I met Richard Harland at Continuum 7, where Richard was on a number of panels in addition to launching his new book, Liberator.
How did you get into writing?
My getting into writing story is really torturous, slow and painful. I wanted to be a writer since I was about 11 years old and fell into a state of writers’ block. I started thinking I should write literary stories, but that’s not really where my talent lies. So for 25 years I had writer’s block. I’ve still have 30 novels at home unfinished. Some were just a chapter or two from the end, but every single time I got stuck.
So when you say literary novels, do you mean like classic literature?
More modernist literature. I had the disaster of winning a prize where I wrote stuff kids my age wouldn’t normally write, full of symbols and stream-of-consciousness, very avant garde. I won the prize so I thought that’s what I should be writing. I was basically writing too far away from myself. I thought I could draw it out of book knowledge so I struggled.
Would you say write what you know?
I write fantasy so I wouldn’t really say that, but somewhere deep down you have to draw on real feeling that you’ve experienced yourself. The feelings in my novels are generally supercharged compared to my own experience, but they’re based on my own experience. I know where they come from.
So you were originally trying to write too far out of your experience.
Exactly. I was trying to write by what I knew rather than what I felt. That kept me blocked for a long time. Even when I started to write fantasy I still had the habit of writer’s block. I actually finished my first novel at the age of 45.
You give me hope!
I’m a shining role model to all late starters because I am the latest of late starters.
That means I have 2 years to catch up.
Two years is plenty of time. [laughs] I kept on struggling to write, I never gave up. I did other things with my life, playing folk-rock music around Sydney, and I became a university lecturer for 10 years. But the dream of being a writer was always there. When I finished my first novel it came out from a small press, and by some amazing fluke it was reviewed by the Sydney Morning Herald and The Australian. I wrote to the reviewers at the newspapers saying, “thanks for writing such glowing reviews.” A reviewer at the Sydney Morning Herald wrote back and said, “loved your book, if you’ve got another manuscript send it my way and I’ll see if I can recommend it to a mainstream publisher.” That is one in a thousand. I’ve never heard of another author with that story, but that’s what happened. I just had an amazing fluke of luck that got me from a small publisher to a mainstream publication in one jump.
That’s fantastic! So what you were lecturing? Anything related to writing?
Yes, I used to lecture on English literature and English. I did manage to set up some courses in fantasy but I don’t think that has anything much to do with my own writing. I think writing is a gut thing really. You have to have the story telling instinct. I’ve put up this writing tips website, as big as a small book. It’s a free resource for anyone wanting to be a writer, 145 pages with everything I know about writing. There’s one part of my mind, which I think of as the university lecturer part, which stands outside and analyses while the creative part goes its own way and does its own thing. That’s the way I like to keep it. I don’t want the analytical part getting in to influence the creative stage.
Does the analytical part come back and edit the book later?
The analytical part recognises where I’m going right and where I’m going wrong, things that work and things that don’t work. The analytical part has helped me learn as I write. It’s helped improve me as a writer, and it does come in more with revision. With my first novel, The Dark Edge from Pan Macmillan, a sci fi thriller, they wanted some miniscule revisions. The only thing I’d been able to write while I was blocked was poetry, which was reasonably successful in its own way. But, writing poetry and also academic books and articles, I was extremely arrogant because I expected that what I write is accepted as final.
So you were very precious about your baby.
I was. I made revisions on The Dark Edge, tiny revisions, then got a shock with the next novel when they suggested big revisions. I remember walking along the beach at Wollongong trying to adjust to this in my head because I’d been floating on such a high and suddenly realised that people didn’t automatically love what I’d written. The world was actually a much tougher, meaner place than I’d realised. I adjusted, and I now would say that I’m probably very good at revising because when I revise now I totally rethink. Worldshaker, the first of the two steam punk novels that were my breakthrough success, I totally rewrote 3 times. And when I say rewrote, I actually start at page one and go all the way through until the last page. When I believe in the revisions to be made, I absorb them into the story and they spread their influence through the whole novel. I can’t just do little chunks. I now almost enjoy revising, as long as I can feel the book improving. It’s like a challenge to lateral thinking. Writing the first draft, I have to believe that this is exactly the way that it happened and I’m writing down the way that it happened. Then I get readers’ sample feedback as well as hearing from publishers and editors, and they say, maybe this bit isn’t working too well. Which means I need to unpick it and think maybe it could have happened a different way. I’m good at that now, I think I’m able to get my mind around breaking up something I had locked into place and saying yeah it could have happened another way.
Tell me about steampunk.
Steampunk is what my 2 last novels are. I can see bits of steampunk creeping into my earlier novels although I didn’t think of them as steampunk at the time, when the sub-genre was hardly known in Australia. Steampunk is a fantasy version of the 19th century, especially with regards to developing technological possibilities and what could have happened. It’s the science fiction of an alternative past where you develop technologies that never really happened in the 19th century but could have done.
Like with William Gibson’s The Difference Engine. Where the Babbage engine was built.
Yeah. Gibson was almost at the end of the first steampunk wave, where it was very much a minor branch of science fiction. The current branch of steampunk is pretty much between science fiction and fantasy. The good part of that, the fantasy part of it, is that it’s not just a matter of imagining alternative technologies, it’s a matter of imagining whole cultures. Getting a real Victorian feel into it without it having to be a genuine Victorian age. It’s the Victorian age that might have happened. That’s what I like. That’s what Worldshaker and Liberator are.
With Worldshaker, I had the ideas of a Victorian age that might have happened from a couple of dreams.
You’re another author who’s dreamt your story and written it.
Yes, when I say it, it sounds so corny. I’ve stopped saying it at conventions because it sounds so corny, but it’s true. But it was 10 years before I started writing the novel, Worldshaker, and at the time I couldn’t have had a novel like that published in Australia. I wrote other novels that I could get published and after 10 years the wave started. This is the second wave of steampunk, when it spread to Australia, where it became a clothes thing, a fashion thing and a much wider thing. Then I realised now’s my chance and I wrote Worldshaker. It took me 5 years but when I finished it, it was almost the perfect time because steampunk was reaching a crescendo. Timing is one aspect of being lucky. I’ve been very lucky there.
There was a panel about Australian steampunk because Australia didn’t really have an industrial 19th century. Do you have anything to say to that?
Probably Dave Freer has much more to say because he is actually writing novels that are steampunk set in Australia. The second novel in my duology, Liberator, moves to Australia, to Botany Bay. In my alternative history, the colony that was New South Wales has shrunk back again to just a coaling station where the juggernauts go to refuel. So it is Australian in the sense that it has Botany Bay and the escarpment behind Sydney but not a lot else. Because of the nature of the world I’m creating it takes place mainly on board the juggernauts themselves, these moving cities that are 3km long by 1 km wide. The surrounding terrain doesn’t enter into it much except as it’s seen from the decks of the juggernauts.
You made a shift into steampunk, what were you writing before you started steampunk?
One thing I’ve told myself is that it’s necessary to settle into a particular genre.
It’s necessary for sales. I’ve indulged myself. I’ve enjoyed… because of feeling rejuvenated, feeling inspired, it’s great to move from one thing to another. So I started off with 3 science fiction thrillers for adults. Actually, I started off even before that with a gothic macabre cult novel, which came out from a small press. After the SF thrillers, I moved into a kind of fantasy based on angelology, which became the Ferren books from Penguin. They are drawing on all the lore of angels, levels of heaven. It’s about a war between heaven and earth. I was writing it pretty much around the same time Philip Pullman was writing His Dark Materials.
I’ve also written an animal story Sassycat for younger readers. I’ve written books for children as well – an Aussie Chomps book and a set of four for Scholastic. Then there was a sequel to the Vicar of Morbing Vyle, the gothic macabre one, just because people kept asking for a sequel, so eventually I did it. I’ve kind of really enjoyed moving around from genre to genre and age-group to age-group, but people never know what to expect from a Harland novel and that‘s not a good thing if you want to build up a reputation. People want to read the same kind of thing by the author. It just so happens that steampunk is my most natural genre, so for a few novels at least I’m happy to write steampunk.
Have you thought about doing what Iain Banks has done? He has an Iain Banks brand and an Iain M. Banks brand.
There is a lot of sense in using pseudonyms or alternative forms of your name. Not many people in Australia do it actually, but if you’re writing clearly different genres it’s a good thing to do. But even then, your publisher may not be too keen on you moving into a different genre, because it means relaunching you with new promotion, a whole new effort of publicity.
You said you’re really happy with steampunk so what does the future hold?
More steampunk. The next novel will be steampunk. The thing about Worldshaker is that it began as a standalone novel, then I thought about what might come after, so I thought of it in terms of a trilogy. My publisher at Allen and Unwin got back to me and said it’ll be a 2 year gap between books, which is a bit long for a trilogy. Plus we think the middle volume isn’t as strong, it’s basically a bit of a bridge to the last novel. When I had recovered from screaming for a few days, I saw how I could lock those two stories and make them into one story and it fitted perfectly. Whereas Worldshaker took 5 years to write (after 10 years of planning), and pretty much every other novel has taken about a year to write, this one took me about 6 months. I roared through it, it just wanted to tell itself. I love the bit about novel writing when I’m about ¾ through and if I’ve set the story up right, it starts carrying me along. This happened with Liberator about 1/3 of the way along. It reaches a climax very early on and the climax keeps on developing from there on. The duology wraps up and the relationship between the main character concludes in the final chapter. The romance is wrapped up, there’s nowhere you can take the characters after that.
The next novel will be steampunk in the same universe but at a different point in time with different main characters.
Speaking as someone who is part way through a number of trilogies at the moment, I think there’s a lot to be said for the stand alone novel.
I’ve never yet written a trilogy. I’ve always written a stand alone novel that built out to become a trilogy or duology. That happened with the Ferren books. I wrote a stand alone novel where I left a few strands open at the end, that I later built into a trilogy. You could think that it was written as a trilogy from the beginning because so many of the seeds planted into the first book turned out to be incredibly fruitful for the later books. The same with Worldshaker and Liberator.
You have separate stories set in the same universe, you’ve finished this story and then you’ve thought yeah, these guys have a life afterwards so we’ll go with that.
Yeah but more than that. Things that were opened up in the first novel, you explore later and find depths you didn’t realise were there. Ferren is a classic example because of the Morphs. I didn’t realise this, it was my editor at Penguin, Dmitri, who’s one of those creative editors who was so much in sympathy that he could make creative suggestions that really worked. He said we want to find out more about them, you’ve got to put them more in the next books. I thought about it and discovered there were all sorts of things about the Morphs and their history that I hadn’t thought of at the time. They were just a chapter of the book that worked really well, one small adventure along the way. The more I thought about it the more I realised how significant they were in the overall story.
That’s what makes me feel there’s always a story out there, you just have to find it. It’s a good feeling about a story when you feel that you’re its servant, bringing it out.
Do you have anything to say to people who want to write and have experienced frustration along the way?
Hang on to the dream but be realistic with it. Don’t have foolish dreams. There are so many foolish dreams about being a writer. The dream is the ultimate goal but along the way you’ve got to be prepared for so much frustration, so much rejection, build it into your expectations right from the very beginning. Don’t expect to write a first novel that will get picked up. Have a number of novels in you. You‘ve got to form long term plans because writing a great novel is not enough, you need a great novel and the contacts to make sure it’s considered seriously by publishers. That means building up a reputation slowly, getting to know people, make contacts. A 5 year plan is an absolute minimum, or 10 years. If you reach the end of 5 or 10 years, then despair but don’t expect things to happen sooner than that.
I heard Watership Down was rejected 19 times, Monopoly got rejected 30 times.
I thought it was more for Watership Down. The thing is when it did come out it came out as a Puffin in the kid’s section, the wrong category to start with. It was just good enough to overcome all the hurdles. Harry Potter got rejected a dozen times.
And look how much J K Rowling has made.
Often the books that become huge successes don’t have the factors that publishers are looking for in the first place. Harry Potter is a boarding school story; all the publishers who rejected it must have thought ‘an English boarding school story? Now? That’s not going to work’. Or Watership Down: a tale about furry animals with all these more adult things in it, that’s not going to work.
I’ve interviewed a few people who’ve made comments that it’s taken them 10 years to become an overnight success.
That’s exactly right. The overnight success comes from a coincidence of various factors you can’t control, like the market place really wanting a certain kind of book at a certain time, the publisher wanting to bring it out, the publishing happening to chance on your book at that very moment. It’s like planets coming into alignment.
Thank you for speaking to Dark Matter.