Elizabeth Knox

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Next Big Thing

Margo Lanagan tagged me for this chain interview—her responses to the questions are here Margo’s Next Big Thing is her magnificent novel, Sea Hearts.

I’m tagging Dylan Horrocks. His answers should be up a week after mine. Dylan is in the home straight of his graphic novel Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen. Yay!

Here are the questions, and my answers.

What is the working title of your book?

My book is called Mortal Fire—which is a phrase from a poem by William Blake. It is due for publication in June of this year.

Where did the idea come from for the book?

Like many of my book ideas it came from the imaginary game I’ve shared for years, on and off, with my sister and friends. The game provided the germ of a story about a hidden house ‘haunted’ by a powerful, mysterious, and mad young man who is being kept under a kind of house-arrest by his family. I was interested in the effect of solitary confinement on the prisoner, and what depriving a family member of his liberty would do to his gaolers. I was interested in ideas about guilt and revenge.

Of course the basic idea evolved quite a lot I started writing. Mortal Fire tackles the story through its heroine, Canny, who discovers the sad and dangerous, Ghislain. Canny is a person who hates it when anyone keeps stuff from her, and who will go to outrageous lengths to satisfy her own curiosity. She’s is a wilful, wayward, and strong. I’m a fan of powerful, active heroines, but didn’t want to do the weapons-toting kickass type. Canny is full of tricks and and rat-cunning. Much of the novel’s drama, and comedy, rises out of her manipulations—both when they work, and when they eventually, spectacularly, backfire.

What genre does your book fall under?

Mortal fire is a literary fantasy for older teen and adult readers, though it could be enjoyed by a smart 12-year-old

What actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

This was a fun one to answer, but became quite hard when it came to Canny. Much as I love Chloe Moretz, Canny is a Pacific Islander. (A Shackle Islander, since the book is set in my made-up Republic of Southland—like the Dreamhunter Duet). So, there’s Keisha Castle Hughes, and possibly Ngahuia Piripi, or the gobsmackingly gorgeous Q’ Orianka Kitcher. I’d pick Ben Barnes as Ghislain – I mean, why wouldn’t you? Alan Rickman would make a brooding and scalding Lealand Zarene. I can see Gary Oldman as Ghislain’s sweet-natured beekeeper brother Cyrus, and Robin Wright as the tyrannical Iris. And someone like Eddie Redmayne would definitely be good as Canny’s long-suffering stepbrother Sholto.


What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?

Girl steals magic, wins boy, then has to outwit forces bent on their annihilation, all while trying to avoid getting told off by responsible older stepbrother.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

It’s is being published by Frances Foster Books at Farrar, Straus and Giroux in the US, and by Gecko in New Zealand. So far…

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

A couple of years. I was writing Mortal Fire in tandem with an adult literary science fiction novel, Wake.

What books would you compare this story to in your genre?

Megan Whalen Turner’s Queen’s Thief books, because of the machinations, vigour and sensitivity of the main character (plus the tricky romance). And my view of the magic as a kind of science owes a lot to Margaret Mahy (well—all my books do!)

Who, or what, inspired you to write this book?

The setting was inspired by a South Island trip I took with friends when I was 22, in a rusty 1957 Plymouth station wagon. We drove through a valley in central Otago, full of box beehives and beautiful cherry and apricot orchards, all of which now lie under Lake Dunstan, behind the Clutha Dam.

I wanted my heroine to be a Pacific Islander because of my Tongan/Kiwi niece and nephews. And because in various ways Canny’s heritage confounds the novel’s busybodies and generally generates drama.

My heroine is a maths genius, because I was trying to imagine what life might be like for another niece of mine, the very able Bethan, who is doing her Phd in Astro/particle physics at the SISSA research institute in Trieste.

The coal mining disaster backstory is there because of an email correspondence I had many years ago (for a book I didn’t write) with George Muise, a mine rescue captain from Nova Scotia who was the first man to enter the Westray Mine after a terrible methane explosion in 1992.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

Mortal Fire is one of my Southland books. I’m now planning five books set in my made-up South Pacific Republic: The Dreamhunter Duet (set 1906 and 1907); then three standalone novels, Mortal Fire (set in 1959), and a book set in the 1870s, and one contemporary. All the Southland books explore various versions of the Lazarus magic belonging to the five families who immigrated to Southland from the island of Elprus—the families Hame, Zarene, Eucharis, Magdolen, and Vale. The final book will be kind of a superhero story, with the different magics as superpowers—and the world to save (the books so far may be about saving something, but nothing as all encompassing as a world.)



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