I always wanted to be a writer, but it took a long, long, long time before I made it. No one’s fault but my own! I wasn’t rejected, I just couldn’t finish anything I started writing. Twenty-five years of writer’s block – the whole frustrating story is there on my bio page.
I think what made the difference was the arrival of the PC, so that I didn’t have to retype an entire page for every small revision. Maybe also the fact that I’d finally managed to finish a different (academic) kind of book. I was in the middle of ten years as a university lecturer when – miracle of miracles – I finished my first novel.
The Vicar of Morbing Vyle was a cult novel – a very, very cult novel. Hard to describe what it is: a sort of gothic-bizarre-grotesque farce. A bit like Rocky Horror, maybe, but more seriously horrific and macabre, more its own myth, less a send-up of existing horror conventions. I like to call it Grand Guignol, because it fits with my very vague notion of what Grand Guignol is or was. The Vicar was certainly too off-beat for any mainstream publisher, but came out from a small press in 1993 and received some great reviews.
Over time, it really did gather a cult following, and was still generating interest decades later. In the end, I decided I owed a debt to all those loyal fans and did what they’d been demanding for years – I wrote a sequel. Or more accurately, a prequel, telling of an earlier incarnation of the Vicar himself. The Black Crusade is probably more outright laugh-out-loud funny than the first book …
Meanwhile, back in the 90s, I was still lecturing, writing academic books and fitting in Spec Fic writing when I had the chance. I had one incredible slice of luck that gave me my break into mainstream publication. One of the glowing reviews on The Vicar of Morbing Vyle was by Van Ikin, writing for the Sydney Morning Herald, and I wrote to him to say thanks – never expecting an answer. In fact, he not only answered but said he’d be happy to read any other manuscript of mine, if I had one to send his way. This does not happen!!!
So I finished and sent him an SF manuscript, an SF detective thriler. Van had been asked by Pan Macmillan to keep an eye out for any promising spec fic, and he recommended The Dark Edge to them. See how it all slots into place! The fluke of it! Pan Macmillan offered me a contract, and I was on my way.
With my history of writer’s block, I still didn’t know if I could finish the sequel; and when I did finish it, I still couldn’t know how long I could keep on getting published. People called it a ‘courageous’ decision, meaning crazy like a fool. But so far – touch wood! – the gamble has paid off, and my career as a full-time writer keeps getting better and better.
The sequel to The Dark Edge was Taken by Force, starring the same two detectives, Eddon and Vail. The third in the series, Hidden from View, came out a year later.
Next step was a switch of publisher, to Penguin who brought out the first version of the Ferren books, and also Walter Wants to be a Werewolf in their Aussie Chomps series. Yes, Walter wants to be a werewolf like the rest of his family, but when the full moon rises, he turns into something very, very different. Everyone’s still trying to work out what that something is, when burglars break into the family home …
I was enjoying writing for younger readers, and my next novel was pitched midway between the Aussie Chomps age and the Ferren books age. Sassycat is an animal story, mostly voiced by Sassycat herself – the coolest of cats, with heaps of sass and whiskers to die for. It’s a supernatural story too, when Sassycat has to take on a horde of evil ghosts emerging from the underworld.
Sassycat came out from Scholastic, and so did my next four Children’s Fantasies, the Wolf Kingdom quartet. I’ve always felt really pleased with those books – and the Aurealis judges must have liked them too, because they gave them the Aurealis Award for Children’s Speculative Fiction. (One of the six Aurealis Awards I’ve won). Tam and Nina’s story has a fairytale quality, but ultimately it’s about the Freefolk of the forest in rebellion against the rule of the wolves. I was incredibly lucky to have Laura Peterson as an illustrator – her pictures for the books are just brilliant!
Then another switch: readership from Children’s to YA, publisher from Scholastic to Allen & Unwin, and genre from fairytale fantasy to steampunk. I was lucky – steampunk was just starting to gain traction, and I’d had a steampunk novel all ready to write from years back. Decades back, in fact! So Worldshaker came out from Allen & Unwin and went on to sell around the world. Simon & Schuster in the US paid me a whopping advance for it, and it was also taken up by publishers in the UK, France, Germany and Brazil. Definitely my biggest success story to date! Simon & Schuster sent me on an American book tour to promote it, Hélium shipped me out to the Montreuil Book Fair in Paris a little later.
I followed Worldshaker with a sequel, Liberator, then another novel with new characters and an unrelated story, but set in the same steampunk world. That was Song of the Slums, which was published internationally like the other steampunk novels.
And now it’s on to the Ferren Trilogy with IFWG! I feel like I’ve been gathering momentum with every publication … fingers crossed for hitting the biggest jackpot yet!
(Maybe it’s weird after having writer’s block for so many years – I like to think it’s because I had to work so specially hard to turn myself into a successful writer. Anyway, I wrote out 145 pages of Tips for Writing Fantasy, which many people have said helped them a lot. They’re up on a separate website, in US, Australian and UK versions, if you want to check them out.)