Interview by Bec Stafford

1. When did you first realise you wanted to be a writer and what was the very first thing you wrote?


I realised that I wanted to be a writer in my late thirties. I know — very late bloomer. It had been suggested a few times that I should write and illustrate children’s books, but it wasn’t until I had quit teaching that I had the time to really sit down and think about it.


The first book I wrote was an adventure story for younger readers, called Violet Green. The idea came from a unit of work I had developed for my students, so the story really lent itself to an illustrated book. My intention was to focus on the illustrations, but once I started writing I found it difficult to stop. I was surprised to find that the drawings became a real pain, because they were taking me away from the story.


I spent a lot of my childhood drawing, but never really wrote much. When I was in my thirties, my father showed me a collection of stories and drawings that his uncle had created to entertain them all, back in the days before TV. They’re very much Australian anecdotes and quite impressive, so maybe there is a genetic link!


2. Who were some of your favourite authors, growing up?


I have always read across genres, and found that different things have appealed at different stages of my life.
I remember loving Dr Seusse, 101 Dalmations, The Secret Garden, Alice in Wonderland (an eternal favourite), the Tintin comics and Little Women. My mother used to work for the Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs, and she would bring home children’s myths and stories from different cultures. She was also very interested in fairy tales, so we always had a copy of Grimm’s.


As a teen, I absolutely loved My Brilliant Career and then fell hard for The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. My mother had an engraver make up a copy of the One Ring for my sixteenth birthday, which I treasured. In my late teens, I loved King’s Blood Four by Sheri S Tepper, Magician by Raymond E Feist, The Eight by Katherine Neville and the Gormenghast series.


As an adult, I read a lot more YA novels than I ever did when I was young. Neil Gaiman, Eoin Colfer and Patrick Ness are among my favourites. I enjoy historical stories, a wide range of fiction and love a good mystery.


3. You write fantasy. What is it about that genre that attracted you initially?


Honestly, it’s probably the same thing that attracts everyone. I used to have the ‘portal fantasy’, where you imagine a door that leads to another place. A great many fantasy books have been written on that theme, including mine, so it must speak to us on some deep level — the possibility of either escape or adventure — that is intrinsically human.
For me, though, it is being able to immerse myself in pure imagination. All fiction is imaginative, obviously, but fantasy is proudly, unapologetically so, and I love that. I believe that imagination is incredibly important in our growth and development as human beings, and it should be encouraged and supported as much as possible.


4. Refuge contains some incredible world-building. Can you tell us a bit about your process. Do you draw maps for yourself, for instance?


I do a bit, but they’re mostly just scrawls to orient things in my head.


The world-building is an essential part of the process for me, and I tend to be very indulgent about it. I am that person who notices everything and I have a tremendous curiosity about my environment. I had to cut reams from my first drafts of Refuge because there was far too much description of the world Nell was seeing.


Most of my process stems from an original point of view and then grows outwards. For example, I see it from Nell’s perspective first, experiencing it as she would, and then pull back to the bigger picture. That first impression is very important to me and I find that if I do it the other way around, I tend to lose that original sense of wonder or intimacy. I begin with my imagining of the place — the look, feel, smell — and then follow that up with research. This is mainly if the place or object is based in historical reality, if it’s drawn from a subject that I know little about, or just to feed the imagination with examples.


5. How did you find, or develop, your authorial ‘voice’? Did it come naturally, or has it evolved over time?


I think it had to develop over time, and I took note of professional advice. I tend to write as though I’m reading the story aloud to a young person, and I have been accused of adopting a matronly tone. I don’t know why I do this. Perhaps I wish that I was read to more often as a child. There is such a feeling of comfort and security in that experience.


6. What sort of child were you? Being a fantasy author now, for instance, were you a daydreamer who would escape into other imaginary worlds?


A daydreamer. I was an only child and both of my parents worked, so I had plenty of opportunity to daydream. I loved rainy days because the sound of the rain would block out other noise and I could sit and imagine. Sometimes I would take an umbrella and a chair and sit in the backyard in the rain, or in the car. I still do that sometimes.


I also loved playing with friends and was always looking for someone to talk to, or share experiences with. I was never the sort of person to have a large circle of friends, though, just a few very close ones who got my sense of humour and view of the world.


7. Where did you grow up and how do you think your environment influenced your creativity?
I grew up in Brisbane, but we spent every holiday and most weekends in Northern NSW. My father’s family were in Murwillumbah and we had a caravan at the beach near there, so I was half-city, half-rural.


I think that gave me a love of getting in a car and going to other places. I love road trips and never think of it as a bother. It also inspired a love of both country and city environments and an appreciation of what each has to offer. I don’t know how that comes out in my creativity exactly — perhaps it inspired me to always look beyond my own environment and know that there is more out there.


8. You’re also a visual artist. Can you tell us a bit about that and whether you’re interested in illustrating your own work in future?


I already have! The first book I wrote is an illustrated story called ‘Violet Green’, for younger readers. It is unpublished at this stage. I also designed the cover for ‘Refuge’.


I’ve been drawing and painting for as long as I can remember. I went to Art College after high school and have a BA in Visual Art. I worked as a scenic artist in my late twenties, and then studied again to become a secondary school Art teacher.


I still like to paint and draw, but I have wound that down over the years as I can only concentrate intensively on one thing at a time. I have been told that I am a very visual writer and I certainly have a strong imagination and love of visual communication.


9. The characters in Refuge are so vivid and distinctive that they virtually leap off the page. Can you tell us a bit about the process you went through creating your central characters?


I began writing the story around the Doctor and Gideon. Although it might not seem like it to the reader, the story very much grew from the Doctor, rather than from Nell, so I devoted a lot of my time to him in the beginning. I knew that he had to be a psychiatrist and not from the modern era, so I did a great deal of research on the development of psychiatry through the ages. I wanted him to be experimental and tragic and I’ve always been horrified and fascinated by Bedlam, so this seemed the ideal place to start.


It’s very important for characters to have their own, authentic voice. This was a challenge in Refuge because so many of them belong to different eras, as well as nationalities. There was a constant danger of slipping into the wrong mode of speech. Keeping them all distinct from each other while having the same conversation proved difficult, particularly when I was racing to keep up with what they were saying in my head. I found it necessary to keep a vocabulary profile for each character, that I could refer to when writing their dialogue.


All the Australian characters have grown from my own experience, but the others were researched. The Doctor is from early-mid 1700’s in London, Gideon is an English ‘wharf rat’ from later in the century, Fox is one of the ‘Bright Young Things’ from the early 1920’s, Deuce is from the American Deep South in the ‘50’s and Janus is from Queensland in the mid ‘70’s. Mixed in with that are characters like Mary Wentworth, who is from the Doctor’s time but a different social class, and the twins, who originate from Paris in the early 30’s.
The real trick was to make all of that authentic but not alienating. I constantly had to keep my audience in mind when writing the interactions between characters, to make sure that they would be able to follow it.


10. Who is/are your favourite character/s and why?


My first reaction is always to say the Doctor, although of course I like them all. As I’ve mentioned, the story began for me with the relationship between the Doctor and Gideon, so they both are close to my heart. Perhaps it’s strange, beginning a story by writing the villains but they are so interesting.


For me, the Doctor is really who the whole story centres around. Without him there would be no Refuge. He represents what happens when intelligence and sensitivity become warped by ambition, guilt and obsession. I very much enjoyed developing his character. He is brilliant, charming, perceptive and ruthless. A man ahead of his time, crushed by tragedy, who has been given the chance to redeem himself — a dangerous combination. He is a master of manipulation and operating on a completely different playing field to everyone else.


And just quickly, I also love Fox. I would love to be that confident and unflappable.


11. Which character is most like you?


There is no one character that I would say I put myself into. I think all the characters have a little bit of me inside them, or at least my perceptions of life. The entire world of Refuge is full of symbols of childhood, or childish longings and experiences.


But I think Nell very much represents my own search for a sense of true self, or belonging in the world.


12. There are some important themes running through Refuge: (friendship, loyalty, and self-discovery to name a few). What is the most important thing you’d like your readers to come away with, after having read this book?


If Refuge could be considered a cautionary tale, in the tradition of the original fairy tales, then the Doctor is the witch in the gingerbread house. I wrote the character as an example of how easy it is to be taken in and controlled by someone, when you are lost and desperate. I guess one message is: if a stranger much older than you seems to be completely captivated by you, if they agree with you and understand you better than anyone else, be very suspicious. They may be leading you somewhere dangerous and some people never come back from those experiences. Even if they are not physically harmed, they can remain trapped there emotionally, just like the children in Refuge.


The story is also about finding your own strength and your own character, regardless of what other people are doing or saying. That is a very difficult thing to do, to back yourself, particularly when you are young and feel you have no real power. Nell discovers that she does have worth, beyond the needs and desires of the people around her, and this gives her the courage to forge her own path.


13.  What are 3 essential traits you think an author should have?
Perseverance, devotion and a total lack of shame when it comes to just sitting and thinking about things.


14. There are some beautiful relationships in Refuge and some that are not so beautiful! Was it fun creating the unique connections between your beloved characters and were any based on real-life scenarios?


It was almost the most enjoyable part. I think all of them are based on real-life scenarios, if not as true accounts, then at least symbolically. Gideon’s need to confront the father who bullied him, and his need to bully others in turn, is probably the most obvious example of an eternal allegory or trope. You can see examples of it every day in the news, the workplace, or the school playground.


I strove to portray a variety of relationships and show that they don’t have to be perfect, or even particularly wonderful, to be valuable. For example, Nell’s relationships with her grandfather, her aunt and Grace are pretty uncomfortable at times, but they’re worth more than a thousand fake friendships with the likes of Tabby Crane.


15. Nell is a teenager and part of the story involves her life in Brisbane as a regular high school with the usual preoccupations and hang ups people have at that age. Do you find it easy to remember being a teen and tapping into those thoughts and feelings, or was her character developed through observation?


Nell is on the cusp of becoming a teenager, which is a particularly tumultuous time. Refuge itself is a metaphor for that experience — stepping through a gateway into a whole new world of experiences and expectations. Priorities shift, relationships change, you look into the mirror at a stranger, and a part of you just wants everything to stay the same. People start treating you differently and making new demands. It’s extremely challenging.


I remember my own experience very well and I was also a school teacher working with girls from Nell’s age group, so it’s probably 50-50.


16. Are you a ‘plotter’ or a ‘pantser’? How did Refuge come together and how long did it take to write?


I have a foot in each camp. I am a true pantser at heart, and usually begin writing wherever inspiration strikes. When that runs out, I’ve had to learn how to plot. I have never studied literature or creative writing, so I’ve learned everything through my own research and trial and error.


I wrote the first draft of Refuge in 2008. The very first thing I wrote was the scene in the middle of the book with the Doctor and Gideon. The one where Gideon tries to stand up to him and the Doctor dominates him with reminders of his past life. Everything sprang from that scene. It took me about eight months to complete and then the real work started. I edited it myself for about a year and then started contacting people to read it and give opinions. After another twelve months of that, I contacted a professional manuscript assessor and had an assessment done.


The initial writing of the story was the easiest part, which may surprise people. The story itself has not changed all that much over the years. Many things have been removed, including whole characters, and other character’s parts have been greatly reduced. But the story has survived and I think it has strengthened as a result.


17. Do you write at a certain time of day and stick to set routines? Do you have any rituals you follow?


I do like to write in the morning, for several reasons. Firstly, I am easily distracted and will happily follow a butterfly and not come back for an hour. Secondly, it is the quietest time and I really need quiet to write. Lastly, once I start concentrating on writing a story, I find it difficult to stop. If I didn’t start early in the day, I would get nothing else done.


I don’t really have any rituals, at least not yet. I just sit and write. It really annoys me to have to take breaks, so I admit to fantasising about having someone to bring me food and drinks. My husband is wonderful when he is home but, sadly, he has to work most of the time.


18. When did you have your very first glimmer of the story and do you remember where you were and what you were doing when it came to you?


‘Glimmer’ is exactly the right word to describe it. I had little flashes of the story and characters for about six months before I wrote anything down. I had been thinking about writing for an early teen audience and about what sort of message I wanted to convey. I was also thinking a lot about psychology and the kinds of changes young people go through, and the challenges and dangers they face. I didn’t have a particular ‘AHA’ moment, where it all sprang to life, but once I had something to grasp on to I was able to sit down and concentrate on that image and flesh it out. If nothing had stuck, then I probably would have discarded it and waited for something else.


19. If you could spend a day in Refuge, which of your characters would you most like to hang out with and why?


I would love to meet up with Fox, head for the market in Refuge City and just drink it all in. I think Fox would make a highly entertaining guide and companion, and would know all the best places to eat. Although, he would probably have to hare off on a new mission with Janus halfway through, and abandon me in the middle of the street with a ‘Must dash, old thing. Toodle-pip!’


I would also like to wander through the Doctor’s mansion and find out if there really are dungeons below, and I’d love to visit The Split.


20. When the reader finishes Refuge, they want to dive back into that amazing universe. I’d venture to say that there’s a brilliant opening for a sequel. Are you considering continuing this story?


I am considering it. I have ideas for a further two instalments.


21. Aside from Refuge, name 3 fantasy worlds you’d love to live in for a while if you could.


Well, Middle Earth, obviously. I just loved everything about that world. I’m tempted to say Wonderland, but I fear it would be too mind-bending.


I’ve thought of, and discarded, so many, because they’re also quite dangerous places, and I would most likely meet a sticky end within the first week. I think any world where I might have powers would be good. I’d enjoy that.


22. It’s said that to be a good writer, you need to be a regular reader. Do you read a lot and what’s on your reading pile right now?


I do read a lot and across genres. I read a lot of mysteries, historical fiction, some thrillers, classics, literary and popular fiction. I’m currently reading The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell, Daughters of the Storm by Kim Wilkins and The Wayward Leunig, a collection of poems and cartoons by Michael Leunig. I’ve also just purchased the illustrated hard cover version of Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman, so I’m planning on rereading that soon.


23. What advice would you give aspiring writers?


To persevere and to seek out professional advice on your work. It’s important to get advice from people who work in your genre. Head to your nearest Writer’s Centre for advice on how to find them.
You never really know whether something is going to be popular or not, but there are rules to good writing. Follow them and become the best writer you can be.


24. Describe yourself in 3 words.


Intense. Empathetic. Observant.


25. You have some fearsome villains in Refuge, as well as a couple of anti-heroes. Is it fun to write villains and did some of them give you the creeps when you’d finished writing for the night and go to sleep?


I love writing villains and worked hard to make them interesting and different from each other. Whenever they gave me the creeps, I knew I was doing the right thing so it delighted me as well, which is probably troubling…
I nearly stopped myself from making a couple of the characters as bad as they are, thinking that it might be too much. I’m glad I went with my instincts and let them be their own terrible selves, though. It gave the story much more depth and was more true to the nature of the place, as well as the characters.


I was never haunted by them or their behaviour. I think most of it is understandable, if still horrible. There is only one character who is bad through and through. The world has many terrible people who do terrible things. To say otherwise would be the real fantasy.


26. The cover art for Refuge is also gorgeous. Who was the artist and did you guide them or give them free rein to come up with the artwork?


I knew exactly what I wanted for the cover, and I was very lucky to have had a great digital artist recommended to me. He is terrific at interpreting instructions visually, because I drew up a copy of the cover, saved it, and then sent him the wrong file with nothing but the title and the wording over the door on it! So, everything that he did, he took from my written description. The amazing thing was how close it looked to my drawing.


27. There’s a lot of wonderful language from Victorian times, as well as some vivid imagery and description. How much research was involved in writing Refuge and do you enjoy that aspect of creating a story?


I absolutely thrive on that aspect of creation. In many ways, Refuge is very much a repository of the things that I love and admire in the world. Some of it was researched specifically for the story and some are things I have investigated in the past, or have a particular interest in. much of it is stuff I just know and can’t remember how I came to know it. If you follow your interests, instead of waiting to be fed information, you have a much wider and deeper repository to draw on. I think that comes out in the feel and atmosphere of the story, and probably refers to things that I have read or viewed over the years and extrapolated from.


I researched a lot about Bedlam and the beginnings of psychiatry, and also early experiments in electricity. The Victorian era was such an exciting and frightening time to be alive, equally audacious and depraved, and I can understand why it is a fascinating time for writers. I also devoted much of my research to modes of speech and language from various eras and nationalities, via historical accounts and the authors of the time. Older readers will recognise an homage to Wodehouse in the language of Fox, for example. There are many references and nods to stories, myths and legends in there for those who recognise them, and I think this is an important way to keep them alive and relevant.


In terms of the vivid imagery and description, that is how I experience the world and therefore the world that I am creating.