A Conversation With Garth Nix

by Claire E. White
The Internet Writing Journal, July 2000

Award-winning Young Adult and Children's author Garth Nix was born in 1963. He grew up in Canberra,
Photo of Garth Nix
the federal capital of Australia. After working briefly for the Australian Government, Garth took a long holiday in Europe, returning in 1983 to study for a B.A. in Professional Writing from the University of Canberra. Around this time, he also put in four years as a part-time soldier (or "weekend warrior") with the Australian Army Reserve. After taking his degree in 1986, he worked in a bookshop for some time, then moved to Sydney, where he had various jobs in the publishing industry, from sales rep to publicist, until in 1991 he became a senior editor with a major multinational publisher. Leaving to travel in Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Asia in 1993, Garth returned to Sydney in 1994 to work as a PR consultant. In 1996, he started a new company, Gotley Nix Evans Pty Ltd., with two partners. He notes that this career was forced upon him after every other writer took the lumberjack, prospector, deep sea diver and short order cook jobs. Garth stopped working actively at Gotley Nix Evans in January 1998, and was a full-time writer till May 1999 when he joined Curtis Brown, Australia's largest literary agency, as a part-time agent.

His first published book was The Ragwitch, a young adult fantasy published by Forge in 1995, which was followed by Sabriel and Shade's Children (HarperCollins). Shade's Children was short listed for the 1997 Aurealis Awards, is an ALA Best Book for Young Adults, an ABA Pick of the Lists, a CBCA Notable Book, and has been short listed for the Heartland Prize (U.S.), the 2000 Pacific Northwest Reader's Choice Awards (U.S.), the South Carolina Reader's Choice Awards, the Evergreen YA Award and the Garden State Young Reader's Awards. Sabriel won both the Best Fantasy Novel and Best Young Adult Novel in the 1995 Aurealis Awards. It is also an American Library Association (ALA) Notable Book, an ALA Best Book for Young Adults, a CBCA Notable Book, a LOCUS magazine Recommended Fantasy novel, listed in 1997 Books for the Teenage (New York Public Library), listed in Best Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror (VOYA) and it was short listed for six U.S. State awards.

Garth has also written theatre restaurant shows (in collaboration with several friends), short stories and the three Very Clever Baby Books (now being republished by Text Publishing). Garth is also the author of a novelization of The X-Files episode "The Calusari," which was published in June 1997 by HarperTrophy. He has completed the book Lirael, which is set in the same world as Sabriel, but 20 years later. It is the first half of a story that will be continued in Abhorsen. Lirael is scheduled to be published by Allen & Unwin in Australia and HarperCollins in the U.S.A. in March, 2001. His books are known for their humor, wit, depth of character and imagination.

Garth newest project is writing an exciting six-book fantasy series for Scholastic and LucasFilm called The Seventh Tower. Book One, The Fall, has just been released to stellar reviews, and Scholastic has created a major website for the series, which features sophisticated animation and music. The Seventh Tower is a children's fantasy which follows the adventures of young Tal, in his search for the Sunstones that he must have in order to save his family -- and his future. The world in which the series is set is totally dark; the sun only shines above the mysterious Veil, which sits high in the atmosphere above the Seven Towers where Tal's people live.

Garth now lives in Coogee, Australia, five minutes walk from the beach, with his partner Anna, a book editor. His recreational interests include fishing, bodysurfing, collecting books of all kinds, reading, films, writing and lunch. He also maintains a popular website which gives more information about his books.

Garth talked to us about The Fall, the first in his new Seventh Tower series, how he got his start as an author, and how he approaches the craft of writing.

What kinds of books did you like to read when you were a boy?

I've always read very widely, a habit that started very early. One of my favorite books as an eight or nine year old was a 1930s encyclopedia called Arthur Mee's Children's Encyclopaedia. I used to read entire volumes of that over several weeks, paying equal attention to science, history, literature and so on. But my favorite part of it was the color section on heraldry and the list of old English coins, like how many groats equaled a penny and so on. This was probably indicative of the sort of writer I would become. Later on, I read a lot of science fiction, fantasy and history (both novels and non-fiction). Many of the books I read then I have included in my list of favorites on my website.

When did the writing bug hit you?

I probably always had it without really being conscious of it. I have always
"Read a lot, and read widely (not just in one genre or area). Write as often as you can, even if it's only a few paragraphs at a time. Submit a lot, even if you only get rejections (all writers get rejections). Most of all, don't give up."
liked making up stories. I wrote quite a few stories through my school years and would contribute articles to the school magazine and so on. I didn't actively realize that I really wanted to make writing my main life's work until I was 19. I was traveling through England and Europe, re-reading lots of my favorite books in the places that inspired them. On that trip I wrote a large part of very bad and forever to be unpublished fantasy novel and several short stories. When I got back to Australia, a telegram came for me (this was in 1984 when they still had telegrams) accepting a short story and offering quite substantial payment. The arrival of that telegram probably crystallized my ambition to be a writer. Fortunately I had enough commonsense to realize that I would have to do other things to make a living while I wrote. Since I didn't sell another story for years this was just as well.

What led up to your first book being published?

I knew I wanted to be a writer, but I also knew that I probably should go and get a university degree to help my employment prospects. Fortunately I was able to combine the two ambitions by studying for a Bachelor of Arts in Professional Writing at what is now the University of Canberra. While I majored in scriptwriting and theatre, I was also able to write half a novel as part of my course. I then wrote the other half while I was taking the first steps on my other career, in book publishing. By the time I finished that book, The Ragwitch, I was an editor working for an academic publishing house. It had taken me five years to write it, very off and on, and it shows all the ambition and flaws of a typical first novel. The third publisher I sent it to decided to give it a try. Later, it was published in the U.S.A. by the sixteenth publisher I sent the Australian edition to, in the days before I had a New York agent.

Let's talk about The Seventh Tower. How did this series come into being?

Cover of The Fall (The Seventh Tower, Book #1) by
Garth Nix
Click here
for ordering information.
At the very basic level, it came from the success of my novel Sabriel. An editor at Scholastic, who liked that book, had emailed me to say so and to say that he'd love to work with me on something. I said I'd love to work with him and Scholastic. This was all very general, nice stuff for authors and editors to say to each other, but a few months later I got an e-mail saying that Scholastic was working with LucasFilm to create a new fantasy series. Would I be interested? I replied that I might be, but not if was just novelizing existing material as I found that sort of work (which I had done once with an X-Files episode for HarperCollins) really did not suit me. So we talked back and forth, totally via email, and my agent got involved and over several months the nature of exactly what I would do became clear.

How much freedom did you have in terms of characters and plot? I understand that you got a few "seed ideas" or suggestions for the series from LucasFilm and Scholastic?

As I mentioned, I didn't want to do something where I was just novelizing existing work. Fortunately, Scholastic and LucasFilm were very flexible. They had a list of "ideas and influences" for the sort of thing they were after, but it was general enough for me to feel there was room to create the sort of unique and interesting story I wanted to at least try and tell. The list included points like "a castle where everything outside is dark," "a closed society similar to feudal Japan" or "the architecture of Gaudi." I got this list and was then free to go away and develop the world, the overall story and the characters. I wrote two documents for Scholastic and LucasFilm, a "Backgrounder" on the world and setting and a "Story Outline" for the whole series of six books. Both of these were then further developed by me in consultation with my Scholastic editor and editors at Lucasfilm. I admit I was concerned that I might be getting into the sort of working arrangement screenwriters often suffer from, of the "it's great but we need a campfire scene here" variety, but that hasn't occurred and I've enjoyed as much creative freedom as I've had with any other book, coupled with lots of valuable editorial input.

What is the most challenging aspect of writing The Seventh Tower series?

I've had to write these books fairly quickly, faster than I normally would. I'm basically writing a book every two months or so, and then revisiting it a month later to look at the editorial feedback and revise, expand or contract. This is quite do-able, but I am a naturally lazy person who likes to have lots of day-dreaming "fallow" time to let stories develop in my unconscious. Mind you, I'm not sure that if I had more time this would show in the books. I probably would write them in exactly the same time just spread out over more weeks. The other challenge is that there is an immediate story (of Tal and Milla and their adventures), a bigger story (which is gradually revealed) and a complex past (which influences both the immediate and the big story). While the immediate story is the main narrative, I have to keep in mind the big story and the past and let parts of both trickle into what is happening right now. Since I am also working out many of the details of the big story and the past as I go, this is a bit like juggling lots of different things of varying shapes and sizes, any one of which will ruin the book if it gets dropped.

Tal is an interesting and complex protagonist. He's a good person -- but his first instincts aren't always selfless, although he usually makes the right choice in the end, especially when it involves protecting his family. Were there any characteristics you were specifically trying to avoid with Tal?

I tend to only have a very basic idea of what one of my characters is like at the beginning, and then they develop through the action. Often I look back at a book and I wonder how they ended up the way they did. With Tal, I knew he was rather naive, deeply committed to his family, and that he had more courage than he knew. He's also a thirteen something boy.

Tal's shadowguard is a wonderful creation. What was your inspiration for the shadowguards of the children and the Spiritshadows, which the adults receive on the Day of Ascension?

In the original LucasFilm/Scholastic notes, they wanted the characters to have magical companions of some sort. I toyed with a number of possible companions and reasons for their existence. Shadows were fairly obvious from the start, because we all have them. As the nature of the Dark World developed and so did the importance of light, it was a fairly easy step to think of shadows that are not simply shadows . . .

How do you approach the creation of the magical system in a new fantasy world? What are some of the elements that you consider?

I think there is some danger even in the words "magic system". It implies a magic like a technology, where everything is worked out and there is no mystery. I tend to think only of the very basics, like what the magic looks like and how it is cast, and then let it develop through the course of the story. The magic has to be consistent to maintain the reader's suspension of disbelief, but not so worked out and described that it becomes mundane and no more interesting than an electric stove or a rifle.

I must admit I am quite fond of Great-Uncle Ebbitt. Will we be seeing more of him in future tales?

Yes, you will. I'm fond of him, too. Great-Uncle Ebbitt is a bit like an erratic comet that careers across the sky every now and then. Bright, fascinating and completely unpredictable.

I'd like to talk a bit about Shade's Children. What was your inspiration for the novel?

It's always difficult to pin down exact inspirations for books. With Shade's Children, I think that the seed of the idea came from when I was living in a house in a leafy inner suburb of Sydney. One day there was a strange rumble under the ground, and it turned out that the house was built directly over a largely unused railway line. I'd lived there a year without a train going underneath. I looked the railway line up on the map and discovered where it came out, which was near a park. I went and had a look. As I stood looking in the mouth of the tunnel, there was a rare moment in a big city when I couldn't hear any noise: no cars, no planes, no people. That made me think, what would happen if everyone disappeared? Of course, there were lots of other inspirations for Shade's Children to, but the railway tunnel and those moments of silence are an inspiration I can identify.

One of the criticisms of the Harry Potter books and some other children's literature is that the adults are not portrayed in a positive light (which theory seems to ignore the fact of life that many adults are not positive role models!) In Shade's Children, for example, the only real nurturing adult is the mysterious Shade. How should adults be portrayed in children's literature? Do you feel children's authors have a duty to keep any certain values or ideals in mind when writing for children (such as good eventually overcoming evil?)

I subscribe to the belief that "if you want to send a message, use Western
"Most of my books seem to stem from a single image or thought that lodges in my brain and slowly grows into something that needs to be expressed. That thought may be a 'what if?' or perhaps just an image. Typically I seem to think about a book for a year or so before I actually start writing."
Union." In other words, if the values or moral messages are too overt, the story will suffer and no one will read it (which paradoxically means they won't get the message either). Children don't like to be preached to any more than adults do. On the other hand, while I always try and tell a good story, I can't help but infuse my moral and ethical views into any book I write, consciously or not. I don't agree that adults are portrayed in a negative light in Harry Potter. There are both good and bad adults, the good being most of the staff of Hogwarts, the Weasley parents etc. In Shade's Children, Shade is both a good and bad adult. Adults should be portrayed as is required by the story: good, bad or a mixture of the two. Sometimes a book may only have bad adults, but another may only have good ones. The nature of the story and the context in which the adult characters appear is much more important than any hard and fast rules about always having "good" or "bad" characters of any kind.

It is important to bear in mind the age group a book is for. Children are not a homogenous mass, and neither are children's books. There is a big difference between picture books, junior novels, the classic children's novel for the 9-12 market, and young adult novels. How an author addresses (or doesn't) ethical and moral issues depends greatly on the intended audience. Issues that can only be attacked allegorically in a 9-12 age group novel can be the major, overt subject of a Young Adult novel. Parents, librarians and booksellers have an important role to play here, too, making sure that children are emotionally and intellectually capable of tackling particular books. Some readers read well above their age, others do not.

I don't believe authors need to keep any specific values or ideas in mind while they are writing for children, but I do think authors need to be aware of their audience, and of the effect their work may have. So if they want to address particularly sensitive topics or taboos, they have to do so consciously and carefully. This is very different to toeing a particular moral line or leaving things out.

Certainly I don't think good always has to triumph over evil; it depends on the story and the aims of the book. For example, I could envisage telling a story where the inaction of people leads to the triumph of evil. But I would include the hope that this would lead to the people involved doing better next time. Is that story then really about the triumph of evil, or is it about the awakening of opposition to evil?

I understand there are two sequels to Sabriel in the works. Can you tell us a bit about them?

Cover of Sabriel by
Garth Nix
Click here
for ordering information.
I originally wrote the two books as one, long single volume that I have since cut in two and substantially revised. The first book is called Lirael: Daughter of the Clayr, the second is Abhorsen.

Lirael begins 14 years after the events of Sabriel. Lirael is a young girl growing up in the Clayr's Glacier, among the almost totally female Clayr, who can see the future in ice. But Lirael, alone of all the Clayr, does not have the Sight. She does have other gifts though, and a destiny and inheritance that no one could suspect. With her one friend, the Disreputable Dog, she has to leave the Glacier to discover the truth about her past and the nature of a threat to the entire future of the Kingdom.

Abhorsen continues this story. Fans of Sabriel will be pleased to hear that Sabriel, Touchstone, Mogget and others all return in the new books and numerous questions that I get in e-mails will be answered, like " do Sabriel and Touchstone get married?", "what is Touchstone's real name?", "What is Mogget?" etc.

Unfortunately, Lirael: Daughter of the Clayr won't be out till March, 2001. It was slated for October, 2000, but has been delayed. This is almost completely the publisher's fault this time, though I have to admit it was my fault it got delayed in the first place from March, 2000 to October, 2000.

Tell us about The Very Clever Baby Books.

Cover of The Very Clever Baby's Ben Hur by Garth Nix
They're little books that I first made back in 1988 as presents for some friends expecting babies, on the basis that all parents think their babies are geniuses. Each one is only 12 pages long and about the same size as a greeting card. Basically, they feature a character called Freddy the Fish and are supposed to be for "Very Clever Babies Aged 3-6 Months". Since no babies that age can read and the books have very big words like 'Ichthyologist' and 'Tetradontidae' it is surprising that some people don't get the joke. There are three at present, Very Clever Baby's First Reader, Very Clever Baby's Ben*Hur and Very Clever Baby's First Christmas. They are only published in Australia, by Text Publishing, but I hope to find an American publisher with a suitable sense of humor one of these days.

I'd like to talk about the creative process. You have said that there are four stages that you go through when writing a book: thinking, planning, writing and revising. Would you describe the planning element for us?

This is a complex question. But the shorter answer is as follows: There are four stages to writing a book, though they overlap, swap places at times or even take over for far longer than they should. These stages are: thinking, planning, writing and revising.

THINKING

Most of my books seem to stem from a single image or thought that lodges in my brain and slowly grows into something that needs to be expressed. That thought may be a "what if?" or perhaps just an image. Typically I seem to think about a book for a year or so before I actually start writing. In this thinking stage, I often write a few key points in my "ideas" notebook, usually just bullet points or mnemonics that will remind me of what I was thinking. This can be very useful later on, particularly if the gestation period for a book is several years.

PLANNING

For all my longer works (i.e. the novels) I write chapter outlines. Writing a chapter outline is a great discipline for thinking out the story and it also provides a road map or central skeleton you can come back to if you get lost. I often write the prologue or initial chapter first to get the impetus for the story going and then write the outline. Because no story ever follows an outline exactly, I often have to write a revised chapter outline two or three or four times in the course of writing the whole book, but each time it gives an opportunity to focus the mind on where the story is going and where you want it to go.

WRITING

Short stories, articles and items on my website I type straight into the computer. However, I write the novels longhand first. The advantages of writing longhand are several, at least for me. First of all, I write in relatively small handbound notebooks which are much more transportable than any sort of computer, particularly since you can take them away for several weeks without having to consider power supplies, batteries or printing out. The other major advantage is that when I type up a chapter from my notebook, I rewrite as I type, so the first print-out is actually a second draft.

REVISING

When I type the handwritten words, I am also carrying out my first major stage of revision. However, I usually have to go through at least two revision stages after that. The first of these is when I first print out the typed chapter. I go through it and make changes in pen, which I will take in later. The second stage (and sometimes a third time as well) occurs when the entire manuscript is finished for the first time. I leave the print-out on the shelf for a few weeks, then sit down and read the whole thing, making corrections as I go. Finally, I bundle the manuscript off to my Australian and U.S. publishers and wait for their reaction(s), which generally will include some suggestions for revision and occasionally a request for rewriting. Sometimes these will be good, worthwhile changes and I take them in. Sometimes they are not, and I argue about them and -- unless I can be convinced otherwise -- refuse to alter the text. Basically, I try and keep an open mind, since there is nearly always room for improvement.

What did you learn from your work as both and editor and as a literary agent? How have those experiences affected your writing?

Working as an editor on a very wide range of fiction and non-fiction has, I think, given me a good feel for narrative structure. I always had an instinct for it, but my years as an editor helped me hone my skills, to work out how and where stories are flawed or why non-fiction works doesn't achieve what it sets out to do. Unfortunately, this doesn't always carry over to my own work. I was always a hopeless copy editor and this still applies. I am not good at line editing. Give me the big picture any time!

Working as a literary agent, which I still do part-time, is useful for staying connected to the industry and well-informed. But mainly I work as an agent because I find full-time writing too solitary. I enjoy going to the office and talking to my clients and finding great books and selling them to publishers . . . but only if I have at least half the week to write!

What do you enjoy most about writing young adult and children's fiction? Do you feel it gives you more freedom as a writer than writing strictly for adults? (Of course, many adults enjoy your books, as well.)

To be honest, most of the time I don't think about the fact that I am writing for children or young adults. I simply enjoy telling the story and the way I naturally write seems to work well for both young and older audiences. I also don't really think about freedom. Because my natural writing voice seems to inhabit the Young Adult realm (which is accepted as being for children who are becoming adults and adults who haven't forgotten being younger), I haven't had to change it, which is when I would start thinking about freedom or the lack of it.

Cover of Shade's Children by
Garth Nix
Click here
for ordering information.
The Seventh Tower is your first series book. How are you enjoying writing a series, as opposed to writing a stand-alone, such as Shade's Children?

I'm enjoying it a lot, for a variety of reasons. The six books of The Seventh Tower are really one big story told in self-contained episodes. So its a bit like a serial novel, in the tradition of Dickens (or more recently Stephen King). That's fun, writing only one or two books ahead of the one being published. I'm also enjoying the resources of LucasFilm and Scholastic that has put behind the books. It's fun to be involved in something where lots of people are enhancing the basic work. Of course, the other side of that is a loss of control and ownership, but as I entered into the series very open-eyed about what each party would get out of it, that's OK.

Shade's Children and Sabriel are Young Adult crossovers - that is, they are read by both teens and the adult fantasy audience. How did you approach writing The Seventh Tower series, which is aimed at younger readers? Did you consciously simplify any elements of your writing?

Yes, I have pared down my writing style to some degree. Obviously the books are considerably shorter and that impacts upon how I tell the story. There is also a greater focus on the exterior action, rather than the character's interior thoughts and emotions. Though the latter are still there!

What are your pet peeves in life?

Heavy traffic. Cupboards that won't stay shut. Narrow-minded, backwards-looking politicians like the current Australian Prime Minister.

Rumor has it that you cook a mean breakfast. What would you prepare for a special brunch for favorite friends?

Usually I like to try and be a short-order cook, so I give them a choice of eggs (scrambled, fried, poached), grilled tomato, fried bacon, fried potato, grilled sausage, fried mushrooms, toast, coffee, tea, fruit juice, fruit. The art is in serving everybody everything they want at the same time, with everything cooked exactly right. To really
Drawing of
Garth Nix
enjoy a breakfast like this, it should be preceded by rising before dawn and fishing for several hours (and if successful, grilled fish can be added to the menu).

What is your advice to aspiring writers?

Read a lot, and read widely (not just in one genre or area). Write as often as you can, even if it's only a few paragraphs at a time. Submit a lot, even if you only get rejections (all writers get rejections). Most of all, don't give up.



Photo of Garth Nix by Norman Nicholls, View Aim Pty Ltd.

Pen and ink drawing of Garth Nix by Johanthon Nix, Garth's brother.



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