Garth Nix, one of Australia’s most internationally successful authors, says lying on the couch with his eyes shut is a crucial part of his working life. By Kate Holden.
Garth Nix is one of Australia’s many massive but locally underrated international success stories. His fantasy fiction, often marketed to young adults, has sold more than six million copies worldwide and been translated into more than 40 languages.
In the 30 years since his first novel, and nearly 30 since he committed to full-time writing, he has imagined into being several beloved series, countless short stories, and seven standalone novels. His prodigious creativity draws on Celtic, Norse and classic High Fantasy traditions, often features resourceful female protagonists, and follows dynasties and consequences through worlds that resonate with extravagant names and wise, worldly scenarios.
A Melbourne boy who grew up in Canberra, Nix worked for a time in the army, then made his way through the publishing world, turning his hand variously to editing, publicity, marketing and agenting, all the while aware that storytelling was his aim. His first novel, The Ragwitch, emerged from a professional writing degree in Canberra. He now has no fewer than three international editors and the appellation “New York Times best-selling author”. His latest publication, The Left-Handed Booksellers of London, was promoted overseas by online events, some at 4am, and he receives dozens of emails and letters from fans every week. He lives in Sydney.
Garth, it’s a lovely day… but I find you in your office!
I’m normally in my office Monday to Friday, and I’m behind with a book at the moment so I’m very much in my office working away, or I’m at home working away. But I’ll be walking the dog later.
I don’t like to interrupt the great thoughts…
Oh no, I welcome interruptions. I’m not one of those “work all the time” guys; I have work frenzies, and then I have breaks, my mind wanders… As long as you get there in the end it doesn’t matter how it works.
So what is this book that’s slightly behind?
It’s another book in my Old Kingdoms series, called Terciel and Elinor.
I think about most of my books for many years before I write them. Then they reach the front of the queue, so I write that. So that’s what I’m on at the moment. But like a lot of people in 2020, I’ve found this a difficult year. Just freaking out about the world. I always revise, rewrite, but I’ve done far more on this manuscript this year. I figured, it’s because I’m powerless about all these other things, and that’s affecting my work. Not just Covid – climate change, the terrible political situation in the United States… I’ve been working so much better since Biden–Harris won the US election.
There’s a sense of crucial bifurcations: Trump or Biden. Climate action or catastrophe.
We’ve gone down the wrong time line. Just like in my book, the different versions. Maybe that’s art imitating life. I was having difficulty getting the story onto the time line I wanted, and the real world wasn’t on the time line that I wanted. These things: they do bleed into each other.
For fantasy to work well it has to be built with the building blocks of real things. With fantasy you get to draw the boundaries of things that work, but once you’ve drawn them you have to work within them.
A lot of writers really adore solving puzzles, putting things together. Is that part of the satisfaction for you?
Making the story is satisfying, and making it work for me on an intellectual and an emotional level.
What do you do then, when you reach a bad blockage? You must have a good map by now of your psychological hills and valleys.
You’d think that I would know, after all this time! If something feels false or weak, then I’ll rewrite it, or I have to move on. When I’m having difficulty with the primary work that I’m doing – usually a novel – I’ll put it away and I’ll write something else. Eventually my subconscious will work it out and I can resume the main thing. Often you need to remove yourself from the problem: something that takes you completely away. A long, moody walk helps!
I know you read widely, myth and folklore, classics… Is that part of your workday?
Oh yeah! It’s an essential part of equipping yourself to be a writer. I read all the time and I have no difficulty in justifying it. And lying on the couch with my eyes shut. That’s also part of the job. Getting the proportion right is the tricky part.
Supposedly a French writer had a sign on his door when he had a nap: “The poet is working.”
Lying there on my couch, half awake, half asleep, I’ll work something out. Long international flights: you get into that kind of fugue state. One of my books I worked out entirely flying back from London. People ask, “How long did it take to write that book?” The answer is, five years thinking about it, six months writing it. So it took five-and-a-half years.
There’s a degree of sheer nerve involved in writing. How do you give yourself permission to write without a sense of clear purpose? Especially if, as with you, there’s a big publishing machine behind you, waiting.
It gets less relaxed as I approach deadlines! I guess I always fall back on the principle that it’s better to have the right book later than the wrong book on time.
If something doesn’t work, my answer is always: write another book. Some of my books haven’t done as well as I’d hoped; by the time a book comes out I’m already halfway through the next one, and my mind is very much on that, so I fret much less about what’s going to happen.
So this goes to the question whether you write first or mostly for yourself, or for others?
It’s always been for me. It sounds selfish. I’m always very happy when books connect with people and readers love them, but I actually don’t think about them when I’m engaged in the writing or editing or any of the creative parts. I just think, this is the story I want to tell. I’m my own ideal reader.
Putting things together… are you a vessel, the conduit? Or are you a crafter?
I know the story I want to tell, but I have to work out how to tell it: that’s a craft, one I’m still learning all the time. If you were just a conduit you’d never have to revise anything!
I don’t work with anyone while I’m actively writing. I’ve always been a secretive writer; I don’t share anything with anyone until it’s done to my satisfaction.
Looking at your office there, do I see lots of notebooks? Are you a notey kind of person?
I’m always making notes. A lot of handwritten notes. I used to handwrite all my books; I still write difficult passages in longhand. I also like the process of typing from your handwritten text: it’s not a verbatim transcript, but a second draft. And I just like noodling away, making notes. I don’t know what proportion of them are ever used, but you need to do them all, because you never know what will be of use later.
In Progress is a new weekly column written by Maddee Clark and Kate Holden, in which they talk to artists about work they are in the process of making, rather than the work they have completed.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 19, 2020 as "Garth Nix".
A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.
Letters & Editorial