Monday, February 20, 2017

Flies in the Soup - Trudi Canavan


Australian author Trudi Canavan won an Aurealis Award in 1999 with her first published story, Whispers of the Mist Children, and hasn’t looked back. The Black Magician Trilogy, her first fantasy series, garnered international acclaim and she has since written The Age of the Five and the Traitor Spy Trilogy, along with standalone novel The Magician’s Apprentice. Her last five books have been Sunday Times bestsellers in the UK. Following the release of Angel of Storms, the second instalment in her Millennium’s Rule series, Trudi spoke with Chris Large about the new book, her detailed world-building, and the ways in which her technique has been shaped over time by experience and injury. This interview first appeared in Aurealis #87.
Hi Trudi, welcome to Aurealis. Your storytelling is very direct – written in plain speech with few flourishes or embellishments. Is this style something you work on through the drafting process, or does it come naturally?
Early on in my writing it was a deliberate choice to write with clarity and pace, but it quickly became second nature. If I want to write in a slower, dense and introspective way I really have to make an effort to do so, and not slip back into my ‘normal’ voice. I can manage it for short stories, but ultimately I prefer to write the way I do, so I stick with it for novels.
I’m intrigued by the history of your new book, Angel of Storms, and the Millennium’s Rule series. You’ve said you originally came up with the idea in the 90s. Can you tell us a little about that and why the story wasn’t developed back then?
The writing advice I’d been given in my teens and 20s was not to wait until I’d heard back from publishers, but get on with my next book. While The Magicians’ Guild was in publisher inboxes I wrote the first incarnation of Angel of Storms. The advice I’d had also said that an author’s first book doesn’t usually find a publisher, so I ‘stole’ some of what I thought were the best parts of the Black Magician Trilogy [for Angel of Storms]. As it turned out, my first book did find a publisher, and that left me with a finished book that might be too similar. Also, the feedback from beta readers for Angel of Storms suggested that it wasn’t quite working, though nobody could tell me why. I figured it needed to go in the bottom drawer for a while.
Over the years I’d think about Angel of Storms and consider how I could change it to remove the ‘stolen’ parts. When I was nearing the end of writing the Traitor Spy Trilogy I had a closer look, and began tweaking and adding to the general concept. With more experience in shaping stories and characters under my belt, I was better able to translate the feedback I’d been given. I realised the borrowed idea from the Black Magician Trilogy I was most worried about wasn’t that similar after all. I’d taken the idea in an entirely different direction. Other similarities were easy to remove or tweak. Even so, it took two rounds of writing up a proposal and submitting it to the publisher before I was satisfied with it.
You’ve structured the story so that there are both male and female protagonists who are basically the heroes of their own stories, and it feels as though you’ve been quite careful to give them equal exposure. What’s the purpose behind the symmetry?
Tyen’s story initially came to me as a separate book idea, but because I was working on a proposal for a reshaped Angel of Storms at the time, it was almost inevitable that I would consider melding the two together. They suited each other perfectly. But the blend would only work if the characters had equal weight.
In particular, I liked the contrast between the characters and their worlds – Rielle is a spiritual, artistic person, Tyen’s outlook is shaped by reason and science. Tyen and Rielle are also similar, but in ways that naturally become obvious when they are taken out of the environment they grew up in, just as two people from different countries have being foreign travellers in common, when they meet elsewhere. That shift from difference to similarity fascinates me. Like when you know two similar-looking people, they seem more like each other when you see them separately, but when they’re together all you can see are the differences.
What also appealed was that nobody could say ‘this is a boy book’ or ‘this is a girl book’ based entirely on the gender of the main characters. It’s been interesting to ask readers who they like most, or note which of the characters reviewers prefer, because it’s been pretty even and I can never predict which one reviewers will like.
Tyen’s is an action-packed tale, while Rielle’s begins as a gentle coming of age story which slowly becomes darker. The link between the two isn’t clear in the first book. Was that a risk, writing parallel stories with no apparent connectivity for an entire book?
All plot decisions are a risk! Either you’re doing what’s been done before and risk the reader spotting and disliking that, or you’re doing something different and risk that they won’t like or understand it. Having the two characters lead separate lives has turned out to be a great source of tension. The most common question I’m asked is ‘will they meet?’ (Followed by ‘will they get together?’). If their stories did not relate very much I think it would be a problem, but each character’s story informs the other’s, in ways that can give the reader greater insight into what’s going on than either character has.
The series is titled Millennium’s Rule, but we don’t really discover what this refers to until the end of book one. You hold back the true nature of your universe and the direction of the story until much later than is traditional. What are the benefits of this approach?
I’m always looking for ways to hold the reader’s interest throughout a series. One of those is to reveal truths about the world (or universe, in this case) only when they have the best effect. Laying out everything right at the start means there’s nothing new to discover. If you are to avoid second book syndrome then each continuing book in a series must raise the stakes or turn what the reader knows on its head. And no matter how good the earlier books, if the last one in a series is a fizzer that’s what it’ll be remembered for.
Your world building is very detailed – especially with regard to magic and how it works. It must be a fine line between describing something in so much detail that you remove its mystique, and giving just enough to keep readers interested. How do you make that judgement?
I tell my readers only what they need to know, plus a little extra so it’s not too obvious when I’m telling them something that will turn out to be vital later. When I show the reader how magic works, I give examples to make it clear, but I like to leave some questions unanswered. I leave it up to them to work out how what they just learned will apply in other situations. I have to be careful, however, to make sure I don’t give away so much that the ending becomes obvious.
Millennium’s Rule, the idea that a powerful sorcerer or ‘Ruler of Worlds’ is replaced every one thousand years by a more powerful successor, refers to a pattern, or a type of periodicity. It’s not clear in the story if this is predestined or due to circumstance. Empires have risen and fallen in our world’s history. Researchers suggest there is a documentable progression. Is that something you considered when world-building the series?
The Rule has been a fun way to play with the fantasy trope of prophecy. I like playing with the unreliability of history, too, and how some ideas about it become pervasive, whether they are wrong, or have a grain of truth in it. While the possibility that civilisations have a predictable life-cycle is not what I’m exploring here, because the Rule is about one person who could have ruled many empires, I am touching on something similar: does a person’s lifespan have a predictable path if it lasts for a very long time?
The Raen is a very interesting character. Can you tell us a little about what inspired you to portray him the way you did. He’s certainly not a classic villain – if he is a villain at all.
I like writing ‘grey’ characters. The Raen is very much a ruler, capable of the ruthlessness and compromise that a position of great power requires. Of course, it’s not clear what his motives are. Revealing glimpses and sowing doubts is all part of keeping the story going. 
You’ve blogged musical playlists of tracks readers can listen to while reading the books including bands like Pendulum, Enigma, Moby, and Depeche Mode. How does music influence your writing process?
I used to listen to music while writing all the time. Mostly it was to set a mood, but occasionally a song comes along that seems to say all the right things about a character or scene. But for the last few series I got out of the habit. Mostly, I think, because the CD would finish and I’d never get around to putting on another. Discovering playlists in iTunes a couple of years ago turned that around. (Yes, I was slow on the uptake with that one). Now I can have hours of music lined up.
You’ve discussed the fact that you suffer from RSI in other forums. Writing isn’t really thought of as a physical activity but writers can suffer injuries from their craft. How does RSI impact your output?
I used to be able to write 4,000 to 5,000 words a day, five days a week. Now I’m happy if I manage 2,000. I can only write four days in a row when my hands aren’t inflamed. At the same time, I have to take care not to strain my back, too. I’ve had upper back and neck problems since I was in my late 20s. Lots of breaks are essential, as well as stretches and icing my hands when they get sore.
What are your work arounds?
I’ve become far more efficient at writing. I’ve always been a plotter and outliner, but now I go to even greater extremes in planning to make sure I don’t write any more words than I have to. I even write a short outline of a scene before I write it, so that I know I’m going in the right direction. There will always be some rewriting and tweaking of course, but planning means I don’t waste too many taps on the keyboard.
I tried dictation software, but you have to do so much editing later. The fingers that give me the most grief are those I use in editing, so the software is only going to make that worse. It’s another reason to plot carefully, too. These work arounds haven't prevented my output slowing down, just not as much as it might have, and yet there is a benefit to writing more efficiently yet taking longer - I have more time to think about the story, and that is always good for it. After all, despite all the begging to write faster, readers know a slowly-written good book is better than a quickly-written bad book.

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