Garth Nix was born in 1963 in Melbourne, Australia. A full-time writer since 2001, he has worked as a literary agent, marketing consultant, book editor, book publicist, book sales representative, bookseller, and as a part-time soldier in the Australian Army Reserve. Garth’s books include the award-winning fantasy novels Sabriel, Lirael, and Abhorsen, and the cult favorite young adult SF novel Shade’s Children. His fantasy novels for children include The Ragwitch, the six books of The Seventh Tower sequence, and The Keys to the Kingdom series. His most recent books are Troubletwisters, co-written with Sean Williams, and A Confusion of Princes. More than five million copies of his books have been sold around the world, his books have appeared on the bestseller lists of The New York Times, Publishers Weekly, The Guardian, and The Australian, and his work has been translated into 38 languages. He lives in a Sydney beach suburb with his wife and two children.
This interview first appeared on Wired.com’s The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast, which is hosted by John Joseph Adams and David Barr Kirtley. Visit geeksguideshow.com to listen to the entire interview and the rest of the show, in which the hosts discuss various geeky topics.
What kind of an impact has being from Australia had on your fiction and on your writing career?
I think I’ve actually benefited from Australia being a kind of combination of both British and American culture. We kind of got the best of both British and American television and books, science fiction and fantasy, and so on. So I’m familiar with a lot of, for example, American books and television that a British author of my generation might not be.
I got started pretty much as the internet was on the rise, and it wasn’t all that long before the internet made being published and doing business and being read more widely a lot easier. So I think it would have had a much more profound effect even if I’d started 10 years before I did. And in fact, quite possibly, I would have moved in order to make the most of my writing and publishing opportunities. I would probably have needed to move either to the UK or to the USA.
I think there is a kind of laconic Australian leg-pulling sense of humor that is certainly in some of my stories, or is an element in some of my books, and that’s probably a direct result of where I’ve grown up. But other than that I don’t draw particularly on the Australian landscape or the Australian biology and so on. So I don’t think there’s anything you could point to and say is particularly Australian.
I mean, people often presume I’m from whatever country they’re from. So Americans presume I’m American and the British presume I’m British. And they’re surprised to discover I actually am Australian. And actually some Australians are surprised too. [laughter] I’m not quite sure what that says.
Your initial career plan was actually to be a soldier. Why did you decide to become a writer instead?
I guess the short answer to that is that I became a part-time soldier and discovered I didn’t want to become a full-time one. I joined our equivalent of the National Guard when I was 17 and I was still in school, because I was thinking that when I left school I would go to a military academy and become an officer. I enjoyed the army reserve, and I learned a lot from it, but I also . . . it helped me work out that I didn’t want to live in that kind of closed environment.
I have a lot of friends who served in the regular army for a long time. Quite a few of my friends from that time went on to become full-time soldiers. But you live in a world that is entirely army. Your whole world is pretty much that military service, and it’s very hard to do other things and to break out of that environment.
Have any of your experiences as a soldier influenced your writing at all?
Absolutely. I’ve had a lifelong interest in military history as well, and certainly that’s informed all kinds of stuff all through my books. But you take Sabriel, for example, my second published novel. It’s set in a sort of 1918-ish country that’s kind of like England, which is separated by a sort of World War I trench line called the Perimeter and a wall from a country called the Old Kingdom.
And in Ancelstierre, the 1918-ish country, technology works but magic doesn’t. Except that magic does work closer to the Wall. And when you cross the Wall, modern technology fails and magic works. But the Perimeter is manned by the army of Ancelstierre, which is really like a first World War British or Australian trench line. So certainly I drew on my experiences of how that sort of thing works for some of the characters—the officers, the NCOs, and so on.
You know, I’ve never been pursued by monsters through the night that were going to kill me when they caught me and so on, but I did participate in exercises. I did one, for example, an escape and evasion exercise, where we were just dropped in the bush with nothing, and had to escape from an entire company that was searching for me and three other people, and we had to basically try to stay away from them until dawn.
So how did you first get started publishing fiction?
I sold my first short story when I was 19. It was called “Sam, Cars, and the Cuckoo.” I sent it to White Dwarf Magazine, which at that time was a general gaming magazine but also occasionally published bits of fiction. And I’d written a few gaming articles for them—a Dungeons & Dragons piece and a Traveler piece.
I wrote the story while I was in the United Kingdom, and it was a sort of futuristic, dueling-car sort of story. And I sent it to White Dwarf because they did occasionally then print stories. And I got a telegram—this is shortly before telegrams ceased to exist—and the telegram was from Penguin in the United Kingdom, saying: “Have story ‘Sam, Cars, and the Cuckoo.’ Would like to publish in magazine Warlock.”
Warlock was a magazine . . . they only published I think three or four issues. It was a magazine that Penguin did to support their Fighting Fantasy books, their choose-your-own-adventure-style books. I don’t know if you recall those. They’ve come and gone several times, I think, over the last 25 to 28 years. And they’d done one that was a sort of Car Wars-type choose-your-own-adventure thing, and they wanted the story to support that.
An editor on White Dwarf had gone to start Warlock Magazine, and he’d taken the story with him. He’d just taken various bits of unsolicited stuff with him to look at, and he’d chosen to publish that. So it was one of those examples of a lucky break, because the story got to the right person—even though I hadn’t sent it to that magazine. And I thought, “Well, this is good. I’ll write one of these stories every couple weeks, and I’ll get the money, and it’ll be plain sailing.” And I think I probably wrote maybe 20 stories over the next five years, and couldn’t sell any of them.
Speaking of role-playing games, were you playing role-playing games? Do you still play role-playing games?
I started playing Dungeons & Dragons very early on, with that very first set, the white box with the three little booklets in it, which would have been 1974, probably. I was 11. And I ran a Dungeons & Dragons campaign all through high school, which then stopped as we all went our different paths. But I kept playing various role-playing games with friends, off and on, pretty much all through my university years, and for a few years thereafter. Then I stopped for a long time.
I love role-playing games. I’m still very interested in them; I just haven’t had time to play really for the last 20 years. I probably play about once a year. I have a particular group of friends I used to play with in Canberra, which is where I grew up, and I play with them every now and again when I get to go down. It was a very formative thing for me, and I think a big part of helping me shape my skills as a storyteller was, in fact, running a Dungeons & Dragons campaign for many, many years.
You mentioned that you worked in publishing, and it looks like you’ve had a wide variety of jobs in publishing: In addition to being an author, you’ve also been an agent, editor, bookseller, publicist, and sales rep. How did you end up working at so many different kinds of jobs?
I wanted to write, and I was always writing. I was pretty much constantly writing when I was 19. But I knew I needed a day job, so I went to university and I studied writing. I majored in screenwriting. And when I finished, I got a job in a bookshop where a bunch of my friends worked, and I probably would have stayed much longer, except that the owners of the bookshop were retiring, and they actually sold the whole building, which they owned—which is the secret of actually making money in bookselling, is to own the real estate.
So they sold the bookshop, and I was offered a job by a publisher as a sales rep, because I’d gotten on well with one of the sales managers who used to come and sell books to us, and she thought I could do a good job as a sales rep. So I became a sales rep, and then a publicist with a very, very small independent publisher, and then from there I went to an academic publisher on the editorial side, which is where I wanted to be. I didn’t really want to work in sales. Though I didn’t mind it, I just would have preferred to be on the editorial side. And I joined an academic publisher, where I actually had some very good training as an editor and as a production editor—I worked on the production side quite a lot, so typesetting and layout and all that sort of stuff. And I did a monthly magazine for several years, and then I moved to trade publishing as a senior editor with Harper Collins, and I was there for quite a while.
But eventually I got sort of tired of publishing. I thought, “Okay, I’m tired of being poor, I need to get a job.” I was still writing, and in fact by that time I’d had one book out, and I was well on my way with Sabriel, my second book. But the first book hadn’t been a success, so I still needed the day job. And I had a complete change of career for a while—I got a job with a public relations and marketing company that mainly worked with technology companies. It was enormously better paid than working in publishing, but ultimately less satisfying. And in the meantime Sabriel had come out, and it was a success—it was a sort of modest success at first which built, and on the back of that I had an American deal for a couple of books, which enabled me to be a full-time writer.
So actually I became a full-time writer in 1998, but I wasn’t really prepared. I went from being incredibly busy working in my PR firm—and by that stage I’d actually started one; I was a partner in a PR and marketing firm. I went from being incredibly busy with that, and also writing at night and on the weekends, to suddenly having all the time in the world. And I think in 1998 I did less work than in any year ever, even though it was my first year as a full-time writer. I wrote less in that year than at any other time, because I hadn’t psychologically prepared myself for the change.
And after that I went back to work part-time, with Curtis Brown Australia, the literary agency. And I loved being an agent; that was probably my favorite job I’ve ever had, and I was with Curtis Brown for a few years. But I really had to decide to be a writer or an agent, because the writing had taken off, and I couldn’t devote enough time to being an agent, so I had to make a choice, and writing was always the most important thing.
I sometimes talk to people who think I got published because I was an editor, or because I was an agent, and I have to disabuse them of that notion. It wasn’t because of my emplacement within the industry. Actually the writing came first, and the publishing came first as well.
When you were writing Sabriel and its sequels, how did you go about inventing all that history, geography, the different types of magic, and so on?
With Sabriel, and this actually applies to all my work . . . despite the role-playing game background—or maybe because of it, actually, I’m not sure—I don’t do all the background and the world-building before I start the story. What I do is I work out the bare minimum I need to start the story, and often that really is a bare minimum—it’s a character in a situation, and I know nothing about the character, I know nothing about the situation, and then I think about it for a long time, and make notes about where I think the story is going to go and so on, but I don’t really make notes to do with the background or the magic system or the world. It’s really all pretty much story-based, and I start writing it, and I discover the world and the magic and everything else through the story as I’m writing it.
And sometimes that means that I have to stop and pause for some time when I do find something that needs a lot more thought. So with Sabriel, for example, I started with the prologue as it is in the book, with Sabriel being born and the baby being taken into death and so on, and that’s really where I found out, okay, well, they can go into death, and death is a river. It flows through nine gates, and they’re the precincts of death, and there are people who can go into death and so on, but I really didn’t know what I was going to do with that or anything else beyond that. Then after I had written the prologue, I probably let it sit for six months, nine months—I’d have to go back and check—quite a long time while I started thinking about the story. And originally I was going to write the book about Sabriel’s father, but once I’d written the prologue, I thought, “Well actually, Sabriel herself is more interesting.”
Then I started the book. I really didn’t know about charter magic or really much about the bells. I had introduced the bells, but I hadn’t actually worked out that they were really the seven named bells that necromancers use to control the dead and to raise the dead and to walk in death, and that Sabriel and her father—the Abhorsens—used to banish the dead and set the dead to rest. So most of it I discovered as I was writing the book. And that’s pretty much how I’ve always worked ever since. I write some small part of the book, I think about it for a long time, and then I discover the world and everything else as I go along.
What culture or language inspired you when you were creating the names of characters such as Sabriel and Lirael?
With Sabriel, I wanted a name that was dark and powerful. To try to make that name I tried various things, but ultimately with Sabriel it’s actually a combination of playing with the heraldic term for black, which is “sable,” and I was trying to combine that with various word parts or endings that evoked power, and what I ended up with was I drew on the names of angels, which often end in “-ael” or “-iel,” so the Hebrew names of angels, which instinctively to us feel powerful. And of course once I’d started along that path with that family of names that use “-ael” and “-iel” endings, I ended up having to continue with that, but it started with Sabriel. But I spend a lot of time with names. I might write down 50 variations on a theme before adopting a name, and that applies to creatures and places and everything else, as well as characters.
The Wikipedia page for your novel Abhorsen says, “The origin of this title is unknown, but Nix may have chosen the name referencing the executioner in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure.” Is there any truth to that?
Yeah, that’s correct. That’s where the name comes from. It’s spelled slightly differently in Measure for Measure, and I’ve said this various times when people have asked me this that that’s actually where it came from, so I’m surprised Wikipedia hasn’t got it right and said it’s perfectly known.
Well, you could go edit it yourself, right?
[laughing] I could, that’s true. I do look at my own Wikipedia page from time to time to make sure they haven’t introduced any new, strange things, but I haven’t really looked at the ones for the individual books. Perhaps I should.
Have there been incorrect things about you on Wikipedia that you’ve seen in the past?
Let’s see, there was one, I think, talking about influences or something where someone wrote something about me being influenced by a book that came out about five years after Sabriel [laughing]. So I changed that. But yes, with Abhorsen it’s a similar thing there. Because the Abhorsens in a way are executioners—they make the dead stay dead. So I went looking for a name that was not particularly well known but that would resonate as an executioner, and I looked through lots of historical sources as well as eventually turning to Shakespeare, and choosing that name from the name of the executioner in Measure for Measure.
So what was it like returning to the Old Kingdom after having worked on the Morrow Day series for so long?
I’m working on Clariel at the moment, which is the next Old Kingdom novel. And it is the first time I’m back in the Old Kingdom in terms of prose and new stuff for really a decade, because I wrote Lirael and Abhorsen, and I’ve written various other odds and ends. I’ve written a couple of quite long short stories, novelette-length stuff, but the last of those was even a few years back.
But one of the reasons I returned was because several years ago I started working on an adaptation of Sabriel as a graphic novel, which I’ve done, so I did that adaptation, which put me back in the world. Then when I’d done the graphic novel . . . it’s a very long and convoluted story, but we’ve been in discussions with various combinations of people to make a film of Sabriel for about five years. And I was going to write the screenplay with a great American screenwriter, but unfortunately he ended up being too busy working on various other things.
So after I had written the graphic novel adaptation, I thought, “Well, I’m sort of halfway there. I might as well just write a screenplay myself.” And I do write screenplays. I’ve written several original screenplays, and as I’ve said, that’s what I studied at university. So I wrote the screenplay of Sabriel about eighteen months ago, and that really got me back in the world. Doing the graphic novel adaptation, doing the screenplay, made me think, “I do want to write another Old Kingdom novel.” And I had notes for various things, and I decided the time is right to go back, and I’m writing Clariel at the moment.
Speaking of screenplays, I came across a post online where one of your fans said, “Garth Nix has famously declined offers to make films of his books, a decision I greatly respect.” What sort of offers have you received, and why have you turned them down?
It probably would be more accurate to say that I’ve never received the right kind of offer for the films. [laughing] There have been various offers for various books at various times, and there have been offers that I have actually accepted. And we have been close to actually having . . . particularly for Sabriel, we actually have been at the point twice where everything has been agreed, we’re about to sign the papers, and it’s all fallen over at the last minute due to changes in personnel or sudden doubts about tax schemes and so on, which is all part and parcel of that world. Nothing’s done until it’s done. There’s been some stuff going on with various books, mostly Sabriel, but also with Keys to the Kingdom at various times for a long time.
I’ve taken possibly a difficult road, in that I want to have a high degree of involvement, and that makes it all much more difficult. Me writing the screenplay for Sabriel, for example, makes it less attractive to studios and the bigger production companies, which typically don’t want the original author involved for all kinds of reasons.
Maybe nothing will ever happen with any of them, maybe something will. I had a meeting yesterday with some people who want to do something with Keys. Sabriel is probably in its fifth round of negotiations with a different big company than we were negotiating with last year. This stuff goes on and on.
I also, with my wife, own an animation company, which we set up primarily to produce my brother Jonathan’s films. We’ve just made a thirty-minute animated film called The Missing Key, which premiered in the middle of last year at the Sydney Film Festival. It’s set in a reimagined 1920s Venice where everyone has gramophones for heads—or radios, or tape players. There are a couple of trailers for The Missing Key, which are at TheMissingKey.com.
In the last few years you’ve written a series of short stories about a pair of adventurers named Sir Hereward and Mister Fitz. Could you tell us a bit about those?
The idea of Mister Fitz, who’s a puppet who is also a sorcerer, I’m sure comes from the fact that my mother made papier-mâché puppets when I was a child, and in particular one year she made puppets of all the Moomintroll characters, and put on a show of Moominland Midwinter for me for my birthday party. So papier-mâché puppets were part of my childhood. And I guess one of the other main influences there would be Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, Michael Moorcock stories, and so on. But I also wanted to do a sort of . . . I mean, I’m very interested in 17th-century history, and I wanted to do not just a sword-and-sorcery novel, I wanted to do a kind of “gunpowder-and-sorcery” story.
I’ve actually got another couple stories I’m working on with those characters. There are three stories now, which are available as an ebook, Sir Hereward and Mr. Fitz: Three Adventures, which you can get on Amazon and iTunes and so on.
And they live in this world where different cities have patron gods, and the two heroes go around hunting down evil gods who have gotten themselves on the proscribed list. Could you identify any influences for that idea?
Part of what I like about the story is they are part of an organization that works for a political entity that doesn’t exist anymore, and hasn’t for centuries, so they’re still doing this job even though no one necessarily wants them to do it. I haven’t explored this fully, but there’s also the question of why the gods are proscribed, why they’re on the list, should they be on the list? I mean, one of the basic influences would be stuff like Robert Howard’s Conan, in which there are often evil gods or the manifestations of ancient evil and so on.
One of your other recent stories is a science fiction vampire story called “Infestation.” How did that come about?
I think the basic impetus for that story was reading about how limelight worked—the limelight that was used to illuminate theaters and so on. It was a very dangerous method of lighting, because it often resulted in explosive combustion, and I think that I was reading about limelight and thinking about, “Gee, vampires would be really scared of limelight,” and then everything sort of carried on from there. I liked the idea of all these tooled-up vampire hunters being joined by this slacker surfer dude who looks about 19, and who carries whatever vampire-killing tools he’s got in an old airline bag.
In “Infestation,” one thing I thought was really interesting is this idea of amateur vampire hunters who are given permits by the government to go hunting vampires. Was there anything about that idea that struck you or appealed to you?
I guess that just came out of the setup. I set up essentially a contemporary world, but there are vampires that have been emerging. They’ve been woken up by the massive increase in free radio frequency, and it’s woken up all these ancient warriors, which are genetically made to kill people. Now, there would be the police and so on, but there would also be the sort of people who want to kill them as well. There would be amateurs who want to kill them for reasons of revenge, or there would be bounty hunters who would be excited by it, or by the prospects of rewards for killing them and so on. So that was one layer of the story. Then, in a way, Jay—he’s the slacker surfer dude—but he is actually the most professional vampire killer of them all, because that’s why he’s there. He’s actually been put on earth to get rid of them, way back from when they were first put there as well, as part of a backstory of an interstellar war long ago.
Let’s talk about your new book, A Confusion of Princes. What’s that about?
A Confusion of Princes is a little bit of a departure for me, because it’s science fiction—not fantasy, which is pretty much where I’ve been, novel-wise, for a long time. In fact, it’s my first science fiction novel since Shade’s Children in 1997, which was a post-apocalyptic dystopian novel, and as the world has rolled around, post-apocalyptic dystopian YA is flavor of the month. It’s being re-released, so my first science fiction novel, Shade’s Children, is coming out again with a new cover and a new look in a few months, and A Confusion of Princes comes out May 15 in the US and the UK. It’s just come out this month in Australia.
And A Confusion of Princes is a science fiction story. It’s the story of Khemri, who’s a prince in a galactic empire, and the galactic empire is a vast interstellar empire inhabited by trillions of people, but it’s actually ruled and managed by 10 million princes, and the princes are modified and augmented—they’re modified genetically, they’re technologically altered and enhanced. They also have boosted psionic powers—they have mechtech, psitech, and biotech powers. And Khemri has been raised that he is a prince, he’s one of the rulers of the empire, pretty much everyone has to do as he tells them. You know, he thinks he’s just going to walk out and do whatever he wants, and he discovers that it’s actually not quite like that.
He’s been raised in ignorance of the fact that, while princes do rule the empire, they have to work within certain boundaries, and they’re also always in a contest with each other to become the next emperor. And this contest includes actually killing each other, doing anything they can get away with to each other, so he’s immediately under threat as soon as he emerges as a prince, and in fact there’s an assassination attempt upon him immediately. In order to survive, he ends up having to join the navy, where he’s safe—or relatively safe—from being assassinated, and that all leads into a whole host of adventures that he has where he discovers that perhaps being a prince is not everything that you’d want it to be, that in fact there may be advantages to not being a prince, that being human could be actually a better condition. So it’s a coming-of-age story, it’s also a becoming-human story, and it’s an adventure story.
I’m a huge Roger Zelazny fan, and so any story involving superhuman feuding princes makes me think of Nine Princes in Amber. Would you say that this is kind of like that, except a million times bigger, because there are 10 million princes?
Certainly, Zelazny is a big influence. I’m a big Zelazny fan myself; I love Nine Princes in Amber and the whole series. In actual fact, I’d not thought about it. I dedicated the book to Robert Heinlein and Andre Norton. I loved Heinlein’s and Norton’s young adult books enormously growing up, and what I was trying to do was try to write something in that vein, but updated, and I hadn’t actually thought about Zelazny, but now that you point it out, actually, of course it’s a big influence—the whole feuding princes thing, the whole secret nature of the universe. Thank you for pointing that out. I shall have to mention Zelazny as well as Heinlein and Norton when I’m talking about the book.
A Confusion of Princes is actually tied to an online videogame called Imperial Galaxy. What’s the connection there?
Imperial Galaxy is an online game that I developed with a very good friend of mine, Phil Wallach, who’s a fantastic programmer. And I’d just started mapping out A Confusion of Princes, so I said, “Let’s use the background for A Confusion of Princes—this massive galactic empire ruled by millions of princes, and the players can be princes in the game and so on.” Our plan was that you played a prince and you could choose one of the different careers within the empire.
Khemri, in the book Confusion of Princes, joins the imperial navy and goes to the naval academy, but he could have equally joined one of the other imperial services, which include colonial government and the scout service, classic science-fictional empire stuff. But we realized we couldn’t develop all of these subgames, we should just focus on one game, and so we started work on primarily a navy game, which was a sort of galactic exploration and conflict game, but it’s also a career game where you try to get promoted within the navy and you get medals and so on. And we developed a very basic version of this, which still took quite a long time and quite a lot of money, all of which came from ourselves—it was all privately funded.
And then once we had that proof of concept done, we were looking at different ways of launching it. And Facebook was taking off at that time. It must have been in 2008, and we decided that we’d do it as a Facebook game. Which we did, and it actually caught on, as a beta test. It got quite a lot of attention—we had 30,000 people playing at one stage, and then we went to try to get some money to properly develop it and expand the whole thing. Unfortunately, that was also the time of the global financial crisis, so we basically went to Silicon Valley at a time when everyone was freaking out and money was hard to come by. So, unfortunately, we couldn’t get any further investment in the game, and so it essentially just sort of atrophied.
You can still play it, if you go to ImperialGalaxy.com, you can create a character, you can do some stuff, but it’s really only a proof of concept that we developed in order to try to get more funding to properly develop the game. And, of course, the other aspect of it was that we’d hoped to develop the game to launch at the same time as the book, but of course we haven’t. So we have a book, and we have a sort of proof of concept, super-cut-down beta version of the game for people to play. So in some ways, as I said to my friend Phil, it’s kind of the most expensive and least useful piece of marketing for a book ever done.
Are there any other new or upcoming projects you’d like to mention?
Well, I should mention another fun project that I’ve been doing. I’ve been working on a children’s series called Troubletwisters, which I’m co-writing with my friend Sean Williams. It’s about a pair of twins called Jack and Jade, who come into mysterious powers that they can’t control, and they blow their house up at the beginning of the first book, and are forced to move in with their grandmother, who also has these magical gifts and is supposed to train them in the use of their gifts, and they get embroiled in an ancient struggle with an entity called The Evil, which is always trying to get into our world. So they’re a lot of fun, those books, and the second one is coming out shortly.
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