Richard Harland - Interview (Aug 2012)
Q. Tell us a little about your writing journey. How did you get started?
It’s a long, slow, tortuous story! I wanted to be a writer since I was about 11 years old, but in my teens I had the disaster of winning a big prize for a short story, full of symbols and stream-of-consciousness and avant garde techniques, Because I won the prize I thought I had a talent for that sort of stuff. Big mistake! My real talent is for using my imagination, but instead of writing fantasies, I struggled to write modernist literature. I ended up with 25 years of writer’s block! I still have 30 novels at home unfinished. Some just a chapter or two from the end, but every single time I got stuck.
So I did other things with my life. I used to play folk-rock music around Sydney, and I became a university lecturer for 10 years –I can’t complain! But the dream of being a writer was always there. And I kept on trying until I finally finished my first novel – fantasy, of course - at the age of 45. I ought to be a shining role model for all late starters because I’m the latest of late starters.
When I finished my first novel, it came out from a small press, and by some amazing fluke it was reviewed in the Sydney Morning Herald and The Australian. I wrote to the reviewers at the those papers to say, “thanks for writing such glowing reviews,” and the SMH reviewer wrote back and said, “loved your book, if you’ve got another manuscript send it my way and I’ll see if I can recommend it to a mainstream publisher.” The chance of that are one in a thousand thousand! I’ve never heard of another author who had that particular fluke of luck.
Since then, I’ve had another fifteen novels published, some for children, some for teenagers, some for adults. My big breakthrough success has come with the last two, which are YA steampunk fantasies – Worldshaker and Liberator. Still, after twenty-five years of writers’ block, every novel I actually finish seems like a dream come true!
Q. Where do you get your story ideas?
Ah, the $64,000 question! I make stuff up all the time, I can’t stop doing it, and I have no idea where most comes from. But one thing that helps me as a fantasy writer are my dreams. I’m lucky, because I’ve always had very long, vivid dreams, and I learned the trick of remembering and recording them many years ago.
The Ferren books started with a dream – Chapter 1 of Ferren and the Angel is a direct reproduction of what happened in the dream, only it happens to Ferren instead of me. Worldshaker began the same way. You can see the dream in Chapter 26, where Col falls down into the depths of a hellish world inhabited by wretched beings who seem hardly human. That was the seed the whole novel grew from.
History also helps as a source of ideas. I've always loved history, especially the history of revolutions. The French Revolution and Russian Revolution definitely helped inspire the events of Liberator.
Q. With books published for both Adult and Young Adults which genre do you prefer to write for and why?
I’m happy either way, and most of my novels are actually ‘crossover’, meaning they can appeal to both YA and Adult readers. That’s certainly true for Worldshaker and Liberator. I guess fantasy doesn’t divide so sharply between different ages as other genres.
An idea for a novel never pops into my head labelled as Adult or YA or Children’s. A good idea just looks like a good idea. A particular readership starts to come clear only as the story develops, when the main characters take on personalities and ages.
Deep down, I suppose I’m always writing for myself—or one of my selves. My 10-year-old self and 13-year-old self and 16-year-old self are still all there inside me! And all they demand plenty of strong action, colourful characters and excitement.
Q. What’s the best thing about being a writer?
One thing I love is the planning process. The ten years of planning that went into the creation of Worldshaker is only a bit longer than normal for me!
My other favourite part of writing is when I’m coming towards the climax of a novel, and, when everything’s been set up right, the story starts telling itself. Then I find myself just hanging on for the ride – exhilarating! That usually happens about three-quarters of the way through, but with Liberator, I was hanging on for the ride from about a third of the way through, and the same with the next forthcoming novel that I’ll mention when I reach question 7.
Q. What are your top 5 favourite books?
I can only have five? I’ll pretend I’ve forgotten Tolkien and other classics of fantasy and SF, so I can bring in some less obvious ones. And I’ll cheat by counting closely related pairs of story-volumes as single books.
Okay: Foundling and Lamplighter (first two books of Monster Blood Tattoo) by Australian fantasist D.M.Cornish; Titus Groan and Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake; Perdido Street Station and The Scar by China Mieville; The Infernal Desire Machines of Dr Hoffmann, by Angela Carter; and Cards of Grief by Jane Yolem.
Q. If you could be any character from any book for a day who would you be and why?
You mean, someone successful and admirable, possessing all the qualities I don’t have myself? Well, Katniss in The Hunger Games for one; Sabriel in Garth Nix’s Sabriel for another. But when I read, I often most enjoy the characters who aren’t particularly admirable.
Q. What’s next from Richard Harland?
More steampunk! The next novel, still without a title, belongs in the same world as Worldshaker and Liberator, but with new characters and set at an earlier time in history.