Sydney Writer’s Festival 2012: A Neverending Story: Fantasy Worlds Panel with Isobelle Carmody, Justine Larbalestier, and Scott Westerfeld

Yesterday I took notes at the Sydney Writer’s Festival on this panel, so I thought I’d write up a post for those that couldn’t make it. Any mistakes in the notes are my own, as no recording devices were allowed. I tried to only scrawl down things relevent to fantasy generally, rather than parts where authors spoke very specifically about their own work.

A NeverEnding Story was facilitated by freelance reviewer and interviewer, Joy Lawn. Isobelle Carmody is the author of multiple speculative fiction novels and short stories for young adults and adult readers. She is most famous for her Obernewtyn Chronicles, but she has received many awards for her other work, most recently, for her children’s book The Red Wind, also illustrated by Isobelle. Justine Larbarlestier is author of the Magic or Madness trilogy, and debuted with her realist novel, Liar. Scott Westerfeld has written Uglies, Midnighters, and more recently a trilogy of steampunk novels beginning with Leviathan.

Joy: What is speculative fiction and which sub genres have you chosen to write in?

Justine: Everything that isn’t boring- world’s that I’m unfamiliar with. I’ve written Team Human with Irish author, Sarah Rees Brennan.

Scott: World’s with new rules- alternative world’s which really captivate the reader. My latest book, Leviathan, is steampunk.

Isobelle: As a kid I didn’t have tv, or travel, and I lived on housing commission. For me, speculative fiction was anything set in new locations that were unfamiliar to me, like Peru or somewhere, but I also don’t like to label with specific genres.

I like to think that I use certain tools and utensils when I write a story, and for me, speculative fiction embodies the tools and utensils I always come back to.

Travel is really important as a writer. It takes you out of your comfort zone and strips you back to who you really are. My new collection of short stories, Metro Winds, is about mental journey’s, and the metamorphosis caused by travel. You reinvent, and reintepret yourself and your worldview when you’re travelling. Speculative fiction really suits exploring these ideas.

For me, speculative fiction is really about personal philsophical questions. Speculative fiction is speculative.

Joy: What are some key themes in your books?

Isobelle: In Obernewtyn, it’s about why human beings are both so great, and capable of so much greatness, and yet so terrible? What makes humanity the way it is?

Scott: In Leviathan, I wanted to write about airships and tanks, and once I knew that, my setting kind of defined both my genre, and even themes to some extent. Life is super, super messy as it is, and I wanted to explore people’s responsibilities to the world and each other, in terms of the social class and hierachy of World War One, and relationships between poorer and wealthier people.

Justine: My books kind of just grow. I don’t have an outline, they happen. My books are about appearance vs. true personality, and about how people are raised, with the grandmother/granddaughter relationship explored in one of my books. It’s about generational difference.

Joy: Do you toy with realism?

Justine: Yeah, in Liar.

Scott: In So Yesterday, but I found it difficult.

Isobelle: My partner gave me a story for Metro Winds as a birthday gift. He found a miniture circus, and I was so jealous that I wasn’t… only he would find that kind of thing. I used that in one of my short stories in Metro Winds [InkAshlings: The Dove Game]

Well- fantasy comes out of reality- it always leads back to us personally. Speculative fiction isn’t fact, but it IS truth, and they are two different things.

[InkAshlings: Such an interesting point raised by Isobelle here. I had an argument with my history lecturer once about history as a form of story telling which tells the same sort of ‘truth’ as a fiction writer, based off the fact/truth difference. Essentially, don’t historians and authors do the same thing, in revealing truths about the human experience, but using different tools? I would have liked to have heard more on this from the panel]

Scott: In the Ugly Series, eveyone turns beautiful at 16. That story came from a friend who lived in LA after New York, and emailed us about a trip to the dentist. The dentist asked him in all seriousness about a 5 year dental plan, with appearance the emphasis, not health. What if everything was about appearance? was my central question for that series, but that came out of realism, out of reality.

Justine: I’ve used biographical stuff in my stories too, facts from my childhood. I used to live near an Aboriginal settlement, and that has crept into my writing. You can’t write out of nothing. That’s the fun aspect of being a writer. It’s a constant surprise.

Isobelle:  You can also get revenge. I got revenge on a teacher I hated in school, I was so scared of him. I used his name, and described him as bald and ugly, and then one day I actually bumped into him! I tried to avoid him, but he came over and told me how proud everyone was of me!!! He even mentioned how happy he was that I’d used his name, even if the character wasn’t like him at all!!!

Joy: Is that the teacher in The Gathering?

Isobelle: Yes. The Gathering.

Justine: I hated a girl from school, and wrote her into my book.

Joy: Can you tell us a bit about your individual writing process?

Isobelle: Scott sounds organised- you know, perfect histories, languages, maps, charts. Are you?

Scott: Yeah- well… kind of…

Isobelle: I didn’t even have a map for Obernewtyn. The publishers told me I needed one and I had to go back and figure one out. Anyone in the audience who has read Obernewtyn will know how sketchy that map is.

I’m chaos, I don’t take notes, in my mind it’s fluid. Writing it down in plans ruins that fluid creativity.  Sucking the world up is natural, and I do that. It’s like fly paper, you suck things up and it sticks in your brain till you need it.

Scott: The little details had to be correct for a World War One steampunk setting. I did loads of research. In writing, you find out what you don’t know. Like zippers? When were they invented? Wikipedia tells you that, but not when zippers were filtered down to Scottish orphans, did orphans wear zippers in WW1? and I needed to know that. Wikipedia didn’t tell me that.

Research can give narrative. I went on a zeppelin ride as research in Germany, and I found out important minor details, like how balanced the craft has to be, and how carefully people have to move on and off a zeppelin. I needed to know that for Leviathan.

Justine: [InkAshlings: Justine talked about the difficulty of working with another author but I didn’t catch all of this or get it down] Sarah plans everything, she knows the entire plot of novel’s she hasn’t even written yet. It’s mind blowing, and I can’t work like that.

Isobelle: Yeah… but has she written these books yet?

Justine: No… but she has used this method to publish books before.

[Isobelle looked pretty incredulous here. It was quite funny.]

Justine: We had to use a rough outline to compromise. We set ourselves a challenge. I wrote a chapter, and then Sarah discussed it with me, and reworked it, and then we switched and did the same thing forwards and backwards for every chapter. We even kept a catalogue of how many times we laughed reading each others chapters [InkAshlings: Sarah and Justine wrote the paranormal romance comedy, Team Human, together]

Isobelle: [Pulling all kinds of faces] That would kill me. That would absolutely unravel me as a writer.

Justine: Yeah, but it wasn’t my book. It was unique. I’m not sure I would ever do it again. Liar was carefully structured after I wrote the entire manuscript. I used a new program, I hate word… if I ever met Bill Gates… I’m joking. Anyway, I used scriptnet, because I wrote small sections at a time, and replaced sections. I could move index cards around on the computer using scriptnet.

Isobelle: I typed my first book on a type writer. You’re young. I hand write with an ink pen and paper. [to the audience] who here does that still?

[Joy asked for a show of hands on who used scriptnet, word, and wrote by hand from the audience here]

Isobelle: This is really showing my age [upon the lack of handwriting hands in the air]. Actually, I have this funny story. I met a young fan once, and he actually asked me, when was the world black and white? He actually thought the world was literally black and white in the olden days.

[Lots of audience laughter]

Joy: Have you ever created a fantasy world that failed? And what did you do about that?

Justine: I got fired on a ghost writing job once- too many cooks. There was the publisher, the packaging house, the author, the ghost writer, and then me. There were too many contradictary instructions. The world building rules got hopelessly confused.

Scott: I’ve had bad ideas- For example in The Extra’s, I wanted to write from a male perspective, and the book was due in a month. I realised that the male protagonist’s sister was experiencing the entire story, so I asked my editor if I should rewrite the story from her POV. I had to rewrite the world from her perspective in a month because I was seeing my world from the wrong place.

Isobelle: Perfect people are boring in stories. You need them to have flaws.

Joy: You’ve all written about vampires. What makes yours stand out?

Justine: I’ve read loads on vampires- I love and hate them. Dead people walking around freaks me out, it would be so cold, and creepy and horrible, touching a vampire isn’t sexy. The romance aspect repels and compels me. I mean, wouldn’t the vampire smell? They’re dead!

We [Sarah and Justine] wanted to explore the real cost of becoming a vampire, of losing your humanity. In this book [Team Human], vampires can’t laugh or cry.

Scott: I used research on cats. My take was the idea of cats/rats/bats as familiars, but also as carriers of vampirism in Peeps. It spreads to us, to cat lovers, that way. Vampires were parasites. It was the case of a cool book of science becoming an accessable story.

Isobelle: I hate horror. When I was 14, I was so scared of vampires. I used to wrap a towel around my neck, so that the vampire couldn’t bite me, and I shared a bed with my sister, so I used to push her to the outside, so the vampire would get her first. I’d pull the covers right up. There was no way that vampire was getting me!

I’m not a fan of horror, so I didn’t plan to write it. I got inspired by a sentence from an old battered guide book I found on Santorini. “Bringing vampires to Santorini is the same as bringing coal to Newcastle.”  I wrote a vampire short story inspired by that, and by the island setting. [Story in Metro Winds, called, The Stranger- IA] When I sent the story to my editor, it was really strange, because they got another story from a British author inspired by the exact same quote!

Well- the thing I do like about vampires is immortality. I like that idea. I like the idea of being around to see things happen. I don’t like the idea of everyone going on without me, without having any kind of impact [InkAshlings: Ha Isobelle! You have your own massive wikipedia page and published books. Stop worrying on this front] So yeah- I wrote a horror short story… but I don’t think I’d be likely to write in that genre again.

Three questions were solicited from the audience now, and I was first up.

InkAshlings: Do you think that because fantasy is removed in setting from reality, it allows you to talk with more ease about difficult issues in society, that maybe people wouldn’t normally want to talk about, or wouldn’t feel comfortable dealing with, in a realist novel?

Justine: Yes. I mean, especially in America, where there is a small, but very vocal book banning minority. I know so many people who wouldn’t have been banned if they had been writing in the speculative fiction genre. It’s less confronting maybe? Sad but true. I know someone who was banned for depicting a very G rated lesbian relationship. I guarantee if that had been fantasy, it would have been ok.

[InkAshlings: I didn’t actually intend the question to go down the censorship route but it was interesting anyway. I was more asking about the way that imagination allows for uncomfortable truths to be aired in ways that challenge a reader, in a way that maybe can’t happen in realist novels.]

The second audience question was directed at Isobelle, and asked about her series Little Fur, and its relation to fairy story traditions.

Isobelle: I wrote the Little Fur series after a big flood in Prague, and there were things everywhere, all the debris, and cracks in the pavement. I was walking with my daughter, and she asked me what was in the cracks, so I told her trolls, and she asked, ‘what kind?’ so I said, ‘big, scary trolls.’ It went from there.

Metro Winds is realist, but I use the ornate language of fairy stories to tell these realist stories.

Justine: Fairy stories are a huge influence on fantasy authors. Myths and legends, and fairy stories…

Isobelle: They use rich symbols that are repeated over and over again. When I asked (with Nan McNab) various authors to contribute fairy stories to our Tales from the Tower compilation [InkAshlings: The Wilful Eye, and The Wild Wood] they all said yes, without even asking about money and stuff. It’s just… they… fairy stories tap into something that resonates with the human psyche.

Joy: Any questions for Scott?

Audience Question: Where do you go visually for world building ideas and perceptions? How do you visualise a world?

Scott: I really learnt about the value of illustrations and designs. The collaborative value of working with artists really means… the story happens with those extra dimensions.

Thanks to all three authors, and to Joy, for such a great event! If you want to support Australian fantasy, and you liked what these authors discussed, why not check out their websites, and grab a book?

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About InkAshlings

Maureen, Australian, young aspiring writer.
This entry was posted in fantasy meta, Genre Meta, Genre: Horror, Genre: Speculative Fiction, Panel and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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