Magickless up in a trilogy, each book divided into three parts. Now each novel has four parts, and it will be a quadrology. Or a tetrology–I never have worked out what to call it, but there will be four of them. The writing program, Scrivener, has helped this kind of approach, as it is set up to work outside in. In this sense I’ve become an architect, but instead of being limited by this, it has set me free.
Worldbuilding seems to a big part of your writing, with a lot of work going into the back ground of your stories. How do you approach creating a secondary world?
The whole idea for Magickless came to me when I was arguing with friends about how stupid it was to have a quasi-medieval setting were only a few ‘chosen ones’ could use magic. If magic was real in the world, then there had better be a damn good reason why only a small percentage got to use it, and if there wasn’t then everyone should be able to access this power. But if that was the case, then there was going to have to be some rules. Money would be meaningless unless power itself was the currency. Then there is the question of limitation–does everyone get to work any spell they like if they have the right book, or are there more intricate laws that dictate magic use? Once I asked the question ‘and what would you do in this world if you didn’t have magic?’ I knew I had a book. So I guess Magickless all began with world building. If you keep giving logical answers to questions about how a world will function, you cannot help but build a believable place. Customs, names–even the layout of towns–must all link to the driving force of a society. And of course there is the language itself. I am no Tolkien, but from the beginning I wanted a unique way for the inhabitants of Arkadia to cast their spells. I started looking into a priory or philosophical languages, as I knew that magic words and grammar needed to be far more precise that our metaphorical English. In my search I stumbled on Solresol, a forgotten musical language. I was lucky to find a small community of linguists who were trying to revive both its written and spoken forms, and they helped formulate the spells you can see in the book. This was a big part of the world building, as it shaped one of the most crucial questions–how does a child learn to be a magician? Of course, I also take world building literally and make my own maps.
Your fantasy series, Magickless, has had an interesting journey, with the original publisher, Dragonfall Press, closing down. I believe that you’ve found a new home (congratulations!) for your books, but it must have been a tough thing to deal with? Can you tell us a bit about the ups and downs?
I signed with Dragonfall in 2011, and was thrilled to be part of a fledgling mission to bring independent Australian SF to bookstores. My editor, Michael Foster, helped shape the early manuscript into something I was really proud of, and after its release I was getting great reviews and making steady sales. All was well in the world and I was just finishing up the final edit on the sequel when out of the blue, Dragonfall had to close. I was devastated, of course, but I saw Michael’s point. He was a writer first and foremost, and running a publishing house by himself was leaving him with zero time for his own projects. He made the call to get out while the going was good, and not only returned all the rights to the authors he had signed, gave us the rights to the cover art he had paid for. I was flat for a while to say the least, but then realised I had a unique opportunity. So much of what I now wanted to do with the series had come to me towards the end of writing the sequel. Most writers move on, some return years later to do their definitive edition, but I could get it right now. So I started to re-write, and at the same time I re-submitted my work to new publishers, being very upfront with my situation. Satalyte Publications, a Melbourne based house, said yes, and slowly everything fell into place. Once again I am with an exciting independent publisher, have a brilliant editor, and am among an incredible line up of writers–old and new–who have a collective noun of books in the stores with many more to come next year. It’s been nine years since I first started writing Magickless, and I hope 2015 will be the year all the hard work pays off.
What Australian works have you loved recently?
By day I teach Art, and this term I have an artist in residence, Bernard Caleo, working with my classes and teaching them all about graphic novels. I was never a big comic book fan, and if I had to chose one medium as my primary source of entertainment, it would be audio books–about as far from a graphic novel as you can get. Then Bernard opened my eyes to the amazing underground comic scene in Melbourne and I realised that there are some stories that cannot be conveyed by words alone. Artist like Shaun Tan and his book ‘The Arrival’ can only work in the nuance of the panel. But the one I’ve really fallen in love with is Nicki Greenberg’s ‘Hamlet’. Shakespeare has always been tough for me to get into. I can’t stand the BBC style acting, or the overly earnest movie adaptations, and trying to read the plays in script form is jarring. Yet all writers should study the Bard, right? Well, it turns out that the ‘staged on the page’ version was the answer for me. All the original dialogue is there, delivered by a cast of surreal characters and juxtaposed against backgrounds that add symbology and resonance to the text. I might not be able to read it as I ride to work, but then again, just as some books need more than words, some stories need to be read sitting down, somewhere quiet.
Have recent changes in the publishing industry influenced the way you work? What do you think you will be publishing/writing/reading in five years from now?
Aside from reading to my son, I don’t read many paper books anymore. I am what they call an audio-book-o-phile, and my audible library is growing fast. No one can deny that the book industry has changed, and while some are still waiting for the ebook magic bullet to hit its target, I think the greatest threat is TV. Books take time, and so does a season of Game of Thrones. Unfortunately, for an overly stimulated audience, reading seems set to become a forgotten hobby.The industry needs to find a new marketing angle and I think it could be audio books. At the moment they are still seen by many teenagers as something their parents listen to, but more and more are taking them up. Ecosystems like Audible, which will soon be opening its publication branch ACX worldwide, not only provide a way for authors to get their works recorded, but also into the earphones of anyone with a smartphone and the app. Some writers I talk to about this balk at the idea. Books have to be printed, they say, read! But to me, audio books take what we do back to the very beginning, when an elder sat across the fire-pit and told you a tale that captivated your imagination. Writing came later. We are story tellers, and my hope is that the narrated versions of books not only re-engage a generation with novels, but also re-invigorate the ecosystem of publishing.