Her latest, Thornspell, was published to excellent reviews in the US by Knopf and this month has been released in a handsome hardcover edition in New Zealand by Random House (NZ$32.99)..
I caught up with Helen earlier this week. Here is a transcript of our discussion which is rather longer than I normally like to put on the blog but Helen’s comments.are so thoughtful and detailed that I didn’t want to edit them at all.
Helen you took the slightly unusual step of getting published in the US before being published in NZ. How did you manage that and what were your reasons for doing that?
I suppose I didn't realise that it was unusual to try offshore first when I first started writing seriously, which was about ten years ago. When I started out—and despite having a major in English literature—I suppose I was quite naïve and thought that "a book was a book was a book", and that good writing was good writing, no matter what sort of story you chose to write. But as soon as I began to get involved in writing circles I quickly became aware of the gulf in NZ writing between "genre" and "literary" fiction and a sort of flavour in the air that NZ writers who were serious about their art "should" be writing NZ literary fiction. So for a long time I wasn't brave enough to tell anyone that I was writing at all because that would have meant owning up to—(gulp)—Fantasy. And not only Fantasy, but Fantasy that wasn't set in a distinctively NZ location, with recognisably New Zealand characters.
This perception of the NZ industry as not being particularly receptive to fiction of this kind was compounded by the criticism levelled at Elizabeth Knox's The Vintner's Luck—which came out around the same time—in terms of not being set in New Zealand with New Zealand characters. And of course, 1997-8 was at the very beginning of the Harry Potter phenomenon, which I think has since transformed acceptance of Fantasy literature for Children and Young Adult readers. So if I was starting writing now and aware of books like Dreamhunter and Dreamquake and some of Ken Catran's novels I might not have the same perception, but 10 years ago it was very strong—and I was not the only one to hold that perception. The feedback I received from my first industry readers was that I would have to go offshore because the market just wasn't there in New Zealand.
In terms of getting published in the US (as opposed to the UK or Australia), the impetus to look in that direction came through an industry contact in Australia who looked at the synopsis for Thornspell and said: "you should really try America with this". But the key in managing to actually get published in the US was getting my US agent (Robin Rue of Writer's House), who knows her market incredibly well, not just what the specialities of all the different imprints are but also what they are in fact publishing at the time. All the things that looking at the guidelines in the Writers and Artists Yearbook and reading online FAQ don't tell you—and as you know, even if a publisher will accept unsolicited submissions, unsolicited manuscripts are always at the very bottom of their slush pile.
Having said that, I have also heard many stories of writers who have obtained overseas agents who have either not been able to place their book despite considerable effort to do so, or who have not performed, so I would hesitate to offer getting an agent as a universal remedy. But given the issue of not knowing the markets/players overseas and also that an increasing number of publishers are refusing unsolicited submissions, I do think that an agent can make a difference.
Thornspell is a beautifully crafted retelling of the classic fairytale, Sleeping Beauty, but with the Prince as the narrator. What inspired you to do that and how long did it take you to write the book? Did you plan the novel before you sat down to write it or did it ‘write itself’?
Thank you for saying that Thornspell is beautifully crafted. (Smiling!)
In terms of deciding to retell Sleeping Beauty from the perspective of the prince, I have always loved fairy tales, myths, and legends, but the idea actually "just came" when I was at the ballet Sleeping Beauty in 1998. The lights darkened, the prince came leaping onto the stage and I remember sitting up in my seat and thinking: "What about the prince?" It was the first time I had realised that he is almost invisible in terms of even such basics as where he came from and the sort of person he was, as well as his motivation. At the same time, he is vital to the story; he is the one who undoes the spell. So I felt that his story should be told—and the character of the Thornspell prince arrived in my head, complete with his name, which was Sigismund. A very Holy Roman Empire kind of name and in fact what gave the story its "Fantasy-universe" flavour: it is set in this world, in a country that could easily be part of the Holy Roman Empire but isn't (quite).
I scribbled out the first two chapters more or less then and there, including the initial encounter between Sigismund and the Margravine (the evil fairy of the traditional story but re-cast in a less traditional form), but my job at the time was very high pressure and so those first scribblings then got stuck in the drawer until 2005. At that time I was looking for a new story to write and when I found that initial draft I thought it had considerable potential. That was November-December 2005 and I completed the manuscript to the stage where I began to look for an agent in October 2006, although most of the serious writing took place between March 2006 and October. So eight years from the time of the original idea and first chapters, but six to seven months in terms of getting a completed manuscript.
Did I plan the story—not really. I always have a clear idea of the beginning and the end, and the arc the story will follow to get from one point to the other, but all the details in-between do tend to evolve as I go along. So in many ways it does feel as though the story is writing itself—but I do exert executive control from time to time, mainly telling those characters and plot lines that would 'balloon' the story well behind the original concept that this is not their book and they have to go away! (I'm smiling again, but in fact I am half serious; it does feel exactly like that sometimes.)
When & why did you decide to quit your day job and write full time? How is this working out?
Well, I started writing ten years ago because I was waking up at nights thinking: "Why aren't you writing"? I quit the day job—and the regular salary—at the end of 2003, probably because I am not very good at multi-tasking! When I do something I give it my whole attention, and because I was being paid to do my job it was always my first priority. It was also quite demanding work in terms of the long hours and the deadlines, so it had taken me 5 years to write my first novel (The Wall of Night) part-time. And because Wall was the first of a four book series, I realised that it was going to be another fifteen years before I would be able to do anything else, eg other books, short stories, and poems. And it was around that time that both my boss's wife and my mother were diagnosed with cancer, and both subsequently died, and that really does get you thinking about what you really want. So I decided to give the writing my full attention and see if I had been waking up for a reason or not. And the time period I gave myself to see how things were going was three and a half years, the same period it took my partner to retrain in computing and then get his first job—and the contract with Knopf came in bang on the three and a half years, which seemed like "fate".
But even before that I had started to have success with short fiction and poetry and there had been plenty of positive feedback on the first novel, Wall, so I was feeling that I was making headway. It was just a matter of "when"—and of course since the Knopf contract for Thornspell, my agent has also negotiated a contract for the follow up Children's/YA novel, Yrth (also with Knopf), and sold the 4-book Wall series to Eos (HarperCollins, USA). So although I have by no means "made it" yet, I at least feel that I am well on my way to establishing a writing career.
But if you measure in financial terms, I think the opportunity cost of the decision to write full time would be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. So from a purely financial point of view there is no rationale reason for becoming a writer—and the statistical chances of a writer becoming an international bestseller and making some real money are probably on a par with winning Lotto! But most people still seem to regard me as moderately sane, which is something I am still trying to figure out. J
I see you have been nominated for a CYBIL. You must be chuffed about that?
Very! The CYBILs are the Children's and Young Adult's Bloggers' Literary Awards in the States and aim to highlight books that are "both high in literary quality and kid appeal". Although a relatively new award (this is their third year) they are apparently highly regarded, but nominations are by 'readers' rather than the industry, so it is very encouraging to be nominated on both scores. But I am up against such high profile books as The Knife of Never Letting Go, by Patrick Hess, which recently won the Guardian Children's Fiction prize in the UK, Joanne Harris's Runemarks and Chris Paolini's Brisingr, so I definitely aim to keep my powder dry.
Have you got another novel in the pipeline?
I am currently working on The Heartstone of Yrth, which is another Children's/YA standalone story. It is not a sequel to Thornspell, although there are some deliberate background similarities between the two stories, and in many ways it is a darker story, since it deals with the effects of civil war and persecution on the central protagonist and those around her. But I am trying to balance between realism and ensuring that the story is not too dark, since it is for young readers. And I do feel that—despite the subject matter—it has those same life-affirming qualities that a reader in the States saw as positive in Thornspell.
As soon as Yrth is finished I will go straight on to working on the edit of The Wall of Night, which is the first book in my 4 part series—and then writing the next three books! Wall is aimed at an adult audience and in many ways is classic epic fantasy in the Tolkien tradition. There are forces of good and evil, action and alarms, swordplay and sorcery, and the world is also completely "other", unlike Thornspell which is set in what is recognisably this world. Yet within that framework, Wall examines the traditional Fantasy theme of good versus evil in the context of a society that believes it champions good and yet is divided by prejudice, suspicion and fear, so I do feel that it has something fresh to offer. Preliminary reader feedback has been very positive in terms of both the action of the story but also the depth of characterisation—which is also what reviewers and readers are saying about Thornspell, so perhaps there is a trend emerging!
You are a second-dan black belt in aikido and represented your university in fencing. How much did you draw on your knowledge of these disciplines when you wrote the weapons training and battle scenes in Thornspell? Was there a lot of research required before writing the novel?
I drew on them a lot! A great deal of the training is drawn from aikido and the Japanese martial arts tradition generally and I used my practical knowledge of both fencing and Japanese sword to work through the action sequences—sometimes literally picking up a sword to work it through! The Japanese martial arts tradition also really helped with the fundamental understanding of both archery (although I have never practiced this) and the use of the staff and daggers. In terms of research I have always been fascinated by both history and the martial arts generally, so already had a good background knowledge of the European knightly traditions and training (for example that squires kept vigils before being formally dubbed a knight), but this also meant that I knew when I had to do more research. Areas included more in-depth reading about the code of chivalry and the history of various weapons: for example, exactly when the knight's broadsword began to give way to the duellist's rapier; when armoured knights with lances became lancers; and when firearms such as the hackbut were first used and when they became what we identify as "muskets".