Twelve years ago Richard Harland left his job as a Senior Lecturer at the University of Wollongong to write full-time. Since then he has published 15 novels and has just scored a big US publishing deal for his latest book, Worldshaker.
He has written fantasy for all age levels, from children's (the Wolf Kingdom books, SassyCat and Walter Wants to be a Werewolf) to YA/crossover (Worldshaker, the Heaven and Earth Trilogy) to adult (The Vicar of Morbing Vyle and its prequel The Black Crusade).
He has won five Aurealis Awards, including one Golden Aurealis for best Australian novel in any category of SF, fantasy or horror, and has also had several listings on the Children’s Book Council’s Notable Books list.
His author website is at www.richardharland.net, and he has recently put up 145 pages of free tips for writers of fantasy and genre fiction at www.writingtips.com.au.
Click play to listen. Running time: 32.34
* Please note these transcripts have been edited for readability
So thanks for talking to us today Richard.
Good to be here Valerie.
What prompted you to leave a tenured senior lecturer’s position and go and write full-time?
Well, the prompted had always been there. I wanted to be a writer since I was very, very young. I’ve sort of had two halves to my head which I have never really been able to explain or understand. But one side is creative and visual and that is the story-making up side of my head. The other side is quite theoretical and analytical.
I wanted to be a writer since I was about 11-years old. I kind of got distracted along the way and moved into academia. Basically I couldn’t finish the novels that I tried to write so that kind of didn’t give me much choice in the matter. But I also really cared about what I was doing in academia. I had some ideas that I wanted to work out and I eventually published in book form in England. I guess I really enjoyed lecturing and tutoring.
But I still wanted to be a writer and eventually I managed to finish my first book which came out from a small press. When my second book was taken up by Pan Macmillan, a mainstream publisher, they gave me the contract but they wanted a sequel in a year’s time. I knew that because I'm a slow writer there was no way I could continue my lecturing job and produce a novel in a year.
I struggled. I really squirmed and wiggled and tried to get out of it. I had six months study leave coming up. I sort of tried for six months leave without pay. I did everything that I could and they wouldn’t let me do it. So I had to make the decision and the decision was… I was nervous about it.
I was nervous about it because I had writing block for so many years. I didn’t know whether I was going to have writing block again and the idea of becoming a full-time writer would kind of [dull] it before it even got started. But I had to take the chance.
I would have spent the rest of my life thinking to myself, “Could I have done it?” I had to know if I'd done it so that was the right choice but it was like walking off a cliff at the time. People used to say to me, “It’s a courageous decision,” the same way they say that on Yes Minister.
Now you say that you are a slow writer. Is that a normal thing? Do you think that you write more slowly than most other authors or do you think that it’s fairly standard?
I know that I write more slowly than some authors certainly. I really wouldn’t write more than 1000 words in a day. My great virtue is consistency. I write day in and day out. The thing is that if you write day in and day out you don’t actually need to write a huge amount every day because the pages mount up slowly and steadily anyway.
I sort of write some things faster than others but on the whole I'm a slow writer, no doubt about it.
When you said that you enjoyed writing even from when you were 11, did enjoy science fiction and fantasy then as well?
Yes I did but there wasn’t so much around in those days. I liked adventure stories, exciting stories. I liked imaginative stuff and I did love the fantasy that was available. We’re talking The Hobbit, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, those kinds of things. There just was not that much available in those days.
I guess what I really loved from the very start was telling stories. That’s always been the big thing for me. It started when back when I was around the ages of 10 and 11 we had a huge junkyard in those days and we used to build castles and submarines and airplanes with tin bars and all sorts of junk.
We made up stories that went for days and days. We wrote them up in the end and sold them in the school playground. So that was my first sort of starting as a writer. But it was always the stories that came first.
that’s very commercial of you at 11.
yeah, it seemed like a good idea at the time. It wasn’t quite as commercial as it was intended to be because we thought that we would be able to sell our stories for money and in fact what we got were swaps. We got comics and we got lollies and we got all sorts of things but nobody would actually part with hard cash. But it was a real buzz and that’s I guess for me the real thing.
Later on at school I started getting praised for my writing as such. And in some ways that eventually led me into a bad path because I got more and more literary and then I started bogging down. I became too obsessed with the being clever with words. So now I sort of rediscovered the art of putting the story first and the words seem to come naturally.
tell us about your latest book, Worldshaker. You describe it as steampunk. What does that mean?
Yeah, steampunk is a great phrase and it’s almost an accidental phrase because it was the term coined for something like well, it came out the same time that cyber punk was around. The punk is irrelevant really. If you think of steam-age machinery, the best way to describe it is it is the same appeal as when you look into the workings of an old-fashioned clockwork clock or you look into an old valve radio and hear all these fabulous intricacies of little bits and pieces.
The love of that old machinery, it’s a romance. You look at a modern sort of electronic device and it's just a blank, bland blob of plastic. But that old machinery, it actually sort of you can see into the guts of it and all the little fiddley bits and the brass and the steel and the glass and all those little bits.
If you can feel that fascination, that’s kind of what steampunk works on. It works on the beauty of that old machinery without worrying too much about the reality so it is a form of fantasy in that it involves inventing machines that never existed.
The amazing thing is I think this is partly why Worldshaker sold to the US for such a fabulous advance. It's a big thing over there. It’s a whole way of life. It’s a growing sub-culture. People wear steampunk jewellery. They are made out of little cogs and bits and pieces. There’s steampunk clothing fashion. There are steampunk art objects. You can decorate your house with ornaments created out of bits of wire and glass and old-fashioned machinery, steampunk music. It’s a whole way of life. So it’s a great fascination.
For me it goes with Victoriana that is the sort of 19th century feel. So if you think of something like The Golden Compass, Philip Pullman’s Golden Compass, it sort of has gadgets. It also has very much that 19th century feel about it. It’s a new line in fantasy. And for me that’s a great thing because as much as I love Tolkien and the sort of medievalish type of fantasy. I do think that fantasy is broader than that and I’ve always wanted to explore other possibilities.
When you are writing and creating worlds just like that how do you develop a rich description of the world and what goes on in it. Do you actually sit there for days and actually plan it all out? Does it come gradually? How does that actually form in your head before you get it down on paper?
Well, not so much days as years, really it takes me a long while to get a fantasy world complete in my head. I’m not ready to write until I’m actually in the world and I can live that whole world and know everything about it so Worldshaker it was 15 years between the first ideas of the novel and actually writing it. That’s maybe the longest that I have ever taken but its really rarely less than five years.
I just need a whole lot of bits and pieces to come together so it’s not as if I can just sit down and think up things on the spot but rather it takes time for putting the mind in the right sort of feel and gradually ideas start accumulating. I’m doing something completely different and I will write it down. I’m sort of going off to sleep late at night and the idea comes and I will write it down and gradually all those parts and parcels come together.
Is it just your imagination or do you research as well?
I don’t really need to research. For Worldshaker I guess that I have studied a lot of history so I know a lot of the kind of 19th century background material I don’t really have to go out and read up on it especially. With fantasy it’s more like having the feel and the atmosphere and developing things which didn’t necessarily really exist. That’s the beauty of it.
You can take from reality and just twist it up a few notches further or just deflect it in a different direction. The interesting thing about the Worldshaker world is that I created the world without actually knowing how it related to our world. It was only when I was in the process of writing the book that I read about Napoleon’s plan, it was a plan put to him by an engineer called Mathieu-Favier who he wanted to dig a tunnel under the English Channel. Napoleon was sort of at a time of peace just then with England but of course war and hostilities broke out again soon after and Napoleon was really interested in the idea but he didn’t follow it up.
It seemed obvious that he should have followed it up and actually dug that tunnel and invaded England by tunnel under the channel so that gave me the whole idea of making this into an alternative history. This is where the history of Worldshaker departs from our world history. Napoleon does dig his tunnel, does invade England and the world has been different every since.
You’ve talked about having writer’s block and writing slowly, how do you get over it. Because there would be other people who are listening to this and suffering from writer’s block and do you have a routine? How do you get over it?
My heart goes out to them. One thing is I believe a routine that was a crucial discovery for me to actually sit myself down every day straight after breakfast and start writing. For me it had to be initially every single day of the year, less Christmas and birthdays. I jut never stopped.
The other part of that is that it’s really good to give yourself a stopping time. To say for me it was half past one. I would stop at half past one, lunch, no more writing for the day. So even if I was kind of in the flow of it I would cut myself off. The important thing there is that you still want to write the next day. See what I mean?
It’s like you kind of if you stop yourself mid-flow the inspiration is still there for you the next day. Whereas if you kind of exhaust yourself in one day you aren’t so eager to get back to it the next day. That really worked for me.
I guess the thing about writing a big novel is that the inspiration has to be much bigger than any single day’s work. I used to write poetry and I was quite successful at publishing poetry at one time. But poetry you do with sort of a single spurt whereas a novel has to be a much bigger thing.
What I find I find I know I don’t have to write every single day. I can take days off here and there and it doesn’t bother me but if I leave the novel for a day or if I leave the novel for overnight I’ve still got it in the back of my mind. I’ve still got all the developments in the story so far in the back of my mind and so when I come back to it the next day I start writing. I know that I’m going to write. I don’t have to fight myself. It’s a habit I know that I’m going to do it anyway. So I don’t go through agonies of will I or won’t I?
But once I start writing the inspiration starts coming back in. in other words write first and inspiration comes rather than wait to be inspired and tear your hair out for days and days because the inspiration doesn’t seem to be there.
What is a typical writing day for you then? You say that you have breakfast, you sit down, do you go through any rituals or anything like that before you get going?
I’ve had to fight against rituals. I had a ritual one time that I had a particular green pen and when I got stuck, and I still get stuck from time to time I still get writer’s block. Using that green pen, it was my emergency lucky pen. I would use that and the ideas would sort of resolve themselves and it worked because I suppose I thought that it would work. I expected that it would work.
But the trouble with pens is that they run out of ink eventually and when they run out of ink I hunted all around to find a green pen that was exactly the same. I tried various green pens that were similar but I never got one that was exactly the same and in the end it was a struggle.
I just had to break the habit because if you rely on things like that then you are giving yourself difficulties eventually. But my writing routine is pretty much about straight after breakfast I go until lunchtime. Sometimes I go on beyond lunch.
But there is something else that I do which I have never heard of any other writer doing it. It works wonderfully for me but I wouldn’t say that it would work for anyone else but I actually sort of spend the middle of the afternoon doing completely different jobs. Jobs around the house, hopefully jobs that don’t even involve email or anything to do with writing. And then kind of late in the afternoon I just pick up pen and paper and I start thinking about the episode that I’m going to be writing the next day and I don’t try to write it or anything.
I call it pre-filming. Like a film director almost I try to get the atmosphere and the feel of the scene, the general unfolding of the action. I write down a few notes on that but I’ve kind of visualized it in my mind. The trick, I believe, this is what makes it work for me is that I’m playing with possibilities in the afternoon but then overnight I go to sleep on it.
Going to sleep on it does that sort of magical effect of erasing all the not-so-good possibilities and the version that I really came to in the end is kind of fixed in my mind as if it really happened. When I start writing the next day, it’s almost as if I only have to record something that really happened. It’s odd. I don’t know of anybody else doing that. It works for me.
I think that everyone needs to figure out what actually is going to work for them and its going to be different for everyone too.
Just to sort of follow up on that if I can Valerie, one thing that did help me to get beyond writer’s block was the realization that like everyone else I have some things that I feel more strongly than others and it’s those feelings that I can make use of in writing. It comes from this sort of literary period I had when I thought I could write experiences that didn’t really have anything much to do with me. I had read about them in books. I had thought about them. I understood them, therefore I could write about them.
For instance a story that I had agonized over for ages and never finished about an old man dying and I thought I could do it without actually having the necessary experience. I’ve come to believe that obviously you don’t have to be an old man dying to write a story about it but you have to have the germs of that experience.
You have to have some seeds that you can expand and grow until it’s almost as if you do have that experience. I realized that there were some feelings that were very strong in my life and others that I don’t really have much personal experience of so even though I write fantasy I still look to use real feelings. And that was a bit of a discovery that helped me get past the writer’s block too, not to try and write too far away from myself.
Write about what you know. It’s the old adage isn’t it?
Yes, yes, as I say you don’t have to have experienced it directly. You need to have some little bits of experience, some tiny similarities that can give you an idea of what it might be like so you are kind of imaging beyond the feeling. But you have still got the feeling to start with.
So at least you have got something to draw from. You have had an interesting language. Have you any desire to write your own language like Tolkien?
No, no, Tolkien was different. He knew languages. He was a scholar in languages. I’m not a scholar in languages. When I had my 25 years of writer’s block and as I said I did write some theoretical academic books I was very interested in theorizing about language.
That is how language works, what’s involved in grammar, what’s sort of enables us to particularly create things in languages that don’t exist in reality. Even then almost by accident I was producing a theory of how language can be used for fantasy. I was interested in the theoretical side of language.
I love language in so far as I love making up names and that occupies me for a lot of time but I guess what I would hope to learn from Tolkien is that when you make up names, when you make up a world where there are different expressions, different names, different terms for things you have to create something that is real in terms of language.
You can’t just throw syllables together. There has to be a rightness about it. Tolkien was the master at creating wonderful names as well as whole languages of course because he knew how names are formed. He grew them. He didn’t just sort of artificially throw them together.
He grew them and I really believe in that. You have got to sort of grow names. You’ve got to make them real in the way that real names are real.
You’ve written books for adults, young adults as well younger readers as well as adults. Do you have to get into a different head space? What do you do to be able to switch between the different markets because it’s quite different?
There is a lot of difference but it’s not as big a difference in terms of fantasy as it would be in terms of realistic fiction I think. Basically I’ve written children’s, young adult’s and adult but every time I’m writing the very best novel I can. I’ve never really wanted to write for young, young readers because then I would be writing for someone other than myself. My inner child is probably still around eight to twelve years old, so I can still write fantasy for that age group.
But I’m not particularly aware of reorienting myself for a different age of readership. Worldshaker started out as adult when I was planning it. The main characters were 14 and 16. Now days really the age of your main characters is the main determinate of what age you will be marketed towards and I thought, “Yes, I can make this young adult.”
I didn’t really rethink much. There were the Ferren books that I wrote before also started out as adult but the Ferren trilogy from Penguin started out as adult and became young adult. That was a bit different because I had sex scenes in the adult version which weren’t working. So changing it to young adult was kind of like a motivation to cut out the stuff that wasn’t working.
So it is obviously very instinctive for you.
Well, yes, yes. The fact that it is there isn’t a lot you can’t get away with with young adult writing now days. Once upon a time you would have said there are areas of experience where you can’t go. That’s not as true now days at all. Young adult readers are very sophisticated.
Worldshaker I would call crossover. That is its young adult but it also works for adults and I know that it does because I’ve had the feedback to prove it. Fantasy tends to overleap those age boundaries ever since Harry Potter to taken up by adults and they discovered what fun it could be to read a fantasy book that was originally written for round about 12-year olds. Young fantasy readers you will find that when they go into the bookshops they will tend to head for the fantasy shelves rather than the children’s and young adult’s section.
You’ve got this great website on writing tips which we think is fantastic and it’s at writingtips.com.au. What lead to that project because it seems to be something that requires quite a lot of effort?
It sure did. I guess the potential for doing it was there for a while. What actually inspired it in the moment was a book feast event in Sydney. That’s kind of like a literary lunch where students come along and they get to have lunch and they get to talk to their favourite authors. It’s a really good occasion.
But in this particular book feast a whole lot of students from a high school in Sydney wanted to talk to me because they had looked at my website, my author website RichardHarland.net. I had some old writing tips on there, a lot of authors put up a few writing tips and I had put up a few writing tips and they found those writing tips really helpful in terms of the creative writing projects they were doing.
I was very flattered and at the same time kind of gob smacked because I thought, “Gee that was impressive.” There were just a few kind of off the cuff remarks and I thought that maybe I should think of doing something much more.
I kind of felt I suppose that I was the right person to do it because as I say one side of my head is the analytical side and it’s the creative, visual side that’s very much to the fore these days. But the analytical side still kind of sits back and kind of observes and makes notes retrospectively. I never let the theoretical side start telling me what to write.
I thought maybe I’m the right person to do this and so I got started on it and I never, ever thought that I would have to take four months out of my writing life to produce it. It just kind of grew and grew. Once I started doing it I had to make a proper job of it. It became more and more comprehensive and probably said in the end just about every thing that I have ever thought in relation to writing.
If I can help other people avoid writer’s block like I had, if I can sort of encourage I really believe that you need to get the story telling going early. You need to get your imagination working early and it will stay with you for the rest of your life. So I guess it was a community service that ran away from me but I’m proud of the result now.
It’s a great resource. You also teach creative writing courses sometimes. What do you enjoy about teaching writing and why do you do? Because it sounds like you are busy anyway.
I guess in a way that I enjoy creative writing workshops for the same reason that I used to enjoy university teaching. The thing about being a writer is that it is so solitary. You are on your own. I have to kind of make myself go out and meet people because I actually need to.
The feedback is so very slow because you are working away by yourself but by the time the novel has actually reached bookshop shelves you have almost forgotten that you have wrote it. What I missed about university and I knew that I was going to miss when I resigned was the buzz and excitement, the stimulation of a lecture where my lectures were always kind of interactive. It was kind of bouncing ideas back and forth.
In tutorials that kind of excitement, the feedback of kind of knowing that this is really working well, I missed that. Creative writing workshops give me that buzz again. I really look forward to them.
They can be great fun especially to workshop other students work.
Yeah, because we are talking creative people here. You can never tell what is going to come out. It’s always unpredictable.
There are a few gems in there always. Finally for the aspiring writers who are listening to this what would your main tips be to them, the writers starting out what would you say to them that have to do?
Oh, that’s a big one. Having just produced 145 pages I’m trying to think of how to condense this all down. Of course I can’t but I would say think long term. Don’t expect to just turn out a novel and be lucky. You have to be prepared for the long haul. You have to be prepared for knock back after knock back because writing is that kind of business. You may be the most talented writer in the world and the timing still doesn’t work for you for quite a while.
I guess my ultimate advice would be, it’s the one thing that I can say that I’ve got perfectly right in my whole career after among all the other things that I’ve done wrong. The one thing that I would say to do is never give up. Never give up.
In the immortal words of Winston Churchill. You are obviously very passionate about what you do and we think that as I said your writing tips website is such an incredible resource and it’s something that we certainly tell all our students.
So thank you very much for your time today, Richard.
It’s been a pleasure, Valerie. I’ve enjoyed it. Thanks.