Conor Kostick is the author of several successful books including Epic,Saga, Move, as well as The Book of Curses for younger readers. He lives in Dublin where he teaches medieval history at Trinity College. In 2009, Conor was the recipient of a Special Merit Award at the Reading Association of Ireland Awards for his book Move, and for his contribution to science-fiction writing in Ireland. He has achieved international success with Epic and Saga.
Here Conor Kostick talks to Elizabeth Rose Murray for writing.ie about the impulse to write, miner’s strikes and his latest book, Edda, which completes the Avatar Chronicles.
From medieval history and non-fiction to futuristic children’s literature – tell us about your journey…
My childhood was spent in Chester, England, which is a walled city with Roman remains. Nearby are a great number of castles, including some spectacular medieval ones across the border in Wales. And what with my dad having a love of history and correspondingly enormous book collection, I’ve grown up with a fascination for the past. The same goes for literature. My mum tells me that she just wasn’t able to get me started on reading until I was six. But I must have caught on fast, because by the time I was eight I had read the E. V. Rieu translation of the Iliad and Thomas Kinsella’s version of the Tain; by the age of fourteen I was reading Philip Roth, Joseph Heller, I. B. Singer and other post-war Jewish US authors to whom my father was drawn. Moreover, the desire to be a writer was firmly established within me. It is this family environment that helps explain also the fact that my brother Gavin, has gone on to have a successful playwriting career and – as dramaturge for Fishamble Theatre Company – has assisted in the emergence of artistically successful new Irish playwrights.
I first began writing at the age of twelve, in a copy-book, but the stories were rubbish and derivative. Moreover, I couldn’t show them to anyone as my schoolmates would have scoffed to learn that I was writing. I went to a comprehensive school in Chester that was pretty good, but still, the culture of my classmates was hostile to the idea of boys with literary pretension. So I gave up for twenty years. I returned to writing novels when I got the idea for Epic, by which time I’d learned a lot about the craft of being a writer from journalism and from writing history.
Your fictional characters are known for going against the grain and foraging their own paths – take Erik in Epic for example. Is this an example by which you lead your own life or is it an alter ego, something you would advise others to try?
In 1984 a massive social conflict took place in England, in which the miners fought the Conservative government. I wasn’t at all political before that year, but I walked by a public meeting at which a miner was speaking and I loitered at the door to listen, caught by his passion and directness. Convinced by the justice of the miners’ case I started to help them collect donations of food outside supermarkets (to sustain their families during the long strike) and it came as a shock that all sorts of values I’d taken for granted, I could no longer trust. For example, previously the police had seemed to be a paternal force for good. They gave talks on road safety in my school. But now I was witnessing them beat up strikers and their supporters. I was suddenly outside the box and challenging everything, it was very liberating. And yes, I do advise going against the grain, not for the sake of posture, but to clarify your own ideas. And perhaps you’ll end up accepting a view that goes with the grain, but at least you are doing so consciously. Whenever you take an idea for granted, and that includes apparently radical ones, you’re going to end up being driven by others rather than doing the driving.
How much self promotion do you need to do these days as a writer and does this distract from the writing? I notice the blog about you isn’t written by you – is this the way forward?
None. But I might be wrong about this. More and more buzz seems to be created by making an effort to build up followers on Facebook or Twitter. I’m lucky that my friend Andrew keeps that blog up to date for me. One reason for my reluctance to build up my online presence is simply practical. I just don’t have the time. I’ve a daughter, Maya, who is two and half and when I’m not playing with her or doing the household chores, I’m working in college or at the Irish Writers’ Centre. If I get an hour at the computer to write, I want to spend it writing a novel or a work of history, not posting comments and promoting myself. But even if I had the luxury of much more time available for writing, I still think I’d have the same approach. My publishers recently arranged a blog tour for me, which was fun and I’m happy to be interviewed online. Or give a guest essay on some topic. But I’m not going to sustain a regular blog or Twitter presence.
When you start a new book in a series, is it like putting on an old pair of comfy slippers or is it terrifying? What challenges do you come across and how do you overcome them?
More comfy slippers than terrifying. But the constraints of the world you have previously created do pose a challenge. As a reader and a writer I’m more interested in character conflicts than plot resolutions. So often as I work I aim towards a particular moment where the key dramas take place, the scenes where a character will either rise to the occasion or disintegrate. And I prefer not to know exactly what will happen in those moments until I’m actually writing them. So, for example, in Epic, I didn’t know whether Erik or Count Illystivostich the vampyre would come off best in their encounter on the voyage. Some authors like to have everything planned out and you have to do that if you are writing certain kinds of story. But I would normally have about ten scenes I intend to get to and I’d then figure out how to get to them. How to get character A, B and C in the same room, with very different agendas? When you are writing in a series, your freedom to make up the paths by which you come to these nodes is very much curtailed. Mind you, with Saga, I pretty much cheated my way around this problem by creating an entirely new world from Epic.
What was the most defining moment of your writing career so far?
There are a lot of reasons to become discouraged as an author. If, for example, you measure your writing career by sales then you are in for a roller coaster ride. Because the market is so competitive you might find a few months of relative success are followed by your books disappearing forever into the vast sea of titles that washes around the planet each year. As it happens, I’ve been fairly lucky and all my works are still in print, but all the same, I think it wiser to judge a writing career by other measures. Being given awards is important encouragement and my career definitely got a boost from the IBBY award that took me to China in 2006; again, the Reading Association of Ireland Special Merit Award in 2009 came at a good time, when I was struggling to complete Edda. And recently, Amanda Piesse’s feature on my books inInis really gave me a lift. But there have been other defining moments to take into consideration, such as when I met Sharyn November at Worldcon, Glasgow 2005. Sharyn is the commissioning editor of Firebird, an imprint of Penguin USA. We talked about everything except the fact that she was an editor and I was an author with a book whose US rights were available and we got on famously. On her flight home she read Epic and the following week my publishers, O’Brien Press, found themselves in a bidding war between two massive US publishers for the title. Firebird won.
Ultimately though, I think the impulse to write (and this applies to nearly all the writers I know) is not derived from the pursuit of money but from the desire to tell a story in order to entertain and move others. If you think about the pleasure you get as a reader, as a writer you want to give that back. Therefore perhaps the most defining moment of my career to date was the receipt of a letter from a young reader who lives in a pretty rough area of New Jersey. He said he hardly read any books but that he loved Sagaso much he wanted to write to me and say so.
Your latest novel Edda completes your Avatar chronicles – tell us a bit about Edda. How do you think it will be received by fans?
Fans will like it, I think. With Saga I upset a certain number of fans of Epic – sorry! – because at one level it moved massively away from the world they had enjoyed and wanted to read more about. With Edda, those who enjoyed Epic but not Saga will be pleased to immerse themselves in a story with a whole series of fantasy encounters, including one set in a cursed tower in a forest glade and another with an ethereal banshee. On the other hand those engaged by the underlying issues created by the interaction of humans and electronic intelligences will have a lot to get their teeth into. Plus fans of Ghost, my own favourite character, will be glad to see she gets a major role in Edda.
When you write – what are your driving factors? Do you write with a specific audience in mind?
I usually write the kinds of stories that I would like to read myself. But sometimes I find it helps to write for Andrew, if it’s fiction, and either my dad or another old friend, Nathan, if it’s history. Andrew gives me feedback on my work in progress up to the point where it all takes off anyway. Then I can leave him out of the loop until he sees a – usually much revised – published version.
Do you have a favourite book cover you’d like to share with us?
Tony Saraha’s covers for the US versions of Epic, Saga and Edda are terrific and you can download them from here: http://www.tonysahara.com/downloads.html . In fact I’ve just set the Epic one as my wallpaper. I like the French cover for the intelligent way in which it shows the two worlds (in game and outside) in which the action of Epic take place. You can see it here with Andrew’s thoughts:http://conorkostick.blogspot.com/2011/07/super-french-cover-for-epic.html . And I like the Brazilian cover for Epic too, probably because turquoise is my favourite colour.http://conorkostick.blogspot.com/2007/12/brazil-cover-for-epic.html
How do you feel to be leaving the chronicles behind and what’s next in store?
I have mixed feelings about moving on from the Avatar Chronicles. Their universe of vast electronic worlds nested within our more familiar organic world is interesting and probably still has scope for more new dramatic encounters. But on the other hand, I am enjoying a certain sense of freedom about my next novel. Mind you, I’m not going to be writing anything in a hurry as we’ve a baby due soon. When I do begin writing fiction again, it will be to develop a couple of characters I have been sketching out. I was thinking of writing something about a boy who is being trained for the priesthood in a Neolithic moon-worshipping society. The interest there being the clash between his own good nature and the darker more oppressive values that he is expected to project on to his people. I’m also having fun making notes on a hedonistic community of electronic intelligences.
Find out more about Conor on his news site http://conorkostick.blogspot.com/