INTERVIEW: Di Morrissey on 20 years in publishing

Bestselling Australian novelist Di Morrissey has just published her 20th novel in 20 years, The Opal Desert (Macmillan). Andrea Hanke spoke to the author about her career journey, changes in publishing, new media vs ‘pressing the flesh’, and the marginalisation of women’s writing and popular fiction.

Twenty novels in 20 years is an extraordinary achievement. What kind of discipline is required to meet these publishing deadlines, year in and year out?
When you start writing you don’t think past getting that story out and hopefully getting it published, but when you have the commitment of a contract there is an additional motivation. I have a very strong, perhaps old-fashioned, work ethic. I shudder when I hear of people who have a contract or potential interest in their work and diddle around and can’t meet their deadline and never produce anything. I’m there on the day it’s due, manuscript in hand for better or worse. I also understand it’s not just about me but there is a whole team involved, a schedule, a business plan, marketing campaign and people who depend on me producing a publishable book. The writing process may be a solitary endeavour but there is a massive machine involving many dedicated people that take your original scribbles and turn it into a polished, professional product, so it does put considerable pressure on me. And of course, when you have a successful book the expectation is there to do an even better next book.

When you look back over your career, how has the way in which your books are edited, published and promoted changed over the years? Is the publishing industry better at its job today than it was 20 years ago?
Well technology has made it easier in many ways to write. When I first started I mailed hard copy to my editor, so email has certainly speeded things up.  Publishers today don’t like to take risks and have had to adapt, to be more focused, take less of a scatter-gun approach and hope a book on spec does well, as they can’t afford a failure in these more competitive times. So I wouldn’t want to be starting out now! Marketing is even more vital now and traditional media campaigns have changed as social networking and an online presence reaches an audience as quickly and effectively as a print or radio ad. Authors have to be prepared to adapt to the new media but frankly, I still feel that word of mouth and ‘pressing the flesh’ is as powerful as ever. Publishing houses have had to be more savvy as well as cost-conscious, the old conservative days of British publishing dominating the Empire are gone but try telling them that! There’s still a bit of literary snobbishness and parochialism with international publishers believing their books outrank ours.

There has been a lot of talk recently about a gender bias in literary criticism and awards. What are your thoughts on this subject? Do you support the creation of a new women-only book prize? And do you think we need more book prizes for genres outside literary fiction?
There is no question that the bias exists. Women are not reviewed as seriously or in as great a depth or frequency as men. Nor do women receive as many awards as men. But to section ourselves off with women-only prizes and categories is buying into the marginalisation, i.e. ‘Men do art, women do craft’. Besides, I think there are enough specialist categories for a variety of genres. We know literary fiction usually doesn’t sell anywhere near what popular fiction sells, yet the ‘literary’ tag imbues a book with some kind of merit so these ‘serious’ authors content themselves with a badge of assumed quality when most would secretly prefer to have a royalty cheque of quantity. And let’s face it, if a heap of people buy a book, and continue to show loyalty to a particular popular author, then that author must be doing something right.

Of all 20 novels, which is your favourite?
I don’t have a favourite book per se, it is a bit like choosing a favourite child. But I have to confess to a slight affection for Tears of the Moon as it was the book that broke me out in hardback and international sales. And it was a deliberate strategy to find a mainstream and male audience and change the perception of me being a writer of romance fiction.

Which book has been the hardest to write?
The one I’m writing now! I face each new book with trepidation and insecurity, I never feel complacent and the more successful you become and the more you write, the greater the pressure. But equally I do it because of the passion and fulfilment that I only find from writing.

What has inspired your latest novel?
I’ve always loved opals, and I first visited the opal fields in the 1980s and decided I wanted to spend time in this strange word and write about it one day. I’ve been going to Lightning Ridge for many years and I saw how the industry was changing and decided this was the year to explore the lure and obsession that draws people to this different lifestyle and isolated community. It’s also about women’s friendship. The bonds and special connection and emotional support women draw from each other. This book explores the relationship between three women of differing generations who find themselves in the remote and wonderful opal fields.

INTERVIEW: Isobelle Carmody on ‘The Sending’ (Penguin)

Isobelle Carmody is back with book six in the ‘Obernewtyn Chronicles’. Reviewer Stefen Brazulaitis writes, ‘The good news for fans is that it is not the last [Obernewtyn book], although it does manoeuvre the characters into position for what looks to be a fairly dramatic conclusion.’ He spoke to Carmody.

The animal characters in the ‘Obernewtyn Chronicles’ are as fleshed out and integral to the story as any of the humans. Was this always the intent, or did they grow in the telling?
I have felt humans as a race have this weird paradoxical relationship to animals. We revere them when we are not eating them. Put a dog in the worst movie, and it suddenly gains a heart. Many people are nicer to their animals than to other humans. I have trouble with the fact that we use them as commodities. The whole factory farming thing is an abomination. The book I had the most fun in my life writing was Billy Thunder and the Nightgate. I turned all of my dogs and the goat I saved from slaughter (by handing over $20 and driving off with it in my beat-up old sportscar, hanging onto it by one horn so it couldn’t leap out of the car or stab me in the head while I drove it down the Great Ocean Road!) into speaking characters, but animals permeate my books as important thinking feeling characters. When we care for an animal that is when our higher self is activated.

Magic in the ‘Obernewtyn Chronicles’ is firmly grounded in real-world mysticism. What do you think of the ways magic is being used in modern fantasy?
I find magic harder to take now than when I was a child. I loved the Magic Faraway Tree as a little kid, but when I tried to read it to my daughter as an adult, I really could not bear it. That said, I really enjoyed the Harry Potter books and the magic in them was interesting and diverse and wholly enjoyable—maybe it was the darkness in those books that made me like them so much.

How did you conceive the structure of the series?
I always knew I was writing a series. At 14 I had read the Narnia books and other series, and I took in that one wrote more books if there was a larger story to tell than would fit in one book—by that I mean, a story which was not episodic but a number of discrete steps in an overarching story. It is really important to me that each book works in its own right, hence the gaps of time between them. And when the series grew, from The Stone Key onward, I was very careful where the books would end. I could not let one book turn into more until I found the right spot to stop. The structure in the next book is pretty much the same as in the others, despite the size, except that it is the first one where we do not end with Elspeth at Obernewtyn, and the last one, The Red Queen, will be the first that does not begin at Obernewtyn. That is the only change.

Bestsellers this week

A top-secret base known only as ‘Dragon Island’ houses a weapon of mass destruction. When the island is hijacked, and the weapon is re-activated by a brutal terrorist force calling itself the ‘Army of Thieves’, marine captain Shane Schofield is called on to save the world. Scarecrow and the Army of Thieves (Matthew Reilly, Macmillan), the latest installment in the Scarecrow action thriller series, is at the top of the bestsellers chart. (See our Fancy Goods review and interview.) Second on the bestsellers chart is The Affair (Lee Child, Bantam) followed by Lola’s Secret (Monica McInerney, Michael Joseph). Scarecrow and the Army of Thieves also tops the highest new entries chart, while at the top of the fastest movers chart is Pierre Dukan’s diet guide The Dukan Diet (Hachette)–Weekly Book Newsletter.

INTERVIEW: Matthew Reilly on ‘Scarecrow and the Army of Thieves’ (Macmillan)

Scarecrow and the Army of Thieves (Macmillan) is Matthew Reilly’s fifth book in the Scarecrow series (including the spin-off novella Hell Island, produced for Books Alive in 2003). In the latest instalment, Reilly has ‘humanised an often superhero-like character’ while creating his ‘most cruel and violent villains yet’, says reviewer Emily Smith. (See her review here.) She spoke to the author.

You’ve featured many different nations and organisations as the villains in your books. To what extent do current affairs and politics affect who you cast as the bad guys?
My books—especially the Scarecrow series—are set in the real world, so current events are very important. In fact, the reason it’s been eight years since the last Scarecrow novel is that I was waiting for the world to change. And around 2008-2009, it did!

Scarecrow and the Army of Thieves reveals the characters’ personal lives more than in previous books: we learn more about Schofield’s family and Mother also opens up about married life. What made you decide to explore this?
I put Scarecrow through hell in Scarecrow, and I felt that readers would like to know how he dealt with the horrible things that happened in that book. That meant delving into his personal life, and that of his friend, Mother, as well. I am older now, too—I am 37 now, whereas I was 23 when I wrote Ice Station—and I think as I get older, I like to find out more about my characters. That said, while I wanted to explore Scarecrow’s and Mother’s characters, I wanted to do it in the middle of an absolute rampage of a story!

You set the first Schofield novel, Ice Station, in Antarctica. What made you choose to return to a frozen landscape?
I have always wanted to set a book in the Arctic. It is very different to the Antarctic, with its own dangers (polar bears, extreme cold) and unique features (the sea ice, the leads, old Soviet bases). I also like setting my books in faraway places as they allow readers to escape; they also allow me to escape when I write the books.

Your novels keep getting faster and faster. How do you juggle a fast-paced plot with character development and back story?
My theory is this: try to develop character during big action scenes! I wanted Thieves to be both fast and intense, to be relentless in its relentlessness. And I think I have succeeded in this aim. I want every new book that I write to be somehow better than the one that came before it—with this one, that would be in its intensity. But action and thrills are worthless if readers don’t care about the characters, so I needed to thread character moments and back story into the action. How do I do it? I’m not quite sure. If you’re going to have a character moment, why not have it on a runaway missile train!

What’s in store next for Shane Schofield?
I have an idea for a new Scarecrow story. I now have to decide whether to write a new book about him, or do another Jack West novel. This is the decision I must make.

What was the last book you read and loved?
I am loving Boomerang by Michael Lewis right now. I have loved all of his books, especially Moneyball. Lewis is a gifted nonfiction writer, who writes with clarity and humour about subjects like pro sports and the Global Financial Crisis (in Boomerang he goes to  countries like Iceland, Greece and Ireland to find out why they suffered as they did in the GFC). I read a lot of nonfiction, but Michael Lewis is the man. If I see a new book by him on the shelves, I will buy it without even reading the jacket. I just know it will be good.

BOOK REVIEW: The Key to Starveldt: The Rare Book 2 (Foz Meadows, Ford St)

Foz Meadows recently snuck into my reading pile with the first book in ‘The Rare’ series. I was intrigued. A group of teenagers who were in possession of varying powers, brought together on a quest by the vampire Solace, the rightful heir to the castle Starveldt. Amid the overwhelming number of vampire books that were (and still are) filling the shelves, this series came as a welcome surprise. Although Solace is a vampire, the teenagers are not, and Meadows considers the dynamics of their group where each member is marked by a particular difference. These dynamics are probed even further in the second book, as Solace hurtles towards her destiny. The majority of the book is spent in the Rookery, a safe haven for paranormals, misfits and others, and the vivid descriptions of character and place are a delight to read. The reader is also given the opportunity to learn more of the complex back story. Foz Meadows seems to have hit her stride in the second book, and the characters, plot and setting that started out strong in her 2010 debut have found a steady rhythm, and will no doubt secure her readers’ interest in books to come.

Bec Kavanagh is a Melbourne-based writer and reviewer and an ex-bookseller. This review first appeared in the September issue of Junior Bookseller+Publisher magazine.

Most mentioned this week

Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot (HarperCollins), the third novel from the Pulitzer prize-winning author of Middlesex, is about a love triangle between three Ivy League undergraduates in the early 1980s. It’s followed on the most mentioned chart by Elliot Perlman’s The Street Sweeper (Vintage), which explores the varied histories of its New York-based characters, from the experience of the Nazi regime in Europe to the civil rights movement in the US. Julian Barnes’ Man Booker Prize-winning A Sense of an Ending (Random House), Alex Miller’s Autumn Laing (A&U) and Kerryn Goldsworthy’s Adelaide (NewSouth) also appeared on the most mentioned chart this week–Media Extra.

INTERVIEW: Andrew McGahan on ‘The Coming of the Whirlpool’ (A&U)

Andrew McGahan (credit Jason Froome)

In November, Miles Franklin Award-winning author Andrew McGahan will publish his first young-adult novel, The Coming of the Whirlpool, book one in his ‘Ship Kings’ series. Reviewer Heath Graham describes it as a ‘classic adventure tale’ which ‘captures the mystery and the romance of the sea’. He asked the author about his sailing background, his favourite adventure stories and the importance of having a map in the front of the book.

Why YA? Was it very different to writing your other novels?
I’ve always loved reading fantasy, and have often promised myself that I would try writing it one day, so it seemed perfectly natural, when I started dwelling on the ideas for ‘Ship Kings’, to give it a go. And no, the work involved is no different really from any of the other novels—a little more lighthearted in the invention, maybe, but no less demanding when it comes to getting it down.

As for YA, I didn’t particularly conceive the series as being that way, it was more that I saw it as belonging to the type of fantasy that’s mostly about the wonder and adventure and mood of its own strange world, and less about say the complexity of its politics or relationships. A classic style of fantasy, in other words, and one which, as it happens, can be pitched at YA readers—but which can be enjoyed by the young at heart too, no matter how old.

You capture the feeling of the ocean brilliantly. Are you a sailor yourself?
Alas, no, I’m strictly a landlubber, with little other than foolish and romantic notions about life at sea. But then maybe that’s the point—who knows, being an experienced sailor might even have proved more of a hindrance than a help when it came to imagining an ocean in fantasy. That said, I’ve read up plenty, and tried to keep the basic sailing details at least minimally authentic.

This is the first book in a series of four. How much detail have you already planned for the series?
For someone who normally launches off into a novel with almost no planning, the series ahead has been fairly well plotted. On the other hand, nothing ever turns out as expected when it comes to the actual writing, so while I’m sure book four will end up roughly as planned, there’ll be surprises in it too, even for me.

Was there much research involved in writing this book? How did you approach it?
I read up enthusiastically on the technical aspects of sailing, but at the same time I didn’t go overboard. The romance of sailing was always the more important thing, and for that I’ve been researching for years anyway—I have a particular hunger for sea tales, the more mythical and fantastic the better. Mind you, given the unusual properties of the ocean in the Ship Kings world (something which becomes more apparent in book two and onwards), I’ve been led into some odd nooks of research—the physical behaviour of non-Newtonian fluids, for one.

What were some of your favourite adventure stories growing up?
Tolkien, of course, anything he wrote. Stephen Donaldson’s ‘Thomas Covenant’ chronicles. Ursula Le Guin’s ‘Earthsea’ series. T H White’s Once and Future King. Monsarrat’s The Cruel Sea. Oodles of others too—but I have to give a special mention here to Poe’s classic short tale of horror, A Descent into the Maelstrom, which transfixed me so profoundly when I read it at about age 10, that even now, more than 30 years later, I’ve felt compelled to try (in vain) to match it with a giant whirlpool of my own.

How important to a fantastic adventure novel is having a map in the front of the book?
It’s all part of the fun. I loved consulting, for instance, the Tolkien or Donaldson maps while reading those books, and used to wistfully draw maps of my own fantasy realms as a kid—so it was a poignant moment indeed when I sat down to sketch the first proper map for the Ship Kings world, not long after I’d finished the first draft of book one. It was one of those dislocating instants when you become aware that your childhood self would be dancing about in utter joy if they could somehow fast-forward to it.

BOOK REVIEW: On Shakespeare (John Bell, A&U)

John Bell’s On Shakespeare is neither a biography of the bard nor a history of the Bell Shakespeare Company, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. Rather, it’s a distillation of a lifetime of studying, acting in and directing Shakespeare’s plays, from student theatre to stints with London and Stratford’s Royal Shakespeare Companies to his company’s own productions. Bell is interested in Shakespeare’s character, putting paid to rumours that he wasn’t the real author of the plays. However, the focus of this book lies in the staging of his plays: how should an actor prepare for a role, and how might a director stage a modern production? As examples, Bell cites the many, many plays he has seen or participated in, recalling the performances of the greats (Lawrence Oliver, Paul Scofield) as well as some more obscure productions (including several staged behind the Iron Curtain). Each of Shakespeare’s plays is given brief consideration, with chapters on the Histories, the Tragedies, the Comedies, the Romances, the Romans, as well as the sonnets. These chapters are interspersed with imaginary ‘interviews’ with various acquaintances of Shakespeare, which, though imaginatively written, sit a little oddly with the rest of the text. This book will appeal to those with an interest in Shakespeare and the theatre, in particular students, rather than serious Shakespeare fans who may find it a little lightweight.

Andrea Hanke is editor of Bookseller+Publisher. This review first appeared in the September issue of Bookseller+Publisher magazine.

Bestsellers this week

The love between schoolgirl Nora and fallen angel Patch has transcended the boundary between heaven and earth. After overcoming the secrets of Patch’s dark past and facing heart-wrenching tests along the way, they must now stop a villain who seeks to destroy their loving bond. So goes Becca Fitzpatrick’s Silence (S&S), the third book in the ‘Hush, Hush’ saga, which is at the top of the highest new entries chart and has snuck into fourth place on the bestsellers chart. The three top bestsellers didn’t budge from their previous positions this week. They are The Affair (Lee Child, Bantam), followed by Lola’s Secret (Monica McInerney, Michael Joseph), then Kill Alex Cross (James Patterson, Arrow Books). The Ox is Slow But the Earth is Patient (Mick Malthouse & David Buttifant, A&U) is at the top of the fastest movers chart–Weekly Book Newsletter.

BOOK REVIEW: Mad Dog: William Cyril Moxley and the Moorebank Killings (Peter Corris, NewSouth)

William Cyril ‘Mad Dog’ Moxley was hanged at Long Bay Gaol in 1932 for the murder of Frank Barnaby Wilkinson and the rape and murder of Dorothy Ruth Denzel. The brutal crimes and resulting investigation attracted extensive public interest and newspaper coverage. Although registered as ‘an habitual criminal’, Moxley had not previously committed a crime of this nature. Syphilitic and suffering migraines, dizzy spells and blackouts after a gunshot wound to the head, he claimed he could not recall the terrible things he had done. Using archival material to explore the legal, political and police systems of the time, crime writer Peter Corris—best known for his ‘Cliff Hardy’ series—tries to get inside Moxley’s head and reconstruct the Depression-era Sydney of the time. Why did Moxley do it, and if he’d been tried today, would he have been found guilty? As the story unfolds, fact interweaves with fiction as Corris reconstructs scenes full of great dialogue; at times these scenes made me hanker after the novel that Corris decided not to write. This is a fascinating book that will appeal to fans of crime (both true and fiction) and authentic Sydney stories. It is the first in a new series of books from NewSouth that are written by popular crime-fiction authors covering real crimes that have caught their imagination.

Paula Grunseit is a freelance journalist, editor and reviewer. This review first appeared in the September issue of  Bookseller+Publisher magazine.