I was born and raised in Melbourne, Australia and graduated from university with a Bachelor of Arts degree in sociology. I became a schoolteacher after leaving university. Over the years my hobbies have included painting in oils, tapestry, clay sculpting, performing in folk music bands, and growing heritage fruit. I am a keen supporter of animal rights and wilderness conservation.
I became a full-time writer in 2000 after my work was discovered on the Internet and published by Time Warner (New York). My books are published around the world and have been translated into several languages.
Your Bitterbynde Trilogy will be published by Open Road Media this month. It looks rather interesting: How would you introduce it to a potential reader?
The Bitterbynde is a fantasy trilogy that comprises The Ill-Made Mute, The Lady of the Sorrows, and The Battle of Evernight. The story opens with readers seeing through the eyes of a deformed mute with no memory. This foundling resolves to seek a cure for the deformities and the amnesia. Meanwhile a strange world unfolds on every side. The world is populated with — nay, teeming with — ‘eldritch wights’. These are supernatural creatures whose nature ranges from friendly (‘seelie’) to mischievous (‘tricksy’) to downright dangerous (‘unseelie’). They come in all shapes and sizes and may be monstrously ugly or spellbindingly beautiful. Their looks have no correlation with their inclinations.
The protagonist journeys through this world, and many’s the adventure that befalls. At the end of the second book part of the quest is fulfilled, and at the end of the third — but I want to avoid giving any spoilers here. As a matter of fact while writing the trilogy I worked hard to keep a good many things secret, so many surprises pop up throughout the trilogy and it’s rather difficult to talk about the story without giving them away. I hope this brief snippet is enough to whet people’s appetites!
The term ‘Bitterbynde’ refers to an unbreakable promise or oath. It’s this magical bond that causes quite a deal of anguish to the protagonist.
What inspired you to write the series? And where do you draw your inspiration from in general?
Ever since I can remember I have been driven by a desire — a need — to create, in words, a secondary world of my own. My own Middle-Earth, if you like, or my own Narnia — yet neither of those; a world that was uniquely mine. I began writing about this realm many years ago. Gradually the words accumulated, until the imaginary universe containing the planet Aia was almost fully-formed. Then I introduced a protagonist. At that time I was unsure who this person was, or what their destiny might be. I myself still had much to learn about my new universe. Thus, through the eyes and experiences of my protagonist I began to explore. A story unfolded. It had a beginning — it only needed a middle and an end… many were the hours I spent trying to find that middle and end. Many were the versions that dawned on me, were looked at from every angle and ended up discarded because they did not ‘feel right’.
All the time I was searching, I was still writing. My protagonist was amnesiac because at that time I had no idea of this person’s past. My protagonist was mute because I had no dialogue yet. Due to my unenlightenment my protagonist had no name, not even a face… no knowledge of the wider world…
Until at last, the beautiful, wonderful plot came to me in all its completeness.
As I escaped from the blind walls of ignorance, so my protagonist escaped from the confines of a stone fortress and began a journey through my world.
How were you introduced to genre fiction?
Reading the armloads of fairy-tale and fantasy books (and later, science fiction) my mother brought home from the library every week nourished the seeds. She brought us works by Andre Norton, Alan Garner, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C Clarke, Isaac Asimov, the amazing Nicholas Stuart Gray and and others too numerous to mention. As a child I mentally lived in Narnia until The Lord of the Rings showed me Middle-Earth. It was reading these stories set in alternative worlds that fired me up to forge my own world. And it was Tanith Lee’s extraordinary writing that gave me ‘permission’ to revel in the English language to the fullest.
How do you like being a writer and working within the publishing industry?
What a tremendous freedom we are privileged to have, as writers! Freedom to work our own hours, in practically any location, wearing practically any clothes (even our dressing-gowns) and freedom to indulge in enjoyable research through books or travel. To top this off, we get to read fan letters from readers who say we have enriched their lives, to meet other authors who are incredibly interesting and inspiring, and to attend amazing conventions. During my writing career I have been blessed with the cream of editors and the cream of publishers. My editors have been perceptive, intelligent, creative. My publishers have pampered me and made me feel special. What’s not to like…?
At the same time I am fully aware of just how darned lucky I am, and I never, ever take this life for granted.
Do you have any specific working, writing, researching practices?
I recommend the technique of simply writing down your thoughts as they occur to you, without regard to spelling or grammar, just getting Words On Paper. This first step is like collecting clay to make a pottery object. You need the solid mass of raw clay ‘words’ in your hands before you can start to shape them and prettify them with revisions. Many new writers fall into a trap of trying to make each sentence perfect the first time. They become bogged down in this perfectionism and lose the free thought-flow that is the source of their inspiration. So, to begin with just write, write, write!
To aspiring writers I also recommend reading really good works by really good authors. Osmosis seems to allow this literary goodness to seep into one’s creative pores somehow.
When did you realize you wanted to be an author, and what was your first foray into writing? Do you still look back on it fondly?
My mother preserved a story I wrote (and illustrated) when I was aged five or six. It was — naturally — a fantasy story, and it was about a prince and a princess. Hearing my parents read to me when I was very young sowed the seeds of my motivation to write. For as long as I can remember, an author is what I wanted to be.
What’s your opinion of the genre today, and where do you see your work fitting into it?
The fantasy/sci-fi genre is in the midst of yet another renaissance. Thus happens every few years, or decades. It seems to be cyclical. This time around the rebirth of interest appears to be driven by motion pictures. When The Bitterbynde first appeared someone said to me, “You’ve timed it well. You’ve released a fantasy trilogy at the same time as Lord of the Rings movie fever is at its height, and everyone is going mad for Harry Potter. How did you manage that?”
Well, I didn’t manage it. I’d been writing fantasy all my life and The Bitterbynde for twelve years, so these release dates were pure coincidence.
Anyone who likes The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter is likely to enjoy my work. Tolkien’s aim was to create a mythology for England, J.K. Rowling’s work is quintessentially British, and The Bitterbynde is founded upon British folklore.
Of course I relish this surge of interest in fantasy and science fiction, and over time I’ve hugely enjoyed other genre movies such as Thor, The Avengers, anything by Hayao Miyazaki, the original three Star Wars movies, Back to the Future, Hero, House of Flying Daggers, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Willow and of course that timeless classic Labyrinth. My inner world and my work is informed in one way or another by all of these!
As for written fantasy – I don’t read much any more because I find it hard to immerse myself and suspend disbelief. This is often what happens to specialists; for example, a friend of mine who is a TV producer cannot abide watching TV. We can’t help deconstructing the work of others in our field; looking at it critically and working out how we ourselves might have done it differently. This tends to degrade the in the experience.
Do you have any other projects in the pipeline, and what are you working on at the moment?
I am writing non-fiction at the moment, This is a huge change for me, but I am enjoying it. I never dreamed I would ever write about the First World War, but this period in history now fascinates me.
I am working on a biography of an ancestor of mine who had an extraordinary life and left behind many letters and diaries recording his experiences. He joined the army in 1916, rose through the ranks, fought on the Western Front, won a Military Cross which was presented to him by King George V at Buckingham Palace, was transferred to the air force, flew biplanes very low over enemy lines and narrowly escaped being shot down, managed to stay alive until the end of the war, returned to Australia, married and had three children, received a degree and helped set up the Faculty of Commerce at Melbourne University, rejoined the air force and rose to be a Squadron Leader, voyaged with his family to England in the late 1920s to represent Australia’s air force, and was invited to be one of the VIP passengers aboard the maiden flight of the great airship R101. The rest is history… his story, and its shocking aftermath, is riveting material. I hope to finish it one day…
What are you reading at the moment (fiction, non-fiction)?
Children’s fiction: E. Nesbit. As a youngster I read The Five Children and It (and adored the story) but for some reason I didn’t read many of Nesbit’s other works, so I’ve just finished The Enchanted Castle and have just embarked upon The Magic City. I’ve been struck by the marked similarities between many of the motifs in The Enchanted Castle and the works of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien.
What’s something readers might be surprised to learn about you?
I am fascinated by heritage/heirloom fruit. I was first drawn into the world of ancient fruit varieties by their fabulous old names — ‘Snell’s Glass Apple’, ‘Sweet Merlin’, ‘Cornish Gillyflower’, ‘Pig’s Snout’ — you can actually find some of these names in ‘The Lady of the Sorrows’. It was while I was writing that book that I first became aware of heritage fruit. Now I have an orchard of historic apple, fig, medlar, citrus and pear varieties and a pretty vast network of friends who also grow these interesting fruits in the name of preserving DNA, preserving history, and placing the value of flavour over keeping qualities.
What are you most looking forward to in the next twelve months?
In my professional life? Finally finishing the Great War biography and sending it off to be published!
Thank you, Stefan, for the opportunity to share my thoughts with your readers!
Check back on Friday for an excerpt from The Ill-Made Mute.