"Kate Constable was born in Victoria but spent much of her childhood in Papua New Guinea, without television but within reach of a library where she 'inhaled' stories. She studied Arts/Law at Melbourne University before working part-time for a record company while she began her life as a writer. She has had stories published in Meanjin, Island and other literary magazines. The Singer of All Songs, The Waterless Sea and The Tenth Power form the Chanters of Tremaris series and were her first books, published by Allen + Unwin with very successful overseas sales, followed by a stand-alone novel set in the same world, The Taste of Lightning. She has also written a junior fiction book, Cicada Summer, as well as two books for the popular Girlfriend Fiction series - Always Mackenzie and Winter of Grace. Kate lives in West Preston, Victoria, with her husband and two daughters. She blogs HERE."
MAGGIE: You're the published author of more than one book. Tell us a little bit about the inspiration for your stories, in particular the Chanters of Tremaris trilogy (which I've read, and adore!)
KATE: The Singer of All Songs (the first book in the Chanters of Tremaris trilogy) was my first attempt at writing fantasy. I'm not a big fantasy reader though I loved fantasy books as a child, so I really came to the whole genre without much baggage. Having said that, there were three big influences on the world of Tremaris:
1) The Earthsea books of Ursula Le Guin. I read these in one big gulp just before I started writing Singer, and it shows (at least I hope it does). I absolutely loved Le Guin's complex world-building, and her thoughtful and compassionate philosophy. I deeply admire her writing, with its serious, spiritual core.
2) The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley was a favourite book for me as an adolescent and young woman, and I reread it several times. I loved the whole idea of the Arthur myth being retold from a female perspective, and I was very attracted to the notion of a women's community dedicated to the learning of magic. Calwyn's walled home, Antaris, was strongly influenced by the descriptions of Avalon and its priestesses.
3) Blake's Seven was a cheesy British sci-fi TV series which I adored when I was a teenager! It was very dark, very witty, but very cheap... all about a gang of space outlaws on the run from the evil Federation in a dystopian future. For ages I flirted with the idea of writing my own space opera with a similar rebel gang, who eventually morphed into the characters of Calwyn's motley crew in Singer. Darrow was actually named for the actor Paul Darrow, who played the character of Avon, who I swooned over in Blake's 7, though my Darrow is LOT nicer than the cold and calculating Avon!
|Chanters of Tremaris trilogy|
KATE: I decided quite early on that Tremaris would be a society without literacy, so no written language, and also no accurate time-keeping. So instead of writing 'a second later...' I would have to write 'a heartbeat later...' or 'In the space of a breath.' I think having to remind myself about that as I wrote helped to preserve the 'otherness' of Tremaris. I worked out the Nine Powers, or different kinds of magical chantments, before I did anything else, which was fun, and that dictated some of the shape of the story as it unfolded. I'm the kind of person who likes to make rules and stick to them!
I also relied quite heavily on a fascinating book called The Year 1000, by Robert Lacey and Danny Danziger, which describes what daily life was like for English people in the year 1000 - a largely pre-literate, pre-industrial society not unlike Tremaris. So I picked up a few tips from there too.
I tend to have a very vivid mental picture of the places where I set my characters - sometimes based on real locations, or places I've seen on TV - but tweaked for my own purposes. But many of the place-names, cultures and architecture of places in Tremaris drew on worlds and countries and cities I'd dreamed up as a teenager and written down in notebooks when I was supposed to be doing my maths homework - so all that daydreaming wasn't a waste of time, after all.
KATE: I guess I put my characters together with little bits from everywhere - characters I've seen on TV or known in books, people I know in real life - though I try not to base anyone too closely on someone I know, because that can get embarrassing!
To tell the truth, I'm not too sure exactly how characters come to life for me. I think this might be part of the writing process that happens unconsciously in my case! One thing I do try to remember is that no one ever believes they are doing the wrong thing - everyone has a reason for acting the way they do. But people's reasons clash and conflict. That's what makes the world interesting.
KATE: I must admit that I didn't ever actively hunt for an agent, in fact I'm not entirely sure what a query letter looks like! I was very lucky that an agent contacted me after I'd won a prize in a national magazine's short story competition. At that time I had only ever written short stories, but she took me out for a coffee and said 'If you ever write a novel...' It was a wonderful encouragement and when I did later finish a novel manuscript, I sent it to her. That novel ended up unpublished, but my next one was The Singer of All Songs. I was very, very fortunate to be spared that whole gruelling process, it all happened very organically for me.
MAGGIE: Wow! How awesome and lucky! So, you have a very sumptuous writing style. Does it come naturally or is there a trick?
KATE: Ooh, sumptuous! I like that, thanks very much! In fact, as time has passed, I have worked on paring back my writing style, so Singer is about as sumptuous as it gets for me. Almost the first thing that my first editor said to me was (quite sternly), 'Too many adjectives, too many -ing words.' I try to write quite plainly now and not let the scene get too cluttered with 'describing' words - you know what writing teachers always tell you -- a strong verb can do the work of ten adjectives, or something like that... But I do love my adjectives and adverbs and I have to be careful that they don't take over! So I guess the answer is that it does come naturally - maybe too naturally!
MAGGIE: Good advice! It's true adjectives are easy to over-use. What are some of your favorite books and authors?
KATE: [Here Kate listed 12 wonderful books*, and then proceeded to choose one (or some) to focus on.] I'm thinking I might pick the Green Knowe books, partly because they're fresh in my mind as I'm currently reading them to my ten year old daughter and loving them all over again. They are gently magical, written with a wonderful sense of poetry that really benefits from reading aloud, and a lovely awareness of the way history runs through a place - in this case, a very old house and its garden and river - which is a particular favourite theme of mine. In fact a few of the books on my favourites list share that same theme.
MAGGIE: Awesome! I'll add them to my to-read list. What's the hardest part of writing for you (i.e. editing, drafting, huge revisions, etc.)? How do you tackle it?
KATE: Actually I really love redrafting and editing! That's my favourite part of the process, polishing and chipping and recrafting to make the material as good as I can. What I find most difficult is coming up with ideas - is that peculiar? I'm certainly not one of those writers who has notebooks overflowing with ideas for books and can't choose between them! I am quite methodical, I like working my way through one project from beginning to end, then moving on to the next thing.
What I enjoy most is the part where the hard work of thinking up and structuring the story is all done, I have a rough draft in front of me, and I can concentrate on just seeing the action in my mind's eye as it unfolds, and describing it as best I can.
MAGGIE: Neat! Are you writing anything now?
KATE: I'm working on a YA novel set in Papua New Guinea in the 1970s, just before the country gained independence from being an Australian-run territory. It was an interesting time, historically, but not many people in Australia know much about it. And of course I'm interested in it because my family was there (though I was a lot younger than my main character). I've been working on this novel for a long time but it's finally starting to come together. It's tentative titled Independence.
And I've just had a new book come out in Australia called Crow Country, which has been pretty exciting!
MAGGIE: How exciting! And now, to wrap everything up, what's the best advice that you can give to young aspiring authors?
KATE: The only advice I have is to read as much as possible, and as many different styles and genres as you can -- try not to get stuck always reading the same kind of book. If you normally read fiction, try non-fiction. If you usually read fantasy, try some sci-fi. If you only like realism, try some fantasy -- mix it up a bit!
And of course, write as much as you can. Apparently you have spend ten thousand hours practising any skill before you can hope to become really good at it, and I suspect writing is no different! So start clocking up those hours! And good luck. Everyone needs some.
*The Green Knowe books by Lucy M. Boston
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge
The Ghost of Thomas Kempe by Penelope Lively
Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery
The Railway Children by E. Nesbit
A Vicarage Family by Noel Streatfeild
Tom's Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce
The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C.S.Lewis
The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken