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Interview: Alison Croggon

August 31st, 2013 (08:00 am)
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A decade ago, Australian author Alison Croggon released The Gift. This fantasy novel, which was called The Naming in the USA, was followed by three more: The Riddle, The Crow, and The Singing. This popular quartet, collectively called The Books of Pellinor, put her squarely on the map for fantasy readers around the world. Now she's released a new YA novel, Black Spring, a fantasy inspired by Wuthering Heights. I conducted an interview with this accomplished novelist, playwright, and poet through the wonders of electronic mail.

How old were you the first time you truly considered a career as a writer?

I never considered anything else. I can’t remember learning how to read – I could read before I went to school and (according to my mother) wrote a little poem on my first day at school. This probably accounted for my primary school teacher writing to me later and telling me that she would buy my books one day! So the desire to write has been there for my whole life. Publication has always been a secondary consideration for me (although of course it's important!) The problem has always been working out how to be a writer and survive at the same time, which led me to journalism in my early 20s, but I've basically been writing full-time for the past 20 years.

You've said that your newest book, Black Spring, was inspired by Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights. When did you first read Wuthering Heights? Have Heathcliff and Cathy haunted you ever since, putting the idea for this story in the back of your mind?

I read Wuthering Heights in my early 20s, I think. I found it a hard book at first (as with some of my favourite books) - it took me a few goes - and then, of course, I couldn't put it down. I read Emily Bronte's poems much earlier, when I was a child, and those were as important in the feel of the book as Wuthering Heights itself. I’ve always wanted to write a tragic Gothic romance, I think. I like that extremity and rawness.

How does Black Spring differ in tone or style from The Books of Pellinor?

It’s a different style of book. The characters are very different, the setting is entirely different, it’s a different kind of story. But it’s still me writing it, so it will have some obsessions in common too. I suppose both The Books of Pellinor and Black Spring are, in essence, meditations on the nature of love – between lovers, of course, but also within families, and as friendship, and as a part of being a human being. Friendship is actually a hugely important theme to me.

To me as well. Congratulations on the international publication of your books! Some of The Books of Pellinor have different titles in different corners of the world. Did you have any say in the book titles?

No! In Germany, Black Spring is translated as LAND OF DEATH, which is certainly Gothic! I have no idea what my books are like in other languages: sometimes the covers are extremely mysterious! But you hope that they are fair versions of what I wrote!

How has social media connected you to your fans?

I have lovely readers, who I often chat with on Twitter and Facebook (I am a bit addicted to social media). Some of them send me updates as they’re reading, which is a fascinating change – once upon a time you had no idea of that immediate response! Someone once sent me a photo of their tattoo, which was a quote from the Pellinor books! Some have set poems from the Pellinor books to music, which is a lovely thing.

What do you think makes fantasy stories have such a universal appeal?

I think it’s lot of things. What attracts me is storytelling, and the enchantments of imagined worlds. I think they allow you to see the world in which we live in new and interesting ways, telling the truth but telling it slant.

We have more in common than our similarly-sounding names: we are both writers in different realms, including musical theatre, songwriting, poetry, fiction, journalism. How do you manage to juggle it all?

I’m sure you have the same problem I have - time! I love working in different areas, as it’s incredibly stimulating, and it keeps me mentally fit. I often work of a few projects at once, because things can sink to the bottom of your mind while you’re working on something else, which can be incredibly useful. They have time to “cook”. Most of the time it’s ok, but sometimes everything happens at once and then it’s a challenge to keep up.

Any upcoming productions? What's the latest news on Night Songs, and Mayakovsky?

As you probably know, a lot of things get written and then not produced. I’ve been fairly lucky that way, but Night Songs is still hanging around looking for a company to put it on. We had a development workshop with Bell Shakespeare, the national Shakespeare company here, which resulted in a wonderful performance, but that might be as far as it gets. The opera Mayakovsky, which I wrote with my long-time collaborator, the composer Michael Smetanin, looks like it might be on in Sydney next year, but that’s in the early stages and I can’t speak about that. My latest opera, The Riders (written with Iain Grandage), will be on in Melbourne next year, but I can’t talk about that yet either!

Break a leg! What's the most exciting part of the collaborative process for you? What have you found to be the most difficult task when collaborating with other creatives?

Collaboration is always about other people, so the trick is to pick your collaborators well! I’ve only had one collaboration go wrong, and even that was with people I love and respect, so there’s no guarantee. As a writer, you mostly work by yourself, so maybe the best bit is not making something by yourself. I just love what happens when other creative minds get to work on your words – it’s never at all what you could have done on your own. When a collaboration works, it’s just so exciting: it makes much more smart than you are, because you have access to all these other minds.

My husband Daniel Keene (he's a playwright) and I co-wrote Night Songs and we enjoyed it so much we want to write a YA series together now. We've got a ripper of an idea, too.

Name some artists - poets, novelists, singers, painters, whatever the case may be - who have influenced your own work.

That is such a hard question! There are so many! I suppose – my absolute favourite poets (but there are so many others) - William Blake, Rainer Maria Rilke. Novelists, everyone from Jane Austen to Ursula Le Guin, Fyodor Dostoevsky to Mikhail Bulgakov to Terry Pratchett. I have been very influenced in all my thinking about writing by theatre, it's taught me a lot about how to make writing alive.

And finally: What are your top ten favorite books?

Another REALLY HARD QUESTION. In no particular order, some enduringly favourite novels:

The Railway Children, E Nesbit
Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoevsky
Persuasion, Jane Austen
The Gormenghast Trilogy, Mervyn Peake
The Wizard of Earthsea quintet, Ursula Le Guin
An Imaginary Life, David Malouf
The Turn of the Screw, Henry James
The Last of the Just, André Schwarz-Bart
The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupery
Orlando, Virginia Woolf


Learn more about Alison Croggon at her official website.