I've been meaning to do this for ages: post the Q&A I did with Justine Larbalestiere. The version that appeared in Star Mag was edited because of lack of space so if you're interested in learning more about what makes the author of Magic or Madness tick, I'm posting the entire Q&A here.
Can you describe how you got the idea for Magic or Madness?
There were many ideas that started Magic or Madness bubbling in my head. One of the secrets of writing is that it takes at least two ideas to write a story. One is only enough for a limerick and sometimes not even. For a novel you definitely need at least two.
The main ideas that MorM grew out of were:
1) the things that bugged me about a handful of fantasy books
In most fantasy novels it’s very easy to tell who are the good guys and who are the bad. A large part of the reason I’m so fond of writers like Ursula Le Guin and Robin Hobb is that their worlds are much more complex than that—there’s a lot more grey. I wanted to write a trilogy where you couldn’t be certain who was good and who was bad or who to trust.
2) how magic would really work and the conflict it could cause
I was also determined to write a fantasy where the fate of the entire world wasn’t in the balance. A small scale fantasy with small scale magic. Books in which magic has no cost (something else that makes me love Le Guin and Hobb and Wynne Jones—they never do that) are very irritating. It seems so unlikely to me. If magic really existed surely it would require a vast deal of energy. Where would that energy come from? I got to thinking about that and the magic system of the Magic or Madness trilogy was the result.
3) Sydney and New York City
Magic or Madness is set in Sydney and New York City the two cities I know best in the world. And over the past few years I’ve spent a lot of time travelling back and forth between them and wishing there was a door I could open and instantly be in one or the other, which would be so much better than twenty four hours on a plane!
I have a lot to say about both cities. I was born and bred in Sydney, Australia. I’ve spent the vast majority of my life there. I love her so much I don’t really have the words. Sometimes I feel like Sydney has made her way into my bones. Every time I return home I feel such tremendous relief I’m hard pressed not to kiss the ground. Whenever I’m away I miss Sydney. Sometimes just a little bit, other times so much I get depressed. After much trial and error I’ve discovered I can stand to be away from Sydney for six months. After that I start turning into a basket case. Other than Sydney the city I’ve spent the most time in is New York City. I’m beginning to love New York too, but it will never be home the way Sydney is.
Most of the Sydney sections of Magic or Madness were written in New York City and San Miguel de Allende in Mexico. It was a great way of combatting homesickness. I can write Sydney from anywhere because she’s so ingrained in me. I just close my eyes and I can see King Street in Newtown. I can taste custard apple. Smell the southerly kicking in just before a storm. I also wrote most of the New York sections in Mexico which was a lot harder because my view is an outsider’s view. I had to check those sections very carefully on my next trip to New York. I got quite a lot wrong, including having ice skating at the Lincoln Centre. Oops!
I’ve read that you took just 9 weeks to write the book. That’s fast! Tell us what it was like.
Scott Westerfeld (my husband) and me were in Mexico for three months. We rented two different houses in San Miguel de Allende, a smaller one for the first two months, and a bigger one for the last month when we had friends and relatives visiting us. Both houses had a housekeeper: Silvia Maria Palacios in the first house and Luz Barron in the second. They were wonderful, not only did they keep the houses spotless, cook, wash our clothes, replace lightbulbs almost before they went, but they were also a gas to hang out with, teasing me mercilessly and telling outrageously good stories. I really miss them. Anyway, it’s dead easy to get writing done when you’re not doing any housework, you don’t know anyone (other than Scott, Silvia and Luz), there’s no TV and no internet. Now that I know how easy it is to write if you have someone else doing all the housework I am not even slightly impressed by Charles Dickens’ output. Without a housekeeper and with TV and internet it took me much longer to write the sequel, Magic Lessons.
While I worked on Magic or Madness, Scott wrote the second Midnighters book. Every two or three days when we had at least a whole chapter we read what we had to the other person. It’s a brilliant way to write, you get feedback almost immediately and beacause they’re hearing your words not reading them they don’t talk about commas or get too nitpicky. Also as you read out loud you can hear every bad sentence and fix it straight away. Without television it became our main form of entertainment and we both got very caught up in each other’s books which served as a great incentive to keep on writing.
To clarify: It was just the first draft that took under nine weeks; the book went through several rewrites after that.
Who is your favourite character in the book? Why?
I can’t choose. I love them all. Even Jason Blake (well, I don’t love him exactly). I know all their motivations, their histories, I know why they do what they do. I understand and care about them all. Makes it tricky when it comes time to kill them all off. Just kidding!
Have your readers commented on your use of different grammar in the book? (Incidentally, I think it’s not terribly noticeable in a country like ours where we are equally exposed to American and British English)
Lots of readers have commented on the glossary. Quite a few American readers have told me it was essential—they had to look up lots of the Aussie words. Others said that they could figure it out from context, but thought my glossary was amusing. Australian readers find the glossary hilarious. They love all the little jokes in it.
It was very important to me to have Reason & Tom’s chapters be Australian and Jay-Tee’s be American. Even though I’ve been visiting the US since 1993 and lived there from 1999-2001, I still come across linguistic differences. I say something like “bitumen” and Americans have no idea what I’m saying, or they say “nascar” and I look at them blankly. Just because we both speak English doesn’t mean we always understand each other.
Australians also get equal exposure to US and UK English, so we’re definitely better at understanding Americans than they are at understanding us. This book is my first step in teaching Americans to speak Australian. I’ve already had a few people report to me that they love the word “chunder” and have started using it.
Are the characters with magical powers supposed to be witches? Who is your favourite fictional witch?
This is going to sound strange, but I really don’t think of them as witches. They wield magic, but without wands or broomsticks or cauldrons. They’re not witches in any traditional sense and a lot of what they’re trying to do is not use too much magic.
When I was a kid I watched a lot of TV. Bewitched was one of my favourite shows, but I didn’t like Samantha, I loved her naughty cousin, Serena, and her mother Esmeralda. I always wanted them to win the day. Come to think of it that may be where I got the name Esmeralda for the grandmother in my book. Interesting.
Would you like Magic or Madness to be made into a movie?
Of course! Not only would it be extra money, but I’d get to see what it looks like on the big screen. I do know that can be a painful, painful experience. Just read Ursula Le Guin’s eloquent essay about what happened to her Earthsea trilogy! But I’m an optimist, should my book be optioned, and should it then get greenlighted, I will hope for the best. Anyway, a bad film of your book doesn’t affect sales of your book; whereas a good film does.
Are you a Tolkien fan? What did you think about The Lord of the Rings movie?
I loved The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings as a kid, reading them both many times. I thought the movies were an incredible achievement.
What about C. S. Lewis’s Narnia books? Are you looking forward to the film of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe?
Again when I was a kid I thought they were just amazing. It will be fascinating to see the new film. I loved the BBC TV series when I was little.
What or who inspires your writing?
So many different people and places. As I said Sydney and New York definitely inspired Magic or Madness. My husband, Scott Westerfeld, has been very inspiring in improving my work ethic. He works so hard and with such discipline that it’s hard not to do the same thing. Especially as we almost always write in the same room!
My parents always encouraged me to do whatever I wanted to do, always told me everything I wrote was fabulous, and kept me supplied with books. I’ve also been inspired by my favourite books and by writer teachers and friends who’ve critiqued and encouraged my writing over the years. People like Yvette Christiansë, Samuel R. Delany, Karen Joy Fowler, Ellen Kushner, Margo Lanagan, George Papaellinas, Mandy Sayer, Kim Stanley Robinson, Delia Sherman, Janette Turner Hospital, and Micheal Wilding. I’ve been very very lucky.
Were you an avid reader as a child?
Yes. When my family were living in a remote area of the Northern Territory (in Australia) I would get twitchy and difficult to be with when I ran out of books, so they went to great lengths to keep me supplied.
Pretty much everything. When I was very little I was obsessed with Enid Blyton. The Folk of the Faraway Tree was the very first book I read on my own. I loved The Magic Pudding and anything by Patricia Wrightson, or Ursula Le Guin, or Susan Cooper, or Rosemary Sutcliffe. I also went through a Nancy Drew, Angelique, Conan the Barbarian, Three Investigators, and Hardy Boys stage. I was also obsessed by books of myths and legends and fairy tales. I especially adored Andrew Lang’s Coloured Fairy Books. Basically I would read any book I could get my hands on.
Do you still read children’s and young adult books?
Yes. I stopped reading them when I was around twelve because I decided I was far too grown up and sophisticated and would only read adult books from then on. Then in my twenties a good friend, Lawrence Schimel, gave me Philip Ridley’s In the Eyes of Mr Fury which I adored without realising it was a young adult book. He then loaned me a whole stack of M. E. Kerr books and many others I forget the names of. Anyway I was off—have been reading young adult and children’s chapter books ever since. Clearly, I’m much less sophisticated now then I was at twelve. I didn’t discover Diana Wynne Jones or Margaret Mahy until I was an adult. Now they’re two of my most favourite writers.
The last young adult book to blow me away was Valiant by Holly Black. She takes beauty and the beast and old ballads and transforms them into a dark story about faerie and humans in contemporary New York City. Strangely it’s much more accurate about high school experiences than many YAs that are actually set in a high school. I read it in one sitting and can’t wait to read it again. The last younger book was Nips XI by Ruth Starke—funny, warm, and all about cricket (I’m a cricket obsessive). I’m really looking forward to reading the sequel.
Why do you think fantasy novels are so popular these days?
I think Harry Potter (both books and films) and the Lord of the Rings movies has a great deal to do with it, but I’m not convinced fantasy has ever not been popular. So many classic children’s books are fantasies: The Chronicles of Narnia, The Hobbit, Charlotte’s Web, The Magic Pudding, Wizard of Oz, Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland, and Tarzan just to name a few.
I read tonnes of fantasy. Fantasy is probably my favourite genre, though I use the term very broadly. I consider Angela Carter and Elizabeth Knox and Isak Dinesen and Lisa St Aubin de Teran (all of them wonderful, wonderful writers) and a host of others who are usually classified as mainstream or “literary” writers to be fantasists. I love reading books that take me to places I’ve never been before (in place or time). Dorothy Dunnett, Sarah Waters and Geraldine McCaughrean (who writes wonderful children’s books as well as amazing adult historicals) are favourites and so are Robin Hobb and Georgette Heyer.
When did you decide that you wanted to be a writer? If you weren’t one, what would you be instead?
As long as I can remember I’ve told and written stories. I never wanted to be anything else though I fell into being an academic for a while. I guess if the writing doesn’t work out I can go back to that.
Right now Margo Lanagan is the best Australian young adult writer. Her latest book, a collection of stories called Black Juice is utterly amazing. I’m not even sure it is a young adult book. I know more adults than teenagers who love it. I wish I could write that well.
Is it a problem getting Australian children to read? Why do you think kids read so much less these days and what can be done to encourage a love for reading?
I’m not convinced kids do read less these days. Sure there are computer games and other distractions. But I was plenty distracted by TV as a kid. I watched a tonne of it and still managed to read heaps too. I’ve seen kids who love computer games read the novelisations of the game and then get into other books. Also I’m seeing lots of kids reading manga obsessively. Some manga is extraordinarily good.
Do children/YA books get a lot of press in Australia?
They seem to be getting a lot more press since the Harry Potter explosion. I suspect that’s the same all over. I’m very grateful to J. K. Rowling. She’s revolutionised children’s/YA literature. The writers are now getting better paid and more attention because of her. I think she’s wonderful.
Do you have children of your own? Do you believe in restricting children’s reading material?
I don’t, but fortunately lots of my friends do. I’d hate to live a child-free life.
I don’t believe in blanket censorship, because it’s such an individul thing—some books that are a really bad idea for certain people to read are just fine for others. I once babysat for a brother and sister who I’d tell gory fairy stories. They’d lap them up, but the brother would have terrible nightmares and not be able to sleep, whereas they didn’t affect his younger sister at all. I toned down the stories after that and when her brother wasn’t around I’d tell the sister the real version.
Can readers expect all kinds of books from you? What would you never consider writing? Horror? A bodice ripper?
It’d be fun writing either one of those if I had a good idea for one. If I enjoy reading a genre then I enjoy writing it. There are very few genres I actively dislike. Though I’ll never write a cosy mystery. Agatha Christie kind of books do nothing for me. I’d rather read the phone book.
I’d love to do a picture book. I can’t even draw decent stick people so I’d have to have someone else illustrate for me. It’d be fabulous to have Shaun Tan. He’s an exceptionally amazing Australian artist, though I think he mostly illustrates his own books now.
Do you have a favourite picture book?
Slugs by David Greenburg & Victoria Chase. It’s hilarious.
What are you reading at the moment?
He Kills Coppers by Jake Arnott which is definitely not a children’s book! I’m only two chapters in but I’m loving it so far. His first book, The Long Firm, was very impressive.
What is your favourite place to read?
Inspiration, ideal dining companion and hunky husband: Scott Westerfeld, author of Uglies, Pretties, Risen Empire and other excellent sci-fi novels.
Who is your favourite novelist?
This changes on a daily basis, but today it’s Dawn Powell.
Who is your favourite character?
Again it depends on when you ask me. Today it’s Venetia from the book of the same title by Georgette Heyer.
What is your favourite play?
Bon-Bons and Roses for Dolly by Dorothy Hewett.
What is your favourite quotation?
“There’s no good writing only good rewriting.”
What is the first book you can remember reading?
Folk of the Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton.
What is the most erotic book you’ve read?
Pride and Prejudiceby Jane Austen.
Do you have a comfort book that you re-read?
I have many. It depends on what kind of comfort I need. Right now I feel like rereading Sorcery & Cecelia by Caroline Stevermer and Patricia Wrede.
Who would be your ideal literary dining companions?
I’m very lucky — I’m married to my ideal literary dining companion so I get to have dinner with Scott Westerfeld every night.
Which author, dead or alive, would you like to go on a date with?
See previous answer.
What book do you wish you had written?
Pretty much all my favourite ones. At the moment I wish I’d written Margo Lanagan’s Black Juice.