A full-time writer, Garth Nix has also worked as a literary agent, marketing consultant, book editor, book publicist, book sales representative, bookseller, and as a part-time soldier in the Australian Army Reserve. His books have appeared on many bestseller lists including The New York Times and have been translated into 41 languages. He lives in Sydney, Australia. He may be found on Facebook, and @garthnix on Twitter.
This interview was conducted in person in Newcastle on June 17, and subsequently over email.
Aishwarya Subramanian: You're in Newcastle for a conference about the afterlives of Hadrian's Wall, and so I wanted to begin by asking about the wall. Why this wall; what is so special about it that versions of it pop up in fiction from writers across the world?
Garth Nix: Well I think the thing is that we may be Australian and American and Canadian, but we're writing in a tradition, a branch of English literature, which is fantasy. And it's very deeply rooted in British myth and legend and history, and I think for both Christian Cameron (author of the Traitor Son cycle, who was a fellow speaker at the conference), and myself, our geographic location personally is of much less significance than the traditions we're writing in. So I think that's why Hadrian's Wall is significant and has been significant as an inspiration for both of us, but also George R. R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, I'm sure many others. Because the literary or other influence of the wall is something we all encountered typically quite young. Interestingly, in preparation for my conference keynote, I emailed Neil Gaiman and asked him some questions about his first experiences with Hadrian's Wall and we'd had the same vicarious experience, as it was depicted in Look and Learn magazine, though I’d forgotten the hilarious captions on the illustrations, like “the wall proved to be an impregnable barrier. For the first time, the Scots were trapped in their own wild country and the Romans and Britons could go about their business in safety.” So I think there's a commonality of experience in terms of what we read and saw and so on, which is why it's so influential.
AS: So in a sense the wall itself is just one example of an entire tradition of English literature, where elements of British myth and history make their way into everything else. I was reading your story notes to one of the stories in Across The Wall [a 2005 collection of short stories] recently, and you ruefully admitted to having "committed Arthuriana". . .
GN: I've always thought of myself as someone who does not like retellings of Arthurian stories, but then that doesn't really hold up upon examination because I have some favourite ones, which I like very much, and then of course I've done it myself. And I'm quite likely to do it again as well, so . . . either I don't know myself as well as I think I do, or I'm just a hypocrite. Or both.
AS: Or it's just that if you love this tradition and you work in it, certain things are just so present that it's hard to avoid them.
GN: Or the temptation is too great.
AS: You can't not do an Arthur story at some point.
GN: That's right, eventually you just succumb to the temptation. That's possibly true, that the myth is so powerful as an inspiration that you can't resist it. There's probably a story in that, myths that are so potent that you, you know, become infected with them.
AS: A frustrated, angry writer trying not to write the Arthurian myth.
GN: Yes, I think there could be a good story in there!
AS: That does lead me to one of the things you said during your keynote at the conference; that your first trip to the UK was basically you and a car and a lot of books, and you drove around the country and read books that you'd loved growing up in the places that they were set in, and—if one is not British, and particularly if one's from the commonwealth—there is that complicated element almost of pilgrimage that is connected to landscape and fantasy in Britain, isn't there?
GN: Yeah, they're very closely allied and certainly it was a kind of pilgrimage for me, and (as in the best traditions of pilgrimages) it was actually quite a transformative experience for me as well, because on that trip, in that six months, of driving around, having the usual experiences of a young Australian travelling about most of the UK but also a little bit in Europe as well; so much of it really was about reading those books and also starting to write. That's really when I decided to be a writer. I also wrote two thirds of a novel while I was wandering around—a fantasy novel, of course—which I looked at much later and thought, you know, it wasn't good, but it wasn't awful. It possibly could have been published if I'd finished it. But I didn't finish it, because I hadn't learnt that lesson that you have to learn as an author, that if you don't finish there's no possibility. But if you finish anything, a story, a novel, you create possibility, the possibility of all kinds of things happening. And I went back and I looked at it and said, "ah, it's a shame that I stopped, I wish I had kept on going with it.” But then the other side of that coin is I guess it was just necessary practice. So it served its purpose anyway.
AS: And you wouldn't ever go back to it now.
GN: Oh no. I think things have their time and I'm not interested in different versions of my previous books because I could write them better now. You have people who do sort of director's cuts of their early books, twenty years later, and I think invariably they're worse than the original, in the same way that many film directors' cuts of their work are not better; or not better for the viewers. To me, once the book is actually through the whole process of its preparation for publishing and I've checked the final page proofs, it's gone from my mind. I've always moved on to something new, because of the whole length of the editorial process; and I'm deeply immersed in some other story, and some other world. And typically I am looking ahead to something else again, because you know you're always tempted to write whatever you shouldn't be writing, it's always the next thing which feels far more attractive. Which seems to be fairly universal (particularly when you're stuck two thirds of the way through).
AS: And ideas tend to show up just before deadlines, just to hurt you.
GN: Sometimes! The good ones stick around, and I do write things down and make notes. But I do believe the good ideas stick around, and they accrete more ideas, and eventually reach a critical mass where things fall into place and there's enough to start writing a book.
AS: But on the subject of not necessarily wanting to return to something you're finished with, things sometimes aren't as finished as you'd thought! You've written a sequel to the Abhorsen books, which comes out this year, and a prequel that came out a couple of years ago. Are these books whose time had come; have you felt any pressure to go back to the world of an enormously successful series?
GN: Oh no, if they had been [the result of that pressure] they would have appeared many years ago. After Lirael my publishers would probably have been happy for me to write just Old Kingdom books until the cows came home, but I had ideas for other stories. Both Clariel and now Goldenhand, which comes out in October, were the product of ideas that had been sitting for a long time. With Clariel, I can actually go back in my notebooks and I can see when I was writing the prologue for Lirael, where there's a woman with a mask who comes to where Orannis (the source of free magic power) is buried, and in that manuscript book (at that stage I was still writing longhand) there's a sidenote next to that chapter, a note to myself, "who is Chlorr of the Mask?"; who is she, how do you get to be an ancient evil necromancer? And Clariel's the beginning of the answer to that question, but that original note was in 1999. Books are always more than one idea, you have to collect enough to have something to move on. So that was the beginning of something, but it wasn't until much later that I had more; it just sat at the back of my mind until I had enough that I could say "okay, I want to write that book next." And Goldenhand, of course, I kind of set it up also years ago with "The Creature in the Case," which is the lead story in Across the Wall. I knew then I would come back to it—I didn't know when I was going to come back to it. But I also knew I had to write Clariel first, for various reasons, which you'll see when you read the book. So I guess it's kind of like having different trains waiting for their turn on the track, and you're the controller. And some of them have to wait for years.
I've been in the very rare position over the last few months of not having anything sold or scheduled to do, and I have the luxury of deciding which of three projects I'm going to do next, and I've been umming and ahhing and writing bits of each one. Partly because I have books in the pipeline; Goldenhand is out in October; my novel Frogkisser is out in March, which is a children's novel (for everyone, I hope), and that's kind of a fairytale story, as you might imagine from the title; and then I have a new series beginning with my friend Sean Williams, which is called Have Sword, Will Travel (the first one is out in July next year); so I have trains already on the track. But I do need to shunt up another one and get it going, which I have started.
AS: We've talked about British myth and history and its influence on your work and more generally on fantasy literature in English. I wondered whether there are aspects of your work that register to you as strongly/particularly Australian?
GN: I’m not sure, except perhaps a certain larrikin sense of humour. The kind of dry amusement when everything has gone to hell, and you’re probably going to die, but you try to make light of it. My characters do that, and it does seem to be a very Australian thing. There are also certain descriptive and/or emotional responses inspired by my experience of the Australian landscape. For example, the sky of the Ninth Gate, replete with stars, very much draws upon looking up at the night sky in the Australian bush. Far from any polluting light, the Milky Way is very, very bright and the stars are densely packed. Similarly, I was still doing a lot of cross-country skiing in the Australian high country when I was writing Sabriel, so I gave that experience to Sabriel. Everything goes into a writer’s head, so I imagine there’s a lot more that is Australian too.
AS: I read the first three Abhorsen books (which I can no longer call a trilogy, I'm not used to that) [GN: I think "Old Kingdom series" sounds good] when I was very young, and have been rereading them in preparation for Goldenhand. I was really interested in the difference between reading them as a child and as an adult, because obviously one has read a lot more as an adult. I think what I realised on this read was the extent to which they're in conversation with genres other than high fantasy. The series begins and ends in a sort of Edwardian school story setting, and in Across The Wall, when you write about "The Creature in the Case," you also talk about the ways in which it's in conversation with Sayers, and also a particular 1920s spy story tradition.
GN: Yes, that sort of Thirty-Nine Steps thing. Yeah, it's definitely—I love a wide array of genre writing (and a lot of other writing, which might or might not be characterised as genre, depending on how you look at it), and I guess all my books reflect a childhood and adulthood of reading very widely across genres and just trying to put the things I like from those genres in my own. It's an interesting question, because of course genres work to a degree because people want what's in the genre, and they don't want what the genre's not supposed to have, but generally it's seemed to work for me. When Sabriel in particular was first published, for a long time I would get responses from readers that they didn't read fantasy but they still liked it. I found that interesting because to me of course it's completely a fantasy novel. I wonder if it's the elements of the other stuff going on that made it more acceptable to them. (It's also kind of funny, someone in a bookshop saying, "I don't read fantasy" to a fantasy writer; kind of like, "what your ilk do is normally shit, but somehow or other, you're alright." It's damning with faint praise, isn't it?) But for a long time, that was the case, much less so now. I think perhaps because fantasy is so much more mainstream. Everyone reads it, and no one thinks twice about the genre boundaries. Which is good, I always encourage people to read widely, and, for example, Newt's Emerald, a regency romance, dealt with magic, so it's fantasy as well.
AS: And regency romance is another fine tradition within fantasy.
GN: Yes! But from a male author, it's relatively unusual. I think more men would read it if they weren't put off by genre boundaries that suggest it's not for them. I'm sure the people who love P. G. Wodehouse would love Georgette Heyer if they felt it was for them. But it's partly the packaging tradition, and the idea that the genre of romance is not for them that puts them off. Which is a shame. It's the same way people often dismiss science fiction or fantasy—because of its label it must be bad, when of course there are some extraordinarily meaningful and super-literary SF novels, and there are ones that are not, or that work on other levels; there's so many different things, and you have to be willing to look at any work on its own merits.
AS: And there's enough variation in genre readers that beyond a point it's all a bit meaningless, except as story-structures that just happen to work very well.
GN: And it can help you find things, in the beginning, when you just like a certain sort of book, it's a useful navigational aid, but you shouldn't use it to just go down that same track.
AS: Speaking of useful navigational tools! You've said somewhere that you don't do the sort of fantasy worldbuilding that consists of writing out complete histories and mapping out entire worlds—you're not Tolkien.
GN: It's true, I'm not Tolkien on many different levels! There are so many different ways to write high fantasy. Some people do do all that work beforehand; they do map everything out (literally, in some cases). I do draw maps, I draw sketch maps, but some people do gazetteers of every location and build up so much information, and that can work extraordinarily well, it can be amazing. Whereas I tend to discover things as I go along with the story. It's a process where I learn a lot more as I go along. Including in Goldenhand, which explores the North in a much greater degree. Which I'd mentioned in the previous books, but I didn't sit down and work it out, because I didn't need it then.
AS: I only really thought about the north of the Old Kingdom recently, when I was reading "To Hold The Bridge" (a novella, in the 2015 collection of the same name) and didn't actually have a sense of where the bridge was—but then I don't normally tend to care about the maps.
GN: Yes, which is also a fine way to read the books; if you don't need it, you don't need it. I love a lot of detective fiction, but I don't care about the crimes or how they're solved, as a rule. I mentioned Dorothy Sayers before; I'm much more interested in Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane, in their relationship, and quite often I forget the details of the crimes. Which is why, possibly, I'm not as fond of Agatha Christie, in general.
AS: The process of being in the world, in a sense.
GN: Yeah, and I think there's a similar feeling with my own writing. I like not knowing. I only ever want to tell the reader what they need, but I also want to create the illusion that there's far more there, that this is a real place, even though it's invented.
AS: And you also tend to have characters who don't know much about the worlds they're in. Partly that's an age thing, because they're all quite young, but there are also other reasons; for example, Sabriel hasn't really been in the Old Kingdom before—Sabriel is basically a portal fantasy, in that sense; she's in the world she understands, and then she's in this world, which she doesn't, really, and she has to figure it out as it comes to her.
GN: It's a portal fantasy among other things, I hadn't thought about that. I like exploring the world with my characters, which means they can't know too much to begin with. Or if they do know about the world, there's this one aspect of it that they don't know much about.
AS: And Clariel's really interesting for that, isn't she, because she is from this world, she knows this world, but she's not from this city, and is also not the sort of person who has been paying attention.
GN: She has different interests—she's not interested in knowing more about the things that, perhaps, she should have been.
AS: Or that the reader is likely to be interested in, reading a book like this.
GN: A number of people have found her very . . . not sympatico as readers, an unappealing character. I was surprised by it, she's a difficult character, but I still really like her. I was quite—not shocked, because you never know how readers will respond to things—but some of the responses that she was just unpleasant, or they're unhappy with her because of her choices and so on, I found interesting because it's to some extent about expectation, and Clariel's somewhat of a different kind of book than the other Old Kingdom books. I hadn't really thought about how when you write something a bit different within a familiar series, how people would respond.
AS: It comes back to, again, the whole question of genre.
GN: Yes, and when you subvert or change the genre expectations things will happen, which may or may not be positive in terms of critical response. It's still the book I wanted to write!
AS: It felt to me like a book in a different genre, despite being in the same setting as the other books in the series. Sabriel is at least relatively optimistic at its end; these people are presumably going to get married, and rebuild this kingdom that has fallen into disarray, and they're going to restore a version of what once was; a very classical Return of the King sort of structure. It's traditional, the restoration of order.
GN: Yes, things being made right.
AS: And then you have something like Clariel (which is set hundreds of years earlier), where we know what's going to happen a few centuries on. I kept thinking of some of Tolkien's Numenor stories, where you've got this proud and incredibly foolish civilisation that is setting itself up for a massive fall, and you can tell that it's all going to fall apart, you can feel that impending doom throughout.
GN: That's very interesting, because I think I'm deeply influenced by Tolkien (and I've just realised there's a Numenorean influence in Goldenhand as well, so that's funny you mentioning it), and the tonal quality of those stories—Ar-Pharazon, wasn't it?—it's heading towards disaster and you can see it coming. In a way, I'll be curious with Clariel to see how it's received after Goldenhand because in a way it's more of a prequel to Goldenhand than it is to the other books. I don't think I could have done this book if I hadn't written Clariel, but it would have been interesting to have done it after this—I think it will change readers' perceptions of it. Perhaps, I don't know, I'll find out post October.
GN: Inevitably, whether I like it or not.
AS: One of the aspects of Clariel's character that has resonated with a lot of readers, as far as I've seen, is that she's asexual and/or aromantic (though understandably, many of those readers would prefer it if she hadn't then gone on to a life of supervillainy). And I've just seen the Kirkus review of Goldenhand, which describes a particular character as introducing cultural diversity to the world of the books. Obviously one of the major conversations around children's literature, YA, and fantasy over the last few years has been the need for representing a wider range of characters and cultures beyond the dominant white British tradition that we discussed earlier in this interview. It strikes me that there's a superficial parallel to be made between the recent books' movement away from the wall and that link with Ancelstierre/England; but leaving that aside, do you think that broader conversation has contributed to these books being the way that they are?
GN: In my mind the books have always had diverse characters, but of course simply being in my mind is neither sufficient nor obvious, it has to be spelled out. The Clayr, for example, were inspired by me seeing a very striking group of blue-eyed, brown-skinned young women in Pakistan in the 1990s. One of them had dyed just the front of her hair blonde and I thought that’s what the Clayr should look like. But I guess back then I was thinking they just looked distinctive rather than intentionally wanting to have a diverse cast. Similarly, while I would like to think I was being proactive in having a female protagonist in a YA fantasy when this was more unusual, and have been complimented for it, I just found Sabriel to be someone I wanted to write about, without thinking of her as a role model or a necessary correction to the torrent of male heroes.
Ancelstierre, though it is an England analogue to a degree, doesn’t have to be a nation of white-skinned people. In one of the various “almost set-up but fell over” film adaptations that have been mooted, we seriously looked at making the film in India with an Indian cast. India, courtesy of the long British occupation and its own deep and complex mythic past is in some ways an ideal setting for a fantasy in the English-language tradition. India also has a great deal of fantastic early 20th-century architecture, still lots of British-influenced military to enlist for those elements in the book (even lots of WW1 era weapons around in storage) and of course brilliant actors and film infrastructure. I think that could have been great, and I was also very interested in a brief burst of interest from China. Again, with Hong Kong, there is also that colonial English era that could supply the look and feel of Englishness in the fantasy, without needing to have a white-skinned cast.
All this said, I am sure the default reading of the books is that the characters are all basically European. Introducing Ferin in Goldenhand was definitely in response to the conversation that has been ongoing in YA literature circles: we do need more diversity. How to do it can be tricky, of course, because there are issues of cultural appropriation as well to be avoided.
AS: The other thing I wanted to ask about is, in a way, coming back to the wall, and also to the question of time, and the fact that these books come after other books that were written twenty years ago (Sabriel came out in 1995).
GN: More than twenty years—I think I started writing Sabriel in 1992, so that's almost a quarter of a century. I've also been immersed in the Old Kingdom with Clariel and Goldenhand for the last several years, and I've had to reread the old ones many times. Which is kind of weird because there are so many things I've forgotten, or kind of remembered, so I'll be thinking, "oh I need to set up, did I set up this thing I need?" Then I'll go back and look in the book and it's like "oh I did" and I'm relieved. But it is a curious thing reading things I wrote a long time ago.
AS: Junot Diaz, who wrote The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, was in Newcastle about a week ago giving a speech about Donald Trump, and that other great recent fantasy about building a wall and keeping immigrants out. [GN: a disturbing fantasy, that one.] Returning to the books as an adult, I realise I'd forgotten the entire subplot with the Southerling refugees, and it's really interesting to me to be reading that now. Obviously I'm not suggesting that it was prescient in any way, because that's to ignore massive amounts of history.
GN: Well at the time it was a complete parallel with the Australian situation, which has continued and gotten more and more shameful, but it was at the time of the John Howard liberal government turning back refugee ships and so on, so it was a reflection of what was happening then, which has only become worse and more large scale around the world. So not prescient, so much as . . .
GN: Yeah, present, and I certainly was not predicting something. It was in my mind, because it was happening in my real world. It got into my mind and so became part of the fiction, where it just seemed to fit in. Once it got into my mind it just naturally went into the story.
AS: It just feels quite obvious that [the plight of the refugees in the Old Kingdom books] would happen, under those circumstances.
GN: Yes, it just made sense. A lot of fiction's like that. Stuff is in your head because it is happening around you (maybe on a personal level as well); you look back and think, oh of course that's in there because I was concerned about X or this terrible situation, and it's been transformed and used in the situation. So that [aspect of the books] harkens back to that real world situation, and it's sad that it still resonates right now. But as you say, there's also numerous historical antecedents where someone could say, "well that's obviously a parallel with Jewish refugees trying to escape Germany," or many other refugee situations through history.
AS: Yes, so where you have refugees you have sudden, toxic nationalist politics springing up to keep them out.
GN: Or send them somewhere else, which is a big part of Abhorsen as well. And very much a part of contemporary Australian politics, where refugees are being shunted off to offshore processing centres in Nauru, or wherever, it's "get them away." It's the equivalent of "send them across the wall."
AS: And walls, and borders, and boundaries are so inherently metaphorical; as you say, this could be any of hundreds of historical situations. I wonder if it's harder to write about concepts that so easily can be turned into symbols—can you write a wall story without it turning into (or being read as) a metaphor?
GN: I think it would be possible, because everything is possible in writing fiction. It would probably be extraordinarily hard, but then someone will come along and do it in a way that is both brilliant and obvious and all we other writers will stare at it and grumble respectfully. The other side of this coin is that people will always find metaphors in stories if they want to, even if the author worked actively to not have any there. So you can’t worry about it. If you have a wall story bubbling up in your head, write it and see what happens.
AS: It has hit me pretty hard at the moment because I've been rereading these in the run-up to the EU Referendum, and the genuinely scary nationalist politics that spring up in the books, and that we only see on the periphery because they're happening in Ancelstierre, feel startlingly familiar. And of course yesterday saw the political murder of a politician, Jo Cox.
GN: Yes, which was extraordinarily sad. And quite likely the sort of tragic event that will crop up in fiction; as other tragic events are often transformed. Because it's so emotionally charged.
AS: I almost wonder whether in about ten years from now, when we've got a reasonable sweep of the books that are being written at this moment, whether we're going to have a lot of wall stories.
GN: Well, it was interesting at the conference, when someone made the comment that, when you look at the dates, Sabriel was 1995, Stardust was 1997, A Game of Thrones was 1996. They're both slightly after Sabriel, fortunately, for my purposes! All completely independently arrived at, and all very different, but all taking some degree of inspiration from Hadrian's Wall. And someone in the audience pointed out that maybe we were all being inspired by the fall of the Berlin wall. [AS: which was another massively emotionally charged moment.] Yes, so quite possibly that's true. It's plausible, though I've never made the connection myself. Things happen, they go into your subconscious and it churns around and ideas bubble up, and join together and yes, maybe we'll see more stories about walls and borders and boundaries and so on, the world influencing the fiction, it comes out.