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Trudi Canavan Interview

Today we have the pleasure of speaking with best-selling Australian writer, Trudi Canavan, author of The Black Magician Trilogy, The Magician’s Apprentice, The Traitor Spy Trilogy, and The Age of the Five Trilogy. Her newest book from her new Millennium’s Rule Trilogy, Thieves’ Magic, came in at #5 on our Top 25 Most Anticipated Books for 2014 and is due out in May of this year. So without further ado on to the interview!

Just to start us off: I remember reading that you struggled to find focus when first deciding you’d like to write a novel and that it wasn’t until you eventually sat down, wrote a short story and saw it win a pretty prestigious prize that you found it. How important do you think short story competitions are and do you think you would have ever written a novel had it not been for winning that competition?

Trudi CanavanActually, it was the other way around. I’d always wanted to write novels and had no interest in short stories. I had also decided as a teenager that 25 is old and I must have a book written by then. While it was a silly deadline, passing it made me ask myself how I was ever going to get time to write that novel. Colleagues I had worked with in publishing over the years had suggested I go freelance as an illustrator and/or designer so I decided to give it a try, hoping to make enough money to allow me to write part time. I did manage to support myself, though only by being very, very frugal, and wrote the Black Magician Trilogy and another novel that I’ve turned into my new trilogy.

The award for the short story came a few years later. I started helping the editors of Aurealis magazine as a designer in 1995 and eventually became the art editor. I was also a slush pile reader for a while, and learned a lot from both the mistakes and the successes I encountered. I’d never written a short story before so I gave it a try and sent the result to the magazine. But I didn’t want the editors to know their art editor was a terrible writer so I sent it to them under a pseudonym. Of course, when they accepted it I had to confess that the story was mine.

I was excited to have my story accepted, as you can imagine, but when it won the Aurealis Award (which is not a competition, but selects the best of Australian speculative fiction of the year) I was astonished, and reassured that I could actually string words together well enough that people would enjoy reading them. Winning the award happened at the same time my first trilogy was being considered by a publisher, though, and that certainly wouldn’t have hurt my chances.

I don’t write short stories often, mostly because I get too caught up in the worlds and characters of my books to have space in my head for anything else.

So, with this new found focus you wrote the Black Magician Trilogy, which was widely regarded as one of the most successful fantasy debuts for decades upon its release (and now one of the all-time great fantasy trilogies). Looking back, did the success and attention surprise you? What was it about this series that you think struck a chord with readers of the time?

The Magicians' Guild (cover)It did surprise me – but then, who expects success? You might hope for it, but hopes aren’t the same as expectations. It was a slow ride for me, too, because it was published in Australia first and while it was a bestseller there the market is small. It wasn’t until the UK editions came out a few years later that the sales figures started to get exciting. That they kept selling and didn’t disappear from the shops after a few years has been even more amazing.

I’m not completely sure what it is about my stories that strike a chord with readers. It is hard to analyze your own work. I aim to move people – to make them laugh, cry, question and sympathise. I try to make everything in the worlds I create feel as real as possible. To achieve that, the writing itself mustn’t be distracting. I try to say what needs to be said with a few well chosen words rather than fancy prose. And while I like to raise serious issues, it must be relevant to the story and world, or I’m just preaching at an audience.

Maybe it’s all of the above or some of it, or something else completely. Most likely what works is different for different people, too. I don’t try to please everybody, I just write what I hope is a good story and hope it gives others enjoyment.

Following the Black Magician Trilogy you moved away from the world it was set in and wrote another trilogy, The Age of the Five. This series was far deeper in its motives, an even more epic scale and, I guess in many ways, was more aimed at female than male readers (at least by the publishers). Could you tell us a little about this series and why you decided to write it at a time your publishers were – I presume – desperate for more Kryalla books?

I have never aimed any of my books at one gender, and my publishers haven’t either. This is the first time anyone has suggested it so I am somewhat perplexed. It would not make good business sense to do so. Why would anyone cut their audience in half if they didn’t have to?

Priestess of the White (cover)At the time I had worked and reworked the Black Magician Trilogy over many years and wanted a break from that world. I had a few ideas for a sequel but not enough for a trilogy. So I went through old ideas and was drawn to a story and world I’d developed as a teenager. The core story still excited me and the world had potential, and when I put a character I’d planned to introduce in a sequel in right at the beginning it all began to come together nicely. But I’d was worried that, because it is published as both adult and young adult in the UK, and ‘for younger readers’ in the US, I’d be stuck only writing for a young audience. So I made my main female point of view character older, and her story about what happens after a characters ‘coming of age’ story, aimed for a more mature tone, and included a ‘mild’ sex scene in each book.

The Age of the Five trilogy sold well, though is overshadowed by the success of the Black Magician Trilogy. Yet many of my readers came to my books through that series, and still consider it their favourite.

I have to say that I feel that your prequel to the Black Magician Trilogy, Magician’s Apprentice, was one of your best books. Despite the size of it I got through it within 24 hours and was heartbroken to find out it was a one-shot. What I wanted to ask you was what it was like writing a prequel. Obviously, you have to ensure that everything ties up and, in this case, will make sense in later books too – was this a challenge?

The Magician's Apprentice (cover)In some ways it was easier, since I’d already created the magical system and knew where much of the story was going to go. However, I also had to make sure everything fit what I had already established about the world and characters – except where I had deliberately added mistruths. In the Black Magician Trilogy I played with the idea that historical records can be wrong, whether accidentally or deliberately. Revealing some of the true history was one of the appeals of writing the prequel. But the true history had to match up with the hints I’d given, too, so it became a duel challenge of keeping track of the lies as well as the truths.

Another difficulty was to write a story that would still surprise readers who had read the Black Magician Trilogy and already knew how major historical events concluded. The solution was to make the path to that ending interesting, and show the events through the eyes of characters with a different perspective than those living in the later era. For example: the black magic that was regarded as evil in the future was accepted in the past, and even seen as beneficial.

Your latest series, the Traitor Spy Trilogy, was completed and released over here – in the UK – by Orbit last year. The final book in the series came out just over 11 years after your first book. When you compare the two how much do you feel your writing has developed or changed?

The Ambassador's Mission (cover)I’ve found that I don’t need to make as many changes when polishing up a first draft now. Partly that is due to practise – when you do something a lot you ought to get better at it. Partly it is because I have repetitive strain injury problems in my neck, back and hands, so I’ve had to find ways to reduce the time I spend sitting and typing. To do that I plan as much as possible. I’ve always worked to a fairly detailed outline, which helps me avoid writing unnecessary chapters. Now I write a short description of the scene before writing it so I can spot when it isn’t going to work or establish the structure and pace before I begin, and avoid writing unnecessary sentences.

Of course, I am always learning more about writing, either by noting the ways other people tell stories, taking inspiration from books, film, TV shows, etc., or the feedback from editors and beta readers. My own books influence me, too, challenging me to avoid repeating myself, to think of new plot twists, to consider what would happen if the use and limitations of magic were different, and to put different characters in a similar situation or similar characters in different situations.

One more recent influence is social media, where the discussion and examination of plot, worldbuilding and characters highlights issues and approaches I’d not regarded closely before. It helps me to decide what kind of stories I want to write – or not write – and flesh out my worlds more convincingly.

All the series listed above have featured female leads (although there are plenty of male and viewpoint characters in there too). Was your decision to write a female lead simply a choice because it felt natural or a bucking of genre trends? Also, how much difference do you think there is between a male and female POV and could you see yourself writing a male protagonist in the future?

Thieves’ Magic (cover)Having a female lead in the Black Magician Trilogy was a conscious effort to buck the trend, but by 1995 it was no longer unusual enough to be remarked upon. I suppose I made Auraya a twenty-year-old in order to buck the trend in fantasy of ‘coming of age’ stories, as I mentioned earlier. Lorkin was the lead character in the Traitor Spy Trilogy, and he was most certainly not female! I suspect the fact that Sonea was already established as a popular character means readers automatically assume she is the lead when she really doesn’t have as big an impact on the world as Lorkin, or is changed as much by her adventures.

In Thief’s Magic, the first book of my new trilogy, I have only two point of view characters, a female and male. There is equal time dedicated to them and their separate stories are as important as the other’s. It’ll be interesting to see who readers decide is the ‘main’ character, if they do at all. Will they assume the female one is, because I am female and have written strong female protagonists in the past? Or will they assume that the male is because male characters are ‘the default’. It will be fun to see which character stands out to readers the most, but ultimately I hope they will enjoy reading both character’s stories equally.

You know, current trends in fantasy seem to rely of authors doing something ‘different’ or adding some kind of twist to the fantasy genre in order to pick up fans. What I love about the Kyralia books is that many elements of the book: the high fantasy setting, the social hierarchy, the magic system and the characters are all what we, as fantasy fans, have grown up with and could even call ‘the classic tropes’ of the genre. With this in mind, what do you think is the recipe for a good novel and do you always need ‘something’ unique and different in there?

Funny thing is, when I wrote the Black Magician Trilogy it was very different to what was around. Not having dragons and prophecies, a plodding quest undertaken by a lost heir and his company of companions with conveniently varied skills was radical in the 90s. I’m SO glad that’s changed. But I do sigh a little when I see what I call ‘gimmick’ fantasy: a book promoted by something quirky about the way it was written, or something unusual about the author. What should matter most is good storytelling.

Speaking of current trends, it’s hard to walk into a bookstore and not be overwhelmed by the number of dark, mysterious, hooded men staring back at you from the bookshelves. Now, I’m not saying that hooded men didn’t grace covers before your books, but would you agree with me that the beautiful Black Magician covers and the obvious success they had in bookstores really kicked off the trend that is still going strong now a decade later?

The Novice (cover)Oh, yes! Those white covers, the brilliant work of the Orbit team, were so different to most of what was on the bookstore shelves at the time that they seemed to glow. As a former graphic designer and illustrator, I have to resist the urge to make too many suggestions or ask for changes on covers, but with Orbit I’ve never wanted to. I knew instantly that The Magicians’ Guild cover ticked many boxes of good packaging design – clarity of message, easily read type, striking image, a point of difference in a saturated market. Though the hooded figure on a simple background has been used so much now it has become a cliché, I have a shameless hipster-like pride that my books got the trend going.

It seems to me that fantasy could well be making its comeback to television. I mean, fantasy television was huge ‘back in the day,’ but it seems to have been switched out for sci-fi and urban fantasy, which I guess was because it is easier to budget for and harder to make a cheesy mess. Game of Thrones has recently proven that now people are ready to spend the budgets on doing it right – our favourite book series can be done successfully. Firstly, did you see Game of Thrones and, if so, what were your thoughts?

I have – I’ve seen all but the last two episodes of season one. I’ve not read the books, mostly because I wait start a series when the last book is available. My partner, Paul, has read them, however, and could tell me what had been kept and lost in translation in the show.

And … I really, really wanted to like it, but didn’t get hooked like so many others have. It doesn’t have much of what I love in fantasy: magic. It also felt derivative and implausible in parts, but understandably so because fantasy literature has come so far since the early 90s when the book was written, and film and TV often lag behind since it takes so long for a book to gain enough popularity to be considered worthy of adaption.

But I also know that Game of Thrones will feel fresh and exciting to younger readers who aren’t as well read in the genre, and the mere fact that a fantasy story that isn’t over fifty years old or written for children is being made into a popular TV show is always cause for celebration. I really hope that it will lead to more fantasy TV shows, because they have more time to capture the feel of an epic story – and maybe the next one will be the sort of fantasy I like, with lots of magic.

Secondly, and inevitably, would the Black Magician Trilogy work as a television series or film? Who would play who and what scenes would you most look forward to coming to life?

It would, but of course how well would be entirely up to whoever made it. I’m not as sure that The Age of the Five trilogy is as adaptable – it would certainly require grander special effects.

Yukie Nakama (Sonea)I’ve created a casting wish list for the BMT on Pinterest. In my imagination the characters are nothing like most actors. To me, alternate world fantasy is supposed to look nothing like ours, while still obeying the laws of physics, and the same should apply to the people in it. So Kyralians are tall and pale and have a bone and muscle structure most comparable to Asian than European. Lonmars are dark-skinned but look more Indian (subcontinent, not Native American) than African.

My wish list has two options for some characters, with the intention that you imagine something between. I’ve also used it as a place to point out actors that I can see playing different roles – though it proved unexpectedly difficult to find pictures of young female Maori actors online, and even though Bollywood is huge it favours paler skinned actors.

You suffer with a number of health conditions that stop you writing as liberally as you once did (and I presume would like). Firstly, could I ask what these are exactly and if they have arisen as a direct result of being an author and, secondly, can I ask how they’ve changed your writing process?

For over a decade now I’ve had repetitive strain problems in my upper back and neck muscles and two years ago I developed it in my hands and wrists. As I said earlier, this has forced me to plan more. Pain sometimes forces me away from the computer for a couple of days, so I can’t write anything in a hurry these days. If I do my back will soon make me stop.

I also resist taking on too many non-writing writing tasks. Twitter suits me because it only requires, at most, 140 characters a few times a day. When I’m writing to deadline I don’t do interviews and other publicity unless I really can’t turn them down. My typing time has to be eked out carefully.

Ah, you’re coming over to Europe very soon – I’m hoping to track you down to have some of my own books signed, in fact! With touring and conventions remaining a fairly important part of an author’s job, how do you find them and do you think they benefit authors as much as publishers think they do?

Last of the Wilds (cover)Tours are great, though exhausting. You know that the people who come to events are there because they like your work, and I love putting faces to what otherwise are names in Twitter or numbers on royalty statements. Cons are more about networking and being inspired by people in the same field or with similar interests, but are not a big generator of sales. I’ve recently started going to Supanova, which is an Australian pop culture expo in the vein of Comic Con but with authors as guests as well as media celebs. I’ve found them to have the advantages of both cons and tours – I’ll sign a lot of books as well as network with people in the same field and gain ideas about writing and self-promotion.

Conventions have always been around, but writing, publishing and being an author has changed a great deal since you started out back at the turn of the millennium. In terms of things such as ebooks, self-publishing, social media, websites and blogging how has life changed for you as an author and how do you see it changing for authors only just getting into the game now?

Overall there are more choices for authors, firstly in how they communicate with their audience and potential new readers, secondly in the range of publishing options available. The latter has had less impact on me than the former. Twitter and WordPress have been the most useful of the former. No longer do I have to create html pages by hand, or struggle to send out newsletters. Blogging software is so much more efficient, and social media makes connecting with readers more personal.

New authors will probably need to take care that they understand the benefits and drawbacks of all the choices available to them. I’d advise doing plenty of research, including getting beyond both the myths and conspiracy theories about traditional publishing and the hype and promises of self-publishing. Keep a level head and treat it like a business transaction.

We’ve talked a bit about your writing process and I know the excellent FAQ’s on your website cover it extensively, but, let us say you had at your disposal a time machine, is there any advice you would give to the younger and less experienced Trudi Canavan or anything you wish you had done differently within the novels?

Hmmm. Maybe to not hire the builder who extended our house. Maybe to look after my back better. Would I have listened to myself, though? Maybe not!

Just a couple more questions! Most importantly, though, I’d like to ask what your plans now that this series is finished?

The Rogue (cover)To keep writing! I’ve recently finished the first book of a new trilogy. It’s a story I’ve been itching to tell for many years. At its core is a book that I wrote back when I was trying to find a publisher for the Black Magician Trilogy called Angel of Storms. I’ve taken the best bits and combined it with a newer idea to create the Millennium’s Rule Trilogy. The story is set in many worlds, and begins in two: one which has had an industrial revolution powered by magic instead of coal, another languishing in a medieval time where there is very little magic and only the priests are allowed to use it.

I’d also like to write more short stories and novellas and put together a collection. And then there are ideas developing in my head for another sequel set in the Black Magician Trilogy world. I’d like to jump forward another twenty years and give Sonea grandchildren to worry about, and introduce the threat of gunpowder and encounters with more distant lands.

Finally, taking a backwards step from your own work: what type of evolution have you seen fantasy writing go through over the years and how would you describe today’s fantasy writing stylistically?

When I was a child and young teenager the fantasy I read was wasn’t usually a big doorstopper and was often based on heroic myth and/or folklore. In the 80s the genre went both lighter and darker, with Eddings at one extreme and Stephen Donaldson at the other.

The High Lord (cover)Chunky became the norm in the 90s books. Robin Hobb stood out as a fresh new voice. Jordan and Martin arrived on the scene with their decades-long series – though we didn’t know how long they’d go on for at the time! There were still a lot of prophecies, quests, dragons and mostly male protagonists. Magic was rare and mysterious, rarely explained beyond basic constraints. In the mid 90s that changed – and that’s also when the first of a rapidly growing crop of Australian authors began to be published. Co-incidence? I wonder…

Mid 2000s I didn’t read at all for a few years thanks to a bout of chronic fatigue. This year I’ve been sampling some of what I missed, trying books by Brent Weeks and Brandon Sanderson. The main difference I notice that the characters are more complex, and Brandon created a more structured magic system than any I remembered from before then.

It took me until the late 2000s before I regained the ability to read larger books, and the ones that were un-put-downable enough to keep my attention were by Kate Elliot and N K Jemesin. These contain characters even more complex and believable. The other change I’ve seen recently is diversification and cross-genre pollination. On the surface it seems that fantasy has become polarised – with “grimdark” on one side and urban on the other – but there is still plenty being written between and outside those two styles.

It’s the endless ways that authors answer the question ‘what if…?’ that make it such an exciting genre to read. Anyone who complains that it’s full of the same tropes and clichés is simply not reading widely enough. And, I can’t resist adding, should try some Australian authors!

We would like to thank Ms. Canavan for taking time to talk with us. If you’d like to learn more about her and her writing you can check out her website or follow her on Twitter.

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One Comment

  1. Thank you for this excellent interview with Trudi. I finally got around to reading her work last year, even though I’ve had several of her novels (The Black Magician Trilogy & Age Of The Five Trilogy) sitting on my bookshelf for a number of years. She is now one of my favourite contemporary fantasy authors, and I will always look forward to reading what ever she writes in future.

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