INTERVIEW: Eric Knight on ‘Reframe’ (Black Inc.)

Eric Knight is a former Rhodes scholar, who has worked as an economics consultant to the OECD, the UN and the World Bank, and has written for various Australian newspapers. Andrew Wrathall spoke to him about his first book Reframe: How to Solve the World’s Trickiest Problems (Black Inc.). (See the book review here.)

You write that we get distracted by what is visually compelling, but how do we change our focus to look at the bigger picture?
Near the start of the book, I describe a simple puzzle which was developed in the 1940s by the psychologist, Karl Duncker. I won’t go into the details here, but the puzzle intrigued me because I failed miserably at it. I later learnt that five-year-olds were the best at solving it. My mistake—and the one I examine throughout the book—was to view the elements of the puzzle in a stereotypical way and miss the hidden connections between things. Five-year-olds, by contrast, approached the problem with fresh eyes.

Reframe is an attempt to apply Duncker’s insight about human psychology to politics. The way we look at political problems directly affects our ability to solve them. I show a different side to our stickiest problems–from the frontline of the war on terror to Mexicans crossing the border into Tea Party America. The book is an attempt to reframe each of these problems. But even if you disagree with my final conclusions, I try to offer a new way of thinking about how to change the world. Our best answers arise by trial and error, not by the neat application of abstract ideas.

Did your frustration with the way people think drive your need to understand them?
No, I actually came to write Reframe for a very different reason. I’m an optimist about human nature. There have been many books written recently which essentially argue that people are irrational. I make the opposite case: people are rational with a good heart and head.

History, however, is obviously filled with many instances of human misjudgement and error. I explore several of them in the book. My first chapter, for example, is called ‘Why people are smart but act so dumb’. My claim is that these are momentary blips rather than structural flaws. Correction is possible.

We all want to distil complexity in the world around us. When we fail, it is usually because an issue has been misrepresented rather than because of mindful malice. Our greatest challenge is to frame political problems in the right way. An alternative, and inferior, approach is to assume there is a dark side to human nature which can be curbed by benevolent dictum.

Do you believe our world leaders often neglect historical fact?
I think our world leaders are guilty of something more subtle. Politicians simplify messages because they think it makes them easier for us to understand. However, I actually think simplifying problems can make them harder to solve.

World leaders might be better served by heightening their respect for our natural intelligence. They could trust us with more complexity not less. We are not in a political stalemate because our world leaders neglect historical facts, as such. We’re in a stalemate because leaders presume we won’t understand complex facts.

Reframe tackles global problems. Have you thought about writing a book that looks at local issues in Australian politics?
I have thought about it and that might be my next book! But I wrote this book after spending three years living in England. What fascinated me whilst there was that the British fought over political issues for remarkably similar reasons to why we did. The same applied in the United States and continental Europe. The players were different and the factual contexts were obviously unique. But the reasons—the common, almost universal, nature of political misunderstanding—were similar.

That contradicts something commonly said about Australian politics. Australian politics is parochial, people say. They don’t sweat the small stuff in the grander political pastures of North America and Europe. I disagree. It’s the common thread you can weave between the immigration debates in the United States and the climate conundrums of Great Britain which really intrigues me.

I’ll let my readers apply the lessons to Australia. But I think you can get a deeper understanding of your own country by observing a parallel political world abroad.

What was the last book you read and loved?
I really enjoyed Michael Lewis’ new book Boomerang: The Meltdown Tour (Allen Lane). He is a fantastic writer and has a wonderful way of making economics come to life through its quirkiest characters and their real life stories. I also liked Niall Ferguson’s Civilization: The West and the Rest (Allen Lane). He has built a reputation for arguing the counterintuitive side of history. You don’t have to agree with Ferguson to appreciate his ability to distil very complex ideas into simple prose.

INTERVIEW: A S Patrić on ‘The Rattler and Other Stories’ (Spineless Wonders)

Melbourne writer, blogger and bookseller A S Patrić tells David Cohen about his short-story collection The Rattler and Other Stories (Spineless Wonders). (See David Cohen’s review here.)

There are some strong links, thematic and otherwise, between many of these stories. Were they written with a collection in mind?
Perhaps I’m too bookish but I think we experience our lives in story sequences. We search for links and themes in a narrative so large we never get to see the whole thing at once. When we notice patterns and connections we are getting glimpses of a bigger picture. So that’s how I write my stories—as parts of a very large book, and The Rattler & Other Stories is chapter one.

In many of your stories, seemingly innocuous details are set against sinister or unsettling events and thereby take on an eerie, cinematic quality; for example, the image of headphones hanging from an armrest in the story ‘B O M B S’. Do your stories emerge from such images, or do you employ them to create a particular mood?
A detail like those headphones comes from an idea, more than an intention to juxtapose or to create an effect. ‘B O M B S’ is an explosion and each piece of it is a fragment. The headphones hanging from an armrest on a crashing plane (music tinkling amid the noise of destruction) is about how we collect moments into something like music (or literature) and comfort ourselves with the idea that a piece of ourselves or something we love might survive forever. So perhaps all we have are fragments—the bits and pieces of our exploding lives. ‘B O M B S’ emerged from that idea.

Of late, there seems to be a renewed enthusiasm, particularly from small independent publishers such as Affirm Press and Spineless Wonders, for short fiction or short-story collections. You’re a bookseller as well as a writer; are more people buying these formats?
Everyone involved in bookselling knows we’re in a critical period of transition and what readers are going to buy, even in the near future, is uncertain. An award like the Miles Franklin has degenerated to a point where an increase in sales, even for the winner, is negligible, since the award insists on traditional forms and themes. The Pulitzer is bolder, and the prize’s successes have been far more impressive with books like Olive Kitteridge and A Visit from the Goon Squad—both of which are linked story collections. Independent publishing is part of the seismic changes we’re experiencing. Those that have the nous and gumption will thrive in a market that is demanding diversity and bravery. Your local bookstore has never been a more exciting place.

INTERVIEW: Gillian Mears on ‘Foal’s Bread’ (A&U)

Gillian Mears (credit Shannon Hemmings)

Gillian Mears grew up horse mad and horse-book mad. She spoke to Heather Dyer about her latest novel, Foal’s Bread (A&U). (See the review here.)

You obviously have a great love of horses. How important have they been in your life? Have you got any favourite horse books’?
In the company of a charitable horse there is nothing that you can’t learn deeply and intricately about yourself. Horses have been the greatest teachers of my life. From the age of 9 to 16 nothing was more important to me and some of my sisters than time spent with our horses. The seasons would pretty much determine what we’d be doing, and my favourite season of all was summer, when you’d ride bareback down for a swim at the Spit on the Clarence River. The horses were indolent, with grass bellies and sun-faded coats. Swimming your horse lent a magical quality of power to any afternoon. So too the stop that always followed a swim, at the long-gone Villiers St corner shop for a little whitepaper bag of mixed lollies that certain horses also loved to eat. The first horse book I can remember reading was Right Royal by John Masefield. It had been one of my English grandmother’s books. It held many line drawings as well as beautiful tissue-guarded colour plates. Next probably would’ve been Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty followed by Mary O’Hara’s ‘Wyoming’ trilogy and some of Elyne Mitchell’s ‘Silver Brumby’ and Mary Grant Bruce’s ‘Billabong’ books. If a book had a horse on the cover it was greeted with potential reverence, confirmed once you verified that it wasn’t a ridiculous horse-girl book. When I first read John Steinbeck’s classic The Red Pony I was deeply affected because my best friend’s pony had just had strangles and not long after that died a terrible death from tetanus. I loved the horses that appeared as a matter of course in many of Nan Chauncy’s novels. There was also the mare Bless in a Herman Hesse, and Bree and Hwin, the Narnian horses from C S Lewis’s The Horse and His Boy, and most recently of all, Nino from The Crossing, stabbed in the breast by a Mexican bandit. Henry Wynmalen’s Equitation was borrowed almost constantly from Grafton High School library by one Mears girl or another. I also often took out anthologies of horse stories that yielded gems such as D H Lawrence’s ‘Rocking Horse Winner’, a favourite to this day. After leaving home, my dream of becoming a better rider never abated. I was learning many marvellous things with Bellini, the last horse in my life, an ex-racehorse from Queensland, when the onset of MS when I was 31 stopped the lessons dead in their tracks.

Jealousy between Minna and her daughter-in- law Noah, and then between Noah and her daughter Lainey, threaten to destroy their relationships. Do you find jealousy an interesting emotion to write about?
The very word jealousy seems alive. Like a snake gliding into a house there is a feeling of danger, danger! I once saw a king brown snake that had found its way into the vacuum cleaner bag under a child’s bed. The mother threw snake and bag into a cauldron of water coming to the boil on the stove. I feel that in Foal’s Bread, no jealousy shines with such reptilian glossiness as that that breaks out in Noah for her beloved daughter. I found that those chapters unpeeled from my pen with little need of rewriting. Older writings of mine have also investigated the sly and malignant force that is jealousy.

Some of the characters, in particular Minna, could have been deeply unsympathetic, but you manage to keep her just this side of that. Was this difficult to achieve?
I found Minna’s humanity shone out in one startling similarity to Noah—both women in different parts of the book feel ashamed to cry. This poignant recognition made it possible to maintain the relentless portrayal of the flinty, mean old Minna.

Your previous novels and short stories have won many awards, including the Vogel Award and several Commonwealth Writers’ Prizes. Did these awards offer you more freedom, or did they put pressure on you as a writer?
It’s hard to answer this question with unequivocal certainty. Although at one level the prizes came always as a genuine surprise, somewhere deeper in I would accept that they were emphasising that writing was my rightful destiny. The most stress I’ve ever felt in my writing life happened when completing The Grass Sister. This was due to a basic mistrust in my material. I was struggling to find the story I really needed to tell. This rather than any pressure from any prize is what delayed The Grass Sister’s completion by many months.

There appears to be a trend in Australian literary fiction for historical novels with a rural setting. What was it about this time and place that appealed to you?
In many ways writing reminds me of riding an old familiar horse. One wisdom text that always faces out on my bookshelf is equestrian Paul Belasik’s Riding towards the Light (Robert Hale). I’ve always thought that it could just as easily be called Writing towards the Light. Or I’ve thought that writing fiction is like whip-cracking, letting the plaited leather float out in front of you before bringing it back with an almighty crack. I let the whip of Foal’s Bread float out for so many years that I nearly never brought it back. Finally though, my lifelong love and unerring affection for men and women born between the wars demanded that I narrate my novel using their vocabulary. I’ve always loved the great storytelling abilities of that generation. I think of the loneliness and hominess of their old huts. I hear their slow, heart-broken voices, even as they’re telling some incredible story (their voice like a race being called, up and down, up and down) that will practically split you in two with laughter. I wanted to catch the kindness and never-ending generosity of that generation. Certain old horsemen would never charge money to hog your horse’s mane before disappearing for a while on a spree that would leave them high and dry and nearly dead on the bed for days. In conclusion, although I grew up in the 60s and 70s, it’s as if the sound of an earlier era runs in my blood like an old kero pump choot-choot-choot.

What the last book you read and loved?
The Crossing, which is the second volume in Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Border Trilogy’.

INTERVIEW: Ray Martin on ‘Ray Martin’s Favourites’ (Victory)

Ray Martin’s Favourites (Victory) is a collection of standout interviews from the TV journalist’s career, as well as a glimpse behind the scenes, revealing how these interviews came together. Martin spoke to Bookseller+Publisher.

You’ve interviewed many of the stars, including Sophia Loren, Audrey Hepburn and Don Bradman. Have you ever been star struck?
Very rarely. In fact, out of thousands of interviews probably only twice. Sir Donald Bradman and Audrey Hepburn—a strange double, I must admit. I’m a cricket tragic but I never got to see The Don play. When I first met him at his Adelaide suburban house he stood up and stroked an imaginary cover drive, illustrating a point about batting technique. I was absolutely mesmerised. Audrey Hepburn I had fallen in love with when I was about 15 and saw her in the movie Breakfast at Tiffany’s. When I was the ABC’s New York correspondent in the 1970s, I used to walk past the iconic jewellery store and imagine Holly Golightly and her cat, as in the film, just sitting on the steps. Then on The Midday Show I got to meet and interview Audrey. She was still a classic beauty, with sparkling eyes and the best cheekbones in Hollywood. I told her of my teenage love affair, she smiled and purred, ‘It’s never too late …’ So I kissed her on the cheek. How dashing was that?

Which interview was the hardest to secure?
Sir Donald Bradman. How I ended up with that exclusive is almost worth a book in itself. I guess my half-hour interview with Prince Charles after his split with Diana was a coup too. Then the interview with Bob Hawke and Paul Keating together was something quite special. Even 20 years later it’s still my favourite political interview. It’s also a fascinating insight into the two men.

Your book also reveals some of the behind-the-scenes action. Can you share any gossip?
We had an American rock legend stoned off his face when he came on to sing; an Australian movie legend overloaded with chardonnay; a British legend who had a personal water-taster (just in case someone tried to spike his acqua minerale); an English guest who forgot or deliberately decided not to wear knickers on The Midday Show and the TV audience noticed; and a Spanish heartthrob who made sure we didn’t film his bald patch. Then there was Pamela Stephenson who tried to take my trousers off on camera, and Richard Marx, who was too cool to admit that he’d once written a country song for Kenny Rogers. Even after a viewer sent in a copy of the album he still denied it was him. I’m not going to tell you who they were—except for Pamela and Richard. You’ll have to just wonder.

Tell us about some of the ‘ordinary folk’ who made it into this book?
They’re all ordinary in their own kind of way—even Don Bradman, who almost drowned three times because he never learnt to swim. There was the drover who spent an agonising night in the fork of a tree during the high-point of a Queensland flood—with his kelpie dog and a huge snake. Then there was Werner Von Braun, whose rockets put man on the moon but was as enthusiastic as a kid playing with fire crackers; Jane Fonda who wanted to talk about God and Dustin Hoffman who just wanted to talk about sex. Ronnie Biggs, the most celebrated of the Great Train Robbers was an ordinary Cockney bloke, who was one of my favourites. He just wanted to be a carpenter living in Melbourne. Doesn’t get much more ordinary than that.

INTERVIEW: Frank Moorhouse on ‘Cold Light’ (Vintage)

In the conclusion to Frank Moorhouse’s ‘Edith Trilogy’, former League of Nations officer Edith Campbell Berry mixes politics with pleasure in post-war Canberra. Moorhouse spoke to Andrea Hanke in the November issue of Bookseller+Publisher. (See her review here.)

Edith has a glamorous lifestyle in the first two books. She is young, attractive, surrounded by interesting men and women, and working for world peace. Were you tempted to end her story there?
For a while after Dark Palace I thought that Edith’s life ended with the collapse of the League of Nations. She had come through this great disaster in human vision—what some saw as the greatest diplomatic embarrassment of the 20th century—the new UN had rejected her, and some of her friends at the League had suicided because of their failure to stop World War II. In some ways Edith flees back to Australia to find herself. I became excited and went to Jane Palfreyman, my then editor at Random House, and said, ‘the third novel is set in Canberra in the 1950s’. She looked at me and said, ‘do you have a stronger pitch than that?’ I told her that this was a remarkable time in Australia and the world regardless of how we tend to see it—and Edith belonged there. Jane agreed. In Canberra Edith again confronts all the great problems of the human race—and her own personal dilemmas. Wherever we go the existential questions follow us. Edith is a woman in her prime, also a woman still trying to understand her sexuality even if it means crossing the sexual borders or trying to live without borders. She is a woman who wrestles for her say in the world; to find a family life; she wrestles with alcohol, and she strives for a sexual life which fits her personality and she searches for peace of mind.

In Cold Light, Edith takes up a number of causes, including the construction of Canberra, for which she has lofty dreams. How do you think she would feel about Australia’s capital today?
Edith would’ve been pleased to see that the unique and creative hands of Marion and Walter Griffin were still clearly present in the design of the national capital.

She would have seen that the residential neighbourhoods of Canberra had lost their rawness and had become distinctive in design and layout—some with interesting restaurants and their own community activities, and that each is now an archive of the architectural styles of the decade in which they were built.

She would have said now let’s pull down any unsuccessful structures and ugliness.

She would have been disappointed that the buses taking people to and from work did not have visits from wandering minstrels and opera singers and celebrities.

But she would be delighted and thrilled that Australia had manage to create a distinctive city ‘not like any other in the world’ with its ‘temples’ of art, literature, science, music, democracy, law, military history, its parks and gardens, and a national museum—all showing where we came from and what brought us along.

She would probably ask where the Museum of Design, Arts, and Crafts was and why there wasn’t there a great museum of Indigenous culture.

She might be disappointed at the level of political debate in the new parliament house.

You spent some time in Geneva to research the first two books of the trilogy. Did you set up camp in Canberra for this book?
One day in the bus travelling through Canberra in a winter mist I had a dazzling revelation—it was that Canberra may well have evolved into the most aesthetically distinctive and functionally satisfying 20th-century planned city in the world—that Australia had pulled it off. I then had a second realisation, Canberra was now completed in the formal sense—the new parliament house was working and the key cultural institutions were pretty much in place. I even entertained the notion that Canberra might be the most beautiful 20th-century city in the world. While some people who live outside Canberra still hold out-dated memories of the ‘city without soul’ where you couldn’t get a decent coffee, Canberra is now a sophisticated city and it increasingly delights me—architecturally, gastronomically and with its wonderful cultural resources.

The story also delves into the history of the Australian Communist Party, and its role in political espionage during the 1950s (both as a spy and as a party that was heavily spied upon). Did you find many sources to draw on this?
The release of national archival material and the publication of a revealing book by former communist Mark Aarons (The Family File, Black Inc.) may have extinguished any illusions those on the left still have about the nature of the Australian communist party leadership during the immediate post-war years. We now know that the communist party in Australia was substantially funded by the Soviet Union and a section of the membership was engaged in spying for the Soviet Union. Whether this has discredited forever the vision of some sort of a socialistic economic and social system as an alternative to that of American capitalism is, perhaps, still to be resolved.

You write ‘literary novels’ that are funny and sexy, which is less common in this genre. Have you been influenced by any particular authors?
My hero author is George Eliot and she has influenced me throughout my life since school days but I doubt that she has contributed to what you call the ‘sexy’ in my work—I have to take responsibility for that—although, given her own personal life, I do not think she would’ve been in any ways embarrassed by it if she were alive to read it. I think her influence on me was that she showed me that the personal life, the civic life, the life of ideas and social change can be intertwined into an engaging readable novel.

Are there any plans to adapt Edith’s story into a movie or mini-series?
A number of film options have been taken out on the Edith novels over the 20 years that they were written but they still await the right director and producer—Cate Blanchett said in an interview that my character Edith was the one she most wanted to play. I hope that comes to pass.

INTERVIEW: Peter Corris on ‘Mag Dog’ (NewSouth)

Peter Corris considers the case of convicted killer William Cyril ‘Mad Dog’ Moxley in his latest book. He spoke to Paula Grunseit in the September issue of Bookseller+Publisher. (See her review here.)

Mad Dog is told using a combination of facts and fictional reconstructions. Why did you decide on this hybrid form?
Most of the documentation on the case, with the exception of a few letters, was official. There were no interviews with police, family, lawyers, etc. I wanted to bring out the tragedy, which it was, not only for the victims but for Moxley himself, his friends and, in a sense, the legal system, with capital punishment being reintroduced after an eight-year gap. The reconstruction, drawing on hints, tones, remarks, in the official records allowed me to bring a personal and human dimension to the case.

What particular challenges did you encounter when telling this story and how did the writing process differ from your fiction?
After more than 60 books of fiction, many of which involved precisely the same sort of people as in this matter—criminals, police, lawyers, distressed women, etc—I didn’t find it hard to imagine, based on the documents, the words these actors might have used. I had to be careful to ‘stay in period’ but, having written quite a few historical novels, I was used to doing this. As a former academic historian, the social history aspects of the book presented no particular problems to me.

How did your opinion of Moxley change as this book developed?
The public and official hostility to Moxley masked many underlying factors, which helped to explain, though not excuse, his actions. Focussing on these, I believe I reached an understanding of the man which came close, at various points, to sympathy. Moxley’s trial took only two days, brief for even those times. His defence was not vigorous and aspects of his physical and mental health, which today would have carried the possibility of a defence based on ‘diminished responsibility’ played no part at a time when the ability to tell right from wrong was the only test of sanity.

What the last book you read and loved?
The Wilder Shores of Love by Lesley Blanch (Phoenix). It’s about four 19th-century women who defied convention to experience the exoticism of the East.

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.

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.

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.