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A Larke Ascending
interviewed by Amy Harlib
Australian-born, world-travelling, currently Malaysian-resident, ecological-activist, fantasy writer Glenda Larke's quirky, original, first novel, Havenstar was published under the nom de plume Glenda Noramly in the UK in 1998 by Virgin Worlds which, for no direct reason, promptly folded - thereafter causing the favourably received book to vanish far too quickly into out-of-print scarcity.
Now Ms Larke resurfaces with the highly acclaimed, award-nominated The Isles Of Glory
trilogy (Voyager, Australia), which was recently acquired by the USA publisher Ace Books
and is slated for release in 2005. The Aware, Gilfeather, and The Tainted
- set in an invented, multicultural, pre-industrial, magical otherworld, features a strong
female protagonist and her fascinating experiences of self-discovery whilst embroiled in
political intrigue and wide-ranging adventure in richly imagined settings.
Larke, excited about having her first grandchild and thrilled with her rising literary success, agreed to be interviewed while in NYC for a meeting with her American publisher.
When did you realise that you wanted to be writer and a writer of fantasy in particular?
Quite frankly I can't remember a time when I didn't want to be a writer. I can't remember ever learning to read, either. Both things just always seem to have been there. I was writing endless adventure stories while I was still in primary school and wrote my first novel when I was 11. It was set in Scotland. I have no idea why. My family hadn't a single Scottish connection. Maybe I was prescient. I now have a Scottish son-in-law and I go there quite often to see my daughter. I didn't write fantasy until I was in my forties, though.
What got you excited about the fantasy genre?
I was brought up in the school of thought that there was something not quite proper about SF. You know, fantasy was just fairytales for kids, and science fiction consisted of poorly written tales about spaceships and weird aliens, written for pubescent boys. Even when I accidentally came across a great SF story, I thought it must be the exception. Then, when I was in my twenties, my sister - who was a teacher-librarian - kept plying me with SF/fantasy recommendations. And my eyes popped wide open. Hey this stuff was good! I began to read widely in the genre, hopping between classics and modern, fantasy and SF, trying to make up for lost time. Then, when my kids were old enough I started reading the children's classics with them, the books I never had as a child - Susan Cooper's The Dark Is Rising was one of the first I remember. The Narnia books. The Black Cauldron. Elidor. I enjoyed reading to the kids just about as much as they enjoyed listening - it was all-new to me. Then came The Hobbit - which of course led straight into L.O.T.R.. My daughter and I fought over the books, I remember - she was nine and I was 35! (Little did I realise that 25 years later we would be going to see the movie together.)
Which writers do you consider inspirations, influences and mentors?
In one sense there were no mentors. I never met another writer until I was well on the way to being published. Now I am revelling in contact with my fellow Australian/New Zealand authors - Trudi Canavan and Russell Kirkpatrick in particular have been wonderfully helpful and supportive and we chat on the Internet several times a week.
As for influences and inspiration - well, there have been way too many books/authors to count. Asimov was a model for the effectiveness of simplicity of style. Guy Gavriel Kay is a favourite of mine - Tigana I consider to be a brilliant standalone book, which I read every so often with awe. C.S. Friedman's Coldfire trilogy - great world, superb character study of a villain you can learn to care about. Who can forget the breadth of Herbert's Dune, the inventiveness of Julian May, the depth of Le Guin, the feminist storytelling of Sherri Tepper. Brian Stableford, Stephen Donaldson, Janny Wurts - I could go on and on. Now I love the so-called 'new weird'. I met K.J. Bishop recently and I am humbled to think that a writer so young could produce something as challenging as Etched City. Every time I pick up a book I learn something more about how to tell a story. In fact, one of the worst things about being a published writer with deadlines to meet is that there is so little time to read any more!
How much of yourself and your work in environmental conservation finds its way into your books?
A lot. Is there a writer in any genre who doesn't put pieces of themselves into their work? You find chunks of me all over the place - insecurities and stupidities and the not-so-pleasant bits included!
My environmental work is useful in that it has taught me how interrelated everything is, important to remember when world-building. If you are going to have two moons, what happens to the tide when they are in alignment with the sun? (Read The Tainted, and find out!) If you were going to have a world where even the land is unstable, what effect would it have on religious faith? On superstition? On which professions would be the most valued? (That's all in Havenstar.) If a port city goes on a binge of shipbuilding, just what might happen to the neighbouring forests - and then what might happen if it rained a lot? And so on. We treat our environment with distain at our peril, in this world, or in that of my novels. In Gilfeather I had great fun writing of a utopian society in the environmental sense - it's a completely sustainable society and on that level it works. Trouble is, it drives the protagonist nuts, as it would most of us. I may be an environmentalist, but I am also pragmatic and I know just what it would take to be wholly sustainable.
As an ornithologist, I have an affinity to birds, and I have used this in The Isles Of Glory trilogy, where one of the main characters is a bird. I've used my work experiences in peat swamps (Gilfeather), on a barren island in the South China Sea (The Aware), in mangrove swamps and rainforest.
What is your modus operandi when it comes to writing - a day in the life so to speak?
Start work about 9 am, and continue until about 11 pm. But every hour or so I go and do something else - housework maybe, or answer emails, read, go for exercise, eat - then back to the computer.
What do you enjoy doing, what are your hobbies when not writing?
I consider myself enormously lucky, I have two totally different jobs, both of which I am passionate about. When I'm not doing one, I'm doing the other. I'm either at my computer writing, or I'm in the field. And the field can mean anything from a tropical swamp or the top of a mountain. It can mean staying at a hotel at a luxury resort with enough stars to satisfy Joan Collins - or camping miles from anywhere and waking up in the morning to find cat or bear paw prints outside the tent. I enjoy my work so much that my ways of relaxing are connected - reading or bird watching.
Do you make volumes of world-building notes and maps and character genealogies before you start writing the actual stories?
No, in one sense I'm far too disorganised a writer for that. But that doesn't mean that I don't know what I'm doing. I spend a year or more thinking about a book before I ever start, and I have a picture of the world clearly in my mind. I know what the weather's like, and why. I know what the streets look like. I always have a map, although I'm not past altering it as I go along to fit the story! I like to get the geography more or less believable. I like my lands and cities to have economies that could work. I know a lot more about the place than ever finds its way into the book. But most of it is in my head; in the way we know the world around us. The Isles Of Glory mentions another country (Kells) on a continent far away from the arena of the story. I could walk into the building for the National Society for the Study of Non-Kellish Peoples and know exactly what it looked like - even though it is no more than mentioned in the trilogy. I could even tell you what the weather was likely to be like outside (it rains an inordinate amount in Kells).
How do you feel about writing short fiction or are you strictly a novelist?
Strictly a novelist. Never tried short fiction and wouldn't know where to start. I love the development that you get with a novel.
Do you feel that your schooling helped or hindered your creativity as a writer?
Well, it helped tremendously in one way - I learned grammar the old fashioned way - ask me about the agreement of a verb with a relative pronoun in a subordinate clause, and I know what you are talking about. In secondary school I was lucky to have teachers that loved the literature we discussed. I did one unit of literature at university and it was as dry as dust. There was no such thing as creative writing courses back in those days, at least not where I went to university (Perth, Australia).
Your own life is as exciting as any fiction. Have you thought of writing a memoir?
No, but I toyed seriously with writing fiction about the world I knew best - the years living in an Asian Muslim society, not as an expatriate, but as a member of the family. I did write a lot down in my early years of living in Malaysia. In the end, though, I decided that no matter how fictional I made it, just the act of putting down my take on things would hurt too many people that I cared about, and I couldn't do it. Even writing fantasy has made some people uncomfortable with me after they have read what I have written. However, my experience as an outsider, not looking in, but being welcomed in to live as they do - has been invaluable to me as a writer, especially a writer who has to create societies and cultures from scratch. Nothing like living immersed in someone else's way of life to understand how a society works!
Do you think the Internet and electronic publishing is important in the future of genre writing?
The Internet already is important, enormously so. I think it has given a tremendous boost to SF/fantasy. Electronic publishing? Something inside me says, ah, nothing will ever replace books - that lovely feel of opening up a new purchase and turning the pages. Hmm. Do I hear someone muttering in the past: 'Ah, Mr Gutenberg, this new fangled printing thing - no one will want to read something so dull. Why, we still have to hand-draw all the ornate illuminated capital letters at the beginning of the chapters! It will never catch on!'
Do you have any offers for film or gaming rights for your work?
You're kidding, right?
What is the next writing project that you are developing?
I have several things underway. One is the next trilogy for HarperCollins Australia. It's called, tentatively anyway, 'The Mirage Trilogy' and book one is 'Mirage Makers'. Book three is 'Song Of The Shiver Barrens' and book two hasn't got a title yet! The trilogy is about half written and I hope the first book will come out some time in 2005, but dates aren't fixed yet.
It is the story of an Imperial agent sent to discover why a rebel in a subject nation didn't die when he was put to death. I got the idea after wondering about whether the Roman Empire sent someone to check out all those stories about what happened to a man who was seen after he was crucified. It's a story of terrible betrayals that taint several generations, of the sacrifice and bravery needed for redemption. And there's magic and mirages, of course.
The other book that is nearing completion is 'The Droughtmaster', a tale set in a desert land struggling with the effects of a treachery that has led to the end of rainfall. (And no, it is not another Dune!) The ideas for this one came partly from my own experiences with the Australian outback, and from the two years I lived in Tunisia, plus a trip into the heart of the Algerian Sahara.
Thank you very much, Glenda Larke.
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