Check out previous interviews in the One Thing Leads to Another series here.
I’ve had the privilege of working on these Hub interviews for awhile now, and people who know me will often assume that whatever book I’m currently reading is linked to this series. They’re often right, of course, though not always, and I won’t lie–it’s fun to confirm that yes, Awesome Author you see me reading really is my next interview. A lot of the time this leads to excellent book talk and mutual gushing, and sometimes it leads to me energetically detailing all the reasons why they need to read said author, like, yesterday. And then sometimes I find myself sort of tongue-tied by the opportunity I’ve been given and all I can do is just nod appreciatively along with their exclamations and hope that my slack-jawed bobbing conveys the enormity of my glee and awe. Usually it’s a combination of all of those reactions, driven partly by where I am in the interview process and partly by whoever I’m talking to about it.
Which is all to say that the last couple months working on this interview with (ahhh!) Garth Nix, I’ve noticed something very interesting and unusual about those interactions: no matter who I shamelessly and giddily gushed with, I got a similar reaction. Intake of breath, widening of eyes, exclamation of jealousy/excitement/surprise and then some variation of ‘Oh-my-gosh-I-love-him-so-much-I’ve-read-all-his-books-I-can’t-believe-you-get-to-interview-him-that’s-so-awesome-you-have-to-ask him about…” It was weird, really, not because I didn’t feel the same way, but because literally everyone said this. My 21 year old nephew and my 12 year old niece both said this. The mother of my daughter’s best friend said this, as did various other middle aged women (like me!) from book club. My best friend said this. My 16 year old friend and book buddy said this. A random father waiting, like me, to pick up his kid from theater school said this. People 20 years older and 30 years younger than me said this. Men, women, little kids, and everyone in between said this. Everyone said this.
Seriously, I am impressed.
Garth Nix, you clearly have a wide and deeply devoted readership that spans just about every age group and publishing category. “I don’t usually read fantasy, but since it’s Garth Nix…” “I don’t usually read kids books, but I loved the Old Kingdom series so much I just had to read The Keys to the Kingdom books.” “I don’t like science fiction but A Confusion of Princes was spectacular.” You get the idea. And I’m right there with them, reading and marveling at every book and feeling really, really lucky and grateful at the chance to talk teen years, power, and the importance of being able to convey deep enthusiasm with the remarkable Garth Nix. Thank you!
Always Something There to Remind Me
Please describe your teenage self.
I think like most teenagers, I appeared differently to different people, or at least wanted to present a different version of myself. My thirteen year-old self was also markedly different from my nineteen year-old self, as you would expect. I guess one thing that stayed the same throughout my teenage years was that even though I was spiritually a complete nerd with my love of reading and role-playing games and doing well at school, I kept this compartmentalized so that I could also remain part of the most socially-acceptable group in school, to which I belonged at least in part thanks to my best friend being the most popular boy (and school captain). I was also a curious mix of a dreamer and a realist, I day-dreamed but never at the expense of ignoring what was going on in real life. In a way this is a very useful trait for an author, to have the dreams but learn how to harness and use them rather than just drifting along with them.
I wasn’t really a rebellious teen, though I drank too much alcohol too frequently and smoked a lot of dope at various times, though I did so mainly because everyone else did, not for its own sake. Fortunately I didn’t have an addictive nature and so was never more than a casual user and got it out of my system quite early, having basically given up everything but alcohol (and less of it) by the time I was nineteen. I was also lucky not to get into more serious drug use or trouble, because some of my friends did and I could have been drawn into it, or just been in the wrong place at the wrong time.
At various times I was a somewhat angry teen, though I was never really sure what I was angry about. Bad tempers run in my father’s side of the family, getting progressively better managed with each generation, but I was still working on that in my teenage years. Because I read very widely, I also knew lots of curious facts or thought I did, and so could be a terrible know-it-all which annoyed people, though I got better at not delivering unnecessary information or showing off my knowledge. I was also really quite shy, though people didn’t know I was, because I put on a good front. Even my best friend wouldn’t believe how difficult I found it sometimes in social situations, because I would appear to be fine.
What did you want to be when you grew up? Why?
From about fourteen, I thought I would become an officer in the Australian Army. I planned to go to our military college and get my degree there and have a career in the army. I have had a deep fascination for military history from a very young age, and a family tradition of military service of various kinds. However, I joined the part-time Army Reserve when I was seventeen and still at school and though I enjoyed this and had five years basically spending all my summers either doing a course or in field training, by the time I left school I had worked out that being in the regular army would not work for me, because I had become aware that it really constrained you to do nothing else, it was very much a total lifestyle decision. I also realized that I was much more an individualist than a team player, which tends not to work so well in the armed services, apart from in a few very specialized areas.
What were your high school years like?
My early high school years I just went along with the flow and didn’t think about it much. I was in Canberra, the federal capital of Australia, which is a very small city even now and back then was little more than a big country town with a strangely bolted-on Federal government infrastructure of a big city. Almost everyone I grew up with from pre-school continued on to the same schools, so high school was full of familiar faces, my older brother went there as did the siblings of many of my friends, so I knew a great deal about it for years before I even went there. Later, in the last two years of school, I really wanted to get it out of the way so I could go and do something else (though I didn’t know what that something else would be at the time, I just wanted out). If I could have compressed the last two years into one I would have done it, but that wasn’t possible.
I loved the library at school and spent a lot of time there, encountering many books that would be important to me later on. One great year we could do fencing for sport, which I threw myself into, learning épée and sabre, coming second in an inter-school competition through ferocity rather than finesse, much to my teacher’s horror, who went on to show me that ferocity only worked at the very lowest levels of the art. I’ve forgotten his name now, that fencing teacher, because he was only there that year, but he was certainly an influence. My English teacher, Mrs. Thompson was also an important figure who encouraged us all to engage in creative writing and in Year 10 put together a book of our stories. Mine, I recall, was a Sherlock Holmes pastiche about Dr. Watson’s experiences in the British Army in Afghanistan. I also had an important history teacher in Year 11 and 12, Mr. John Carter (not of Mars) whose enthusiasm for the subject was inspirational.
I spent a lot of time role-playing on weekends, mostly D&D and its science fiction equivalent Traveller, and aimlessly riding my bike around with my friends for miles and miles and miles, and going fishing in the lake, and reading, always reading. Then from about fifteen or sixteen, Fridays and Saturdays became about going to the parties that would take place wherever there were parents away or parents who didn’t mind having a dozen or twenty teenagers surreptitiously (or openly) drinking and playing music too loud and trying to at least kiss someone. Later again, from when I joined the Army Reserve at seventeen, I spent one or two weekends a month away with my unit, and all December and January, coming home for a week over Christmas. I was in an Assault Pioneer platoon, so we built things and blew things up and also drove assault boats, it could be very physically and/or mentally demanding at times but was also often a lot of fun.
What were some of your passions during that time?
I was passionate about gaming in general, particularly what was then the very new field of role-playing games. I think this was very much an adjunct of my passion for stories, both reading them and making them up. It also tied in with my interest in history, particularly military history. I listened to pretty much the same music everyone else did, which was a lot of 1960s stuff mixed in with what was coming out in the 70s and then early 80s. Sports-wise I really only like the individual sports, particularly fencing and fishing, but also bushwalking and cross-country skiing, and body-surfing.
Would you be willing to share a difficult teen experience or challenge that you feel shaped the adult you became?
Looking back, I had a very fortunate childhood, without any major traumas. One of the most formative experiences was joining the Army Reserve at seventeen and going off for recruit training, which was physically, mentally and societally challenging and broadened my horizons considerably. Then at eighteen doing the specialist training to be an Assault Pioneer, dealing with demolitions, mines and so forth. I remember very distinctly placing and detonating my first “confidence charge”, a block of TNT. If I’d somehow got it very wrong I would have been killed. It didn’t worry me at the time, because I had been very well-trained and at that age like everyone I thought I was immortal, but in retrospect I was only a teenager blithely using high explosive. By the time I was nineteen I was familiar with all kinds of different explosives and had narrowly avoided being blown up by someone else’s mistake, a sergeant twice my age who’d served in Vietnam.
What about a positive experience or accomplishment that had an impact on your adult self?
When I was nineteen, so still just a teenager, my first paid short story was accepted by a British magazine called “Warlock” published by Penguin Books. I’d only recently decided I wanted to try to become a writer, and that story “Sam, Cars and the Cuckoo” was one of the first things I sent anywhere. In fact I’d sent it to a different magazine and so was very surprised to get a telegram (in the last year telegrams were still able to be used in Australia, I believe) from Penguin asking to publish it with a very good payment. It came at exactly the right time to encourage me to embark on my plan to become a writer, and even though I couldn’t sell a story anywhere for quite a few years afterwards, this early sale definitely encouraged my future writing career. (Though, as I’ve said, I’ve always been a realist as a well as a day-dreamer, so I also planned a tandem career in publishing, to ensure I would have a day job to keep me alive.)
What advice, if any, would you give your teen self? Would your teen self have listened?
I think I would tell my teen self to work harder at everything! But I wouldn’t have listened.
Do you have any regrets about your teen years? Anything left undone or anything that might have been better left undone?
No. I tend not to look backwards. Far better to look ahead.
What, if anything, do you miss most about that time?
I don’t miss anything, in part because I know you can’t get it back so there’s no point. This ties in with my general philosophy of looking ahead rather than backwards. You can’t change the past, so it’s best to accept whatever that past is and get on with the present and prepare for the future.
Every Day I Write the Book
“I guess I have always been interested in the use, misuse, and cost of power,” you’ve said, describing your most recent novel Clariel, as being mainly about power and the use of power. And in a recent VOYA interview you list “the Roman Emperor Diocletian (the only supreme ruler of the known world to abdicate and grow cabbages)” as one of five fascinating people you’d invite to dinner, which is another intriguing, if sideways, comment on power and your interest in it. What is it about the concept of power that particularly interests you and why do you think you’re drawn to explore it in your fiction?
I think this comes from my interest in history, but also because it is such a big part of everyone’s lives, whether they realize it or not, and so is tremendous raw material for stories. There are many different kinds of power, and many different ways to pursue power or relinquish it.
In an interview you did back in 2000, you acknowledged that while you “subscribe to the belief that ‘if you want to send a message, use Western Union,’” you also can’t help but infuse [your] moral and ethical views…consciously or not,” into your work. You also talk about the need to confront stereotypes for many reasons, one of which is that “authors that try to undermine stereotypes or twist them around a little, write the most interesting stories.” I’m wondering if your notion of “preaching” has changed over the years, and whether–or how–the “moral and ethical” views that do seep into your work–consciously or unconsciously–have changed? Do you feel like you’re challenging the same old stereotypes, or have new ones cropped up? Has the ongoing discussion of diversity in YA fiction influenced your writing or do you feel that you’ve been attempting to tackle that in your own way all along?
I still think that the most important thing is to tell a good story, and overt preaching will always detract from a story and ironically also be less effective in transmitting the desired message anyway. I do probably still infuse my fiction with the same moral and ethical views, because they haven’t changed that much. I try not to be too overt about this, and usually when I’m writing a story I don’t even think about these things. Occasionally I have gone back in the editing process to either make something more overt or to occlude or pull back on something that seems too strident.
Stereotypes, by their very nature, are long-lasting things, very deeply rooted in culture. So while you get variations on a theme, I think the stereotypes that I have tried to consciously challenge have remained much the same. Possibly one thing that has emerged is a kind of meta-stereotype, where a very old stereotype is challenged in exactly the same way so many times that the “challenger” itself becomes a stereotype and sometimes also then reinforces the original construction it was meant to erode.
The ongoing discussion of diversity in YA and other fiction has influenced my writing, as have other discussions in the public arena. I do try to think about the questions raised in discussions of diversity or inclusiveness, and how I am answering them (or not) in my writing.
You’re known for immersive and fantastic world building, but have often noted the dangers of substituting world building for storytelling, as you mentioned in a recent Reddit AMA. Rather than creating extensive backstory or background material, you describe continuously and consciously collecting small ideas, using everything you “observe and experience, either directly or vicariously.” Ideas come from “observing people in the street; from incidents in or details of history; from myth and legend; from landscape; from the living natural world; from the sciences; from all the fiction” you’ve ever read. These ideas, “generated by the act of writing [which includes] daydreaming, note-jotting and open-mouthed musing…” all go into the reservoir of the mind. My question is, how do you keep track of these ideas? Do you have notebooks or electronic files full of quotes and observations, story ideas, facts, historical oddities? Are you able to select and develop ideas that have been there for years or do you feel like you lose details to the vagaries of time and memory?
I make notes, but I find that the best ideas (or little factual seeds that will turn into ideas) stick with me anyway. Sometimes I forget them for a while: a week, a month, a year . . . but they always come back. I quite often will make a note of something, and it will sink deep into my subconscious, only to emerge much later as a more fully-formed idea. Sometimes rather than make a note as such, I will actually write a few paragraphs of prose that encapsulate the idea in the beginning of a story, and then there will be half a dozen key words that I trust will help me sort out the rest of it when (and if) it comes time to actually complete the story.
You’ve described bookselling as being “at its heart about the transfer of enthusiasm for a book,” explaining that “the more enthusiasm, the farther the book will go, at every stage of its life.” That same enthusiasm is evident when you talk about your time working in a bookstore yourself, and you’ve gone so far as to say that you are “firmly of the opinion that everyone in publishing should spend some time…working in a bookstore.” Given your background and your generous praise of influential and favorite writers over the years, could you talk about how you convey deep enthusiasm to a potential reader?
My only real tip for conveying deep enthusiasm is that it does have to be real. If you genuinely love a book, that love will come through, no matter how you express it. Even if you deliver a tongue-tied, confusing babble, it will be apparent to another book-lover that you adore the book. That being the case, chances are they will give it a try. Actually, I guess I do have another tip. If someone is resisting a book recommendation, ask them to read the first two pages and leave it at that. If the transfer of enthusiasm is going to work, those first two pages will do it. If they don’t, chances are that book isn’t for that reader anyway.
Just Can’t Get Enough
Question from Andrew Smith: Hi Garth! Well, I’m sure you’ve never been asked what kinds of snacks you eat while writing, to describe your office space, or what your favorite stuffed animal was when you were a kid, but I’m going to skip all those deep examinations of your work and ask you this: If you could magically add one thing to the YA book cannon, what would it be?
I’m not sure that there really exists a YA book canon as such, anyway. Even looking at something like Time magazine’s very recent “100 Best YA Books of All Time”, there are books there that I wouldn’t personally include, and many that are not listed that I think should be. There are also books that were very prominent in the last half of the 20th century that are forgotten now, as will happen to some of the biggest books of the current era in fifty years time.
But I can answer the stuffed animal question, because I still have the platypus I called “Bark” when I was three. Admittedly it has lost its bill, eyes, feet and fur and my mother recovered it in a tartan material which is now also very faded, so it resembles a kind of plaid chicken drumstick. But it is still a platypus for all that.
Garth Nix was born in 1963 in Melbourne, Australia. A full-time writer since 2001, he previously worked as a literary agent, marketing consultant, book editor, book publicist, book sales representative, bookseller, and as a part-time soldier in the Australian Army Reserve.
Garth’s books include the award-winning young adult fantasy novels Sabriel, Lirael and Abhorsen; the dystopian novel Shade’s Children; the space opera A Confusion of Princes; and a Regency romance with magic, Newt’s Emerald.
His fantasy novels for children include The Ragwitch; the six books of The Seventh Tower sequence; The Keys to the Kingdom series; and the Troubletwisters series and Spirit Animals: Blood Ties (co-written with Sean Williams). Garth’s most recent book, Clariel, is a prequel to the Old Kingdom trilogy, released in October 2014.
More than five million copies of his books have been sold around the world, his books have appeared on the bestseller lists of The New York Times, Publishers Weekly, The Guardian and The Australian, and his work has been translated into 40 languages.
He lives in a Sydney beach suburb with his wife and two children.
–Julie Bartel, currently reading Holly Black’s The Darkest Part of the Forest and The Sculptor by Scott McCloud