An interview with Garth Nix

Garth Nix is a New York Times bestselling author of the immensely popular Abhorsen trilogy, The Keys to the Kingdom series (Australian site here, Scholastic Books site here), and The Seventh Tower books among other short stories and novels.

Nix was recently Guest of Honor at the World Fantasy Convention in San Jose, CA. I sat down to ask him a few questions. Unfortunately, as we suffered through technical difficulties, the live interview did not happen. Nix was gracious enough to take my questions via e-mail and send me his responses.

Following herewith is the interview.

Did you set out to write material for younger readers, or did it happen naturally?

I deliberately wrote my first (finished) novel, The Ragwitch, for children. But I also wrote it for myself, both as I was at say ten years old, and as I was at the time of writing. Since then, I guess I’ve continued to write for a younger version of myself and for the current version. I tend to think of stories and books as being for everyone, just with an “entry reading age”, rather than an age range. What I mean by this is that a book may have an entry level of say 10 or 11, when the book first becomes accessible, but that hopefully it will have additional layers of meaning, story and context that makes it enjoyable and interesting for older readers of any age.

Generally speaking, I find that stories find their own entry level. Sometimes when I am thinking up a story I think it will have a younger entry level, but when I write it, the “top layer” of story that is most accessible is older and it ends up being for young adults, which means essentially for adults as well, but not for children.

Recently, several fantasy authors—for example George R. R. Martin and Patrick Rothfuss—have had or felt compelled to address their fans’ thoughts on where the next is in a series they were writing. Is that something you’ve had to content with during the writing of the Keys to the Kingdom? At any point in your career?

I’ve certainly been conscious of how long it has taken me to complete the series, and how to make each individual book as satisfying as possible, while also telling the overarching narrative or setting up for that overall story. I think I managed this reasonably well for the first five books, which came out every twelve months and did not have jaw-dropping cliffhangers at the end. However, Superior Saturday (the sixth book) did have a cliffhanger of this kind, and then Lord Sunday (the seventh and final book) took longer to write than I had hoped, so readers will have had to wait almost two years for it. I am hoping that as that book is done and will appear in February or March 2010, I will be forgiven for the cliffhanger and the wait.

I can understand the natural anxiety of readers when waiting for another installment of a favourite series, but I think it is much more important to get a book right than it is to have it appear on time. Of course, there may be a cost, in terms of sales momentum, losing readers and so on, but in the long-term if the book meets expectations then everyone will think it was worth the wait. (If it doesn’t meet expectations then you’ve got the worst of both worlds! I try not to think about that.)

When you write for different audiences, do you try to keep your writing for adults and your writing for younger readers separate or do you want those audiences to discover the other work?

I think it is important that the packaging, labeling and shelving in book stores reflects the “entry level” of a book. While I do want readers to discover all my work, and to grow up with it, I want that to happen at the appropriate age. Of course you can’t police such separations, but if it is clear who the book is for from the packaging (including the cover blurb) and its store location that is a good start. I also think parents need to be aware of what their child is reading and should bear the ultimate responsibility, particularly as reading age and maturity can vary so much from chronological age. In fact, I think parents should read the same books as their children, so that they can discuss the content if it is challenging, and help their child contextualize and understand anything difficult.

Are there any limitations you feel when writing for a younger audience? An older audience?

There is a very big difference between writing for children and writing for young adults. The first thing I would say is that “Young Adult” does not mean “Older Children”, it really does mean young but adult, and the category should be seen as a subset of adult literature, not of children’s books. Writing for children you do bear a responsibility to not include overt or graphic adult content that they are not ready for and don’t need, or to address adult concepts or themes from an oblique angle or a child’s limited viewpoint, with appropriate context, without being graphic or distressing.

Writing for young adults, on the other hand, while you do need some of the same delicacy in how you present mature themes and content, I think you can address anything you would in an adult novel. Context and consequences are necessary, but then I believe that is true of all literature, in order for it to feel real.

Is there any sort of process that happens when taking your books from Australia to the US?

There are minor changes in spelling and word choice between the different editions, like replacing “footpath” with “sidewalk” but no major changes. I actually do my major editorial work with my American editor and the other publishers take the American text and make the minor changes required like “armour” for “armor” and so on. I chose to have one primary editor and everyone else take that text because you otherwise end up with editorial notes from three editors and a nightmare of possibly mutually exclusive suggestions.

What makes the Keys to the Kingdom different from your other work?

The series probably has more similarities with my other work than differences. I guess the main thing would be that it is a big narrative spread across seven books, though each of the books also a somewhat self-contained story. But I did this in The Seventh Tower series as well, though those books are shorter and the story less complex.

What has been the hardest thing about writing this series?

The books got more difficult to keep self-contained, as I had to try and tell a satisfying story for the current book while also advancing the overall plot, which also included setting things up for the next and subsequent books. Then, in the last two books in particular, I also had to weave storylines back together and try to resolve everything I had set up, which was more difficult than I had anticipated. I always knew the ending I wanted, at least in big picture terms, but actually executing it well enough was also quite a struggle and I did a lot of rewriting and throwing out partly-written sections in order to start again, though of course, with six books published there was only limited wiggle room in terms of what was already set up and established.

What were you trying to accomplish artistically and thematically with this series?

As always, I simply wanted to tell a good story. All the other stuff gets infused along the way (or not).

Has this series remained true to your initial vision or has it changed over time?

While the overall story has remained true to my initial vision, the actual details changed quite a lot. But I like this to happen, I like to make discoveries along the way. It would be far less interesting to write if I knew everything in advance. Basically I know where I want to go, but I don’t know how to get there, and must discover the path along with my characters.

Was the Keys to the Kingdom series inspired by any particular book/work?

I think all authors are inspired and influenced by everything good they have ever read, so I certainly owe a debt to many, many authors. In the case of this particular series, or at least the basic conception of the story, I owe a debt to Philip José Farmer’s ‘World of Tiers’ novels, and also to Roger Zealazny’s ‘Amber’ books. But there are many other influences, including C.S. Lewis, Diana Wynne Jones, Robert Heinlein, Charles Dickens, E. Nesbit and others; and also creators in other media, like Terry Gilliam and his film Brazil.

Who were some of your influences in becoming a writer?

I think all the books I read and loved growing up were what influenced me to become a writer. This would be a very diverse and mixed-up list, including pretty much all the great writers of fantasy and science fiction, but also authors like Alexandre Dumas, Charles Dickens and Jane Austen and a broad swathe of authors writing historical novels and mysteries and thrillers. I’m also a huge reader of non-fiction, particularly history and biography, and this has also been a big influence, even though I don’t write non-fiction myself.

When you finished Superior Saturday, did you feel bad for your reader, or did you feel a slight perverse pleasure at where you were leaving them?

I agonized over the cliff-hanger ending of Superior Saturday and in fact for a while it had the first chapter of Lord Sunday appended as the end, but this introduced another cliff-hanger and was going to be a problem structurally for the seventh book, so in the end my editor and I agreed to go with the cliff-hanger and hope readers would forgive me when they got to Lord Sunday. Mind you, at that time I thought I would finish Sunday sooner than I did, so the wait will end up being six months longer than I’d hoped.

This was one of the problems in trying to write a big story over seven books while attempting to keep each book reasonably self-contained and satisfying, and I think I managed it reasonably well, until Saturday. A friend suggested that I should have solved this problem by combining Saturday and Sunday into a single volume called The Weekend, but somehow I don’t think that would have helped!

Any juicy tidbits you can tell us about Lord Sunday?

My lips are sealed. Other than to say that I think nearly all questions are answered, and plots resolved. The ending will also I hope be a surprise, and that early readers will keep it to themselves and let others experience it in the reading, not from reviews or online commentary. Certainly my various editors said they were surprised, but satisfied, by the ending. I really hope this will be true for general readers.

Where would you recommend someone new to Garth Nix start reading?

It depends on their age and reading experience. I would usually recommend adults (younger or older) start with Sabriel or Shade’s Children. If the reader is around ten to thirteen, or is a parent wanting to read with or before their child of that age (a practice I highly recommend) I would start with Mister Monday and the Keys series. If seven to nine, begin with The Seventh Tower series. If younger than seven and reading with a parent or being read to, try One Beastly Beast and Other Tales.

What can you tell me about Creative Enclave?

Creative Enclave is essentially myself and my old friend, software guru Phil Wallach, with additional help from a bunch of illustrators and designers including Les Petersen and Brendan Williams, and business assistance from start-up guy Rand Leeb-du Toit. Phil and I have been involved in game design for years, and in the mid-90s we developed and did concept work for what would have been a very early mmog, which unfortunately became immured in legal difficulties with a venture capitalist who bought out a government investment in our project. Though burned by this, Phil and I always talked about having another go at an mmog and Imperial Galaxy was the eventual result, or at least partial result, as this time we ran out of money just as the GFC struck, with the game only partially implemented. We still hope to do more with it, and also develop other games we have on the drawing board.

What was the process of creating the Imperial Galaxy game?

Phil and I had been working in an ad hoc way on an SF mmog strategy game that had the working title Star Central, and had developed some basic concepts for a kind of card-based, tier-structured browser interface game (which doesn’t really mean anything without seeing the screenshots) which would essentially model a galactic empire, and players could interact with the model in lots of different ways as members of different Imperial services. The background for all this was drawn from a novel I have had in progress for some years, which has the working title A Confusion of Princes.

Somewhere along the way we met Rand Leeb-du Toit who suggested we implement a part of the game at least on Facebook, which back then (2007) was the new software frontier with apparently limitless opportunities. So we took out a portion of the game design, the naval career section, and re-designed it to be a Facebook game and a little later, also with a browser interface. In the process, many of the game mechanics changed, and we learned a great deal. Unfortunately, as I mentioned in my previous answer, we needed more resources just to implement everything we wanted for the naval career portion of our big game, and when we went to look for that money was just as everyone started to get scared about the coming global financial crisis. So the game is kind of stuck in a beta mode. It’s still fun to play, I think, but we could do so much more with it if we had the opportunity. Basically I sunk a lot of money and quite a bit of time into the game, and Phil a huge amount of time at a fraction of his usual software development rates, so we are both considerably poorer but hopefully wiser for the experience. I don’t regret it, because I love games and game development, but I wish we’d got in a year earlier!

Can people expect to find you playing Imperial Galaxy, or do you have to behave and stay away?

I still have a character in the game, but unfortunately I rarely play now, due to lack of time. I did play a lot in the early stages, because we were constantly rolling out improvements and changes so it was a live playtest in progress. Now that development is largely stalled, I only visit every now and then.

Do you ever miss working on the other side of the publishing process?

Yes. I loved working as an agent in particular, discovering new authors and helping them get started, and also solving publishing problems or working out how to improve an author’s career. I’m still a partner in Curtis Brown (Australia), and I help out with a few things from time to time, so that gives me a bit of a connection. But I simply don’t have time to actively work as an agent, and though I do love the publishing business, writing is still my first and most important activity.

What can we expect in the future from Garth Nix?

Lord Sunday, the last book in the Keys to the Kingdom series is out in February (Australia/NZ) or March (USA/UK) 2010. I’m not sure what will follow after that, but most probably A Confusion of Princes (the Imperial Galaxy novel) in late 2010 or early 2011. After that will be Clariel, another book set in the Old Kingdom, and then later still, a kind of sequel to Abhorsen. But I also have a secret book project that may emerge sooner, and things like the graphic novel versions of Sabriel and the other Old Kingdom books, which I have been very slowly adapting. In addition to that, I have been writing a lot of short fiction, mainly for adults (though not excluding young adults), including another Sir Hereward and Mister Fitz story which will be out in Lou Anders’ and Jonathan Strahan’s Swords and Dark Magic next year.

What’s the last book you read?

I just finished three books which I’ve been reading off an on over the last week. Two are re-reads of old favourites, in first editions I picked up at remarkably good prices from a dealer at the World Fantasy Convention as they were packing up on Sunday: Space Cadet and Between Planets by Robert Heinlein. The other book was Sixpence House: Lost in a Town of Books by Paul Collins, about his sojourn in Hay-on-Wye, a curious town I visited as a guest of the literary festival there a few years ago. Collins, one of the McSweeney’s coterie, writes very engagingly about writing, about bookstores, and about life in this unusual half-English, half-Welsh book town, and as a book-lover has many similar tastes to my own. It’s a very enjoyable read for any bibliophile, first-time author, or anyone planning to visit Hay.

Is there any technology that you can’t live without?

Literally? Asthma inhaler.

What’s the deal with the Sea Breezes?

Back at World Fantasy in Washington D.C. in 2003, my Australian friends Jonathan Strahan, Sean Williams and I were feeling seedy after drinking too much the night before, so before we started drinking again, we were pondering what we could drink that might reduce the next day’s ill effects (note that we were not smart enough to consider not drinking alcohol). While the exact source of inspiration is unclear, and may have come from Sean’s friend Kirsty Brooks, we decided that something with fruit juice (for the vitamins) and a pure spirit like vodka was probably the best bet. The barman then made us Sea Breezes and we discovered that they were pink. Being big manly Australian men we decided this was entirely appropriate and when we found out that we did in fact feel less badly affected by drinking too many Sea Breezes as opposed to too many beers or wines, we stuck with them and also tried to press them upon as many unsuspecting people as possible—and so they became the somewhat ironic pink official drink of Australians at World Fantasy Conventions.

Lord Sunday will be published in February 2010 in Australia, and March 2010 in the United States and United Kingdom.

John Klima is the editor of the Hugo-Award winning Electric Velocipede as well as the forthcoming science fiction/fantasy fairy tale reprint anthology Happily Ever After.


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