Nic Brasch: Before we start this episode of The Garret, I have some news. The Garret received a grant from the Australian Government through the Australia Council, its arts funding and advisory body. We are excited to receive this assistance, because it means we will be able to continue to share with you insights from some of the best writers writing today.
We also receive funding from The Copyright Agency and Reading Australia. For more information on what we are doing with these grants, visit thegarretpodcast.com. We are grateful for the support from these brilliant organisations. But most of all, we are grateful for you. Without you, The Garret wouldn't exist. Thank you for listening.
Nic: Isobelle Carmody is an inventive and extraordinarily popular writer. When it comes to Australian fantasy fiction, there is no bigger name. I recorded this chat with Isobelle at the State Library of Victoria, after Isobelle had spent the weekend at Comic Con. I started by asking her about her early influences.
Isobelle: I probably was reading the Narnia books and Dr Dolittle.
Nic: Ah, Dr Dolittle.
Isobelle: I was very into wishing I could communicate with animals. That was my primary desire. In fact, I used to think if I practised, I'd figure it out.
Nic: Oh, I remember doing that.
Isobelle: So, I spent half my life practising telepathy and practising on animals.
Nic: Isn’t it amazing, already I'm seeing the influences from that in your book from such an early... that must have been very, very influential…
Isobelle: I think it's more that they aligned with what I cared about, and those things are also in my books. I was looking for something that I didn't see in the world around me, and that's what kids' childhood is. Your parents are... They're there, doing whatever they do and their life seems to be nothing but yelling at you to clean up your room and get your homework done, and income tax, and then they die. I just thought, ‘I don't want that. I don't want any of that’. I looked around me, and I lived in a housing commission area, and I didn't want anything I saw.
Isobelle: I didn't know what else there was, I just knew I didn't fit in there, and I didn't know what there was, but that wasn't me. I was looking, and books were like... I always think of libraries as like the wood between worlds in the Narnia books, where you jump into a pond and you end up in another world. The ones I was looking for, or what I was looking for in books was a world that mattered, where things that mattered to me, mattered to the characters. Like honour. What an out-moded word, whoever uses that word?
Nic: That's right.
Isobelle: But I cared about it, and kids do care about it. Justice. Why do we even think there's justice in the world, when you take a look around at you? And yet, we want it somehow. I think the first words that kids uttered in a playground, or someone pushes them down and they say, ‘That's not fair’. Where does that notion of fairness... Is it really just that parents give it to you? I'm not sure about that. So, I felt all of those things.
My dad died in a car accident. He was killed by a drunk driver. So to me, the world was an inimical place where bad stuff happened. My mom was always afraid the welfare would come and take us, and so I had this feeling, all of us did, that the world was a dangerous place. And we had evidence of that.
In books, I was looking for stuff that mattered, because in a world where anything like that dark stuff could happen, there ought to be something worth living for. I'm not alone – although I really thought I was back then – I'm not alone in longing or yearning for something more. So those books, like the Narnia books, there's an essential spirituality, which – I know that they're pedalling a certain Christian mythology, which I don't subscribe to at all – but I didn't see it when I was a kid, and people can denounce it for that, but it was invisible to me. What I saw was the essence of some kind of spirituality. And I saw it in Tolkien, and I was hungry for it. And so those were the books I sought out, and it's probably perfectly natural that you then go on, I mean, if you're smart, you write what you care about.
Nic: That's right. Absolutely. As you go then through high school, your choice of reading still the same sort of genre?
Isobelle: I was ashamed that it was the same, because obviously, you're supposed to put away childish things.
Nic: That's it.
Isobelle: There was really that feeling that once you reach a certain level, that's a little bit sideways from what you should be looking at. So, I would be going to the library and saying... because ‘fantasy’ wasn't a word back in the dinosaur years when I was a young kid.
Nic Brasch: No, no, very different.
Isobelle: I would go in and I would, in a very low voice say, ‘Do you have anything sort of magical?’ Or, ‘Do you have anything about ...?’ So, I would be trying to find a way to describe the kind of things that occurred in the writing that I was looking for. And they would've said, ‘That's fantasy’. They could equally have directed me, without knowing it, to philosophy. But no one would've done that, nobody directs kids, or perhaps, not back then.
Nic: No, of course. No.
Isobelle: So that was where I found the philosophical kind of underpinnings that resonated for me. Yeah, and so I was still looking for them, and I would say my reading is the same for the same reason. I'm still looking for answers to the big questions, and realism… it doesn't seem to me to approach those big questions in the way that fantasy and science fiction can do.
Isobelle: There's a different angle that they take on it, and it's that other angle that I wanted. There was one book that made a huge impact on me, not because it was a great book, but because it showed me what I was trying to do as a writer, and that was Enid Blyton's book, The Land of Far Beyond, which almost no one's heard of. They're The Far Away Tree and all of those things, which I've read when I was older to my daughter. I tried to read to her, I hated it.
Isobelle: I thought, ‘Oh, my god, this is...’ And I said to her, ‘Honey, this is one of the books you're going to have to read yourself’. So, I just couldn't read it to her. But as a kid, I loved it. But the book that made the impact on me was, The Land of Far Beyond. Do you know The Land of Far Beyond?
Nic: No, I don't. I've read a lot of Enid Blytons. No I don't.
Isobelle: I'm really struck by anyone in an audience who's ever actually read it, because most people haven't. It's a re-telling of Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, for children. The main thing about this story is that the characters' names reflect their internal... So Patience, the child character Patience, is a very gentle, and patient, and resilient character. And there were various names. Mister Bold, he's very strong and bold, but utterly insensitive.
I borrowed that book year after year – I'm going to have to make a terrible confession in a minute – I borrowed that book year after year to read it again and again, but also because I couldn't bear the thought that it wouldn't be available to me. I often wondered, ‘Why is this book so important to me?’ And then a day came when I figured it out. It was because it was showing me what I was trying to do as a writer, which was to turn an internal journey into an external journey. So, to write about those spiritual or those emotional journeys that we make, or those journeys of change, and just take it out and make it a real journey across a real landscape, which reflects or somehow rises from those psychological or philosophical questions.
It was revelationary to me to realise that was what I did.
Isobelle: I don't know why that book did it? I swiped the book from the library in the end. Years later I ended up sending the library a box of books saying, ‘I apologise. I swiped this book years ago. I needed it better than anyone else I think ever did. You must have known it was me, because I was the only person who borrowed it. You never came after me, and I hope you feel that you built a writer out of this.’
Nic: Exactly, I'm sure they feel okay about it now.
Isobelle: I sent them a box of books.
Nic: That's a great story. Great story.
Isobelle: It's the best I could do to make up for my perfidy.
Nic: When did you start writing? When did you start writing? Obviously very young, as I know, but I don't know how…
Isobelle: Not really, no. I was actually telling stories out loud for a long time. I've got seven younger brothers and sisters, so I was telling stories to them to begin with. It wasn't a matter of thinking it would be delightful to educate them, it was because we didn't have television. There was no Internet in those days. People always want to gasp when I say that, I want to gasp when I say that. It's amazing to think how different the world is from when I was growing up!
Nic: Oh, phenomenal.
Isobelle: Totally different. So, we didn't have any form of entertainment. My mom went out to work and I was left alone with my brothers and sisters, and so I used to tell them stories. So, for me, it was telling. Stories were very complicated and went over a long time, and my audience would get very cross when I'd forget the eye colour of a character, or some small detail. So, I started to write them down. The minute I began to write things down, I suddenly turned from this performance – which telling a story is – to this incredible realisation that it was intimate and private. It suddenly turned from an outward journey into an inward journey, and that's what I think true writing is. It's not an outward journey. I don't care about readers when I write. I don't care about market. I don't care about my publisher. I only care about what I'm writing about.
I'm lucky, because I was able to retain that arrogant purity, because my first book was published very quickly, and it was accepted by an audience quickly. So, I'm sure I would've compromised in the way everybody does, trying to find a way in. But I didn't have to, so I was lucky in that I reached this kind of point in my life without having to compromise, so I've only ever written what I wanted to write.
Nic: These stories that you were telling, were they planned, or were they...? I'm just wondering how…
Isobelle: They were not planned, no.
Nic: I'm just wondering how it differs to then, now or later, in terms of, both of structure, but also particularly in terms of planning. So, they just came off the top of the head?
Isobelle: Yeah, and I write that way now too.
Nic: That was what I was wondering.
Isobelle: But for a long time I actually didn't say that aloud, in fact, I think it was actually in the State Library, the first time I confessed out loud, or I began to realise that it wasn't something... That I just was tired of just not saying anything when people talked about planning, and realising that I had a perfectly valid – obviously I had a valid – way of doing it, it worked, and that there was a reason for it.
Isobelle: And that there was a reason for it, and that I had reasons for working the way that I did. I think the thing with plans is that people tend to over plan, and if they over plan, they use up all of their creative energy in the planning, and they've got nothing left for the piece of writing, so that's the over planning.
You do have to have an idea of where you're going. For me it's always been, when I begin a story, it's always with a character, through a character's eyes, and the worlds that I discover are through their eyes, not planned with putting them on the board, but through their eyes. I don't see anything beyond what they see, and I don't know where they're going until I get there.
In The Red Queen, which is the last Obernewtyn book, I got to the point of her entering a city I'd only referred to as a dream place and we'd seen once, but as a dream symbol, so it was all distorted. So, we saw the distortion, I saw the distortion, before I ever saw the actual thing. I had Elspeth outside a city I had never been inside of. Now, a sensible person may have sat down at that moment and worked out the city, but I didn't want to leave my character, to do that kind of separate planning, it detaches you. So, I just thought, ‘Okay she's just going to go in, and I'm going to see what I see’. And so that's what I did. Stepped in the city with her, it's night, she can't see very much. I look around a corner and what she saw is what I saw. And then at some point I realised there was... she sees a huge tower, and I think, ‘Okay, she would have had to have seen that from a distance’. So, when I rewrite, I have her see it from a distance.
So of course, you have your corrective stuff that happens in drafts. I do a lot of drafting, so once I laid out the plan, it's a very faint plan, and then I go back and I look into it. But the first way we see any place that I go in a story is through the emotions of the character. So, it's very much an emotional vision. People often say, ‘Oh, your cities seem so real’. It's not that they're real, it's that for the characters they're very much something they see with an emotional response, so it's very easy, I think, for readers to feel that same emotional response.
Nic: And what it means is, is that you get the same sense of excitement as both your character and your readers all the way along.
Isobelle: Yeah, absolutely.
Nic: And then that shows through storytelling.
Isobelle: Yeah, and you asked about the storytelling too. I think you can tell, from the very latest book that I've written, all the books that I've written, I think you can see that I was a storyteller first, because the sound of words really matters to me.
Nic: Of course.
Isobelle: I'll always make a poetic choice to the sound of words over top of a grammatical choice. I'll break grammar rules all the time. I can't explain them. My daughter often says, ‘Why is this?’ I can't explain why the language works the way that it is, but I know instantly if this is wrong, and if I'm breaking it, I know I'm breaking it. It's not that I'm blundering around not doing it. It's very much how I worked as a storyteller, translated into… but it became this journey inwards, so it was like telling a story to myself in a sort of a way, or playing the story out to myself.
Nic: You started writing Obernewtyn when you were still in high school, that's right?
Nic: Yeah. Did you expect it to be published, or were you writing to be published, or you just had to get it down and just loved it? And tell us how it was published, because it's extraordinary.
Isobelle: Yeah, no it was... Yeah, certainly. I came from a housing commission area. No one in my family had gone to the end of high school, and my family haven't even gone to high school, some of them, my mom and dad. In that neighbourhood I grew up in, there wasn't that expectation of they were going to go on and do anything different. So, when I started to write it was, again, an extension of storytelling, which turned inward because I loved telling those stories to my brothers and sisters. I realised very quickly that they were part of the story. Their responses I used to help mould the story, so I have a very strong sense of audience, which is maybe why I don't have to think about audience. But when I started to write Obernewtyn, it was in the same year my dad was killed, and I think... And we're alone a lot as kids. My dad worked and my mom left us to look... That happens in big families.
Nic: Of course, absolutely.
Isobelle: I did a lot of storytelling before my dad died, but it wasn't till after he died that it... I think it took on a darker strain, or at least it started to try to grapple with things that were... Until then, nothing much bad had happened in my world. That was the bad thing. Sometimes I think the nuclear Holocaust, the pre-eminent event before the Obernewtyn Chronicles begins, is really the death of my dad, because what's more like a nuclear Holocaust in the life of a kid than the death of a beloved parent? He was a very flawed man, but I loved him. He was my hero. We had a very close relationship, and it was devastating to me that he died. And then we were in danger forever after, it seemed to me. Suddenly, my mom was frightened. She kept us separated from everyone around us. She was frightened, and whatever crazy thing she told us like, ‘Don't go outside, murderers will get you’, we really thought... It wasn't real, but she was afraid and that fear came to us and gave resonance to what she was saying.
In many ways, Obernewtyn was not something I was offering to the world, or thinking about as something that might be published at all. It was a place for me to go, in which I could think about big questions like, ‘Why am I here?’ And Elspeth is a Misfit. I was very much a misfit. I didn't know where to belong. I was this spiky girl who didn't... I didn't want to risk anything. I wanted friends, but I didn't want to change myself in order to have friends. I just wanted to find people who would let me be whatever that I was. I had those moments you have in childhood that I wanted to think about, and I just carried them into story, because I realised, as soon as I started to write things down, that I could think better on paper than I could think in my head. And I could think better in story.
So, I would carry my woes or, ‘What if this? What if this could happen? What if I really could talk to animals, would it be better? What if people were this...?’ The Obernewtyn Chronicles, like anything I think a writer who really writes seriously has underneath it, are questions. In school, teachers ask kids to talk about themes.
Isobelle: I always think more interesting than the themes is, underneath the themes are the questions the writer is... Maybe the writer themself is those questions, and we have those questions that we formulate, in our being, towards life. For me, those questions were probably, ‘Why do people do the things that they do? Why are human beings capable of such extremes?’ The incredible brave and beautiful, the creativity that we can have, the kindness and the compassion, and the horrible cruelty and brutality and unthinkable awfulness that humanity is capable of.
I saw both of those. They came out of my own childhood, what I saw around me in a microcosm, and then I extrapolated later that to what I saw around me in the world. I carried those questions into Obernewtyn to ask myself, ‘Can I believe that human beings can evolve ethically and morally?’ That's the question that carries right through The Obernewtyn Chronicles.
I didn't know what the answer was, and I was pursuing it through the book. The character, or characters, and the world in a way, are the vessel for the exploration of that question. Not the answering of it, because even now I can look around and ask exactly the same question, and have no better answer than I would've had then.
But I find an answer as I'm writing, and that sense of excitement and that forward momentum is really part of that feeling of, ‘Oh my god! This is it. I'm discovering it. I know it now. I don't even know what ‘it’ is?’ Buy you have this giddy sense of being on the edge of discovering something. I think writers who really write well and deeply come to that feeling of, on the giddy edge of discovering something deeply and profoundly important. I felt that when I wrote, and it’s so addictive.
Nic: Of course.
Isobelle: So, I just kept rewriting Obernewtyn, rewriting right through high school, right through university degree, I didn't show it to anybody, I didn't think of publishing it.
And then I was a young journalist and at night, in journalism, cadets get stuck on night duty, and I was at night minding this big creepy building, all these tough old... You know, as sub-editors go to the pub…
Nic: Yeah, exactly, of course.
Isobelle: All the journalists go somewhere, and you're left alone in the building, a little cadet. I was scared, and the only office that was warm in the building, and the only office that could lock was the editor's office. I got into the editor's office, unlocked his office, and sat in his office and wrote.
I left, on his desk one day – I did it regularly – and I left on his desk one day a story I'd been writing on his fancy letterhead paper at night. I just left it on his desk and he found it the next day and he called me in. I thought I was going to get the sack, or yelled at. And he said, ‘Isobelle, do you ever think of getting any of these things you write published? ’So, everybody knew I was writing something, stuff. What struck me in that moment was this tough guy with a cigar, who was so cynical, had read a story and he had to have read it, and the story was called, ‘The Most Awful Thing in the World’. And he read it, and I just thought, ‘Wow, he actually read it! And he must've liked it, or he wouldn't have said that’. That was the first moment I thought, ‘Maybe I could get published, maybe I could try. How do you go about it?’
Inside the front cover of every hard copy of a print book is, conveniently, the addresses of all the people who have ever published it. So, I just went through a bunch of books, wrote down a list of addresses – because I knew you have to be rejected 700 times first – and I sent it off to the first one on the list and that was Penguin. Penguin accepted it, so there's my origin story.
Nic: My goodness, that's astonishing.
Isobelle: Long, but good.
Isobelle: I think that if everyone wrote stories... I think that if schools taught music, and painting, and drawing, and writing right through high school, and everybody has to do it, the world would be a better place. The answer is, yes, I think it is a form of psychotherapy. I think it's a beautiful way of exploring questions. The only problem with, you know, kids love to write fantasy, but it's often an outward journey, rather than inward journey. It's kind of a reflecting of their reading, what they've loved and they just want more of that. But it doesn't engage their own deep questions, and that's why many teachers hate to read fantasy, because it goes on and on. It's that thin fantasy, which is reflective only of what's out there, rather than what's in there. I think teachers who teach writing, need to be able to recognise that fantasy can be this deeply philosophical tool for examining these things. And if you teach it in the right way, kids will write with it, using it as a tool.
Nic: That's a great point, that's a great point. So, you started writing Elspeth when you were a teenager. You grew up with her. You grew older than her. I'm wondering…
Isobelle: How delicately you put that!
Nic: I was wondering whether your change in life experiences reflected in her over the times, whether she's changed as you have changed?
Isobelle: It's interesting, because if you think about how we grow, we grow most when we're young, up until 18 or 19 I'd say. The biggest learning arc that human beings have is that arc. After that, I don't know? We get stupider, we get more rigid, we get older and we learn less. So, I'd say the learning curve is about the same. That she didn't grow as old as I did, but I didn't grow much further than she grew. So, a lot of the recognitions she has... She started out as a person who longed for many things, felt a misfit, longed for people like her, grew up and realised there were a lot of people like her, and that she, in fact, could help those people who where like her… That maybe everybody is sometimes like her, and that you actually have to live in the world as well, and that you want to live in harmony with the world. And that being an individual is important, but there's also a need to connect as well that enables you to grow, and that, in fact, the compromises we make as human beings to get along with other people, and that lack of purity, makes us better than if we stayed pure, and stayed solitary and continued to alone.
So, I made exactly that same arc. A lot of people who – especially in America, who read the first book – said they found Elspeth a very difficult, spiky, kind of character. I often think, ‘Maybe that was me back then?’ Because, I was repelling everything. I didn't trust anybody. I didn't trust anything. I was suspicious of everything. But that changed, and I think Elspeth got a lot softer, I really liked her arc to growing towards softness. And so yeah, her journey reflects my life journey and, quite truthfully I think, in many ways.
Nic: Has there been talk, or moves, or progress in terms of TV adaptation or film? And if so, are you, or would you be involved in writing the script?
Isobelle: Well, I've had one experience of writing a script and it's been absolutely wonderful and addictive, but really, really long and really, really complicated, and it's still ongoing after years.
Nic: Right, yeah.
Isobelle: What I know is that, if I write a book, I can write it... it's discreet, it's me and the book, and that's it. I prefer that, ultimately. Yet, it's been a lovely learning curve and it's been really interesting to see story turn into film, or how that arc goes, but I will never do it again. With The Obernewtyn Chronicles, I believe its... at the moment its contracted for a TV series, which I think is the best way to adapt it.
Isobelle: There's some interesting ... It being a franchise of that kind, and I think it could be done, if it's done well. If The Lord of The Rings kind of approach is taken, it would be wonderful to have.
Isobelle: I often envy, when I see, say, the Harry Potter films, or Lord of The Rings, I envy not the front action in the story, but the world building that they've done.
Isobelle: I wish for that with my stories. I would love to see the worlds that I've created translated into reality. I'd love to see good actors act it out, say good lines.
Nic: Of course.
Isobelle: But that's what I envy when I see film. And The Gathering has been picked up a couple of times, and its gone through a whole process, three or four years, of being optioned and it didn't come off. So, what once used to be tremendously exciting, and it was really exciting in the beginning when things were optioned, I'm now much less excited by it, because I just know it's a really complicated process.
Nic: Of course.
Isobelle: I believe it will happen. I think they're quite visual and I think they would lend themselves very nice to it.
Nic: Yes, no question.
Isobelle: But I'm it's going to happen when my daughter is able to buy the expensive boots and the car that go with that lifestyle.
Isobelle: And I'll be sort of like senile, or something. So, it'll happen, but too late for me.
Nic: Speaking of The Gathering, that came out in 1993. An enormous success. Since then, there's been massive changes in technology in society, and being a teenager today is a very different experience compared to then. Does The Gathering appeal to young adults as much today as it did then, given the way they've changed?
Isobelle: Well, it's going to be interesting actually to see, because I had a contract I signed just recently, where you contract for them to use segments of your stories in exams, and I note that a couple of segments of The Gathering are being used again. So, I thought, ‘It looks like its gonna be studied again’.
Nic: Right, yeah.
Isobelle: That will be really interesting.
Isobelle: I think it stood the test of time rather well. It may be because, and this is a weird thing about writing, maybe except in science fiction, and in a way, even in science fiction. While we write stories, and we write science fiction, we set things in the future, we don't use technology much in our stories. It's as if that lags behind somehow. As if using... because I think if you have your characters using mobile phones, of course then it does date, because of the phones they're using and all the rest of it. And while I don't deliberately steer there, fantasy doesn't tend to go there, and science fiction takes you beyond that moment, so you're imagining something far in the future of that. So, I feel like fantasy goes around that problem of being dated, although who knows? I am really interested to see, if it gets studied, exactly what kind of approach. But I've noticed that the segments are, well perhaps I'll probably... Yeah, the segments are parts of the book which are not something that you would look at as being evocative of the whole book.
So yeah, I'll be really interested, because kids write to you. The minute its being studied, they want you to do their homework, so you know exactly who you approach. You can tell good teachers and bad teachers by what kind of questions the kids ask you.
Isobelle: Sorry to teachers out there.
Nic: Does every idea that you have turn into a story, or a book? And if not, at what point do the discarded ones get discarded?
Isobelle: Yeah, well I have millions of ideas.
Nic: Of course.
Isobelle: Many of them I think would be great story ideas, but I don't keep notes of any kind for anything. I just feel like there's this great amoebic soup up there in my mind, which all the stuff that I really note goes into, and we know that we remember far more than we realise we remember. So, I just trust it. I think it goes down... When you write deeply, you delve down into your subconscious anyway. I think if you have an idea, and you let it sink into your subconscious, it goes down, and when you bring it out again it's saturated with all of your ideas, and thoughts, and bits and pieces that have accrued over the years down there. I think that you draw it out and its saturated with things. So those ideas that go in and come out again, they're the ones that are worth it. Some of them just dissolve and become part of the soup and the bits will be collected by other things. Nothing's wasted when you're a writer, that's the beauty of that.
But I do carry ideas for a really long time. Like I had an idea, maybe 20 years ago, and I've never written anything down, but it's a really good idea. I think it's probably the best idea I've ever had.
Isobelle: But I haven't written it. From time to time it floats to the surface and I look at it and I think, ‘Oh, and I'll be able to use this’. Sometimes you have an idea that fits with it, and the idea rises to the surface. You think about it and then you let it drop down again. People often say, ‘But what if you forget?’ Well, I have other ideas, and if I forget it wasn't strong enough and good enough. That's how it is. Once I start to write it I'm committed to it and I'm focused on the thing that I'm writing.
Nic: You've written lots of short stories. I'm intrigued by this. You have an idea, at what point do you know that it's going to be a short story, or it's going to be a book? Does it start off being one sometimes and then becomes another, or do you know from the outset that its right for one and not the other?
Isobelle: Yeah, it's always what it is. I know instantly what it is and I know if the character is whatever sex they are. I remember an editor once saying to me, ‘Can you change this character to a girl instead of a boy?’ To me it was like saying to my daughter, ‘Can you put her back and get another sex?’ Why? How? No, they are what they are. The story comes as a story idea and the book comes as a book idea. And sometimes as a novella idea, I know that it's going to be a long story. So yeah, very much. I don't know why? I just know that.
Nic: I know you've just spent the weekend in Melbourne at Comic Con.
Nic: Comic Con 2017. For a writer, what does the interaction with fans at Comic Con mean and, which character is the most loved?
Isobelle: It depends. That's always interesting. There are people for whom Scatterlings is the book they love most, which is a slightly standalone book for me. There are people for whom Darkfall and Darksong, there the thing is, ‘When are you going to finish the next book?’ And then there are people who started with Obernewtyn... The people who liked those other books read the other ones, but they have their favourite, and it's always interesting to see what their favourites are. I have my favourites too, so I think I've got lost from...
Nic: No, so we're talking about the experience, so your experience at Comic Con.
Isobelle: Oh, at Comic Con.
Nic: At Comic Con. What's it like?
Isobelle: Meeting fans, it's different in different venues. So, if you're meeting them as part of a writer's workshop or a weekend, or at a writer's festival, they very often ask... There's the people who come just to meet you and want to talk to you about how they liked your character. What I love about, particularly The Obernewtyn Chronicles, and even with the final book coming out, what struck me after all these years, so many people came to me with stories about their own life threaded through with aspects of The Obernewtyn Chronicles. It was like somehow, because I'd taken so long to write it over time and they'd waited so passionately, it threads in and out of their own life, so that it’s become their book in a way. It was beautiful to hear.
People wrote, when The Red Queen came out, there were hundreds of stories posted about, ‘I read it first when…’ So, someone would post that, and there would be 20 or 30 stories underneath, "This is what happened to me’, "This is my…’ And they all had their own stories of connection and it was so far from me, it was nothing to do with me. But it was beautiful. I think it was that accident of writing over a long period of time, they were forced to invest themselves and their lives in it.
Nic: I believe you're currently doing a PhD? Is that right?
Isobelle: I am, yeah.
Nic: Is that involved in... Does that relate to your career as a fantasy YA author? What's the topic and when did it develop?
Isobelle: Well, the reason I decided to do a PhD... I met Kim Wilkins years ago on the circuit. She's a writer too. She's my supervisor, Dr Kim Wilkins. I met her, and she's this enchanting, beautiful, wonderful speaker, but so personable, but really down to Earth. I think we were on stage together or somewhere, but I saw her speak, and I just was enchanted by her, that she knew so much, but she was so humble. I had no idea she had this academic background. But she mentioned this thing called a Creative PhD degree. I had no idea or thought of doing it then. I did an undergraduate degree, as far as I understood, to do a PhD you needed to have done an Honours year and MA and that wasn't the path I was on. But when writing fell into the doldrums – not because of readers or writers, but because of the infrastructure in between failing in many ways, collapsing out of greed, and stupidity, and all sorts of things; nothing had changed about the two important ends, but everything had changed about the mechanism – I realised suddenly my income dropped dramatically and I'd always lived on my writing, and that was rare.
I thought, ‘Oh my god! This is really a thing. Maybe it's really going to be like this in the future’. And I obviously have to keep writing, so I've got to find something else to do. I remembered what Kim had said, and so I wrote to her and said, ‘What was that thing you said?’ And she said, ‘Oh my god! I'm here. I'm at the university. I'll supervise you. Why don't you see if you can apply?’ And I said, ‘Well, I don't have those internal degrees’. And she said, ‘Well, if you're doing a Creative PhD, and you have a distinguished body of work and they accept that, that counts’. And as it transpired, I was in Prague at the time, three years down the track I ended up back in Queensland doing that Creative PhD.
The PhD topic is… you write a novel and you write an exegesis essay connected to it about an aspect of writing. What I'm looking at is, a technique that I think that I use and that Ursula Le Guin also uses, whereby we connect real world questions to the fantastic.
It's just a very specific writer's technique that I think works really, really well. I've just given it a name and really talked around it. I'm using Ursula's work and an interview, I'm interviewing her over time, and she's given me permission to look at her letters at Oregon University, so she gave all of her papers and letters and I'm allowed to look at them.
Isobelle: So, for two weeks in Oregon, in November, I'm going to have a look at her work, her writing. I'm really excited to see that interaction, because I think in letters and in diaries, we do that kind of... Maybe it's like you were saying before, about that psychoanalytic aspect.
Isobelle: When writers talk about their writing, and I do that, even though I don't write plans, I talk about my ideas and that's where I work the plan out. So, I think in letters – and I write a lot of letters to people who write back – I have lots of pen friends, and I do a lot of thinking about writing in those letters, and so does Ursula. So, I'm really interested to compare our ways of approaching it. So yes, that's what my PhD is about.
Nic: Sounds fantastic. Sounds fascinating.
Isobelle: It's lovely, I absolutely love it. And in a funny sort of way, I'm back in the library again, where I used to hide for safety as a kid. I'm suddenly back in stacks and back in a university. I have a student card, which I'm deeply proud of, whipping out… pathetically proud.
Nic: I recently saw a photo of your keyboard, which was worn to within an inch of its life.
Isobelle: Oh god, you saw that?
Nic: I want to know if you are an excessive tapper?
Isobelle: Well, when I've... I hand write…
Nic: Or was it just a crap keyboard?
Isobelle: No, no it was a good keyboard, courtesy to Apple, since they replaced it too.
Isobelle: No, I think I... My PhD mate, who sits behind me, says I tap very loudly. But I think what it is, is that I hand write everything first, and then I tap it out. I then put it into the computer and I do all my editing on the computer.
Nic: So, the entire book you will hand write, the entire book?
Isobelle: So, I do that first, and then I put it into the computer. It's a rough draft the first one.
Nic: Yeah, of course.
Isobelle: So, it's not been polished at all until it gets into the... So , I mostly chuck out the handwriting, although maybe I shouldn't. I don't know? Somebody said to me, ‘Maybe you should keep those’. But who would be able to read them? I then type it out. I demolish keyboard after keyboard.
Isobelle: And the guy... When I went to Apple, I was expecting to pay and I realised I was still under warranty and I said, ‘So you're going to replace that?’ And he said, ‘Well, we've never heard of this before, but we can't find a reason not to replace it’. And I thought, ‘Wow’.
Isobelle: But anyway, they replaced it.
Nic: Oh, good on them.
Isobelle: And he said, ‘Oh, so you've taken...’ I had only bought it, it's eight months old. I didn't want to tell him that it was two months old, when it looked like that.
Nic: Goodness me.
Isobelle: But I just kept using it.
Nic: Wow. In what ways do you think you are a better or different writer now, than you were earlier in your career? What have you learnt along the way that may well obviously be of help to emerging writers out there listening?
Isobelle: I think maybe the thing that people always think when you've written this many books is that you know how to do it. But you don't. You only know how you did the books that you did. Every new book you write is just a new journey. I think the only thing that you have after a long career really is, that you know you can do it, you've done it before, so you must be able to do it.
So, when you reach those inevitable moments where you think, ‘Oh, I've bitten off more than I can chew this time’, or, ‘Where am I going to go here?’ Or, ‘Why do I think that I could do this?’ You know you can…
Nic: You know you'll get out of that.
Isobelle: Because you felt that 700 times before pretty much at the same stage in every book, so you know your patterns. I think that's the biggest thing. But the act of writing, it should be difficult every single time you write. It should demand of you every time you write, and you shouldn't be able to offer easy answers. Or a shtick, you're just doing the same thing over and over again if you've worked out a formula. Don't. It should be hard.
Nic: Sure, of course. Just finally, again, I'm going to go back to the psychology now. I'm going to throw four names of four different authors at you, and I want your immediate responses to them in one or two sentences.
Isobelle: Oh god, I hope they're not friends!
Nic: A bit like the ink blot. I just sort of interesting to throw them at you. I'll start with C.S. Lewis.
Isobelle: C.S. Lewis. I love C.S. Lewis as a writer. I loved his writing and I love his books. I love his philosophy and I love his relationship with Tolkien. He thought Tolkien was a slack ass basically, and I love the fact that he worked really hard. But Tolkien in fact, in the end, I think, is a finer writer, so that was very interesting.
Nic: Okay, I was going to give you Tolkien, so you got two in one there. John Marsden.
Isobelle: John Marsden. Well, he's a really close friend. We started the same year. He sees himself as a realist writer – even though he's gone into fantasy, I think he very much sees himself as a realist writer – when we last spoke anyway, he did. I really liked Tomorrow When The War Began. I really like the idea of that. He knew that there were problems around inventing an enemy without... he didn't want to demonise anybody…
Nic: No, that's right.
Isobelle: ... but he wanted an enemy.
Nic: Of course.
Isobelle: The thing about fantasy is, there would be no problems if ...
Nic: No, that's right.
Isobelle: So, there are things that fantasy can do that allow you to deal with problems, like the problem of cultural appropriation. We have talked about this a lot, and the other thing you asked before, about Comic Cons. One of the lovely things about these events is that you talk to other writers, you're on panels, and you can talk very seriously about writing. Whereas in a school group, when you go and speak, you're talking on a certain level. But when you get amongst other writers, you can talk about cultural appropriation. What does it mean to us? How do we deal with it? What do you think is this... What is cultural appropriation? We feel, those of us who write science fiction and fantasy, that we get off lightly many times, because…
Nic: So, it doesn't exist, like can't diversity...
Isobelle: It does exist, because you are doing it.
Isobelle: You still are appropriating. But I think that you're taking it far enough away and I think, in the end, you've got to be aware of it. That's the thing. You can't take the traditions of a people you don't understand, who have no voice of their own, you can't take them and think that you're them.
On the other hand, there are very fine writers around, like James Moloney, who did write those books where he wrote very genuinely out of feeling and need to voice those kinds of characters who weren't getting a voice, and that was a very genuine desire to... And he did a lot of research, he's a very fine writer. I think he did get a very hard time over this issue, and I think it's very harsh given that when these topics arise, it's only then that we're beginning to really, generally think about these things, and that he wrote in a time out of a perfectly honest desire, I think you have to recognise that also.
Nic: Yes, it's very difficult issues these days, isn't it?
Isobelle: Yeah, it is.
Nic: Very difficult issues.
Isobelle: It is, but it's one we need to think about.
Nic: But we've got to talk about it, think about it. Absolutely.
Isobelle: And an awareness of it makes you able to deal with things. But it is problematic, yeah.
Nic: Final author's name I'm going to throw at you is J.K. Rowling.
Isobelle: J.K. Rowling. Well, I love what she says online about just pretty much everything. I think she's a great human being. I think she genuinely sat in a coffee shop somewhere and wrote her heart out, and I think she wrote a great book before all the hype and all the publicity, that everybody claims is why she's famous. First there was a book, and somebody published it, and it took off. So, I think it's a really great first book. I think she's developed as a writer, and I think she opened up a whole way of thinking about books that didn't exist before she came along. So, I think she's done nothing but good for writing.
Isobelle: Pretty much every audience you ever speak to, people will refer to her, so she's just an icon.
Nic: She changed the industry.
Isobelle: She did.
Nic: And at a time when, given technology and everything like that, she kept young readers engaged.
Isobelle: She did, she did.
Nic: And introduced a lot of people who wouldn't have become readers.
Isobelle: But I do think she didn't do anything particularly original, but she did what she did very, very well.
Nic: Sure, absolutely.
Isobelle: I think what she... I was trying to think, ‘Why are they so good? Why do you enjoy them?’ I think it's like, for adults, it's revisiting your childhood reading all in one series. It's like those boarding school books and all that English Literature.
Isobelle: I think we read it with that nostalgia. People like my daughter read it. They haven't read all that other stuff necessarily.
Nic: No, that's right.
Isobelle: And if they have, that's also nostalgic for them too. It connects to that underpinning of English Literature that most of us write from. So, it's very much nostalgia, but she did it, and she did it beautifully, and she did it in a way that touched a huge number... and she made books a celebration. I remember the last day we went to pick up, with ceremony, we went to pick up the last book on the day when you're allowed to get it.
Nic: That's right.
Isobelle: Some people really hated all that, and I just loved it. I loved it, it was so exciting. My daughter was excited. We bought it. At home, we read it through. Halfway of reading it through to my daughter, she said, ‘Oh Mum, you realise this is the end? This is the last time’. I felt it so much.
Nic: I'll never forget putting my daughter to bed on the night before she turned 11 and she said to me, ‘I know it's not true, but I'm hoping just somewhere in the corner of my heart, that when I wake up there's going to be that letter’.
Isobelle: I know, and isn't that what everybody wishes for?
Nic: That just... Yeah, that's the thing.
Isobelle: That book feeds, like all good children's book, that book feeds into your yearning for something, ‘Let me be something special’.
Nic: That's right.
Isobelle: Every kid feels that they are, and they just have to find a way to make it so, or someone who will recognise it in them, that wizard who'll say, ‘You are the one’.
Nic: Yeah, that's it.
Isobelle: And isn't every kid looking for that, ultimately? And she answers that, doesn't she?
Nic: Totally. Isobelle, it's been an absolute pleasure talking to you. We could go for hours. I'm really enjoying this. I'd like to thank you very much for spending time on The Garrett with us.
Isobelle: Thanks for having me.
Original cover of The Gathering by Isobelle Carmody
The Gathering by Isobelle Carmody
This review was first published in Viewpoint: On Books for Young Adults Volume 1 Number 3 (Spring 1993)
“Do you believe in good and evil, Mum?” I asked… “…I mean evil as a sort of force that you could fight.”
She frowned. “Evil and good are potentials in all of us. You have a choice whether or not to be evil because you can choose not to do evil things…. Sometimes it might be tempting to do a bad thing and if you resist then that’s fighting evil. But a force outside human beings?” She shook her head.
…It was just the sort of explanation an adult would have. My mother could only see evil in a mundane way, like stealing or lying or cheating on your income tax …kids could see things that adults couldn’t because they weren’t hampered by ideas of the way things ought to be.
In discussing fantasy and her indebtedness to the hero-quest, Diana Wynne Jones made the observation that “the reason the heroic ideal had, as it were, retreated to children’s books, is that children do, by nature, status and instinct, live more in the heroic mode than the rest of humanity… in every playground there are actual giants to be overcome and the moral issues are usually clearer than they are, say, in politics.”* It is in this same spirit of belief in the child — or young adult — as hero that Isobelle Carmody has written The Gathering.
The Gathering is, at its simplest level, fairly familiar territory; a community is threatened by an infectious evil, represented by conformity and control, which only a small band of young people — The Chain, as they come to call themselves — can recognise and overcome. It is the story of Cheshunt, a seaside district that is a apparently a “good, safe neighbourhood”, but is in fact infected by evil. The apparent order in Cheshunt is maintained by gangs of youths who only barely — and only sometimes — manage to keep their malice in check. The novel’s narrator Nathaniel has just moved to Cheshunt, and he loathes it — the cold wind that penetrates glass, and the oppressive stench from the abattoir that overlooks his school. Nathaniel is victimised by the school patrol and Three North High’s deputy Mr Karle when he refuses Karle’s “invitation” to join the youth group known as The Gathering, and his trouble at school further damages his already shaky relationship with his mother. While out walking with his beloved dog The Tod he finds himself drawn several nights running to the school grounds, where he risks both breaking the curfew in place in Cheshunt, and attack by the packs of feral dogs that roam the town. It is at the school at night that Nathaniel meets the five other students who have been drawn together to recognise and defeat the evil that threatens to consume the town.
It is common in conventional versions of the hero-quest to find that the narrative is propelled along by the plot — action, and lots of it. And up to this point in The Gathering we are on familiar ground, with devices and plot elements that we frequently find in the fantasy-quest where the battle against evil is most commonly fought; Carmody herself has explored comparable ideas in her earlier Obernewtyn novels. But despite its obvious debt to the conventions of fantasy and the heroic ideal, The Gathering does not rely for its impact on an exciting plot and an atmosphere of mystery and suspense, although she has given her readers both these things. Instead, a great deal of The Gathering‘s ability to hold the reader until long after bedtime is a result of the consistent and wholly authentic narrative voice of its central character, Nathaniel Delaney.
Nathaniel’s first person narrative acts as far more than merely a device to help the reader “relate” to the central character; the immediacy of his voice is essentially linked to Carmody’s exploration of the nature of evil. Evil in The Gathering is an independent force that infects ordinary people; or rather, that ordinary people allow themselves to be infected by. Carmody shows it to result in the kinds of ills that are genuinely of concern to young people; domestic violence, child abuse, police brutality, the failure of parents, guilt. The force of evil that exists in Cheshunt is not explained as it may have been in a purer fantasy tale as some supernatural force deliberately and malevolently interfering with human society (and it should be pointed out that although Carmody draws on devices from it, The Gathering is not fantasy). This evil simply is, and it is manifested when it finds those willing to act on its behalf. In The Gathering, this usually happens when those with a perceived authority; police, teachers, parents, allow their power to dominate and become corrupted. Nathaniel’s struggle to understand both the nature of this evil and its place in his own history is actually more significant to The Gathering than the specific details of “goodies and baddies”, or the mechanics of the evil.
This is certainly not to imply that the plot of The Gathering is insignificant or uninvolving. To the contrary, elements of the plot such as Nathaniel’s investigation of the murder of the school’s caretaker some decades earlier, and the mystery surrounding his own family are not only intriguing in themselves, but reflect back onto the novel’s concerns with the nature of evil and the impact of the past on the present. It is also a book that throws up fascinating details on each new reading, such as the reference to a student of Three North from many years back named by Emily Bronte’s pen-name, Ellis Bell. This detail could not help but make this reader consider the inspiration for Carmody’s masterful evocation of place and landscape as symbol, which is largely evoked in a most unusual way through a remarkable depiction of the sense of smell. Other literary references are scattered throughout; the members of the Chain refer to Karle as “The Kraken”; Nathaniel reveals that he was named for Nathaniel Hawthorne. The school library is named as a sacred place safe from the evil; all of this raises intriguing possibilities about the place of literature and the written word in the fight against the dark forces in our – or any- society. Indeed, in nearly every aspect of this novel, Carmody is rather more interested in raising questions than answering them, and thus it is a novel that the reader can return to to further explore her ideas and philosophies.
The Gathering has provided for this reader at least, an enormously challenging and satisfying read; one frequently gets the feeling that the novel was also deeply challenging to write. Carmody has drawn together some quite disparate elements from fantasy and social realism to create something quite complex and stunning. It also happens to have one of the best covers of any novel of any year. The novel’s editor, Erica Irving, describes the book as Carmody’s breakthrough novel, and both the tale and its telling will confirm this book as a major achievement for Carmody, and create an important place for The Gathering in contemporary fiction for young adults.
*Diana Wynne Jones, ‘The heroic ideal – a personal Odyssey’, The Lion and the Unicorn, v.13:no.1 (June 1989)