Interview by Belle McQuattie.
Born in Indonesia of French parents, and brought up in France and Australia, Sophie Masson is the award-winning and internationally-published author of over 60 books for children, young adults and adults. Her latest young adult novel is Hunter’s Moon, (Random House Australia, 2015) while her latest adult novel is Trinity: The False Prince, (2015, Momentum.) Her novella, The Romanov Opal, is coming out in 2016 in the And Then… adventure anthology, published by Clan Destine Press. She has four books coming out in 2017: three children’s picture books and a YA novel.
Sophie is also a founding partner and co-director of Christmas Press, a boutique publishing house with three imprints, Christmas Press Picture Books, Eagle Books and Second Look, producing acclaimed children’s picture-books and fiction. She holds a BA and M.Litt from the University of New England and is currently undertaking a PHD in Creative Practice at the same university. She is on the Boards of the Australian Society of Authors, the New England Writers’ Centre and the Small Press Network. She has also served on the Literature Board of the Australia Council and the Book Industry Collaborative Council.
Congratulations on having your first academic article, Mosaic and Cornucopia: Fairy Tale and Myth in Contemporary Australian YA Fantasy, published! Fairy tale retellings have always been popular, but we’re seeing more than ever before in the current market. What do you think makes them so popular?
Fairy tales are wonderful as inspiration for fiction, as they provide both the basic plot framework for a story but also the wide spaces and gaps which a writer needs for their imagination to really take flight. Fairy tales don’t tell you what to think; they work on a much deeper level than thought, conjuring up images and archetypes and emotional meanings. And yet they are also highly practically structured, the narratives flows well. It’s the very paradox of fairy tale that makes it so rich: a mix of enchantment and earthiness; humour and horror; magic and practicality. The fact that most fairy tales don’t use names for characters but rather, roles (such as ‘the king’, ‘the witch’, ‘the youngest son’, etc) also means that a novelist has all that to work on and make their own. And of course, there are so many different variants of classic fairy tale tropes from across the world–you are not limited to one version of Cinderella, for instance! The other thing too I think is that fairy tales work both in literature for young people and literature for adults–different things may be emphasised, that’s all.
Earlier this year you published a series of guest posts on your blog looking at how authors and illustrators got started on their creative paths, and shared some of your early influences and literary efforts. Are there any books you read as a child that you wished you had written?
Oh yes, many—books I read and re-read many times include the Narnia books, the Tintin books(which I read both in French, my native language, and English), the Moomintroll books, James Thurber’s The Thirteen Clocks, Nicholas Stuart Gray’s The Stone Cage, the Famous Five and Secret Seven books by Enid Blyton, Patricia Wrightson’s The Rocks of Honey and An Older Kind of Magic, Leon Garfield’s books, especially Black Jack and Devil in the Fog, Alan Garner’s Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath, Michel Strogoff by Jules Verne..the list is pretty much endless! As a kid, I also tried to write my own versions of similar stories–and I think that though my efforts were of course pretty poor, the very fact of doing that and reading the books over and over meant that subconsciously I was absorbing lessons about narrative, characterisation, plot, pace, etc. I’m still indebted to those works, and what my aim with my own work has always been to try and recreate that sense of intoxicating enchantment and immersion that those books evoked in me as a young reader. I’m also proud to say that not only have I written about some of these books in various magazines and journals, but this year I was part of the publishing team that brought back Jules Verne’s wonderful adventure novel Michel Strogoff(which we published as Jules Verne’s Mikhail Strogoff), in the first English-language translation in over a hundred years, by the fabulous Australian translator Stephanie Smee (seewww.eaglebooksadventure.com) This really felt like giving back to a work that had coloured my childhood reading with such verve and vividness!
You’re writing Ghost Squad as part of your creative writing PhD at the moment, has this affected how you have approached writing the book?
Yes, it has. I’m writing the novel at the same time as I’m researching material for its accompanying academic exegesis, which is on the very interesting speculative fiction sub-genre of afterlife fiction, specifically YA afterlife fiction (ie novels set in the afterlife). This means that not only am I reading a lot of really fabulous novels that I would not necessarily have come across otherwise, but as part of the cultural context of afterlife fiction, I’m taking in some very interesting background stuff, such as Victorian gothic and ghost stories, and screen-based narratives, especially TV series, which have the general theme of afterlife, or return from the dead: including Les Revenants(the French series, known as The Returned in English), the Australian Tv series The Glitch, Resurrection(US) and also the very successful earlier series, Lost. It’s fascinating stuff! Because of this, I’m coming up with all kinds of insights and ideas which are feeding back into the creative work as much as the academic work. And vie versa too–my work on the novel is feeding back into the academic study. As a synergy, it’s working really well.
What Australian work have you loved recently?
I’ve really enjoyed Avery and its sequel Thorne, by Charlotte McConaghy; and also at the moment am deep in the intrigue of the latest Liane Moriarty, Truly, Madly, Guilty.
Which author (living or dead) would you most like to sit next to on a long plane trip and why?
Right now, I’d say the author of the book that has most struck me this year: the superb novel, Laurus, written by Russian writer Eugene Vodolazkin, and magisterially translated by Lisa Hayden. Vodolazkin is a medievalist as well as a novelist, and his portrait of the Middle Ages through the life of a young healer is one of the best ever, certainly since the great Sigrid Undset’s ‘Kristin Lavransdatter’. Laurus is an absolutely beautiful, magical novel, deeply spiritual yet playful, full of tragedy and joy, humour and grotesqueries, warmly human yet one of the most extraordinary examples of mysticism and the numinous in prose that I have ever read. It plays all sorts of tricks with language and structure and jumps from time to time yet it’s totally accessible and pacy. Just amazing! I would love to shake the author’s hand and thank him for such a wonderful reading experience, and also to talk at length about the Middle Ages, Russia, writing, spirituality.. There would be just so much to talk about!