Garth Nix: Internationally best-selling fantasy author

image-garthnix200Garth Nix’s books have sold more than 4.5 million copies around the world and his work has been translated into 36 languages.

His latest novel is Superior Saturday, the sixth book in The Keys to the Kingdom series that began with Mister Monday, a Children’s Book Council of Australia Honour Book.

His books include the award-winning fantasy novels Sabriel, Lirael and Abhorsen, part of the Old Kingdom series; the young adult science fiction novel Shade’s Children; the six books of The Seventh Tower series; and fantasy novels for children including The Ragwitch.

He has worked as a part-time soldier in the Australian Army Reserve, a bookseller, book sales representative, publicist, editor, marketing consultant and literary agent.

His books have appeared on the bestseller lists of The New York Times, US Publishers Weekly, The Australian, The Sydney Morning Herald and The UK Sunday Times.

Garth was born in Melbourne, grew up in Canberra and currently lives in a Sydney beach suburb with his wife and two children.

Click play to listen. Running time: 26:39

 

Shade's Children Abhorsen Lirael SabrielMister Monday

Transcript

* Please note that these transcripts have been edited for readability

Valerie:
Garth, thanks for talking with us today.

Garth:
It’s a pleasure. Thank you.

Valerie:
You write mostly in the fantasy genre, and I’m sure you get asked this question all the time, but where do you get the inspiration from for your books?

Garth:
Well, I think inspiration comes from all over the place. There are all kinds of different inspirations. I doubt that it varies depending on what you write, in a sense. It’s all raw material that goes into your head and you make up what you will. Certainly I’m inspired just by what I see around me, by the natural world, by what I read, what I hear about. It’s true I particularly get inspiration from history, from myth and legend, from people that I’ve believed, which is particularly useful for fantasy. I think fantasy stories tend to work best if they have some resonance with readers particularly with the fantastical elements. So if you do connect them in some way to existing myths or legends or things that we feel have a deeper meaning, that often helps a story work best.

But in terms of inspiration, I get inspired by all kinds of things. I might hear a song, the emotion of that song will inspire. Particularly, I think I want to try to capture that same emotion in the story. Or I might just get fired up to want to write because I see a great film or see a play, have a fantastic walk on the beach or any of these things that serve as inspiration. Or you see two birds fighting with each other in the sky or something like that. It can spur an idea which might come in use at some point.

Valerie:
Did you read fantasy when you were younger?

Garth:
Absolutely. I mean, I read everything and I still read very widely. I recommend to beginning authors that they do read very widely because – particularly if you’re writing in a genre like fantasy or you’re writing mysteries or thrillers or whatever – if you only read in that genre, when it comes time to writing your own material and finding your own voice and style you have less to draw on if you’ve only read in that one area and it’s likely that you’ll be copying someone else as opposed to actually putting together your own. The more that you have in your head, the more variety of stuff, the more I think you’ll be able to create your own particular style and find your own voice.

So I always recommend reading all kinds of fiction and reading the classics. I mean, there’s a reason why great novels stick around for 100 years or 150 years. And also reading non-fiction too: read biographies and history and all manner of non-fiction because I think that also helps fill up the reservoir of your head with stuff you can draw upon for your own work. So yeah, certainly I do get a lot of inspiration from what I read, but I read a lot of varied stuff and I think that is helpful if you want to be a writer yourself.

Valerie:
So for people who haven’t yet discovered your books, which one of your books would you recommend for a first time Garth Nix reader?

Garth:
Well I think it would depend upon when you would come into them. I like to think that all my books have an adult appeal as well as an appeal to children, but some of them have more than others. I don’t believe in age ranges as such, like this book is for nine to 12 or whatever, but I do think they have sort of an entry level where this will be a reading age, which may not be your actual age.

There’s a sort of reading level age where you can get into them but there’s not an upper limit. So for example, if you’re a university student or you’re 30 and working, probably something like Sabriel would appeal to you or Shade’s Children, but equally that might appeal if you’re 14. The Keys to the Kingdom books – the entry level is probably nine or 10. I think it’s still a good read no matter what age you are, but sort of nine or 10 is where you first come at it, I think.

Then there are other books which start younger or older depending on which ones we’re talking about. I mean, Shade’s Children is probably 13 or 14 plus Sabriel and the other Old Kingdom books are probably 13-plus, I would guess. I have a collection of stories for much younger children called One Beastly Beast – which comes out here in Australia later this August [2007] I think – that’s already out in the US and the UK, where the entry level’s six or seven.

So, it’s hard to recommend any one particular book. And also it depends – they’re quite different. It depends on what you like. I think I would give the same advice as I would give for any book, which would be to read the blurb on the back and read the first couple of pages and see how you go. That’ll pretty much tell you what to go with I think.

Valerie:
Does having two young sons help you get into the world of children and young adults or is that something that you could actually do quite easily even way before you had kids?

Garth:
Well, I wrote a lot of books before I had children so I would hope so. It is interesting, I mean, my boys are quite young – almost six and three-and-a-half – and most of my books are for much older children. And I really write them for myself; so all the books, everything I write for me as a reader and it’s for me as I am now and it is also for me as I was at a particular age.

With that said, I do certainly find it’s interesting to get a sort of reminder of a child’s eye view of the world through my sons and also through the books reading to them – I mean, reading picture books to them. I hadn’t read picture books since I was young myself, I had them read to me. And so it was great to read and experience old favorites and find new ones and so on. And I think also be reminded how difficult it is to write a good picture book. I mean, it’s something that I would like to do, but I actually think they are extraordinarily difficult because the fewer words you have the harder it is. People get confused about this sometimes. They think not very many words – it must be easy. But actually, I think it’s very difficult and it’s very difficult to write a really good picture book. And the world doesn’t need anymore not very good ones.

So, it’s something I’d like to do at some point but I’ve never done anything to my satisfaction. So that’s an area that I rediscovered with my boys and it’ll be interesting to see what books they’re getting into and that appeal to them immediately and so on. And it’ll be interesting to see what they think of my books, too. Other than they know them, but when they actually get to seriously read them it’ll be possibly an interesting experience.

Valerie:
They’ll be going, ‘Dad, did you write these really?’

Garth:
Well hopefully they won’t be saying, ‘Dad, I read your book; it was rubbish’. Just because they may go through a phase, but you never know. We’ll find out.

Valerie:
You mentioned your book Sabriel, which was published in 1995 and  has been optioned for a film I understand. Can you tell us about the progress on this?

Garth:
Well it actually hasn’t been optioned, but I’ve taken a different path. And to avoid a long-winded explanation, one of the ways authors can sell their film rights is to just sell an option to a producer or studio where they can choose to make the film. They buy an option and then may choose to exercise it at some point. I actually chose not to do that because once you do sell an option on the work you effectively sell the film rights, whether or not they choose to exercise them or not. So you have no influence over what happens. Once you take the money, that’s it basically. They just get rid of you.

I didn’t want to do that. So for Sabriel, what I’ve done is I’ve teamed up with –  I’ve taken a packaging road, as they call it, where I’ve actually assembled a package which is me co-writing the script with Dan Futterman who wrote Capote. He was also nominated for the screenplay he wrote of that. We have Anand Tucker, the director onboard whose best known film is Hilary and Jackie. It was a wonderful film. And we’ve all teamed up together with the production company Plan B which is Brad Pitt’s production company.

And so with that package we’re trying to not sell all of this, including the rights of the book to the studio. It’s just a different way of doing things. So, at the moment we have that team assembled and we’re actually currently in negotiations to see if we can get a studio or one of the production companies to actually, to pick that up and run with it.

Valerie:
Is that a steep learning curve for you because it’s a whole other world, really.

Garth:
Yeah, I’ve just been in Hollywood for a couple of weeks. We’ve been, as a team, pitching the book to studios which is a very educational experience. I had a little bit to do with this sort of thing in the past because I was an agent with Curtis Brown for some years. But very different from – and I could do film options and film agreements and so on – but from here [in Australia], it’s quite different from being in the heart of Los Angeles. So, it’s been a very educational experience and it’ll be interesting to see what happens because even having assembled these people, with their great track record and they’re fantastic, it still may not get anywhere. But we’ll see what happens.

Valerie:
I’m sure we’ll be hearing good things about it. Now I’ve spoken to authors who say that when they look back on some of their books they actually wish they could have changed the ending or changed it in bits, but of course now it’s too late because the book is out. Are there any of your books where you’ve wanted to change the ending long after you finished writing them?

Garth:
No, not at all. In fact, I can’t understand that attitude at all. I mean, I’m not always happy with the books and typically that’s because when you imagine the story it’s always much better than it is when you write it. I can never capture what’s in my mind as well as I would probably like.

However, having written the book once it’s actually completely edited and it’s finished and it’s out there – to me it’s there, it exists. It’s like a person or whatever; you can’t change it, it’s got its own life. It’s gone. It’s going to live that life. I always want to just move on. I’m always interested in what’s next, not in what I’ve done in the past. I want to write a new book and try to make that new book better and closer to what I imagine. So, no, I never want to change anything. I mean, still I may not be entirely happy with them, but they are what they are for good or ill.

Valerie:
Speaking of new books, what are you working on now? What are your projects that you’re working on now?

Garth:
Well at the moment, as always, I’m juggling a variety of things and I like to do that. But I’m mostly working on Lord Sunday which is the final book in my series The Keys to the Kingdom. Book six, Superior Saturday, has just come out this month and the seventh book Lord Sunday is my sort of main project at the moment. I’m also writing a story for American Anthology. I’m working on the graphic novel adaptation of Sabriel, which is underway. I have some notes about a couple of other writing projects. So there’s always tons of stuff floating around but mostly I’m working on Lord Sunday.

Valerie:
Is it easy to get into the world that you’ve created? Is it something that, when you sit down at your computer or wherever you write, you can easily just immerse yourself into that world? And when you emerge from your office or wherever it is that you write, you’re back in the real world again. How does that work for you?

Garth:
It varies. I do have a separate office. I walk from home to it and in that walk, I think that’s part of sort of gearing up to write. Though typically the first few hours of my day is sort of doing admin and answering emails and that sort of thing.

But then when I do sit down and start to write, I do often quite slowly get into it. But I just force myself to stay with it. And the more I write, the more I do get drawn into what I’m doing and it slowly accelerates. But it usually takes me – it takes about 80 per cent of the total time I spend in writing a book to write the first half. The first half of the book takes way more time than the second half because I slowly build up momentum and get drawn into the story and so on. But mostly, I just have to force myself to return to it, as with any work, and I think I’m naturally lazy. I would avoid it if I could.

Valerie:
And in terms of the actual practical aspect of your writing process specifically, do you type straight into your computer? Some people say that they have to do it long hand because that’s the only way for it to come out. What do you do?

Garth:
Well I do both. Most of my earlier novels I did write longhand. First I would write a chapter longhand and then I would type it up on the computer and the typing would change it so the first printed out version would be the second draft. I’d write the whole book like that. I’d write a chapter, type it up, handwrite another chapter. Though I stopped doing that, probably the last sort of six or seven or probably eight books, where I do a bit of both. So, I often I’ll just type on the computer, just straight out type several chapters. But then if I get to a difficult spot, I will handwrite that chapter. I may handwrite just a passage, a few pages.

Sometimes when I’m travelling, even though I’ve got a laptop with me, I will just prefer to write longhand. Sometimes, even here, I’ll just go sit in the back of the office in the sun and write longhand just to get away from the screen. So I find that I can work either way.

Just work out what works for you, I mean, I think the trick is to not convince yourself that you have to work in a particular way or you have to have a special pen or have a special writing hat or whatever. Because once you start thinking you’ve got to have special conditions to write, you’re really just making excuses for not doing it. Or you have to have an attic or you have to be a full-time writer or whatever. None of that is true. It’s just we all do it, I think, and I catch myself sometimes starting to imagine a reason I have to have things or conditions that have to be met before I can do it. I just force myself to stop that and in fact just get on with it.

Valerie:
Because a great part of writing isn’t just the inspiration, it’s just discipline, isn’t it?

Garth:
Yeah, it’s mostly discipline actually. And I also think the inspiration comes if the discipline is there. So quite often I’m not feeling inspired or mostly not feeling inspired when I start to write, but if I do start to write then I think the inspiration will come or the energy will come. But of course if you wait for the inspiration, then you’ll often still be waiting and nothing will be written. The more you write, the more you’ll find the inspiration, I think.

Valerie:
So what other advice would you have for aspiring writers, like what tips might you have for them to make their writing process easier?

Garth:
Well I think one of the things that are important is to write for its own sake and to not worry about whether it’s going to be published or whether it’s going to be successful or anything. There’s plenty of time to get neurotic about all that stuff, but don’t do it before you’ve written the novel or don’t worry about how you’re going to sell a novel, find an agent or whatever because you have to write it first and it should be the most important thing. And also just write what you want to write and write what you love. Maybe it isn’t the hottest genre or things you think are in demand at present.

I still believe – and this is from the perspective of an ex-editor and an ex-agent as well as an author myself – but the best books are always the ones where the people just wrote what they wanted to write and then try to work out what to do with it as opposed to the other way around. And practically, I think the other thing, too – you don’t need to be a full-time writer. There does seem to be a trend in that direction, people think they need to be full-time. But you don’t. I write most of my books, still more than half of my novels, while I’ve had very busy full-time jobs. And most authors I know either do have jobs or have had busy jobs.

But if you just write even just a few hours a week and maybe four or five hours on the weekend, you can write a novel in a year. I used to write every Sunday afternoon for about four hours and if you do that, I think you can still finish a novel in a year or a year-and-a-half. And just sticking with it.

In terms of practical tips, there’s all kinds of, sort of, psychological encouragement devices you can use. One of the things I’ve always done is when I do finish a chapter, when I type for the first time on the computer, I always do a word count. I write down the word count and the date and then I keep a running total as I go in one of my writing books, so I can look at it and feel like I am making progress. Or look at it and think, ‘oh I need to write some more, I’m not writing enough’. And as you progress, when you’ve got 20 chapters down and the word count is 60,000 or whatever, you think, well I’m really getting there. I find that encouraging.

But I think there’s so many different ways and, I guess this is also advice, is that writers work in many different ways and you don’t have to write like anybody else does, you don’t have to have the same techniques. Not one writing advice will suit everybody always in very many people. You may find that your own techniques and practices are quite different from other people’s. It’s whatever works for you, is what will work. I again wouldn’t be too concerned if you work in a different way than someone else or work in a different way from someone whose work you admire. You’ve got to find your own way.

Valerie:
Do what works for you.

Garth:
Yeah.

Valerie:
You’ve had many books published and another one’s about to come out. Do you still get excited about it? Is it when you see the book on the bookshelf?

Garth:
Absolutely and I still get very excited when the advanced copies arrive. I still find it quite surprising. And I’m actually more surprised when I finish one, let alone when I actually see it published in covers. And I also always doubt them part of the way through the process.

Valerie:
You doubt them?

Garth:
Absolutely. I get halfway through and I think, ‘I can’t do this anymore, I’ve forgotten how to write, this all sucks’. And I have to tell myself that I always feel like this and I just have to keep going. I force myself to keep going. Maybe it is all rotten, but I can go back and fix it up so I’ll just keep going forward. And I’m constantly going back and fixing things up, I constantly revise as I work.

But I always force myself to keep going and typically I get to the end and I realize that it’s actually not as bad as I thought, and the bits that I really don’t like I do fix up and then it ends up alright. So, I have that doubt. And then when the book actually arrives, I’m always very excited because it is the new book, it’s what I’ve been working on. As I said the old books have lives of their own, this is the new one that’s come out. So it is still very exciting.

Valerie:
So tell us about your new book and what you love about it.

Garth:
The new book is Superior Saturday; it’s been out for a couple of weeks, actually. It’s the sixth book in The Keys to the Kingdom series. I guess what I particularly like about this book, and I will like even more about the next one, is that I’ve been telling a big story across the series and I’ve had to try to make them stand alone as much as they can while they’re telling the big story. In a way they have to work by themselves, they’re also like chapters in a very big book.

And in Superior Saturday, because I’m getting towards the end, I’ve been able to start bringing in, start to explain stuff and start to make some of the big story more apparent and catch up on all of the things I’ve been hinting at and so on. And it is building momentum towards the end, it’s all building up to the big climax of the whole big story so the energy is increasing and getting there.

So I guess that’s one of the things I like about it, is that it is the second to the last book of this series and I really want to finish this series and finish that whole big story because I’ve been working on it since I started thinking about it, really about eight years, so that’s quite a long time. So I’m very keen to wrap it all up and to get to the story I’ve been trying to tell for eight years, to try and finish it.

Valerie:
Finally, tell us, paint us a picture of five years time, what will you be doing?

Garth:
That’s a very good question. I’ll be taking a holiday in five years time.

Valerie:
Hopefully before five years.

Garth:
I already have several books laid out ahead. After the series, I have a stand alone space opera novel and then I’ve got two more novels in the sort of the world of the Old King and the Sabriel and Lirael and Abhorsen books. So I have three books lined up to write as well as other projects like the Sabriel film and so on. So who knows, I think the thing with predictions is that you’re always completely wrong where you’ll be in five years. I hope I’ll still be writing books and enjoying myself. So that’s what I hope for in five years.

Valerie:
I’m sure you will be. Thank you.


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