Priestess of the Write: An Interview with Trudi Canavan

Trudi Canavan

Trudi Canavan
(photo: Paul Ewins)

The extraordinary, and fantastically gripping, conclusion to Trudi Canavan’s Age of the Five trilogy, Voice of the Gods, was published last week by Orbit UK. To mark the conclusion of her second trilogy, Trudi was kind enough to sit down and answer some questions that we had about her writing, her life and what’s coming up next . . .

The publication of Voice of the Gods will mark the completion of your second trilogy. How do you think your life and your writing have changed between when The Black Magician trilogy was published and now?

Aside from moving house three times, and going from different levels of broke to having financial security, there’s a structure to the future that I’m not used to having. Having been self-employed for over a decade, I was used to not knowing what I’d be doing in a year or two. Now I plan my future in book series.

Right now I know what I’ll be working on for the next four years. It’s strange, but reassuring. The biggest change in my writing has been the introduction of deadlines. Because the Black Magician Trilogy was my first ‘book’ I had no contract, and writing wasn’t my only income earner, so I could take as long as I wanted to rewrite and improve it. Having a deadline gives you less time to fiddle and tweak. Yet I’ve also noticed that I write slower now but my first drafts need less rewriting and polishing. Experience has taught me better plotting and how to avoid common structural mistakes. Not that I don’t still make mistakes or don’t still polish obsessively.

The world you created for the Age of the Five is more expansive, both in geographical scope and range of characters and peoples, than your previous trilogy. Did that bring any new challenges to your writing?

From the start I expected that having a larger world to set the story in would mean more world building. It did, but double the countries only meant double the work. Having a greater cast of characters, however, increased the work considerably. Each main character added a greater dimension to the plots and subplots of the other characters, so it creates work on top of work.

I hadn’t created fantasy races before, so that was also a new challenge. The magical system was different to the Black Magician Trilogy in that it was applied to more than just special humans, but to all living things. This was new territory, and a lot of fun.

Both the human and non-human worlds in the Age of the Five are incredibly detailed and realistic. Did you draw from any real world examples or was it purely an imaginative process?

Nothing is ever a purely imaginative process. If there wasn’t some familiar element to stories and worlds there’s be nothing the reader could relate to or understand. It’s more a matter of how close to this world you want your story and world to be. How much strangeness you can get away with. There are plenty of books based on peoples and places of this world, both current, past and mythological. I prefer to draw more general ideas from these, mixing up elements of ‘this world’ cultures to get something new, but believable.

It’s always interesting to see the reaction some readers have to these invented peoples. I saw one reader’s comment where he or she assumed that just because I had a dark-skinned race living in a hot, dry climate they must be based on an Islamic race, but they could just as easily have been based on people from any dry country in Africa, or even some in South America! Another once claimed the war in Age of the Five was based on the Iraq War. Of course, there have been a lot more wars in this world, recently and in the distant past, than just the Iraq War. I could have based it on any of them, but I didn’t need to. The story dictated how the war in Age of the Five should proceed.

All your books have a glossary of terms in the back. How important do you think creating a new language or new parts of a language are to establishing different world? And how do you come up with it all?

The most valuable lesson I’ve learned from reader feedback is how to tell what is a criticism and what is personal taste. One of the issues of personal taste is whether an author uses made-up names or not, particularly in relation to animals.

If I’m reading about a fantasy world and come across an animal from this world — say, a sheep — it shatters any feeling I have of being in a different place. So I prefer to invent a new creature to fit that role.

Now, naturally if I’m creating a domestic animal it’s going to have to comply with the requirements humans have of them. Humans use animals for milk, meat and fibre, and those animals have to be docile enough in nature to handle with minimum effort, and it helps if they are social animals that tend to stay in groups. It doesn’t make much sense to have fancy lizard-like beasts that breathe fire and tend to fight each other on sight when all you need is some wool to spin and weave into cloth, and the occasional bit of meat in your stew.

So the animal sounds a lot like a sheep. I get the occasional reader asking me why I don’t just call it a sheep. My answer to that is “why aren’t you asking me why I don’t just call it a llama?”. In fantasy, most readers have a prejudice for the European style landscape and mythology. I don’t want to have to invent ludicrous animals just to make it obvious that mine aren’t, so I make the differences subtle. And there are plenty of readers who like that about my worlds.

Of course, then it’s a matter of courtesy to include a glossary in the back, so people can check what sort of animal/plant/object they’re reading about if they happen to be interested to know.

You’ve gone from a non-religious world in the Black Magician trilogy to one in the Age of the Five where gods play an active, and not necessarily benevolent, role. Can you tell us a bit about that?

Not being a religious person, I wasn’t confident about including religion in the Black Magician Trilogy. I also wondered if it would be refreshing to create a world without it. Bits of religion did seep in eventually, but mostly in distant countries.

I could hardly avoid religion in Age of the Five, since the idea sprang from wondering what it would have been like if the classical era gods had been real. They had a habit of interfering with mortals, which was usually to the detriment of the mortals. You had to wonder if praying was a wise thing to do, because if the gods did notice you it was all just as likely to end badly as it was to end well. Writing about a pantheon of gods was much easier because the scenario was so different to most of the religions practised today.

Both your trilogies feature very strong, very likable female protagonists. Have you always wanted to write characters like this?

Of course! And they couldn’t be warriors, either. In so many of the fantasy books I grew up reading women had one of three roles: the princess, the warrior or the chaste priestess. I wanted to write of women who were strong because of their determination, integrity and courage. Of course, by the time I did write of one those sorts of characters were no longer hard to find. Which means there are lots of fabulous strong female characters for me to read about, too.

Some authors talk of their characters ‘surprising’ them by their actions; is this something that has happened to you?

It has occasionally. I didn’t intend for Cery to have a crush on Sonea, for instance. And while Emerahl was supposed to be feisty, she came out much more feisty than I first expected. The biggest surprise was Ellareen, who changed considerably over the course of writing Voice of the Gods — but I can’t tell you how without spoiling the plot!

On a bit of a related note, do you have any favourites among your characters? Who would they be?

I don’t tend to have favourites, but some I enjoyed writing more than others. Cery was always fun, with his personal ideas of morality and ambition. Dannyl had a sense of humour I enjoyed. Emerahl was delightfully practical in her sense of self-preservation. Mirar was lovably flawed. On the other hand, I could relish Regin’s ruthlessness and Rian’s bloodthirsty fanaticism. A character doesn’t have to be wholly benevolent for me to like them.

Both The Black Magician and Age of the Five series have been immensely popular. Why do you think people connect with your writing as strongly as they have?

I’m not sure. I suspect it’s a side-effect of my short attention span. I figure if I’m bored, the reader will be too, so I’m constantly trying to keep up the tension, mystery and pace.

On a more general note, do you have a personal theory on why Fantasy is so popular?

Perhaps because it is so varied. There are so many different kinds of fantasy: dark, humorous, epic, urban, futuristic, historic, mythic, fairy tale, animal, political, military, uplifting, depressing, magic realism . . . you can always find something to suit your mood or taste.

In the Age of the Five you created the characteristics and culture for at least five separate groups of people, including the non-human Elai and Siyee. Do you have any particular strategies for keeping track of it all?

I write lots of lists!

It’s interesting to see how you manage your worlds; do you also have a method of managing you time? For example, do you have a set writing routine and if so, what is it?

Since I’ve been writing full time I try to write during normal work hours, though because it can be a bit rough on my back I take plenty of breaks. I probably spent at least one day a week on non-writing tasks, like accounting, reading fanmail, updating the website, blogging and publicity. If I have a looming deadline I’ll slip back into an old routine of working four days then resting for one, which is a good compromise between resting my back, and retaining more in my head than I do over a two or three day break.

As an author and artist, what do you think of the packaging given to your books? Do you have any strong feelings on cover art?

I’ve been fortunate in that I’ve liked most of my covers. I do have strong feeling about cover art, because I have a graphic design, visual merchandising and illustration background. But it actually bothers me more if the title of the book is hard to read at a distance than if the illustration doesn’t quite fit the story. I’d rather a reader wrote to tell me the cover is ‘wrong’ than to say they walked into a shop and didn’t buy the book because they couldn’t find it!

Do you read mainly fantasy fiction yourself, or do you like to take a rest after a hard day creating? What are you currently reading?

I don’t read as much as I used to. Initially this was because I was self employed and didn’t have a long journey on the train to work and back each day. Then it was because I moved into a house that didn’t have a bath to relax and read in each couple of nights. Once I started writing full time I read even less, because I found the writing style of the book I was reading started to affect the tone of my own writing — great when the book you’re reading is good, not so great when it isn’t! Now I find I’ll read a lot of non-fiction when I’m writing. Partly as research and partly because it gives me ideas for new stories. I’m currently reading Clay: The History and Evolution of Humankind’s Relationship with Earth’s Most Primal Element, which is fascinating and has already given me an idea for a short story. A lot of the fiction I read is fellow Aussie author’s manuscripts. I get to read their latest work in exchange for giving feedback — and hopefully get the same favour in return.

Do you have any particular favourite authors who have influenced your work?

Too many to list here! Tolkein’s work inspired me to write, Raymond Feist’s Magician showed me fantasy didn’t have to be all European-based, Tanith Lee’s books showed me fantasy could be rich, exotic and come in different moods and styles, Guy Gavriel Kay’s writing style blew me away, Jennifer Fallon’s dialogue and humour is something to aspire to, Glenda Larke’s characters encourage me to break the mold, and Russell Kirkpatrick’s work reminds me that landscape can be a character, too.

Your next project, The Magician’s Apprentice, is going to be a return to the world of the Black Magician. Can you tell us a bit about that?

I was adamant up until the rewrite and polish of the end of The High Lord that I would not write a sequel to the Black Magician Trilogy. After all, at that time I’d been slogging away at that trilogy for seven years and needed something new to work on. But then an idea for a sequel suddenly wormed into my head. What would Kyralia and the Guild be like in 20 years? What would Sonea be like as a middle-aged mother? Without the Purge to unify them, what would happen to the Thieves? For that matter, how would the Guild deal with the possibility of future threats from Sachaka? Well, I still needed a break and Age of the Five was stomping around demanding to be written. In the meantime an idea for a prequel set around the Sachakan War came to me as well, which would link to the sequel. What I especially liked about the prequel was the idea of taking Kyralian society back to a less developed state, where black magic was still used and the old apprenticeship system was in place.

Where do you think your writing will take you after The Magician’s Apprentice? Are there any characters or peoples from Age of the Five you’d like to return to at some point in time?

I have no plans to write more books set in the world of the Age of the Five, but if ideas for more Black Magician Trilogy books can pop into my head then it’s possible more Age of the Five ones can too. But first there is a series of books, about sorcerers who travel and trade between worlds, that I have had waiting in the wings for some time. The first book, Angel of Storms has been written, though I suspect by the time I finish the next trilogy I’ll want to make quite a few changes.

And, lastly, for those writers who have yet to see their books appearing in the shops, how did it feel to see your first novel in print?

Wonderful, but also strange. A small bundle of paper and card turned up in the post, and though the words in them were mine it seemed like too small a thing to be containing so many years of work and a whole other world populated by characters I knew so well. It was definitely an example of something being worth more than the sum of its parts!