Many thanks to Bec Stafford of Burn Bright for conducting this interview, and allowing us to use it here on Obernet! For the original interview, visit this page on Burn Bright!
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The Big 4 Interviews - Isobelle Carmody
1. You’ve been writing since you were a teenager. Has your approach to writing changed over that period?
In some ways, no.
I started out writing like I was flinging myself down a steep slope on skis, half terrified and half thrilled to be negotiating unknown terrain, and knowing the run might be too tough for me.
That made sense when I was 14 and writing in the midst of a tempestuous relationship with my mother and seven wild siblings…and when no one felt that writing for school had much to do with anything. The important things were getting everyone fed and bathed and so on, and keeping the house clean. We played a lot of games where I was basically making up stories, but that felt like a whole other thing. The writing was always this private, slightly manic activity where I would work like hell because at any minute I was going to be interrupted. It was like reading a terrifically exciting book when you were being interrupted every other minute. A bit of me was always stitched into the book, so that I could go back to it in a second. The story was like this river that flowed through my mind, to which I always returned, and its glitter and its soft rushing sounds were always audible, visible, there—just under real life.
I was always just a little bit distracted from reality.
When I left home and was on my own, there was university and work, and they were a lot more interesting than housework and family chores, but I missed the wild games, and in the end, writing was still this glittering, mesmerising thread running under everything…keeping me distracted when I was not ferociously writing. For a while, I really got into journalism, but in the end it seemed to me that I was getting closer to some sort of cellular truth when I wrote my stories, than when I interviewed a politician or even the victims of a bushfire. So I quit.
Then there was this incredible period, which was actually quite short, where I really just wrote. Well, I wrote and went to the beach a lot. What I loved most about the beach was that I was going there when everyone else was suiting up to go to work or to all those things real people did, which I had somehow miraculously evaded. I was too young to feel worried about the future. I lived on what I had got together and I lived very, very simply. I was incredibly happy all the time. I wrote, and I was working on the same story I had been working on at 14—the first Obernewtyn book. Then I finished it and I sent it off to the first publisher on a long list I had made, because I had been told that you had to get rejected hundreds of times before being accepted. But it was accepted by the first publisher I sent it to. I felt so lucky. In fact, I felt so lucky it made me nervous. I thought I would probably have to be in a terrible accident and get something amputated as a way of balancing all that luck! Then the book came out and was short-listed in the young adult section of the Children’s Book Council awards and I went in one step from being no one to someone. Suddenly my book was in libraries, and the publishers wanted the next one, which I was working on…
So I worked and worked, and everything I wrote was published in due course, and I won or was short-listed for awards. Basically I didn’t do much else in that period. I went to and from journalism for a while, editing and writing—I liked it but my stories were what held me. The river had grown a lot wider and I could just focus on it now. That went on for some years—so many that I thought, ‘ok— this must be life’. It depressed me a little, I am ashamed to say, to think that was it. I was reasonably successful and from all the indicators, it seemed like I would go on being moderately successful. I started to travel, always because of writing, and all that I saw and did was woven into my work. I was content, but somehow I had lost that sharp, beautiful, painful delight in life that I had earlier on.
Then I went to Estonia, to a UNESCO conference to read, and fell in love, and suddenly everything—I mean EVERYTHING—changed. I started living big chunks of time overseas, I had a live-in partner and then a daughter. And all of a sudden, I was back to fitting writing in around everything else.
In a funny way, though I really do miss those wonderful years when I only wrote, and I miss the deep immersion they allow pretty badly sometimes, I find this life of having to fight for time to write more invigorating and ultimately satisfying. It’s like it was almost too easy for a while. Looking back, I was living this idyllic, not real sort of life when I was detached from reality, not just distracted from it. It was maybe a bit bloodless. But now I am in the midst of life, red in tooth and claw, and when I write, I still hurl myself down the mountain face, hoping not to fly off a cliff or smack into a tree. And life seems painfully, sharply beautiful and precious again…
2. The last installment of the Obernewtyn series, The Sending, isn’t far from being released. How difficult is it to close a series that’s been with you for so long?
Further away than my fans or publisher like. It was supposed to come out this year, but I found I just could not work when the book was scheduled and everyone was hanging on me to finish. It was like trying to work in a room where people were shouting at you that you were going to miss the bus. Luckily, Penguin have been able to bear with me and have eased the pressure, so the book will be coming out next year. They will make an announcement about it, but I think the word might already be out, and my name’s probably mud. I know some writers can deliver a book exactly when they say they will, but I honestly don’t know how that is possible. For me, a book is a journey and I don’t know how long it will take. I have a map, but it is sparse and there are so many things to see and learn and explore before I find what I set out to find. I write in order to think and that means I don’t know how long it will take me to figure it out. I think of it as a very organic process, but that might be a nice way to say utterly disorganized. The thing it that whatever word you apply, that is how I work and if people like the stories I write, then they have to allow me the means to get them.
I do think there is a bit of a perception that I am spinning it out or that I am unable to close. Neither is true. Despite the size of the books, I really have to work to get everything in each one and I cut and cut and cut to do it. They are absolutely not padded. I imagine padding would be such a boring thing to have to do. Cutting is hard work but incredibly satisfying, and it is balanced with elaborating and clarifying, because the stories are all very complex. For me, the process of editing does not happen after the book is finished but is part of the whole creative process. Sometimes this has meant publishers have felt I am close to done when I know I am not. But I do know where this series is going and the last book is completely written in first draft. But, as I said, that does not mean it is finished. There is a lot of stuff to be sorted out, honed back, a lot of threads to be joined and that happens in a to and fro process that is hard to control. But I am on it. I am getting there and I will get there. And I am not afraid to finish or trying for perfection. I need the books to be ended properly. I need to feel a true sense of completion or how will readers feel it? I actually think I am closer than I think, now that I am no longer under such pressure.
Having said all that, finishing will be a wrench in the same way that finishing the Dark Matters books was a wrench as a reader, or the Narnia books when I was a kid, or Robin Hobbs books…or Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy. But they must be finished and that is that. And I want to finish them. I want to come to the end of it because I want to know exactly how it will all come out as well. But, unlike readers, when I have finished, I will never ever be able to go back through the wardrobe door again. At least, not that door…
3. You divide your time between living in Australia and overseas. How does this ongoing change of environment influence your writing?
It strips you down. It takes you out of your comfort zone and forces you to be vulnerable. It makes you see and feel and hear more vividly. And you see and hear and experience things you would not experience any other way.
4. You’ve created so many memorable characters throughout your writing career. Which of your many characters Burns Brightest in your mind and why?
Wow, now that is the toughest question because you always feel like you are betraying one character when you name another. I actually can’t do it. I can say why I loved a few of the characters, though the truth is I could tell you why I loved at least one and usually more characters in every book I have written. But let’s choose a few. I like Elspeth because she is like another me. She is the inside me or, better said, she is the skin I slipped into when I wanted to think about things when I was 14, and she has grown with me, though not as fast. She is powerful and prickly and assertive and tall and lean—all the things I am in my imagination. She is brave and truthful and all the things I would be if I were better. She is me as a hero. Nissa is her in urban guise, but the main character in The Gathering, and the one I like most, is Nathanial because, unlike Nissa, he can be soft. I love Billy Thunder because he is the kindest, sweetest, sunniest, most sheerly good character I have ever created. I love Maruman because of his madness and his sheer bloody mindedness. I love Mr. Walker because he is a persnickety little scold. I love Fork because in the most true and metaphysical sense, it is shaped by the lives of the people and creatures who inhabit it. I love little Fur for her gentleness and Crow for his rudeness and oh I love Sorrow for his great, terrible mythic sadness. I guess I am never going to write an antihero, but what I like doing is taking a character and making it seem comical or cowardly or silly, and then producing a paradigm shift so that we can see that all of these things can hide incredible courage, depth, and blinding beauty of spirit. I always suspect it of my characters and, when it comes, I am always shocked and touched by it. I guess that is the thing I love most about writing: the moment when characters I have created reveal the bit of themselves that I did not invent or expect. The bit where they take on their own life…
Interview conducted by Bec Stafford
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