For his latest novel, Garth Nix, author of the Old Kingdom, Seventh Tower and Keys to the Kingdom fantasy series, channels his earlier life in the book trade, including work as a bookseller and in publishing. In The Left-Handed Booksellers of London, Susan Arkshaw, 18, has come to a somewhat different 1983 London to begin art school and search for her father but immediately becomes embroiled in a magical world that she did not know existed. She is rescued and assisted in her quest by Merlin St. Jacques, one of the innately magical booksellers of London who are, as Nix says, “authorized to kill... and sell books.” Nix spoke with PW about his writing methodology, his source materials, and the audience for his works.
Other than your Have Sword, Will Travel collaboration with Sean Williams, your recent works have been standalone stories. How does your work change when writing a single-volume tale?
I’m not sure that it does change all that much! I always try to tell a complete and satisfying story in a single book, even if it is planned as a part of a series. As a corollary of that, I also invest intended standalones with enough interesting threads that can be pulled or joined to make new stories. Even my short stories, someone once commented, usually feel like they are part of bigger stories while being complete in themselves. I take this as a feature, rather than a bug.
In Booksellers, you refer to several classic authors for young people and adults. Was this just a sneaky way of handselling some of your favorites or does it serve a specific purpose in building out the bookseller’s world? How did you decide which books and other objects to feature in the book shops?
It’s both, I think. A large part of my writing is often about places I would like to exist and which I could visit or live in, like the Abhorsen’s House or the Clayr’s Glacier in the Old Kingdom books or the Star Fortress in Angel Mage or, indeed, the two bookshops in The Left-Handed Booksellers of London. But I think if I imagine places I’d be fascinated to see, then that will also work for readers, and part of creating the reality of those places is to get the small details right, which will build up sufficient imaginative fuel for the reader’s mind to supply the rest.
The rich folklore of the British Isles plays a large part in Booksellers. How did you choose which creatures and figures to use? Are some of the foes that Susan and Merlin face original, or are they all drawn from folklore?
Much of what I do is instinctive, based upon a lifetime of reading folklore, fairy stories, history, and fantasy. I know what kind of emotion or tone I want to get in the story to eventually transfer to the reader, and that influences everything, including what creatures or magic I might need. Sometimes it will be an existing entity or artifact from folklore, sometimes I will adapt something, and sometimes I will make it up. The Shuck, early in the book, is straight from East Anglian folklore. The Kexa, or hemlock cat, which appears later, is made up but draws upon some folk beliefs about both cats and hemlock. Invented creatures or lore always work better when they resonate with existing folklore, history, or superstition.
Why did you choose to set the tale in 1983 London?
In part I chose to set the story in 1983 London because that was when I first saw it in person, visiting from Australia. I was there for about six months, off and on—even though I have returned to the U.K. many times since—so I have particularly concrete memories of that time. But I also wanted to make it a slightly alternate 1983, so the world of the book could be more diverse and have greater gender equality, and I could enjoy myself including and transforming various cultural references of the time.
The magic users in your book are booksellers rather than being specifically wizards, witches, magicians, etc. What’s the connection for you, between selling books and casting spells?
I think bookshops have always been rather magical, so by extension, the people who work in them are too! There is also something magical about making the connection between a book and a reader. I always had tremendous satisfaction in match-making a customer with a book they didn’t know they wanted, but would later come back in to rave about and buy everything the author had written.
In Merlin and the booksellers generally, you’ve created a group of characters who are magically gender-fluid. Why was it important for you to include this facet of the characters?
I think this is similar to my writing about places I wish really existed, that I could visit. While it isn’t easy for the booksellers to physically become the gender they feel they are, it is far easier than it is in this world. I think it would be good to be, as Merlin says, “somewhat shape-shiftery.”
Your last novel, Angel Mage, was Dumas-inspired and Booksellers has influences that you’ve built into the text. What other influences have informed your creations over the years?
Sometimes it is quite obvious and big, as with Dumas and Angel Mage, and sometimes it is in lots of small things which might not be immediately evident to even close readers. Some influences come from life, of course, either personal or observed experiences, but a great many also come from reading, particularly that enormously influential time between, say, 10 and 25 when I first read authors, including but not limited to Tolkien, Alan Garner, Susan Cooper, Ursula Le Guin, Rosemary Sutcliff, Joan Aiken, Robert Heinlein, Andre Norton, Alistair MacLean, Desmond Bagley, Georgette Heyer, Lloyd Alexander, Joy Chant, J.P. Martin, Dorothy L. Sayers, John Le Carré, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Frans Bengtsson, E. Nesbit, F. Scott Fitzgerald... and many, many more. Sometimes it might be a technique, or an emotion, or a method of exposition, a character. One of the great things about being an author is that you learn an enormous amount about to how to write simply from reading and enjoying books. You don’t necessarily even need to think about it.
While both this and Angel Mage have appeal to young adults, either could easily sit on an adult fantasy shelf, as well, while other books that you have written have a distinctly younger audience. When you begin a new work, when do you know who your readers will be? Do you begin with an idea (“magical booksellers in London!”) and then focus on an audience later, or is that part of the concept from the beginning?
Both Angel Mage and this book are published as adult fantasy in the U.K. and Australia, as are some of my other books which are usually categorized as YA in the U.S. This has more to do with how publishers think they can sell the book than anything else, in terms of reaching a core audience that will then serve as a catalyst to spread to a wider readership. I don’t think about the audience much at all once I am fully engaged in the writing process. I do think about it early on, when I am developing the story and the tone, but it is more that the story will tell me what it is as I begin to work on it, and it will either become clear to me that it is a children’s book or one of my YA/crossover books.
I generally try to write books that will work for any age once the reader has reached the point where the topmost layer of story can be comprehended. If that is under 12 or so, then it will be a children’s book, if older, YA or adult. I always aim to have multiple layers of narrative and meaning so that a children’s book like Frogkisser! can be enjoyed at the entry level and a 10-year-old will love it for the adventure and humor, but a more sophisticated reader can delve deeper and get other things from it as well. Ideally, I want to write books that can be read over and over again throughout a reader’s entire lifetime, because that is true of all the books I love myself.
The Left-Handed Booksellers of London by Garth Nix. HarperCollins/Tegen, Sept. 22 $19.99 ISBN 978-0-06-268325-0