Interview by Matthew Morrison.
Lian Tanner has been dynamited while scuba diving and arrested while busking. She once spent a week in the jungles of Papua New Guinea, hunting for a Japanese soldier left over from the Second World War. She likes secrets, old bones, and animals that are not what they seem.
Lian’s best-selling Keepers Trilogy has been translated into nine languages, and won two consecutive Aurealis Awards for Best Australian Children’s Fantasy. Museum of Thieves was a Children’s Book Council of Australia Notable Book, was shortlisted for a number of awards including the Adelaide Festival Award for Children’s Literature, was selected as one of the Bank Street Children’s Book Committee’s Best Children’s Books of the Year (USA), and was named as a ‘White Raven’ (books that deserve worldwide attention) by the International Youth Library.
Lian’s latest series, The Hidden, concluded at the end of 2015 with Fetcher’s Song. Ice Breaker (The Hidden #1) was a CBCA Notable Book, and both Ice Breaker and Sunker’s Deep were shortlisted for an Aurealis Award. The Hidden is published in Australia by Allen & Unwin and in the USA/Canada by Macmillan.
With The Keepers and The Hidden trilogies completed, what new worlds are you creating now?
With The Hidden, I dabbled at the edges of steampunk, and the whole series was more science-oriented (in a fantasy sort of way) than The Keepers. By the time I finished it, I found myself wanting to go back to the land magic of The Keepers. So I’ve begun a new series with the working title The Accidental Bodyguards, which is set in the same world, but a different part of that world.
The first book of Bodyguards started off in a certain direction, then changed dramatically 20,000 words in, when I realised that my protagonist was boring me silly, and that two minor characters were far more interesting. So it’s turning out to be their story instead of the one I thought I was writing. At the moment I have a book-length manuscript which is not yet working as a book, so am swimming in the deep trenches of structure and plot, trying to sort things out.
You’ve run a number of writing workshops, both for children and adults. (The one I attended last year on novel plotting was one of the best I’ve ever done.) Is this passing on of experience an important part of your writing?
Yes, I love running workshops, particularly when they’re for people who are really engaged with writing. Part of it is the passing on of experience, and part of it is the satisfaction of experimenting with different exercises, and seeing which ones work best for adults, kids etc. It’s the whole thing of art vs craft and how you need both of them to make a good story. But preparing a workshop is also invaluable in that it makes me clarify certain things in my own head, which helps my own writing. (See structure and plot, above).
You pen a lot of young adult fiction. Do you see yourself keeping pace with your current readership and writing for them as new adults? Or will young adult fiction always be your true passion?
The stories I write seem to fall automatically into that middle-grade/young adult range – I’m pretty much writing for myself as I was in Grade 5/6 – so I can’t see myself going anywhere else in the near future. Like most authors I’ve got a pile of half-completed manuscripts in other genres and other age groups, tucked away in a back drawer of my computer. The fact that they are half-completed suggests to me that I’m not passionate about them, and that they’ll probably never appear in public, but who knows?
There are also practical matters involved, such as the fact that I’m usually writing to a contract, which limits my time to experiment with anything else. I’ve tried writing the contracted book in the morning and something else in the afternoon, but my subconscious gets horribly confused and goes on strike.
What Australian work have you loved recently?
I’ve only recently discovered the work of Glenda Larke, and am gradually reading my way through her books. So far I have particularly loved her Isles of Glory trilogy. Her world building is brilliant, and I love the way she addressed the very serious question of the massive potential for corruption when one part of the population can use magic and the other part can’t. I have always tended to think ‘Oooh, yes, magic!’ Her characters made me think differently about it.
Which author (living or dead) would you most like to sit next to on a long plane trip and why?
Either Ursula le Guin or Diana Wynne Jones. Preferably both, one on each side of me. I re-read Le Guin’s Earthsea series every few years and never get sick of it, and her science fiction had a huge influence on me when I was in my 20s and 30s, and holds up very well today. Her essays/short stories are weirdly brilliant and completely convincing, even when she’s writing as a therolinguist trying to interpret the literature of ants and penguins. (‘The Author of the Acacia Seeds’)
Diana Wynne Jones is also someone whose books I re-read, and The Power of Three is my favourite kids’ book, though it’s not one of her better known works. Her stories for young adults are subtle and morally complex, as well as being exciting.
Why would I want to sit next to them? Just to bask in their presence, really, and take careful note of whatever they were reading.