In his rollicking new novel, the space opera A Confusion of Princes, award-winning Australian writer Garth Nix, author of the classic Abhorsen Chronicles and the recent Keys to the Kingdom series, introduces a galaxy-spanning empire ostensibly run by the 10 million princes of the title, all working under the rule of a mysterious emperor but, as the protagonist, Prince Khemri, gradually discovers, things are not at all what they seem.
Although you’ve written science fiction in the past, you’re best known for your fantasy series. Why write one versus the other?
I’m not sure that there’s anything that you can’t do in either form. In any genre you’re working in you can always find a way to tell a particular kind of story. I love fantasy, I love science fiction, I love all kinds of fiction, in fact. I don’t particularly know why I chose to write a science fiction story except that the book seemed to lend itself to a science-fictional setting. I could probably have written it as fantasy, too – a story about a vast empire and near-immortal princes who are reborn and who are superior to normal humans in many ways except ethically, but for some reason I wanted to write a space opera adventure so that’s the story that came out. A Confusion of Princes has a classic coming-of-age structure, it’s a bildungsroman, so the core characteristics of the story, the setting and the tropes, are less important than the human story at the center.
A Confusion of Princes is dedicated to Robert A. Heinlein and Andre Norton, the best YA science fiction writers of the mid-20th century. What does Princes owe them?
I’ve dedicated the book to Heinlein and Norton because their young adult books were very important to me growing up. One of the things I wanted to do with A Confusion of Princes was to write a modern version of the kind of adventure story that I loved when I was young, and that I still read, one that will work for teenagers and adults, and hopefully that’s what I’ve done. This is a naval story too, so there’s probably some C.S. Forester in there, as well. Also, someone asked me the other day if I was a fan of Roger Zelazny’s Amber books, which I am. They’re about the political machinations of princes seeking power, so there’s probably a Zelazny influence as well as many others. Authors are influenced by everything they’ve ever read. If you’ve read widely enough it helps you create your own mix.
The princes, including Prince Khemri, have all been raised to be spoiled, self-centered peacocks, and much of what they end up doing is make-work. Should this be seen as a critique of the upper classes, of masculine vanity, or what?
You could say it’s a critique of both and it’s also an examination of various kinds of aristocracies that have existed throughout history. The empire in the book is very flawed, a terrible place to be for a normal human. I’m also interested in how empires fall apart, and not just empires, but political entities in general, and that’s part of the background of the story. I’ve read a lot of history. The last few years I’ve read a lot about the 16th and 17th centuries, and then the Thirty Years War. I’ve also been very interested in the Roman Empire and various parts of English history. So I guess I’ve always been interested in empires and how they’re both structured and not structured. That also applies to contemporary history as well as the rise and fall of the British Empire, and we can probably see some similarities with the decline of America as well. But that’s all really just a backdrop. The story itself is what’s most important to me.
So in A Confusion of Princes you can see a lot of snide commentary about the aristocracy and where the real power lies, because it doesn’t really lie with the princes. They think they have all the power but the priests actually do. Except that the princes exercise enormous influence over individual normal humans. I guess it’s parallel to the Russian princely bureaucracy under the czars or the Austro-Hungarian Empire or the Holy Roman Empire to some extent. I wasn’t setting out to make any specific political statements. I just wanted an interesting background that I could use to tell the story of Prince Khemri.
You’ve worked extensively in publishing as a sales representative, agent, publicist, and editor. How has what you learned in those jobs affected your writing?
I’m still a partner in Curtis Brown Australia. I haven’t worked actively as an agent in a long time, but I’m still connected to the industry. I loved publishing, I loved working in the book industry, but I’ve been writing pretty much nonstop since I was 19. I realized very early on that I would need a day job and I wanted one that was in books. I studied writing at university and I actually majored in screenwriting. Then I went to work as a bookseller and then as a sales rep and publicist and then various editorial jobs until I ended up with HarperCollins in Australia. I was a senior editor there in the early 90s. I actually left for a while to work in PR and marketing for IT companies, which was very educational, but all the time I was always writing as well as the day job. This is something I tell beginning writers. You don’t need to be a fulltime writer. I wrote half my books when I had very busy day jobs. This isn’t just economic reality; I think that there can be psychological benefits from having other things to do.
I don’t think that working in publishing necessarily changed the way I write – my reading was much more important – but it certainly educated me about the business. It helped inform what I did with things once I’d written them. I’ve always written what I wanted to write with no regard to whether it was going to be considered the best thing to write next. Often publishers want you to write again whatever worked last time. I’ve changed direction various times, all within the genre, but when publishers get a book that works they usually want a sequel to that book immediately. After Sabriel, for example, I wrote Shade’s Children, a science fiction, post-apocalyptic dystopian book way ahead of its time, which is being reissued this month in America as that sub-genre has become popular again. So I didn’t do the book that they wanted immediately, but I was aware that I was taking a risk. Similarly with the Keys to the Kingdom; it was fantasy, but it wasn’t young adult fantasy. Still, it worked out well.
But I’ve always done that kind of thing with open eyes. I think it’s helpful to know how the business works. It makes for clear-eyed decisions and it also helps you to understand why when things don’t work out. Being an editor was also valuable in that looking critically at other people’s work helped me look critically at my own work, and it almost certainly helped me in terms of rewriting, restructuring, and being able to look at something and say, “This isn’t working, how do I fix it?”
Is there any one thing about the field that you miss the most?
The publishing jobs I liked the most were bookselling and agenting. They’re two ends of the spectrum, the beginning and the end of the process. I worked in a fabulous bookshop in Canberra with a bunch of my friends from university, many of whom have gone on to be well-established writers. I loved handselling; I loved matching people to books. I loved working out what someone would like to read when they came in and had no idea what they wanted.
I also loved agenting, because I loved finding new authors and then helping them get established, getting the best deals possible for them, and launching them on their way. And I liked aspects of editing as well. I often talk with a friend of mine; we’d like to start a bookshop, but we just can’t afford to lose that much money, sadly. I’d still like to do it one day. It would have to be one of those things where I could afford to have it not make any money. Starting a new bookstore today, unfortunately, is a very difficult proposition.
Is there anything you know about the business that most writers don’t?
Writers in general are far better informed now than they were even 10 years ago. That’s because of the Internet, which has enabled much better sharing of information, but there are vast amounts of misinformation out there as well. I’m on a list of about 150 science fiction and fantasy writers, called sfnovelists.com, where people exchange information about the business and publishers and compare all sorts of things like advances and sales. There are people on the list who have been published for a very long time, and people who have worked in the industry like me, and ex-editors and agents. Everyone’s a writer, but there’s a lot of industry knowledge there as well. So if you have some esoteric question, you post it to the list; it could be about Bulgarian translations or some obscure book club, or a clause in a contract with a particular publisher, and quite likely someone will have experience in that area and can help give some context or explain how it works.
I think that things like the Internet have now made it much easier for authors to be better informed, though a lot of them choose not to be. I’ve always been fascinated with the business, even before I was in it, and I’d buy books about publishing. I love very old books like Stanley Unwin’s The Truth About Publishing and Anthony Blond’s The Book Book, but also, later on, Richard Curtis’s Beyond the Bestseller, and others. I always got all of those books and I read them and wanted to understand how these things worked.
What one or two other Australian YA science fiction or fantasy writers would you most strongly recommend?
There’s quite a few actually. The best known is probably Margo Lanagan. Her new book, The Brides of Rollrock Island, is out later this year in America. She’s a World Fantasy Award winner, has won many prizes. She’s just a fascinating writer, a real writers’ writer. There’s a great surge of YA writers now, here in Australia as in much of the world.
What’s coming next? A sequel to A Confusion of Princes, perhaps?
No, that one’s a standalone like Shade’s Children. I‘ve written several series, of course, and I could do a sequel, but I have no intention of doing so at the moment. At the moment I’m actually writing another Abhorsen book set several hundred years before Sabriel. It’s called Clariel and is the story of one of the secondary characters in Abhorsen, a young woman, who ultimately becomes Chlorr of the Mask, an evil necromancer, and the whole story behind that. Hopefully I’ll be finishing that relatively soon, because we want to have it out next year.
A Confusion of Princes by Garth Nix. HarperCollins, $17.99 May ISBN 978-0-06-009694-6