Interview by Tehani Wessely.
Richard Harland was born in England, but has spent most of his adult life in Australia. He had a period of writing songs and performing folk-rock music around Sydney, then became a lecturer in English at the University of Wollongong (1987-1997). In 1993, he published his first gothic fantasy, The Vicar of Morbing Vyle, which became a cult favourite. Since then, he has had 16 novels published, ranging from fantasy to science fiction to horror and from adult to YA to children’s. He has won five Aurealis Awards, including the Golden Aurealis for Best Novel in any genre of SF, Fantasy or Horror.
His international breakthrough novel was the steampunk fantasy, Worldshaker, published in the US, UK, France, Germany and Brazil as well as Australia.
I enjoyed your Worldshaker books which were great examples of the steampunk genre. Are you still writing in this field?
I’ve moved on – for the time being. And I’ve moved on from YA too. What I’m working on now is adult fantasy – not traditional epic medieval-based fantasy, but not steam-age-based either. Sort of best-of-both-worlds, with a universe that takes in a whole range of cultures.
Music played an important part of your YA novel Song of the Slums (and I’ve seen your marvellous steampunk guitar) – how is music important to your writing life generally?
Um, probably won’t ever feature in anything I write again! Music’s very important to me personally, listening to it and creating it – it ties in with some very strong feelings, which I can use as experience for my characters. But it’s not easy to communicate in words what it is about music or what it’s like playing to an audience. That was the big risk with Song of the Slums, to make it ring true for musos, while also being accessible to non-musos. Thank God it worked (or so I’ve been told by muso and non-muso readers)! But I can’t see myself doing it again – especially not inventing another fantasy form of music for a fantasy novel!
Can you tell us what are you working on at the moment that we might see in the next year or so?
It’s under wraps at present! There’s only one thing I’m working on, and it’s a very big project that’s been going on for years (a whole lifetime really, if you include all the preliminary work). It’s a fantasy world (as per answer to Q.1), with many amazing magical creations, but it’s also realistic about the characters and their societies and relationships. More of a serious comment on our reality than anything I’ve written before. And the drama is probably more emotional drama than my usual action drama (though there’s plenty of action along the way).
Wish I could say more! I’m sure I could never have written a book as ambitious as this until now – and even now, I’m a bit shocked about what I’m trying to do. But it’s all unfolding beautifully, and I’m just totally and absolutely loving writing it!
What Australian work have you loved recently?
My reading has been all over the place for a couple of years – old out-of-date stuff, literary stuff, non-speculative genres, history, biographies, case-studies. Recently I’ve really enjoyed Ian Irvine’s Summon Stone, and Glenda Larke’s Forsaken Lands books (first two so far). I’m way behind reading short stories, catching up now on anthologies from two years ago.
Which author (living or dead) would you most like to sit next to on a long plane trip and why?
Can I have two? Both authors I love and admire – but also very odd people. I’d really like to know what made them tick. (I should’ve said, they both stopped ticking a long time ago.)
One, Mervyn Peake, author of Titus Groan and Gormenghast. He had a very strange, cut-off upbringing in China, and I don’t know if he ever came fully back to ordinary reality. But what an imagination! I’d love to talk to him and find out how he expected readers to react to the characters in his world. I suspect he didn’t expect anything – he just wrote them down in all their bizarre, gothic monstrosity because to him they were at least as real as anyone in reality.
My second author would be Fyodor Dostoevsky, the great Russian who wrote literary fiction that was simultaneously crime fiction, like Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov. I had a total crush on him when I was young – such an incredible insight into human psychology! I read somewhere that some special forms of insight can go with epilepsy, and Dostoevsky was an epileptic. Also a compulsive gambler, a bit of a religious nutter, and a prisoner who faced a firing squad, then served many years as a convict in Siberia. If I sat next to him on a long plane flight, he’d probably end up haranguing everyone in mad, raging rant … but it would be interesting!