Interview with Gillian
Nature and animals are often part of your work (Foxspell, At Ardilla, Answers to Brut, Jake and Pete, Dog in Cat Out...) What is it that prompts you to write about them?
I've always had a very strong response to the natural world and the animal kingdom. As a child I loved animals passionately, (still do), and loved reading animal stories (Seton, Kipling, Lorenz and so on). I used to play a lot of imaginary games with my friends in which we would pretend to be animals. When my children were home we had an assortment of pets, from hermit crabs to horses, and I spent a lot of time looking after them, watching them, and learning about their relationships. I'm also interested in human beings as animals, and like watching their body language and how they relate non-verbally to each other. I'm interested in the language of gesture, which leads into my work in the theatre, especially image theatre and physical theatre.
The kittens Jake and Pete are adorable! How do you create the voice of a cat?
I love Jake and Pete too. They are lots of fun to write about. Talking animals are a bit of a risk, and so I wanted to give the kitkids a language that reflected their cat nature. As I said in 1. I spend a lot of time watching animals and thinking about how they might talk if they did talk. Kipling is probably an influence in this (Thy Servant a Dog and The Jungle Book, which if you read aloud you get the feeling this is how a dog or a wolf might sound if it could talk. I was after the same effect in Foxspell)
You have written the computer trilogy Space Demons, Skymaze and Shinkei and now the circus trilogy Galax-arena, Terra-Farma and Universercus. How does a trilogy come about? Is it because you feel the characters have more to say? Do you plan to write sequels or are they something that arise after time has elapsed?
There is definitely something about the number three: it's like the three acts of a play, or the three elements of plotting. With the Space Demons series I always meant to keep writing about the games: I thought the possibilities could go on forever. Shinkei took rather a long time to come out as I had to go to Japan to do the research for it, and by then I was not as interested in computer games as I had been. Also I felt I had said everything I wanted to say about the characters, and they were growing up. With Galax-Arena I always wanted to find out what happened to my characters next, and I felt I had left a lot unexplained. I was only going to write one more book, but the story took off in an unexpected direction, and I realised I needed more space to finish off the story. I think it will end up having a nice pattern to it, so I am glad I made that decision.
Much of your fiction has an affinity with science fiction and/or fantasy. Is there something about this genre that interests you?
My work is not really science fiction or fantasy, and real writers in these genres recognise this, I think. I was very influenced as a teenager by Ray Bradbury, Philip K Dick and Kurt Vonnegut, but I don't read a lot of science fiction or fantasy now. I think I like the freedom given by the fantasy framework to look at our society, and the way people react within it. I'm interested above all in character, and how people react to danger or suffering, how they deal with ambition, passion, disappointment and so on.
Your novels raise many issues about the world we live in and the direction in which it is heading. Does your writing reflect your concerns about the world? Do you want your readers to 'think' about issues when they read?
We live in a fascinating age when many scientific discoveries are being made, and we are kept informed about them all the time. They raise issues which we should look at: many people have different reactions based on different moral codes, religious beliefs and so on. I find these issues very dramatic, as well as wanting to make my readers think about them.
What would you like your readers to take from your works?
I suppose above all I want them to be captivated by the story, and to be transported into another world. When they return to the every day world I want them to look at it with different eyes.
Which of your characters are particularly special to you? What makes you connect with them?
This is hard to answer. They are all special, in some way. I suppose Brenton in Beyond the Labyrinth, Joella and Leeward in Galax-Arena. They have flaws that I have sympathy for, but they all have a sort of energy that makes them undaunted.
I read on your website that poems are the most difficult type of text to create. What is it that you find challenging about poetry?
Poetry, if it uses rhyme, is technically very demanding. The rhymes have to be unforced and witty, and have to carry the story along too. It also has to sing in the rhythm, and not become boring or repetitive. It all has to look effortless, and a lot of work goes into making it so.
Could you describe the writing process you go through?
I usually start with a vision of the novel - suggested by a character or a setting. It often comes in certain colours, and I am very aware of these while I write. Then I will start to get voices that I might choose to tell the story in, and key scenes, relationships between the characters and so on. It's all rather vague and intuitive. I have a sense of what the finished work is going to be like, but I have little idea of how I am going to get there.
I read around the subject, and go for long walks while I ponder it all. When I've got a certain amount of material I sit down and start to write, and see what happens. I used to write straight on to the computer, but lately I've been writing out longhand in big exercise books. That's the way I am writing Universercus. I use big sheets of paper to map out the plot. I have a very spatial imagination, and like to see it all in front of me. I also make maps, plans of buildings and calendars. I do a lot of drafts, and often have to rewrite the ending after the editor has seen the book.
How do your ideas come to you?
Apart from what I've said above I find ideas for stories come to me all the time, from all over the place. I'm trying not to take any more on board at the moment as I have enough work for the next four years already. I've always thought ideas were like wild birds, the better you treat them the more they come to you. I suppose I'm reluctant to turn any away in case they all take flight.
Why do you think reading is valuable?
Our society is so dependent on the written word we should ensure everybody is literate. Apart from that, reading fiction is a way to understand other people's minds. It teaches us empathy. I've always been a reading addict. A good novel is a source of both consolation and enlightenment.
Picture books require text and illustrations to complement and feed off each other. Do you have images in mind when you write a picture book? What is the process you go through when writing a picture book?
I do have images in mind, being above all a visual writer, but I don't necessarily share them with the artist. I prefer them to grasp their own images from the text. (They much prefer this too!) Usually the publisher suggests an illustrator and they submit roughs of how they see the characters, the predominant colours they will use, the medium and so on. Then a three-way dialogue begins as the three people concerned share ideas and visions for the book. It's a wonderful process, and I am always stunned by the creativity of the illustrator.
I think a play would be a challenge to write as you have to consider so many factors, dialogue, stage directions and setting just to name a few. Is it a challenge?
The biggest challenge in writing a play is usually the budget, which dictates cast size, set and design, and length. Most children don't have much experience of live theatre these days, so you have to be very accommodating to their attention span. It's almost impossible to write a play in a vacuum. You often don't know what will work until you see it on the floor with the actors. I like to have a creative development period with an early draft of the script, so I can hear how it all sounds, and see where I can get rid of text in favour of gesture. I think the process of putting on a play gives the writer huge respect for the actors. You become intensely aware that you must give them something worthwhile to say and do.
I found the different voices in Terra-Farma engaging and I liked the way they offered different perspectives on the narrative. Is it difficult to create a range of voices in a text? What prompted you to adopt the use of multiple narrators?
One of the restrictions of the first person narrative is how to give information that you need for the story, but the narrator does not know. In Galax-Arena Joella writes down an account based on what other people have told her and what she imagines, but in Terra-Farma I thought it would be more fitting to the plot to tell the story alternately, as the separate journeys unfold. I hear the characters speaking quite distinctly inside my head, and just hope the reader does too.
In Terra-Farma I was particularly interested in the idea of Ma and the way girls/women were being trained and sold as wives. What compelled you to take Joella and Liane's journey to the baby and bride farm of Terra-Farma?
The title of the book came to me quite early on. I liked the way it balanced Galax-Arena, and I liked all the underlying meanings: terra firma, terra-forming, terror farmer. Then I started thinking about the terror farmer, and what might be being farmed. In an early version I had animals as well as children, but they seemed to add an extra complication so I left them out in the end. The ability to choose the sex of one's child is obviously going to have huge repercussions for the future. It amazed me that parents would choose boys to such an extent that when they grew to be young men they would have no one to marry. Capitalism, when it sees a gap in the market, rushes to fill it.
Many of the students at my high school have found your creation of the patwa in Galax-arena interesting and challenging. Why did you decide to do this? Was it difficult to create a language?
I'm very interested in language, having studied Spanish and French at university, and having lived and travelled in many different countries. In Galax-Arena I wanted to explore the idea that in slavery or colonisation the first thing you lose is your language - hence the rise of Creole and pidgin languages. It always irritates me when the language aspect is not addressed in some way in science fiction or fantasy. I decided I would try to give some idea of this by inventing a Creole language - it's based on West Indian Creole, but simplified to make it relatively easy to hear and understand inside the reader's head, and I used some Spanish words too, like ameeg, and sab. (And yes, it did make the story very difficult to write.)
What would be your favourite books? What do you like about these texts?
I find this very difficult to answer simply because there are so many. I like Empire of the Sun very much. I like Ballard's honesty and vulnerability, and it's a period of history that interests me. I read for so many different reasons, relaxation, escape, for the hit that fiction gives me, for the need to expand my mind. I like big, enthralling novels. Sometimes I go back and read favourites again. I also read a lot of non-fiction, particularly history and biography.
Do you feel your writing has a particular style?
I think I have a very particular style. It seems very simple, but it has a sort of tensile strength that carries the reader along. I am very aware of rhythm and often read my work aloud while I'm writing to check how it sounds. I also visualise every scene, as I think writing should make effortless pictures in the reader's head. I try to avoid cliches and overwriting.
Many of your characters are children/young adults who have to find their own way in the world (Galax-arena, Under the Cat's eye) as they often have absent or dysfunctional parental figures. Do you think we underestimate the resilience of children/young adults?
I am interested in the end of childhood and the beginning of adulthood, and so the parents have to be absent in my stories for one reason or another. In many ways teenage is an artificial age that our society has constructed. In pre-technological societies puberty marked the beginning of adulthood. I think people are resilient if they are given power over their own lives. It's being forced into victimhood that makes us feel powerless and damages us. Circumstances in my own teenage meant I had to grow up very quickly, and virtually had to look after myself from the age of 14. Going off on a slight tangent, the male and female worlds in Terra-Farma are seductive to the young people involved in them because they do offer them education, care, training and a purpose in life, that the mainstream world seems to have jettisoned.
How do you create the worlds within your texts? Especially when they are fantastical or futuristic worlds?
I imagine the worlds as if I were living in them, and then make the sort of casual comment about them that we might make about our world. We take our world for granted, and so my characters must take their world for granted too. It's interesting how much you can suggest by one or two well-placed words or phrases. I am also very aware of the language the characters might use in the world they live in. I don't really do "world building" as such, but I am interested in the structures of the worlds I am imagining, economic, social and so on, and try to make them as concrete as possible.
Reproduced with permission from Dhalwa (English Teachers' Association of the Northern Territory)