SBBT: The Magic of Justine Larbalestier

Ah….Justine Larbalestier. This cool Australian writer weaves magic in her books and in her blog. Even her last name is magic. Three variations: Lar-bal-est-ee-er, Lar-bal-est-ee-ay, and Lar-bal-est-ee-air (as divulged in Kelly’s interview). Each pronunciation surrounds the air with sophistication and intrigue.

Justine Larbalestier is the author of the Magic or Madness trilogy and two non-fiction books (Daughters of Earth and The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction).

And talk about awards. Daughters of Earth was awarded the William Atheling Jr. Award this month. The book won the Susan Koppelman Award, was shortlisted for a British Science Fiction Award, and nominated for 2 Ditmars.

The Battle of The Sexes in Science Fiction was short-listed for the Peter McNamara Convenors’ Award, the William J. Atheling Award and the Hugo for Best Related Book. That’s not all. Locus listed the book as one of the 15 Top SF and Fantasy Anthologies, Collections, Non fiction books, and Art books of 2002. This book was also an editor’s pick at Fantastic Metropolis.

Magic or Madness, the first book in the trilogy, won the 2007 Andre Norton Award. It was shortlisted for the Ethel Turner Award, one of the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards for 2006. Magic or Madness also received honors from the School Library Journal, Tayshas (the Young Adult Round Table of the Texas Libary Association), Magpies (Australian children’s literature magazine), the ALA (American Library Association) 2006 Best Books for Young Adults list, the Locus Recommended Reading List, the CCBC Choices list and the Bank Street best teen books.

Magic Lessons was shortlisted for an Aurealis Award for best Australian YA book as well as a Locus award for best YA. Insideadog favored the book as a best book of the year selection. Other honors include the CCBC Choices List and 2006 Locus Recommended Reading List.

I even added Justine’s trilogy to my Strong Girl Role Models in Children’s Literature list. Very strong female characters.

Whew…how’s that for some heady accomplishments? And now, without further ado, I give you Justine Larbalestier.

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HWM: You’ve written two non-fiction books (The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction and Daughters of Earth) before you ventured into YA fiction. What made you make this
transition? Do you miss the non-fiction world?

Justine: The Battle of the Sexes was my PhD thesis and Daughters of Earth was conceived when I was still an academic. Getting both of them published was part of furthering my career, plumping up the old cv. I have never enjoyed scholarly writing nearly as much as I enjoy writing fiction. I made the transition because I am not cut out to be an academic. I’m WAY too lazy. I’ve written fiction all my life and have always wanted to make a living at it. I’m very lucky that it’s working out for me.

I don’t miss scholarly writing. I still do research for my writing, but now I don’t have to footnote everything and second guess every possibly objection to every sentence I write. Nor do I have to write as though I have constipation.

HWM: I loved your Magic or Madness Trilogy. What made you choose the magic to be centered in mathematics?

Justine: Thank you. I wanted to create a magic that made sense to me. So many fantasies don’t really explain how the magic works or where it comes from. And fair enough—it is magic afterall, being mysterious about is fine. But I wanted to see if could make a more science fictional approach to magic work.

HWM: What are the biggest similarities between you and Reason?

Justine: We both love food.

HWM: I understand you pitched your trilogy idea to Razorbill and it was accepted after some time. As a first time novelist, what was your strategy to write a successful trilogy?

Justine: It was actually accepted quite quickly. Eloise Flood, who created the Razorbill imprint, had seen one of my unpublished novels so she knew that I could write a novel and decided to take a punt on my being able to write a trilogy. I’m very very very grateful to her. She not only
took a chance on me, she taught me so much about writing. Eloise is a brilliant editor. I was very lucky.

I wasn’t a first-time novelist. Magic or Madness is the third novel I’ve written, but the first to be published. (I’ve now written six novels.) Having two novels (one I’m very proud of and the other that we shall not speak of) under my belt meant I knew—at least to some extent—what I was doing. I would never have tried to sell a novel from a proposal otherwise. Learning how to write a novel under deadline would have been terrifying.

It took years of writing and sending stuff out before I was published. Decades even.

HWM: When did you know you had the right ending for the trilogy?

Justine: I’m not sure that I do know that. When I first wrote the proposal I had a very clear idea of how it would end, but when I got there that ending no longer made any sense. Because I am stubborn I wrote it anyway. It was the ending to a completely different trilogy. I wound up having to rewrite it at least six times. Probably more. I’d have to go back and check to see exactly how many times and looking at all those drafts again would break my brain.

Writing the third book was incredibly hard. I had to wrap up everything in a way that wasn’t too obvious but at the same time didn’t come out of no where. Some of the story threads kept unravelling on me, stubbornly resisting my efforts to make them all come together. Magic’s Child wound up going through more drafts than the other two books of the trilogy put together and I’m big on rewriting. I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to read it again. Too painful recalling the agony of writing it.

HWM: What advice would you give to writers who are working on a trilogy?

Justine: Don’t! Me and Libba Bray have sworn to never write another one again. Too brain destroying. We have elaborate punishments planned for each other if either one of us breaks that vow.

HWM: What made you decide to blog? Why do you blog?

Justine: All the other kids were doing it and people said it was a good way to promote your work. Turned out to be enormous fun. I think I’m addicted. Sometimes I joke that if I could blog for a living I’d give up novel writing in a flash. I doubt that’s true, though. Part of the appeal of blogging is that it’s not writing I have to do. I always feel slightly naughty blogging.

I’ve kept a diary since I was nine—a typically self obsessed angsty affair (which I hope no one ever sees until long after I’m gone)—so keeping a journal is something I’ve always done and enjoyed. I especially like the public aspect of blogging. It keeps me from being too whingey or self-indulgent. It’s the corrective my diary always needed. And I adore all the comments. One of the loveliest things about blogging is that it’s not just me crapping on there’s my readers, who also chime in with comments, and then all the other bloggers. I’m part of a writing/reading/blogging community. I love it! I’m even more addicted to reading blogs than I am to blogging.

HWM: I’m a big fan of your blog. You are quite vocal and supportive of the writing community. What made you decide to write such detailed posts such as how to write a novel and first novel advances?

Justine: Thanks! I wrote “first novel advances” because I’d just sold my first novel and I was really curious about what everyone else was getting. I figured others might be curious too. It was eye opening. We make much much less than people realise. And even those who get six-figure advances are often getting it for a book they spent years on so that if you sit down and work out how much they’re being paid per year it’s not that fabulous.

I actually wrote “how to write a novel” as a joke. While it does have some useful advice, I was mostly just being silly. I note that you should never write about unicorns which was a shout out to a friend of mine who’s writing a novel about killer unicorns. The spreadsheet thing was me mocking my husband who tracks the content (action, talking, sneaking) of each chapter of his novels using one. And the thing about typewriters being evil was because another friend insists
on writing on one. So the whole thing was self indulgent silliness!

I was amazed by how useful so many people have found it. Gratified too. I was helped by a lot of writers when I was struggling to be published (still am) so I definitely want to do that in turn. And I loved that a bunch of other novelists were moved to write about their own novel writing method. I started a meme! Though it was amusing that people assumed that I was describing my own novel writing practise. Alas not. I’m not nearly that ordered or organised. Every novel I write seems to demand a whole new set of methods. It’s very annoying. Why can’t all novels be the same?

HWM: What was your biggest challenge while starting up your YA fiction career?

Justine: The YA fiction career has gone relatively smoothly. I sold my first YA novel not long after I wrote the proposal. However, I’d been trying (and failing) to sell adult fiction for something like twenty years before the trilogy sold. Dealing with rejection was really, really,
really hard. I still find it difficult. It was a shock to realise that even when you’re published you still get rejected and it doesn’t stop hurting either.

I’ve been reading and loving YA for years. Some of what I’d written and thought was adult was actually YA so the transition was an easy one. It feels very natural to be writing YA. And I love the YA community of writers, librarians, booksellers, bloggers, editors, publicists, sales reps etc. It’s wonderful.

HWM: What is your writing process or ritual?

Justine: I’m not sure I really have one. Unless hours spent online in order to avoid writing can be counted as part of the process. Step one is definitely procrastination. And there’s also the crying part . . .

HWM: What was your biggest surprise with the success of your Magic or Madness trilogy?

Justine: Pretty much all of it. Just being published and read feels like a tremendous gift. This is going to sound weird but I never expected to have readers. The first time someone wrote me to tell me about reading my books I was so surprised. Not to mention moved. I’m a reader. There are so many wonderful books that are an incredibly important part of my life—-books like Megan Whalen Turner’s Attolia trilogy. I can’t imagine my life without them. So to have some people write to me to explain how much my books mean to them, well, it’s beyond words.

Thank you Justine for your time and thoughtful answers.
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Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction (2002)
Magic or Madness (2005)
Magic Lessons (2006)
Daughters of Earth (2006
Magic’s Child (March 2007)

Where to find Justine
Justine’s website
Justine’s blog
Excerpts from the Magic or Madness trilogy

Liz B.’s SBBT interview with Justine
Kelly’s SBBT interview with Justine
For links to other interviews with Justine

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