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Becoming Better Humans: An Interview with Author Isobelle Carmody

Ober_4 Thefarseekers_3 Ashling_5 Keepingplace_3 Wavesong_2 Stonekey_2

Isobelle Carmody was fourteen when she started writing Obernewtyn, her first book. It was picked up by the first publisher she sent it to and it was shortlisted for the Children's Book of the Year Award for older readers in her native Australia.

Twenty years later, after publishing novels, short story collections, and three other series (including The Legend of Little Fur, for younger readers, which came out in the U.S. earlier this year), Carmody keeps coming back to the story of Elspeth Gordie, publishing a new Obernewtyn book every few years.

Categorized as a "Misfit," Elspeth lives in a time after an apocalyptic event known as The Great White. Each Misfit has a telepathic ability or two, but Elspeth runs the full gamut. When one of these skills is discovered, she is shipped off to Obernewtyn, a mountain fortress where they "heal" Misfits. Once Elspeth meets others of her kind, her curiosity, resourcefulness, and bravery kick in--along with the full range of her talents. Elspeth was just the kind of girl hero I was looking for as a teen and never found. I couldn't stop reading, and I can't wait to get on to the next in the series.

Luckily, I won't have to. Last week, Random House released all the books in the Obernewtyn Chronicles so far--Obernewtyn, The Farseekers, Ashling, The Keeping Place, Wavesong, and The Stone Key--and they'll be releasing the last two books of the series--The Sending and Red Queen--in 2010. While this YA fantasy/SF series already has a significant fan following (check out obernewtyn.net and the Obernewtyn livejournal group), it's primarily in Australia, the only place where you could get easily get all of the books. 

Carmody talked about the series--and the philosophical questions behind it--in a recent email interview (photo by George Stawicki):

Amazon.com: What was your initial inspiration for Elspeth and Obernewtyn?52

Isobelle Carmody: As I girl, I felt myself to be a misfit. I was the eldest of eight children and I grew up in this tough neighbourhood where there were kids that beat up odd kids like me who read and wrote stories. I longed not to fit in and be like the other kids, but to find people who were like me. And of course like probably every kid, though I did not know that then, I longed to have something important to do. I longed to be special. I think this is the natural result of the powerlessness of children in a world of adults that don’t always seem to be looking after the world all that well.

Amazon.com: You've been building this series throughout your writing career. How has it evolved as you've written other series and books and come back to it?

IC: I wrote the first two, Obernewtyn and The Farseekers, one after another, and both books won awards here, so there was a lot of interest at the publisher in my doing the next one. It scared me--that excitement and hype--because I felt like the publishers were only interested in another Obernewtyn book. I guess a bit of me, coming from the background I had, was a bit suspicious of all that approval. I guess I didn’t like the feeling that I had to do another Obernewtyn book--that it was required of me. Especially since I had another idea, and the publishers didn’t seem too keen on it, merely because it was not the next Obernewtyn book.

So I pigheadedly wrote Scatterlings, which also won an award. That was a stand alone book. Then I wrote The Gathering, which was hugely successful and won me Book of the Year and the Peace Prize, so I felt I had proven that I could write whatever I wanted and that would be ok, too. But the interesting thing was that when I went back with real pleasure to write Ashling, I felt I had grown a whole lot as a writer and a person. I had no feeling that what I was doing was dutiful. I was elated and full of ideas and interest, and I decided then that I would never write two books in a series one after another, ever again. I would always write other books in between to make sure that each book I wrote had my whole interest and attention, and that I was fresh to it. I had literally grown too, because I had written Obernewtyn when I was 14. I rewrote and developed it over and over all through high school and university, and sent it off first to the publishers when I was in my early twenties. Then in, I wrote The Farseekers. I was in my thirties when I wrote Ashling and in my forties, I wrote The Keeping Place and The Stone Key.

Amazon.com: Did you plan for this to be a series, or do the characters and mythology keep drawing you back?

IC: Some of the answer to this question might be covered by the answer to the last question, but the simple answer is that I had conceived of it as a trilogy. As a kid I had read and loved the Narnia books and the Lord of the Rings and Dr Doolittle books and books about Pippi Longstocking, so the concept of a series was very firmly established. I saw it as a form that would allow me to explore very large ideas and, for me, the underlying question in the Obernewtyn books was whether or not humanity could evolve ethically and morally. Could we change and become better as a race? So it wasn’t just a book about a specific girl trying to find a way to fit in and be herself at the same time. It was an exploration of some very big ideas, and those ideas seemed too big for one book. In a series, I would be able to use the scenario and world I had invented to really deeply and thoroughly see if I could find out what it would take to make the world a better place. Of course, the series got bigger as I grew and saw how truly complex the question I had asked was.

Amazon.com: One of my favorite moments in Obernewtyn is when Elspeth first encounters Maruman as a “straggly cat” chasing a bird, only to realize that she can hear his thoughts, and he’s a sage of the beastworld. Can you talk a little about the role that animals play in the series?

IC: I was drawing animals and longing to be able to speak to them when I was a child, and I guess I saw them as the only thing with less power than a child. So I had a natural feeling of affinity. Their suffering at the hands of humans seemed endless and utterly undeserved. They were symbolic to me of innocence and goodness. As I grew older, that feeling of alliance, of wanting to protect the underdog grew stronger, but my feeling of helplessness in the face of the bad things that happened in the world grew stronger. It was in the Obernewtyn series that I discovered my belief that if humans were to evolve ethically, they would have to grow enough empathy to feel for other species and for other members of their own species, what they felt for their friends and children. For me animals in a story are always symbolic of this need of humans to find a way to empathise and feel for something other than themselves, their family, their species, even their world. They are very often literally the means by which transformation can be affected, for good or ill.

Amazon.com: Are you currently working on the next two books (The Sending and Red Queen), or are they already finished? Will those be the last in the series?

IC: I am right now working on the final books in the Obernewtyn series. It is a strange feeling to be finishing a series that has spanned my life, and I do feel a wrench at the thought of letting them go, because once I finish the last one, I am forever banned from that world. I can’t go there unless I write a book set there…

Amazon.com: How did the U.S. debut of Obernewtyn come about? 

IC: The first two books in the series were originally published by Tor in the states. That was tremendously exciting and for a while things looked bright, but then the wonderful young woman who had championed the books died suddenly and tragically. The books languished for want of someone to take care of them after that, and it was only when Random took on the whole series that I felt the books had some serious commitment behind them. I was absolutely elated to know they were all finally going to come out in the states, and best of all, because Random had published a number of other books in the gateway series and the Legend of Little Fur, I felt I was no longer a completely unknown quantity there. There was a good solid base of readers that might be interested in them.

Amazon.com: Will you be touring the U.S.?

IC: I am planning a tour next year, 2009, which will take in the World Science Fiction and Fantasy convention in San Jose, California, the Texas Book Fair, and some talks at schools and universities in Phoenix and Rhodes Islands, as well as a visit to Random in New York. America is so big that I knew it would be impossible to tour it as I would tour in Australia, visiting the capital city of each state. So I am committed to a number of visits over the next few years, when I will speak and meet people in a few states each time, and generally do my best to support the books Random are bringing out and raise my profile. I think it really helps to let people know your books exist and to build up a little buzz around them. But of course in the end, it is what is between the covers that counts.

--Heidi

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