Garth Nix discusses Goldenhand and the Old Kingdom

Q: Goldenhand returns readers to some of the characters we met and loved in the original Old Kingdom trilogy - even one or two we may have tearfully farewelled for what we thought was forever! Who is your favourite Old Kingdom character, and why? Has it changed over the years?

A: I don't really have a favourite Old Kingdom character. I guess I feel that's like asking a parent who their favourite child is, and even if you have one, you should never say so! They're all interesting to write, and the challenge is to make them distinctive and feel like a real person. Even when they're not actually human, they still need to be a person.

Q: If you could live anywhere in the Old Kingdom, where would you choose?

A: I would love to live in the Abhorsen's House, but in a peaceful period where I could also go travelling, visit Belisaere and the Clayr's Glacier and the various towns and not have to worry about being attacked by the Dead or Free Magic creatures.

Q: In Clariel, the Old Kingdom was still thriving. By the time of Sabriel however, most of the cities and towns are almost completely depopulated. Do you have any plans to write a book set during those years of decline?

A: The Old Kingdom is a big canvas, with lots of room for stories of all kinds. I have notes for stories set in the 'gaps' between the books or in other parts of Old Kingdom history I haven't ever delved into. So anything is possible!

Q: Your characters do a fair bit of sailing - do you enjoy messing about in boats yourself?

A: I do enjoy sailing, though I don't get out on the water as much as I would like to. My friend Peter Richardson should get a mention here, because he regularly invites me to go out on his boat, a Salar 40, and I would probably hardly ever sail if it wasn't for his kindly intervention.

Q: The magic system in the Old Kingdom is topnotch: realistic, internally consistent, picturesque and original. What are some of your favourite magic systems from other authors?

A: I think the word 'system' is overused, because some of the most evocative and interesting magic in fiction is not strictly defined or explained, or is not in fact any kind of explicable system. That said, magic does need to be internally consistent within the created world, and part of the foundations of that world. I love the magic in Ursula K. Le Guin's A Wizard of Earthsea, in Guy Gavriel Kay's Tigana, in Alan Garner's The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, in Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising ... In all these books, the magic feels very much an integral part of the created world and part of those worlds' mythic structures.

Q: The arid desert setting of the Great Rift is terrifying and vivid. Did you base these scenes on a real place you have been to and/or a real experience you've had?

A: I've always been quite partial to rifts and canyons and gorges. I guess the Great Rift owes something to every geographical formation of this kind I've ever visited, including the Grand Canyon in the USA.

Q: Given that you wrote the first book in the Old Kingdom series over 20 years ago, when writing Goldenhand did you find that you needed to go back to the earlier books to see how the rules and logic of your imagined world works? Or do you have notes and/or refer to the map as you write?

A: I did have to reread my earlier books, and my earlier notes, and try to puzzle out some of the stranger comments to myself in the margins of manuscripts and so on. But usually this was only to check what I remembered, to make sure of small details. I'm hoping that I haven't missed anything, because in fact I wrote Sabriel in 1993-1994, which is now a long time ago!

Q: Ferin is a wonderful new character in Goldenhand - and she comes from a completely different setting and people than we've seen before in the Old Kingdom series. How did she make her way into Goldenhand - was she fully formed from your earliest thinking about the book, or did she only begin to take shape once you started writing?

A: I typically don't know very much about my characters or where they come from before I start writing. I'm not the kind of fantasy writer who works all the background out beforehand (though of course this can work very well, there are many different ways to write stories). With Ferin, I had already thought up a few things about the nomad clans, but a lot more just emerged as I went on.

Q: The Paperwings are one of the most evocative - and beautiful - modes of transport invented in any fantasy novel. What inspired these craft? Have you ever piloted an aircraft yourself?

A: I think the Paperwings were largely inspired by my mother, who is an artist papermaker. I grew up with her making paper in her studio downstairs, often very beautiful Japanese-style paper made from plant fibres and then used in many different ways to create artworks. I haven't ever piloted an aircraft myself, though I have been a passenger in light aircraft, gliders and helicopters. And I once did a tandem paraglide off Bob's Peak in Queenstown, New Zealand. All of these things helped when imagining another kind of aircraft.

Q: Has anything about your writing method significantly changed from writing Sabriel to writing Goldenhand?

A: Some things have changed. I still pretty much do what I've always done in the beginning stages of a novel, before any lines of prose are committed to paper or electrons. This thinking time is very important, though people often don't consider it as part of the actual writing. After that, I have changed my methods somewhat over the years. I used to write my novels in longhand first, typing up each chapter after it was written in a (paper) notebook. After a while I started doing what I'd always done with short fiction, which was writing directly on a computer. However, I still write some sections in longhand. So Goldenhand was mostly written directly on a Macbook, an iMac and a PC and even a very short section as a note on my iPhone, but some parts were written first in one of my usual black-and-red paper notebooks. As always, lots of revision was involved, some chapters I revised upwards of thirty or forty times, though usually just small changes here and there. And as always, I also wrote some lengthy sections that did not end up in the book, including one entire chapter that I ditched fairly late in the process and completely replaced.

Q: Much of the plot of Goldenhand hinges on Ferin's determination to deliver her message to Lirael in person. Lirael later needs to venture into the past to receive a message herself, and there are also the wonderful message-hawks with their ability to remember only so many words meaning their missives are often cut off midway. Do you think that life in the Old Kingdom would be much less complicated or more peaceful if modern forms of communication were available?

A: Life would be a lot less interesting in story terms! So much narrative tension comes from people not knowing things that when you introduce near-universal communication many kinds of stories become defanged and dull or require considerable invention to maintain suspense and verisimilitude. A great many tremendous thrillers, for example, cease to work if the characters have mobile phones.

Q: What are the challenges of writing a series that is set over many centuries? Have you imagined what the Old Kingdom might be like hundreds of years into the future?

A: I tend not to think beyond what I need for the story I am working on, and as I have talked about already, I usually explore the world as I am writing, so I don't work out much beforehand. I think for the purposes of the stories I want to tell, both the Old Kingdom and Ancelstierre would be fairly static in terms of technological and social change, not at all like our own world over the last hundred years.

Q: How do the choices the different Abhorsen make about which bells to use at different times reflect their own personalities? Which bell would you find yourself reaching for the most often?

A: While the most important decision on which to bell to use is about the bell's particular characteristics and powers, it is true that if more than one bell might be used in a given situation then an Abhorsen will tend to use one which has particular significance for them (as with Kibeth for Lirael), or that they resonate with personally (as Sabriel with Saraneth). I suspect that while I would hope to use the most appropriate bell, I am probably like Sabriel and would want to take charge with Saraneth.

Q: Having previously worked as a soldier in the Australian Army Reserve, what three items would you take with you if you were dropped into the world of the Old Kingdom to fight against the Free Magic creatures?

A: I think fifty-two-year-old me would be in very serious trouble if I was dropped into the Old Kingdom, and to be honest, even twenty-year-old me probably wouldn't fare much better, except that I could run faster and for longer. I don't think there's anything I could take from this world that would be of the slightest use against a Free Magic creature. Perhaps if it was near the Wall and the wind was from the south, a fully-fuelled motorbike might work long enough to escape!

Q: What parallels, if any, do you see between the Old Kingdom and the world we live in today?

A: There are parallels, as there are in most fiction, whether the author intends them or not. Some intended 'big picture' parallels in Lirael and Abhorsen include the plight of the Southerlings as an allegory of the refugee situation in our world, and the pursuit of power without checks and balances, and then also lots of 'small picture' stuff, like the relationships between parents and siblings, what coming of age really means, moral courage versus physical courage ... many things.

Q: As readers, it's easy to visualise your characters based on the stunning cover artwork. Do you have strong visual imagery in your mind as you write, and do the covers match or inform your vision?

A: I do imagine the scenes in a very pictorial or filmic fashion, but I tend not to have a particularly detailed view of the characters in terms of what they look like, apart from a few key things I have put in the book. It's a bit like knowing someone too well in real life: you know how they will act, perhaps how they think to some degree, but you might be hard put to actually describe them to someone else because they are so familiar. The covers, which are stunning, are necessarily a step removed from my imagining, so I don't think of the characters depicted as 'my Lirael' or 'my Sabriel' but as versions of them, which is absolutely fine. This is one of the great things about books, the interaction between the text and every individual reader is a unique experience.

Q: Gender roles in the Old Kingdom are fabulously balanced - the women are strong, kind, capable and brave. Who or what in your own life has influenced the creation of such strong female characters?

A: I find it interesting that people often ask me about how I can write strong female characters - who are very easy to write as I have grown up with, worked with and generally shared my life with so many extraordinarily competent, intelligent, capable and professional women - but they never ask me how I invent completely made-up monsters who do not have any real world basis! The gender of a character is never the first question I ask myself. As in our world, I don't presume a particular occupation or background will necessitate them being a man or a woman. In some ways the Old Kingdom is still further along than we are in this regard, but I don't think this is a representation of an ideal and impossible world, but a completely realisable one.

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