Finalist Interviews: The origins of Mortal Fire, by Elizabeth Knox

pp_elizabeth knoxIf you have ever wondered where authors get their ideas, this is your chance to find out. We have asked our fantastic finalists all about their work, and they have been very generous in their responses!

We have previously reviewed Mortal Fire on this blog, and please also see our review of the event Elizabeth did during the New Zealand Festival Writers Week, for further information about this book.

Thank you to Elizabeth Knox for answering our questions:

1.    As an author, you must have a lot of ideas floating around. How did you decide to write this book?
This is the big question, so here’s my only big answer – starting small.

The basic idea for Mortal Fire came, as many of my ideas do, cv_mortal firefrom my imaginary game (for an explanation of that see my website The basic idea was that a family of magic users have imprisoned their most powerful member in hidden house and, after decades, the original spell has grown so strong that it is strangling the vitality and future of the whole family. And, so far, no one in the family has been able to say about the family’s choices: “This is crazy. This isn’t working.”

I wanted the story to read like a mystery, so needed a mystery solver, in this case a determined girl who visits the valley, knows something strange and magical is going on, and wants to get to the bottom of it.

But before I began the book a number of terrible things happened to my family, one of the hardest of which was that my husbands’ brother Duncan died leaving behind a wife, and four children, the Barrowman nephews and niece to whom Mortal Fire is dedicated. They are south Auckland Pasifika kids. Which is one reason the book’s heroine, Canny, is a Pasifika kid.

Duncan was killed in Rarotonga (where he was with his team on a Golden Oldies rugby tour). The man who killed him went to prison for manslaughter. Some thoughts I had during that man’s trial became the secondary theme of Mortal Fire. (It’s first theme is how you can’t always save people, or spare them. The two books I wrote between 2009 and 2012 have that, partly because my mother was dying of Motor Neurone Disease – which among other things is an exercise in being able to do less and less to help all the time. But also because of Duncan, and my husband’s family, especially the kids. Because of many nights lying awake, thinking in desperation and worry, “What can I do? What can I do?”)

The secondary theme was about our desire to punish people who harm us, and what that desire does to us. When we were in Rarotonga, attending the trial, we all hoped for a guilty verdict. The idea that the guy who did it might get off was awful. But one day, when we were driving on the inland ring road, we passed a sign pointing to the Cook Island prison and went to take a look. We sat in the car for a short time staring across a humpy green field at the long, low building. It had barred windows, each with a single horizontally-hinged shutter. The shutters were propped open. The sunshine was bright and hot and the prison’s interior was just a blackness. Now – I might have wanted the guy to go to prison, but right then the thought of putting any fellow human being in that place and making them stay was quite hard. Or serious. Or just real – it made my desire for this man’s punishment something I had not just to feel, but to be responsible for. So, the trial ended and I came home and I went on thinking about that moment, and my own piteous human hesitation, a piteous human hesitation which the man who drove his truck into Duncan failed to have. It wasn’t that I stopped feeling angry and vengeful, or even thought I should stop feeling that way. It was only that I came to understand that my human hesitation was a far, far more valuable feeling (I mean not just to me – but in life, in the world). And some of this found its way into Mortal Fire.

2.    Tell us a bit about the journey from manuscript to published work. What was the biggest challenge you faced in publishing this book?cv_dreamhunter
I’ve written many books now and there seems to be an endless variety of problems that can turn up during publication each one. Mortal Fire had a straightforward start. My editor and agent chivvied me along. I gave it to them and structural/copy editing and proofing all got underway with FSG in the US and Gecko Press’s Julia Marshall here. A great cover turned up, and really good blurbs from writers I admire (Holly Black and Margo Lanagan and Kelly Link and Delia Sherman). Then my wonderful editor Frances Foster suffered a bad stroke. Frances is still alive and facing daily challenges, but she has retired. Frances was my editor for Dreamhunter and Dreamquake too, and I owe her a great deal, and I’ve missed sharing with her things like Mortal Fire being a finalist in the LA Times Book Awards.cv_dreamquake_

3.    Did you tailor this book to a particular audience – or did you find it found its own audience as it was written?
With each book, adult or YA, I just write the book that is there to be written, as faithfully as I possibly can. If I have any useful ideas of an audience it is people who love the books I love. And that’s a wide brief, since I read and love many different kinds of books.

4.    Can you recommend any books that you love, that inspired or informed your book in any way?
Anything by Megan Whelan Turner, Holly Black, Margot Lanagan, Diana Wynne Jones and Margaret Mahy. No other book was a direct inspiration, but these are some of the writers of young adult fiction who continue to inspire me.

5.    Tell us about a time you’ve enjoyed relaxing and reading a book – at the bach, on holiday, what was the book?
cv_night_watchTimes that stick in my mind are these: staying up late in a Tata Beach bach bed with a hammock-like saggy mattress reading Terry Pratchett’s The Night Watch. Lying on a window seat of a bach in Marehau with a view of a rose garden and fruit falling off trees and onto a trampoline then bouncing off like popcorn when you take the lid off the popper. I was reading a formidable, dark book by Roberto Bolano, called 2666. Or, again Tata, two rainy days at the beach reading my first Lee Child books. Or, years ago, looking out over Tata lagoon, and a garden where my four-year-old was playing with round-bellied Burmese kittens while I read an elegant, icy, lethally sad book called The Periodic Table by holocaust survivor Primo Levi.

The thing is, there are times when you’re reading a book that you read the world along with it, and the book reads the world, and the world seems to read the book – especially if it’s a great book, like The Periodic Table or 2666 – or even, in its own way, Pratchett’s The Night Watch.

6.    What is your favourite thing to do, when you aren’t reading or writing, and why?
Playing imaginary games (see website). Why? Because I get to be someone else somewhere else – and usually several someones – much more completely than I do when I’m reading, or watching films or TV, or even writing.

– Booksellers NZ material. Please ask if you wish to extract this material in any way.

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