Writing Podcast Episode 299 Meet Juliet Marillier, author of ‘The Harp of Kings’

In Episode 299 of So You Want To Be A Writer: What can you do when you realise when your book is broken? You'll meet Juliet Marillier, author of The Harp of Kings. We have a new online course in development. Plus, there are three copies of The Last Voyage of Mrs Henry Parker by Joanna Nell to give away.

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Show Notes

When you realise your book is broken.

Writers in Residence

Juliet Marillier

Juliet Marillier has won many awards for her writing, including five Aurealis Awards and four Sir Julius Vogel Awards, as well as the American Library Association’s Alex Award and the Prix Imaginales. In 2019 she won the Sara Douglass Book Series Award for the Blackthorn & Grim series.

The Harp of Kings was released on September 3, 2019, by Pan Macmillan Australia and Penguin Random House US.

Juliet’s earlier books include the award-winning Blackthorn & Grim series and the Sevenwaters series, both set in early medieval Ireland, the Viking duology Saga of the Light Isles, the Bridei Chronicles, set in the kingdom of the Picts, and two series for young adults, the Wildwood books and the Shadowfell books. She has also written a stand-alone novel, Heart’s Blood, based on the fairy tale Beauty and the Beast, and a collection of short fiction, Prickle Moon.

She is active in her local writing community, mentoring aspiring writers, giving workshops, and serving on the Literary Board of the Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers’ Centre. She is a regular contributor to genre writing blog Writer Unboxed.

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Interview Transcript


Juliet Marillier is an internationally published award-winning author of 23 fantasy novels, predominantly writing historical fantasy. Her latest novel, The Harp of Kings, is out now through Pan MacMillan in Australia, and Penguin Random House in the United States. Welcome to the program, Juliet.


Thank you very much for having me.


All right, so we're going to back in time a little bit here. Because obviously 23 fantasy novels are not written overnight. So we're going to go back in time a bit. Can you tell us how your first ever novel came to be published?


Sure. Yes it does feel like long ago in another life. I wrote Daughter of the Forest not intending to send it for publication. I knew nothing about the publishing process. I actually wrote that book after recovering from a rather messy marriage break-up and sort of putting myself together for a few years. So I think it was the book in which I spilled out all the churning emotions and so forth that I'd been through.

I had always loved the fairy tale “The Six Swans.” And so I thought, well, I would love to write a story in which that is not simply a fairy tale of the archetypal fairy tale characters, but one in which there's a real family. Because maybe I was thinking about family crises and I thought that experience, where there's the stepmother who doesn't like the children and she puts a spell on the brothers and they've turned into swans, and the girl is left having to rescue them by a very gruelling and difficult method, that was the sort of crisis that would really disrupt a family. And it would reveal who was strong and who was weaker, who could survive, who could support the others, and so forth.

So there was a real family drama there. And that was what I wanted to write. So a combination of the elements of human struggle and challenges and strength and weakness, and the lovely fairy tale and swan imagery.

So that was the story I thought I'd like to write. And I wrote that very part time while I was a single parent most of the time. And I had a day job to keep things together. And so I wrote it in dribs and drabs over a relatively lengthy two or three years.

And then I finished and I thought, well, this is actually not too bad. Far too embarrassed to show it to anyone I knew because I thought they're going to just, you know, what if someone looks at it and says, there, there dear, and pats me on the head? It gets put away. So I had no confidence, very little confidence in its seeing the light of day in published form.

But back then, Fremantle Press, which was then known as Fremantle Arts Centre Press, had a very generous policy of reading any manuscript that was sent in by a writer who was from Western Australia or who lived in Western Australia and giving some comments on it.

So I thought, well, this is good, it's going to go to someone who doesn't know me, I don't know them, so it won't hurt so much if they tell me it's rubbish and I can get an opinion. So I've sent my completed manuscript to them and I also sent the first chapters of the second book which had spawned in my imagination and an outline for a three-book series, and got a lovely letter back saying, we don't publish fantasy. Which I knew already. But how about sending this to one of these two major Australian publishers and seeing what they think.

This was back in the mid-1990s, probably before the publishers were quite so strict about when and whether they would accept unsolicited manuscripts. So I looked at those two publishers. I don't think I had home internet at that stage. I was probably running out and using the computer in the library.

And one of them, Pan MacMillan, had a policy of reading unsolicited manuscripts and the other one didn't. So I sent my stuff in to Pan MacMillan and lo and behold was offered a three-book contract, which was absolutely mind-boggling. And with an advance that I won't tell you how much it was but it was absolutely peanuts compared with what people get these days. But to me it was just an astonishing thing to happen.

I think I was at work in my public service job and got a personal phone call that came through via the manager who had to get me from my desk. And it was from Pan MacMillan saying, congratulations, we want to offer you a contract.


That is the best story. I just love it. But was that the first thing that you'd ever written? Was the first novel you ever wrote?


Um… I'm just trying to think about… I do have some other novels that were written that didn't get sent in. The only one I wrote, I think I've got, I've got a couple of unsuccessful attempts at a romance novel, which was submitted and came back with a nice comment saying, love the story but basically it doesn't focus enough on the relationship between the characters. In other words, too much stuff happening.


That's exactly what I got.


And somewhere there's a handwritten fantasy novel that would be unpublishable, I think, that was written quite a long time ago. But that's it basically. So the only other ones that I had submitted were those, the two, the romance publishers.


Fantastic. So then let's talk about, so that was a fantasy novel. Why do you think you write fantasy novels? Why were you drawn to that?


I think really I was drawn to that because I grew up absolutely loving mythology and folklore and fairy tales. They were a sort of lifeblood of me growing up. I mean, I read avidly everything.

But possibly because my parents both had Scottish ancestry with a little dab of Irish, and my parents both loved books and they were both musicians. And the other thing is that I grew up in Dunedin which is a very Scottish city in New Zealand. It has all sorts of trappings of Scottish culture, just because of the people who settled there.

And so all of that combined to give me a love for that kind of story. And so I read them and read them and loved them and then went on reading them and loving them as an adult while developing broader reader tastes.

To tell you the truth, even when I had written Daughter of the Forest, I hardly even knew that there was a literary genre called fantasy. Which is odd because I had read, started with the Narnia books, adored The Lord of the Rings as a teenager, had read other books that count as fantasy, like Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Mists of Avalon, and Mary Stewart. But I didn't think about genre. I just thought, I'm going to write a version of this fairy tale that'll have real people in it and we'll see what those experiences do to them.

And therefore I didn't come up through the ranks of young people who go to all the conventions and dress up and know all the science fiction and fantasy authors and their books. There's a whole cohort of people my age, quite elderly, who came up that way and who therefore have a far greater knowledge of their genre and the authors than I had.

Back then, I'm sure I was more of a mainstream reader. Literary fiction, what is sometimes called women's fiction, historical novels. And not much of the book with magic in it. So I didn't know I was writing fantasy. I just started writing it is the answer to that question.

And since then I've educated myself far more about what is being written. And well I think the fantasy genre has actually become far more diverse even since the time of my first novel. And has broadened out and has struck roots and there's a lot of really brilliant stuff being written.


I guess just on that, that was a question I was going to ask you, actually, this idea that you write historical fantasy, where does that fit in the fantasy genre? What makes it fantasy? Is it the magic aspect of it?


Yes, I think it is the uncanny, the presence of anything that is… It's interesting, I should have a great answer to this because I actually presented a workshop on writing historical fantasy yesterday, so I should have got my own PowerPoint in front of me to read out.

Yeah. I would say that even within that historical fantasy category there are different kinds of novels. There's the sort that I write which is based in terms of history and geography in our real world, if somewhat loosely, but has some sort of element that most people wouldn't recognise as actually real or true. So magic, the uncanny, could be ghosts, it could be anything.

But in my books, I base the uncanny element on what the people at that time and culture would have believed. So I do research into the mythology and folklore and I build that into the story as something real that coexists alongside the human world. So that's one kind of historical fantasy.

There's alternative histories, which probably fits into historical fantasy, I guess. Where you're writing the real world, you're writing real history, but some key event is changed in your history and that alters everything thereafter. That requires even more research than writing a real historical novel, I would think. So there's that.

And a third category… I was doing this yesterday and I can't remember. Oh yes, the wonderful invented world that is not quite our world but which is recognisable as our world all the same.

And my prime example of those is the Kushiel's Legacy series by American author Jacqueline Carey. Her world is clearly renaissance Europe and goes broader in the later books. The names of the characters are not quite French in one place, not quite Spanish in another place, but carefully crafted so you know what culture lies behind it. Same with character names.

And it's just the most brilliantly realised fantasy which one of the main elements in that is that in her home, in the place, in the geographical place that's the basis of most of the story is sort of the south of France. She sets up a set of gods who are responsible for aspects of human existence, each one. And they all have their adherents and their priestly characters and their beliefs. And one in particular is responsible for sexuality, sensuality, everything to do with the senses. And it's a book that you don't read if you get upset by too much sexual, too much eroticism. But it is beautifully twined into the story, so subtly twined and gorgeously written.

So I would recommend those to anyone who hasn't tried that sort of writing. She is a wonderful writer. The first in that series is called Kushiel's Dart.


Okay. So what then for you are the key components of a successful fantasy novel? Is it the world building that makes it fantasy?


No. That's one of them. And I think that you probably if you were talking to readers you'd get very different responses from different readers. So all I can say is that this is my personal opinion, probably as a reader more than as a writer.

The world is part of it. Okay. So the world needs to be well-researched. And if a writer has a jumping off point of real history, then the research of the real history and geography and all those components needs to be as carefully done as any magical elements. So there's the world building. That's one part of it. It has to be done well.

If you start to get to the stage of inventing elements of your world, you need to make sure that your world is internally consistent. That's terribly important.

And if you are going to invent things to go into your world, the magical, the uncanny, the unreal, then all of that has to work well and it has to be plausible within the world that you've created.

So one of the errors I think that some aspiring writers or trainee writers or whatever do is assuming that because it's fantasy you can do whatever you like. You can chuck in whatever you want. Nothing grates worse for me as a reader than an element that is incorrect. For example, character names or place names that are just a jumble of borrowing from all sorts of cultures within our known world that don't fit together. That's a common error. You need to research your names. If you don't have a background in language, then you need to consult, like languages other than your own, you need to consult with somebody else before you use place names and so forth. Now, I'm going to get into a minefield about something that's not what we're talking about. So there's that element.

But for me, as a writer, characters come first. The human interaction, the human drama, the challenges, the journey of the characters is absolutely foremost. And the world of the book is just a background to the human story unfolding. I think that's really important.

Now, not every reader is going to go for that. Because some readers love an elaborately constructed world with complex magic. And complex magic is certainly very interesting if it's well done. A world that hinges on some kind of system of magic that requires people to act in certain ways that are different from the world we know. That's fascinating. So if the magic is done well, if it's been well thought out, if it's original, then that's going to enhance the book greatly.

And as I said, for some readers that's more important than the stories and the characters. But for me, I need to be emotionally invested in the journeys of characters. I really need to care about what happens to them. And that in a sense is more important than the world. I guess the two work together.


Do you start, when you're writing a new book, do you start with the character? And then the world comes with the character? Is that how it works for you?


I would say that amongst fantasy writers, building a world is not my strongest, not my strength. That is probably because… I mean, I really admire those writers who can create an entire world from their imagination. Because I start with our known world and build from there, yes, it has to work, it has to work well, but certainly with the current series I'm starting from a world that I've already created.

Look, I think it needs to be well done. You need to know, as a writer, you need to know ten times about the world of your book as you ever put into the book. Because that'll just inform the way that you make characters speak and interact and how things pan out within the story. So you either do your research or you do your invention of the world, I guess, probably before you start.

With me, I wouldn't say characters come absolutely first, although with the current series perhaps one of them did. Generally speaking, there will be some idea such as a turning point within the actual story which is meant to the main thing. Or you want to write a story on a particular, based on a particular theme. Or you want to write characters who are markedly different.

For instance, with my Blackthorn & Grim series, having mostly featured young and fairly heroic characters in my past series, I deliberately wanted to write a series with older and more flawed protagonists and to explore the famous post-traumatic stress disorder. So that series had those features. And from that, the central characters in that series very quickly made themselves known to me. So they followed pretty much immediately after the idea of the theme.

So it's going to be different for everybody, I think. But I'm certainly not suggesting that a fantasy writer starting out should sit down and fill in notebooks of notes about the complex world in which their story will be set and then start looking for a story and a set of characters. But the characters should be growing and developing in your mind right from the moment you start thinking about writing a book, I think.


Okay, so let's have a talk about the new novel, which is The Harp of Kings. Because character for me is a very strong component of that book, of the accessibility and the enjoyment of that book. Because I did very much enjoy it. And I really liked the fact that you've got the different points of view within that novel, which are all different, but they are equally compelling. I felt like that was probably something that the balance of that, because there are three of them, the balance of that, was that something that you had to really consider? In the sense of, oh I've focused too much on this, I need to move on to the other one? Or is that just something that sort of naturally came out of the story?


It was pretty organic, actually, the way it unfolded. For those who haven't read it, there's a female character, Liobhan, who is really the main focus of the story. And the two men, Dau and Brocc, one of whom, Brocc is her brother, Dau is unrelated. All three of them take a chapter in turn.

I knew before I started that I was going to write in that format, with the different styles and the different chapters. And they were all in first person present tense which makes the story quite immediate.

Liobhan, I had thought, right, I'm going to write a character that… I guess she's a woman who represents what young women are striving to be like today in general. She's very forthright, she's capable, she's big and strong, she's very talented. But she does have, well, she has a very strong sense of justice and right and wrong. And sometimes gets herself into trouble by being unable to stop speaking out where perhaps holding back might be the wiser course of duty in the long run.

So I think she's a character I did create for the current day and age and the current female reader who, because women now are starting to speak out and refuse to be silenced where matters of justice are concerned. So she's a representative of that. But she's also very much an individual.

She's also the child of some characters that were in a previous book of mine. So I had that thought, how will their daughter turn out, what characteristics will she inherit? So that's an extra little bonus for people who've read the Blackthorn & Grim series. But they don't need to have done that. This is a standalone series. So it's fine.

And then I guess knowing where the story was going, because I always know the whole story before I start writing. I tweak it as I go, but I do know where I'm going. The boys are not only characters created for their purpose within the story, but they're also a good trio to spark off each other. So we have Brocc who is Liobhan's brother and is sensitive, artistic and has some secrets that are revealed as the story progresses. But he's very much attuned to the needs of other people. And he's poetic.

Dau is an enigma at the start of the book and I won't talk about him too much because his story gradually unfolds. He's the character that we don't like very much at the start of the story. And who has a lot to learn as we progress through the adventure that they find themselves thrown into.


So I'm reading this book and as you say, it's definitely a standalone. It's a complete story within the book. But I can also see that there is room in this for further story.


Most certainly. Yes.


So given you said you know what happens, so does that mean that you plan everything out before you start? And if you do that, how do you do that given the epic nature of some of the series that you have actually created?


Some of the longer series, like Sevenwaters which has six books, that initially started as a trilogy with the fairy tale of the first book. And a follow up because having written the first book I thought, ah, this crisis that happened to these characters is going to have an impact the next generation and the next generation. I wonder what would happen. And so that was how the Sevenwaters series unfolded.

With this current series, The Harp of Kings, I have in fact worked out the entire story of all three books that there are going to be. And so there's the complete in one book standalone story in each of the books, so they can be read separately. But there's also an overarching big story that goes right through the trilogy.

So when writing these three characters I do know where they're going. And in fact, I've written the second book already, but it's at that stage where my editors are reading it and going through it with a fine toothed comb and about to send me the notes about what they'd like fixed up. So I know where we're going.

And the third book, I have a broad outline. Not a whole lot of detail. But yes, I do know where we're headed.

Not everybody works that way. A lot of writers do very well with just having a vague idea of where they're going to be at the end of the story, sitting down and letting it flow. And I salute people who can do that. I can't do that. I need to have the architecture in place to know that the house is not going to fall down when I've finished building it.

But people do that seat of the pants, the pantser method, and it works very well for a lot of excellent authors. It just means that once you've done that rough and dirty first draft of the book that those people do, you've got to go back and do lots and lots of rewriting. I don't love rewriting. I like to work slowly and try to get it right the first time.


So on that, given the scope of your stories, and the fact that you are essentially, you know, you've created a book or more a year over the last 20 odd years, do you structure your year in such a way as that you have a good bank of writing time each year? And then promote your work only when you have a book coming out? Or are you attending events across the year? How do you do the balance of the promotion versus the actual writing time?


It's changed sightly. I used to, when I first started out I had a fulltime day job at the same time. And I gradually eased out of that because it was necessary. These days, I… I actually had a few years when I didn't do a lot. And have just really picked it up again. But with the events, the conventions and so forth, if I'm invited to go to something, I try to go even if it's at a slightly awkward time of year.

But certainly with writing the book, and say sort of a year between starting and submitting it to the publisher, during that year I will be doing a lot of other things as well. I will be presenting workshops, I will be attending conventions.

With the public appearances, they do tend to get clustered around the release of a new book. And at the time when I'm writing most frantically, which is usually just before it is due to be submitted to the publisher, I don't do, I try to avoid needing to travel and do public appearances. Because I just like to hunker down like a hermit with my three dogs and work very hard and try to make sure it's as polished as possible.

Really, it's not only the getting it finished, it's that once it's finished, once I reach the end, I have to go back, go through everything really carefully, make sure it's just as perfect as it really can be. So I don't get one of those 17-page editorial reports back from my publisher saying, change this, this, this, this.

I don't always get those, but they have been known in the past, and they cause a great deal of stress.

So certainly I do enjoy attending conventions, science fiction and fantasy events. I feel like I'm among friends at those. It's sometimes a little bit hard to switch on the whatever it is that you need to interact with a lot of people in a bright and loud setting for long days. Because most of my life is spent living alone with the dogs and a lot of quiet and a lot of time to write. And so it can feel slightly bizarre. It feels like becoming a different person for a few days.

But I love meeting my readers, and having a chat with them and talking about the books. Particularly Supanova, which I enjoy, and I'm going to be at Supanova in Brisbane and Adelaide in November. Even if people don't come up to talk to you, there's always a parade of fabulous cosplay moving past and that's fun. And sometimes people dress up as my characters, which is lovely. So yes, I've enjoyed that very much.


So I see the con thing, and I have a lot of friends who are fantasy or sci-fi writers or whatever and I see them attending as authors. And I've often wondered about them, I've never been to one myself, so how do they work for an author? Are they a way to build new fans? Or are they a way to connect with existing fans?


Both, I think. Depends on what it is. But there's the conventions like Conflux and we have Swancon here in Western Australia. They're a great opportunity to network with other authors, with other professionals. So that's one thing.

Generally, you will get an opportunity to be on some discussion panels on broad and general topics related to your genre, which is also good. So you can become known that way.

The existing fans will come along and you have an opportunity to sign books and there's usually a bookseller there so they'll books by all the authors who are attending.

The cons are variable. Some I would see as more serious than others. Some of them are very based around a certain die hard fannish group that's been attending for years and years and years. And as I said before, because I didn't grow up with that particular genre interest, I can sometimes… In the past I've sometimes found that I was just floating around on the edges.

But I think that for a… I think they're a good place for a new author to be, just to talk to other writers and find out what's going on. Educate themselves about what readers are currently loving and enjoying. And sitting on a few of the discussion panels because there are some people with a lot of expertise there.

Yes, so I think dabble your toes in the water and go to your local convention and just see what it's like. It's always a good experience.


All right, well it's been very, very interesting chatting with you today, Juliet. We're going to finish up with our last question that we always ask our authors in residence, and that is for your top three tips for writers. What have you got for our listeners?


Okay. Number one, is always read. You can't be a good writer if you don't read for recreation. And because we can go on learning all our lives and improving what we do when we keep on reading, which is terrific fun anyway. And don't just read the genre that you're writing in. So for me, I wouldn't only read fantasy or only read historical fantasy. The most painless way of developing a great writing style and expertise is by reading all sorts of genres. And you also have to read journals and poetry, nonfiction, and literary fiction and genre fiction, and just read broadly and keep on reading. So that's number one.

Number two is recognise that you have to work hard to be a good writer. You're not going to get fame, glory and mega bucks with your first novel, unless you write something pretty remarkable. So work on your craft, whether that's joining a writer's group and learning to critique and learning to receive critique from other writers, go along to writers' festivals and listen to what people have to say, read great books on your craft. I'd recommend people like to have a look at a website WriterUnboxed.com which is an American blog with many contributors, one of whom is me, but it's not self-promotion. There's a lot of fantastic…


You can promote! Do it!


It's about the craft and business of writing.


We actually share a lot, it is one of the ones that we share on the Australian Writers' Centre page a lot as well, because I find that the blog posts are always really considered and there's a lot of useful information in them. They're not just wafty.


Yes. So people can hop on there and actually search on a topic like self-publishing, or voice, or whatever, and a bunch of excellent past posts will come up. So that's a good one that I'd recommend.

So yes, work on your craft. And don't expect instant success. Just keep working, keep trying.

And the third one, which I… Yes, okay. Don't try to second guess the market. Don't think, right, what I must write is a vampire novel or a steampunk or something. You write the story that's busting to get out. The one that you really, really want to write, the one you feel passionate about. Don't worry about whether it will sell because to write well you need to believe in what you're writing.

So I did that with my first story. I wrote, as I said, wrote it not intending to have it published. I wrote what spilled out of the heart. And for you, there'll be something, there'll be a story there that you really want to tell. That's the one you go for.


Okay. That is fantastic advice. And it's been a great pleasure to have you on today. So thank you very much for joining us. And of course you have a website. Where can people find you online, Juliet?


It's www.JulietMarillier.com. And they can also find me on Facebook. If they just search for my name on Facebook, there's a Facebook page there too.


Fantastic. All right, well best of luck with the new novel. And I'm looking forward to book two already. So thank you very much.




Thank you very much for your time.


Thank you, Allison.




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