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INTERVIEW: Felicity Pulman author of A Ring Through Time

Friday, May 09, 2014

I've read and enjoyed Felicity Pulman's books for years, and was thrilled to hear she had a new book out. A Ring Through Time is a timeslip novel, one of my favourite genres of  fiction. It moves from the POV of Ally, a contemporary teenager living on Norfolk Island, and Alice, whose diary of her life in the early days of the settlement is found by Ally.

Please welcome Felicity to the blog: 

Are you a daydreamer too?
A:  Always - and always getting into trouble for it!

Have you always wanted to be a writer?
A:  Not as such. Writing stories was always something I did, something I took for granted. Only in my 40s did I start to consider it as a serious career - something I now deeply regret.

Tell me a little about yourself – where were you born, where do you live, what do you like to do? 
A:  I was born in Fort Victoria in Rhodesia, now called Masvingo in Zimbabwe (and perhaps that's why so many of my novels are about displacement, with the characters having to find out where they belong!)  I now live in Sydney with my husband, and have two (grown up) children and five grandchildren who keep me busy and also techno-savvy.  I love to read, write and listen to music, but I also enjoy bush-walking, surfing, snorkeling and holidays!  And did I mention chocolate??

How did you get the first flash of inspiration for this book?
A:  I heard a voice!  We were on holiday at Norfolk Island, and went snorkeling at beautiful  Emily Beach.  I put on my mask and, as I put my face into the water I heard a voice say: 'if only I could see my own life as clearly as I can see now.'  Who was this girl, and what was so wrong with her life that she wanted to see it more clearly?  That was about 10 years before I wrote A Ring Through Time - but I eventually found out the answers to those questions!

How extensively do you plan your novels? 
A:  I've been caught out in the past not knowing the real ending of my story when I wrote it and being led astray because of it. Now, I start when I know who the characters are and (sort of) what's going to happen to them and I also have a good idea how I want the book to end. Mostly  I don't really know how the characters are going to get there and for me, that's the fun of writing - to see what's going to happen next.  I don't plan in too much detail, because that would kill the spontaneity of the story for me.   And of course things change along the way, including the ending sometimes.  But I'm okay with that because the new ideas are usually an improvement. 

Do you ever use dreams as a source of inspiration?
A: In one of my first novels, Ghost Boy, Froggy has nightmares about drowning (and for a good reason.)  I used to dream about drowning as a child, and still remember the heart-thumping fear of those nightmares.  Dreams have often offered encouragement (when I feel I've lost my way.) And I've found mind-mapping an image from a dream a very useful exercise to kickstart the imagination when I'm feeling stuck. 

Did you make any astonishing serendipitous discoveries while writing this book?
A:  I was lucky enough to be awarded a May Gibbs Fellowship residency in Adelaide to write A Ring Through Time (although this title only came later.)  I'd put in a story idea but was really not sure that the story had 'legs' as I'd envisioned it.  My husband and I went to Adelaide a week early, to go on the Murray River princess - a little holiday before I started work.  It was a wonderful cruise, made memorable by a visit to the museum at Swan Hill, one of our stops.  I found a case of mourning jewellery, brooches etc. woven out of human hair.  To this day  I don't know if there were any hair rings there, but that's what I 'saw' - and that's when the whole story clicked into place along with its title. A serendipitous find indeed!

Where do you write, and when?
A:  I have a very messy study cum library where I do most of my writing.  But I also write anywhere and everywhere - even when stopped at the traffic lights if I have a brilliant idea!  I also have a pen with a light in it beside my bed to scribble down ideas without having to get up to do it. But if the ideas keep rolling, I'll work by night as well as by day.

What is your favourite part of writing?
A:  Finding out what's going to happen next!

What do you do when you get blocked?
A:  Going for a walk is always helpful.  Or doing the housework - any physical activity that keeps your body busy while leaving your mind free to roam is good.  Or I might try writing something in a different genre: an article or short story perhaps. Sometimes I compose haiku while I'm walking.  Or I do some mind-mapping, or some other writing exercise.

How do you keep your well of inspiration full?
A: I read a lot (novels, newspapers, journals, research material) and talk to friends, particularly other writers who are always very generous with their time and with their ideas.  I have a range of different interests, and I try to keep a balance between work and pleasure.

Do you have any rituals that help you to write? 
A: I have an 'altar' with charms and amulets and artefacts that, for one reason or another, have significance for me. Sometimes I burn essential oils, but mostly I just get on with it. Starting a new novel is always my greatest challenge: I have to trick myself into it.  Once I have an idea, I open a folder and then chuck notes into it - news items of interest, research material, scribbled ideas - anything that might have some relevance to the new story.  Sometimes voices and visions come into it too, or perhaps a conversation between two characters.  I write it all down and file it until I am clear about where the story actually starts - and that's usually because I've already written the beginning without knowing it.  Once I've made a start, I can keep going - but facing a blank screen is terrifying!

Who are ten of your favourite writers?
A:  Only 10??  

Enid Blyton was my favourite as a child (I think I'm still writing versions of The Magic Faraway Tree!) Ayn Rand was a huge influence in my teens. Connie Willis, Phillip Pullman and Guy Gavriel Kay are current favourite fantasy writers. I like C.P. Snow and Maeve Binchy for their memorable characters; Sharon Penman, Geraldine Brooks and Ellis Peters for historical fiction; Helen Garner and Jodi Picoult for difficult and interesting topics; Jane Austen for all sorts of reasons, plus Elizabeth George and other crime authors too numerous to mention.

What do you consider to be good writing? 
A: I'm less concerned about posh literary writing, being more interested in reading a story with a heart, and that takes readers on a journey with characters they care about. 

What is your advice for someone dreaming of being a writer too?
A: Read a lot and write a lot.  Be professional in your approach: near enough isn't good enough when you send off a mss to a publisher. Getting published has never been so tough, so be prepared to think outside the square, try different genres - keep learning, keep writing,  and don't give up.

What are you working on now?
A:  My new novel for adults titled I, Morgana has just been accepted by Momentum, the e-publishing arm of Pan Macmillan. (Very exciting!)  I'm now thinking about the sequel. 


SPOTLIGHT: Felicity Pulman on High v Low Fantasy

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

Today on the blog, guest Felicity Pulman ponders the difference between High and Low Fantasy 

One of my favourite books as a child was Enid Blyton’s The Magic Faraway Tree. I remember that delicious thrill when you just knew that those children wouldn’t get back to the doorway of the tree in time, and that a new (and horrid) land would swing in and then they’d be trapped.  And I sometimes think I’ve been rewriting versions of these books ever since.

True confessions (and with apologies to Kate!)  

Beginning with The Hobbit and LOTR, I’ve never been able to ‘get’ high fantasy: those magical lands with magical creatures and magical characters with impossible names just never captured my imagination quite like those fantasies that are grounded in reality – and here I’m talking timeslip scenarios – or what one might call ‘low’ fantasy.  

These are the sorts of stories I love to read, whether the jump is to an Otherworld (think Guy Gavriel Kay’s marvellous Fionavar Tapestry trilogy or Philip Pullman’s wonderful Dark Materials trilogy) or a jump back into the past. Connie Willis’s Doomsday Book is one of my all-time favourites, going back to the time of plague in the middle ages, but I have also enjoyed her timeslips back to World War II (Blackout and All Clear.) And of course I love timeslip movies too – like The Lake House and Sliding Doors.

The perceived wisdom is to ‘write what you know’.  I prefer to write the sorts of stories I love to read.  And so I, too, have gone back in time with my novels for children and YA, such as Ghost Boy and, of course, A Ring Through Time, and also the Shalott trilogy which taps into Arthurian legend through a timeslip to Camelot in the middle ages.  My latest novel (for adults) is I, Morgana – this time exploring one of the most maligned and enigmatic of Arthurian characters, and with a timeslip to the future (to be published in June by Momentum.)

High or low fantasy? I think both subgenres are of equal value in that they both tend to follow Joseph Campbell’s ‘hero’s journey’ scenario whereby a central character is led to or forced to accept a quest of some sort and has to venture forth into the unknown, undergoing trials, meeting challenges and setbacks, and also reaching a new level of self-awareness along a circular journey that leads home, usually in triumph with ‘the boon’.

And isn’t this, really, what every good story is about?  In my opinion, it is the author’s challenge to create a character, or set of characters, that readers will care about, and who will take them on a vicarious journey of discovery of the world outside, but also on a journey within, where they find out who they really are, along with all their strengths and their weaknesses; and they experience that trial by fire by which we are all tested in our lives and which, hopefully, will give us the courage to become our best selves, either as characters within a story or – and perhaps more important – as characters in our own life story.

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