Working with Words: Garth Nix
Before he became a bestselling novelist, Garth Nix worked as a literary agent, editor, bookseller ... and a part-time soldier in the Army Reserve. He is best known as the author of fantasy book series for children and young adults, especially The Seventh Tower, Keys to the Kingdom and Troubletwisters. Garth spoke to us about career highs, literary heroes and hilarious necromancy rumours.
What was the first piece of writing you had published?
My very first published piece was a short story in my school annual, when I was (I think) in Year 6. But the first piece I was actually paid for was a short story called 'Sam, Cars and the Cuckoo' in a magazine called Warlock published by Penguin in the UK. I was paid £90 which, in 1983, made me think this writing lark was pretty good. Sadly, I wasn’t to sell another short story for years.
What’s the best part of your job?
I love making up stories. Perhaps the time I like best is when, all of a sudden, ideas and bits of story suddenly start to coalesce around the initial seed idea, which might have been sitting in my head for years.
What’s the worst part of your job?
I’m not sure there is a worst part. I’ve had many jobs in addition to being a writer, usually at the same time (I’d write at night and on the weekend). There are of course the usual challenges and problems of being a self-employed creator, but I have been very fortunate to avoid many of these. The biggest challenge for the great majority of writers is just trying to make a living while being able to keep writing. Initially I did this the usual way, by having a day job. But I was lucky to later be able to become a full-time writer.
What’s been the most significant moment in your writing career so far?
It’s very difficult to choose one significant moment. As in any career, there have been many moments. That first book acceptance and offer from a publisher, which for me came via a message on my home telephone answering machine in 1989. I should have kept the tape! My first significant deal in the USA came in 1995 when my newly found American agent sold two books to HarperCollins in New York for an advance sufficient for me to live on for several years, eventually resulting in me leaving my day job at the end of 1997. Having a book appear on the New York Times bestseller list was also a pretty big moment, which first happened for me in 2001.
What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?
Probably the best advice I received, and have passed on numerous times, is simply to keep writing. Almost any writing/publishing problem can be answered by writing another book (or story or screenplay or whatever). It’s another spin of the wheel, another chance, which cannot happen unless and until you write the new work.
What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself [or your work]?
I’ve been amused and surprised by the conclusions people sometimes come to about me, based on reading my books. I am not, for example, fascinated by death, nor do I want to become a necromancer.
'I’ve been amused and surprised by the conclusions people sometimes come to about me ... I am not, for example, fascinated by death, nor do I want to become a necromancer.'
If you weren’t writing, what do you think you’d be doing instead?
I’d probably return to being a literary agent, which was one of my day jobs while I was also writing. I love all facets of the book industry, but being an agent was probably my favourite part of the whole process. Apart from being a writer!
There’s much debate on whether creative writing can be taught – what’s your view?
Just as there are many different ways to write fiction, there are many ways to learn how to do it. For some people, creative writing courses are very useful. For others, they are a waste of time or even actively negative. I think this is one of those things beginning writers need to investigate themselves, to discover whether formal teaching is useful to them or not. It is worth bearing in mind that sometimes one of the greatest long-term benefits of a creative writing course or class is in becoming part of a writing community with the other students, irrespective of whether the teaching is useful or not.
What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer?
Read a lot, and not just in the genre or category you want to write in, and not just fiction. Write a lot. Revise a lot. Submit a lot (or self-publish, hopefully with expert editorial and cover artist help). Keep doing it, despite setbacks, discouragement and initial success.
Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?
If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why?
This is a tough question because I think in general I like characters to stay in their stories. For me, they do not exist elsewhere, but only in their (very real) worlds. And many characters who I love or like would not be good dinner companions. So I’ll pass on this one.
What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?
Many, many books, stories, poems, plays, films have had major impacts, or cumulative minor impacts. The entire literary output of certain authors (like Alan Garner, Ursula K. Le Guin, Rosemary Sutcliff, J.R.R. Tolkien, Susan Cooper, Robin McKinley, Charles Dickens etc) has influenced me and my work enormously. How could anyone choose just one book?