Interview by Belle McQuattie.
She is the author of the acclaimed young adult fantasy quartet, The Books of Pellinor (Penguin Australia/Walker Books UK/Candlewick Books), which has sold more than half a million copies in the UK and the US alone. Her most recent novel, The River and The Book, was published with Walker Books Australia and UK in October 2015. It is shortlisted for the Wilderness Society award for Environmental Writing for Children, and for the YA prize in the Western Australian Premiers Literary Awards. The Bone Queen, a Pellinor prequel, is released in the UK, US and Australia in 2016/17. She is presently working on a new epic fantasy, Motley.
She was Melbourne theatre critic for the national daily newspaper, The Australian, until 2010, and kept an influential blog of theatre criticism, Theatre Notes, from 2004 to 2012. She was awarded the Geraldine Pascall Critic of the Year in 2009. She was performance critic for ABC Arts Online from 2012-2015 and has written for Guardian Australia, the Monthly and Australian Book Review. She is a regular columnist and poetry critic for Overland magazine. She was poetry editor for Overland Extra (1992), Modern Writing (1992-1994) and Voices (1996) and is founding editor of the literary arts journal Masthead.
The Bone Queen sees you return to the world of Edil-Amarandh. What was it like going back and exploring Cadvan’s earlier years after so long out of that world?
It was really interesting, more than I expected. It had been about five years since I had written anything in that world, and I’ve written a couple of books in between, both fantasies but of completely different kinds. And of course, you change as a writer. The Gift was my first serious attempt at writing fantasy (given that the beginnings of that book go back to when I was 10 years old…) If I were writing The Gift now, it would be a different book, because of what I learned writing the series. Possibly not that different, but there would be a few things I’d finesse!
I do love that world, and those characters, and going back was enjoyable in so many ways. I always said that I would never write another Pellinor book, there has to be a reason driving your desire to write the story, I guess what drives The Bone Queen is the whole question of what culpability and forgiveness and redemption might mean. Mainly the challenge was to remember everything I had already written, so I didn’t put in some detail that contradicted things in the later books. I think I managed, with the help of my editors, but readers have picked up on things that got past phalanxes of copy editors and proofreaders in three countries. There’s always something you notice when it’s too late!
It was great having the opportunity to write about some characters who are peripheral in the other books, like Milana, Maerad’s mother, and Dernhil. But I equally loved finding new characters, like Selmana, the other central character in The Bone Queen, my six foot tall red-headed smith.
The River and the Book touches on some important topics around cultural appropriation and human rights. What prompted you to write it?
I’m actually not sure. You write books about things that trouble you, and cultural appropriation and colonialisation and environmental destruction are things that trouble me. But really I started with Sim’s voice. I wrote the first chapter and I think I just fell in love with that character. It was a novel I wrote like I write a poem, just waiting for the next bit. I didn’t really think anyone would be interested in publishing it. But I wanted to find out what happened to Sim, which is why I got to the end.
Can we have a sneak peek at your next project? Will there be more Pellinor books, or do you have something brand new on the go?
I’ve got a couple of things I’m working on. One is a new epic fantasy called MOTLEY that is giving me all sorts of headaches (I’m in the middle of a huge rewrite, having written 600 pages of wonderful world building, but somehow without my central character). I’m really hoping this works out, I love the world, and I love my character (now I’m discovering who she is). The other major project is a kind of historical fantasy called THE STONE HEART, which I’m hoping to have at first draft by the end of next year.
What Australian work have you loved recently?
Probably the Australian book that has most hit me where it matters in the past year is Charlotte Wood’s THE NATURAL WAY OF THINGS, which is one of the best fictions I’ve read about how misogyny works. Gruelling and beautiful and uncompromising. There is something so simple in its conception that is so fully and complexly realised in its execution. So much admiration.
Which author (living or dead) would you most like to sit next to on a long plane trip and why?
I suppose I should say my husband, Daniel Keene, who is a playwright and who is good company on a long haul flight. We’re flying to Europe in three weeks’ time, so I get to test this thesis again! Otherwise, I would have liked the chance to have a long conversation with Anton Chekhov, whose letters are delightful and funny and wicked and wise.