Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Author Interview: KATE CONSTABLE

I am delighted to share with you my recent interview with Kate Constable.

Kate Constable is an Australian author whose YA fantasy trilogy, The Chanters of Tremaris (The Singer of All Songs, The Waterless Sea and The Tenth Power) has been published in Australia, the US, Denmark, Slovenia and Japan. A stand-alone Tremaris book, The Taste of Lightning, is available in Australia. She has recently branched into "straight" YA with two books in the Girlfriend series for teenage girls (Always Mackenzie was published this year, and Winter of Grace is due in 2009). And a (non-Tremaris) fantasy for younger readers, Cicada Summer, will also be published in Australia in 2009.

In Australia, her publisher is Allen & Unwin, where she has been edited by Jodie Webster, Rosalind Price and Eva Mills; in the US, the Chanters trilogy is published by Arthur A. Levine, and edited by Cheryl Klein.

Authoress: I'd like to start by saying that your writing is lyrical and beautiful, which I find refreshing in today's YA market. How did your writing journey begin? What did you need to "stumble through" before you ended up writing the Tremaris stories?

Kate: Thank you! Boringly, I was one of those kids who said from a very early age, "I want to be a writer." Having said that, I frittered away quite a few years trying to be a lawyer (or a philosopher!) before coming back to my first ambition in my mid-20s. For years I worked part-time and lived on lentils to support my writing habit! I had several short stories published in various literary magazines, which was really encouraging, and had an adult novel shopped around, which never quite made it to publication. At that point someone advised me to put that manuscript away and write something completely different, so I thought, "Why not try a fantasy?" The Singer of All Songs began life as a purely private amusement, a distraction almost, which meant I was relaxed while I was writing it and just had so much fun. It's quite ironic that it ended up doing so well, I never intended to be a fantasy writer!

Authoress: Anyone who lives on lentils just to keep writing certainly has my respect! It's interesting to note that you began the Tremaris tales as an "amusement," which certainly says a lot for approaching writing in a relaxed state. What I'd love to know is what inspired you to come up with the unique twist on magic in your world? As someone who never intended to write fantasy, how did you go about building such a believable world?

Kate: We-ell, when I said I never intended to become a fantasy writer, I didn't mean that I'd never written any fantasy, or thought about it. I spent a decent chunk of my school years dreaming and inventing alternative worlds and constructing elaborate narratives, usually with a fantasy or sci-fi bent. So by the time I came to sit down and write about Tremaris, my world-building muscles were fairly well-developed. Quite a few elements of my day-dreaming have ended up as part of Tremaris -- most of the place names, the town of Mithates, the younger girl with the slightly older love interest (ahem!), the gang of friends travelling together and righting wrongs. Which goes to show that nothing is ever wasted! I was also strongly influenced by Ursula Le Guin's brilliant Earthsea books, and Marion Zimmer Bradley's Mists of Avalon in coming up with the "feel" of Tremaris, though I think the more I've written about Tremaris, the more it's developed its own identity.

Lots of people have asked how I came up with the idea of chantment. For once it honestly was a moment of inspiration! I loved the link between "chantment" and "enchantment", it seemed so obvious, and I'm truly surprised that more writers haven't exploited it. And the notion of a magic of song was a perfect fit with the kind of world I wanted to create, where individual voices were important, but voices blended together could be even more stronger and more beautiful. I've always loved mass singing, Christmas carols and hymns -- I even enjoy belting out the national anthem at my daughter's school assembly once a week (which is considered pretty daggy in this country!) I'm not particularly tuneful, I wish I were, I need lots of people singing along to help disguise my inadequacy. So perhaps that was where the appeal lay!

Authoress: I'll admit that, as a writer, I had a moment of "this is so simple, it's brilliant!" when reading about chantment and the use of song as magic. It's beautifully done. I have Cheryl Klein to thank for opening my eyes to your books, as she has simply gushed about them more than once on her blog. Cheryl's is a well-known name for obvious reasons; can you tell me what it's like working with her? How did your Australian-published novels get Arthur Levine's attention in the first place? And why is it taking so long (grumble grumble) for your other books to make their way to the States?

Kate: Ah, Cheryl. Cheryl is brilliant. When I grow up, I want to be as smart as Cheryl. Her attention to detail is extraordinary. Working with her was huge fun, because she "got" exactly what I was trying to do, which makes the whole process so much easier. I hope we actually get to meet one day! Because of course all our communication was via email, due to the fact that we're on different sides of the world.

I have the tireless International Rights Director at Allen & Unwin, Angela Namoi, to thank for bringing Singer to Arthur Levine's attention. As for the other books, the publishers sort that out amongst themselves, I'm the last to know what's going on! I would love to see The Taste of Lightning published in the US one day.

Authoress: You've already got an impressive array of published works, and I'm certain you're not finished gracing us with your talent. Can you give us a hint of what you're working on, or dreaming about, or planning on writing in the future? Do you sense a change of direction, or pretty much status quo?

Kate: Funny you should mention a change in direction...! In fact I have written two books recently which are a quite a departure from fantasy: a pair of realist teen novels, which form part of the Girlfriend Fiction series in Australia, dealing with friendships and romance and teenage girl stuff. Always Mackenzie came out earlier this year, and Winter of Grace will be published next year. They were tremendous fun to write. I seem to thrive on sudden shifts of genre!

I have also finished a book for slightly younger readers, called Cicada Summer, which will also be published in Australia next year. It's quite an old-fashioned story about a girl and a ghost and a garden. I was aiming for the style of my favourite books as a child, English classics like Tom's Midnight Garden and The Children of Green Knowe, which are still comfort reads for me, and I think it works!

AND (I've been busy, haven't I?) I'm currently halfway through a fantasy set in contemporary Australia, which doesn't have a title as yet. It touches on Aboriginal beliefs, because you can't really write about magic in Australia without acknowledging the magic of the people who were here first -- though it's obviously difficult for me, as a white Australian, to handle that material. It's been quite a fraught process, but an absolutely fascinating journey.

And after all that, I'm toying with the idea of writing another Tremaris book! I feel as if I'm ready to go back -- I'm not finished with those characters yet, and I feel there are plenty of Tremaris stories still to tell. But we'll see.

Authoress: Wow, that leaves one breathless! So on the non-writing front, what does a day in your life look like (assuming there's any time left!)? What are your interests, diversions, foibles?

Kate: Well, I have two young daughters and a husband who keep me fairly busy. Two days a week are writing days, and the rest of the time is taken up with making lunches, laundry, shopping, playing puppies, walking to school, cooking and so on. I manage to squeeze in a fair amount of reading in my spare moments! Otherwise the main diversion is hanging out with friends. There are a lot of young children living in our street and we have a big gap in our fence to the garden next door, so there are often gangs of children streaming from one house to another with footballs and fairy dresses, snatching food as they race through the kitchen. That's kind of fun.

Authoress: It's encouraging to know that a successful author can make it all happen with only two days a week set aside for writing. Before we wrap this up, do you have any words of wisdom/advice/encouragement for aspiring authors?

Kate: The only advice is can give is: read, read, read, and write, write, write. Reading is compost for the mind; notice what works and what doesn't (for you). And writing, like everything else, takes practice. Don't give up, but don't expect instant success either. And don't wait for inspiration to strike. If you're going to be serious about this writing business, you have to treat it like a job (which, hopefully, it may become). That means doing it regularly, every day if possible, not just when you're in the mood.
And on a more concrete note: I used to carry around a little notebook to jot down ideas and images, and I'd spend boring train rides mentally writing descriptions of what I saw -- people and scenes and conversations -- which was good practice for my writing muscles.

Authoress: Kate, this has been an incredible interview. Thank you so much for your time!

Kate: Thank you so much, Authoress! It's been fun!


  1. Fantastic interview! Kate, I love your storytelling, and I'm looking forward to the new books. And thank you for sharing that you get so much done with two days set aside for writing -- that is encouraging!

  2. Kate and Authoress:

    Thanks for the informative interview!

  3. Thanks so much for referring Kate's books to me. It sounds like a great series. I'm excited to start! And great interview. Who doesn't love an aussie?! :)