Richard Harland is a renowned English author living in Australia. His fantasy novels include Worldshaker, Liberator, The Dark Edge, the Ferren series, the award-winning The Black Crusade, Sassycat and The Wolf Kingdom quartet.
What inspired you to become a writer?
My first idea of being a writer came when I was about 11 or 12, and my cousin and I invented adventure stories, made copies and sold them in the school playground. That was when I first learned the amazing thrill of having someone come up to you and say, ‘Hey, that was great, have you got another one?’ It’s so amazing that someone else can live through the same imaginary experience you made up inside your head!
But the idea didn’t become a reality for a very long time. I fell into the world’s worst case of writer’s block. (Well, I’m ready to be checked by the Guinness Book of Records!) For 25 years, I kept on starting novels that I could never finish. I still have 30 unfinished manuscripts at the bottom of a cupboard at home!
Is there any particular person that you look up to?
Heaps! All the writers I most admire for a start! Mervyn Peake, Angela Carter, Jane Yolen, Philip Pullman, Alfred Bester, Ursula Le Guin, Fyodor Dostoevsky ... I could go on and on forever.
How do you spend your time when you’re not knee deep in manuscripts?
Good question right now! I just finished the rewrite of the latest Steampunk novel this very afternoon, after being totally immersed in it all hours of the day for the last two months - and suddenly I'm facing the question, What on earth am I going to do now? How am I going to treat myself? What sort of holiday can I have for at least part of the day for the next couple of weeks, before I plunge into the next project? The sad fact is, I can't think of anything much! Movies, a bit of travel, throw some dinners for friends (if I've got any left after the last two months) ... Hmm, I've just decided what I'll do tomorrow - a jigsaw puzzle! That's the most relaxing activity I know!
What do you think is the most annoying thing on the planet?
Call centres, when you ring up about something and get passed on, then put on hold, passed on again, then put on hold again ... The Middle Ages had the rack for torture, we have call centres.
I spent two whole weeks pouring through your writing tips (www.writingtips.com.au) and I must say I simply loved them. They were extremely insightful and packed with priceless information. What inspired you to take time off writing novels to enlighten the rest of us?
It was at a Bookfeast literary lunch when a class of senior students came up to say how helpful they'd found the tips on my author website in developing their skills for the Creative Writing Extension in the HSC. Hey, I thought, if a few off-the-cuff pages helped, how much more could I do if I really tried. That led to the idea of putting up a separate website, quite apart from any authorial self-promotion, where I'd try to set out everything I've learned. Little did I know it would take me a whole four months and end up 145 pages long! Not only working through the tips, but organising them clearly, expressing them in an easy-to-understand way - and illustrating them with humorous graphics.
I thought of it as a community service - but by the time I finished I was starting to think of it as an act of madness. It just ran away with me, and completely distracted me from my own fiction writing for those four months. But, since it went up and there's been so much positive feedback, I'm feeling, yes, it was worthwhile after all.
In your novel Worldshaker, your main characters Col and Riff experience some issues with jealousy. Col even has to deal with sibling rivalry at one point. Why do you think that jealousy and envy usually play such an important role in literature? What makes readers get so involved with the feelings of the characters?
I guess fiction powers along on good emotions versus bad emotions - there wouldn't be much excitement if all the feelings between the characters were sweet and harmonious. I think of jealousy and envy as the most negative of all negative emotions - but also the most universal. (I've certainly experienced them!)
There's even more jealousy in Liberator, the sequel to Worldshaker. One form of narrative that works well with a jealous main character is the surprise revelation. When you're living along with that point of view, you may not share their irrational jealousy, but you sure want to find out the real truth!
Do you think that humans are alone in the Universe? How has the belief in alien existence changed literature over the decades? Have authors remained true to the original version of E.T?
I'm not violently pro or contra - I put the odds of alien life at about 90:10 in favour; the likelihood that we'll find some sort of evidence at about 60:40; and the odds that we'll ever encounter some form of life that's still flourishing and capable of communication at about 30:70.
The idea of alien ways of thinking and alien cultures is fascinating, and opens up such wonderful imaginative possibilities. Though I'm not sure how deep it goes. I mean, do we ever achieve empathy with and understanding of other societies on our own planet right now? Or our own society a century or two in the past?
The Scarlet Omen takes place in Malaysia, a country brimming with myth, legend and naturally superstition. Your character Riff the ‘Filthy’ in Worldshaker also believes in ghosts. What do you personally think about illogical beliefs and practices? Do you think that they have a place in modern literature?
The great thing about stories is that they bypass what your beliefs about what's true and what's false. Which is great for me, because more often than not I'm really not sure what I believe in! In fiction, you can try all sorts of things out - including all the powerful associations that accompany supernatural and magical beliefs.
Riff believes in ghosts in Worldshaker and Liberator, but Col doesn't, and we're probably positioned more to take Col's point of view. I call my Steampunk fantasy rather than SF, but it's a sort of fantasy that involves only a smidge of supernatural - and no magic. The Ferren trilogy draws on myth and religious lore, but my novel with the biggest dose of supernatural would have to be Sassycat. A different imagining of ghosts in that novel!
I put more supernatural and magic into my short stories. I love working out credible forms of magic, and I love the frisson of fear that comes with the supernatural.
Is there anything that you’d like to share with us novices?
As an author, some elements particularly attract you when you start writing a novel. But by the time you finish, every element should be equally wanted and loved. Every episode and character and description should be there for its own sake, because you couldn't bear to do without it even if the rest of the book didn't need it.
Thanks, Richard! That was awesome. I’ve certainly grown that much smarter.
Hey, readers! Learn more about Richard Harland and his amazing books at the sites below:
Author website (Australia): www.richardharland.net
Writing tips website: www.writingtips.com.au