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.

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