Isobelle Carmody: finding trolls in the cellars of Prague

Isobelle Carmody, photo: Craig Homberg,

Isobelle Carmody is an Australian writer of fantasy science-fiction for younger people and adults. She has written over twenty books and has won many awards. But she also has a link with Prague, and this is reflected strongly in her latest book, due to be published shortly by Penguin. In today's Czech Books we talk to Isobelle about her life and work.

"I started writing my first book when I was fourteen. Looking back, I guess it coincides with the fact that my father died and I was the eldest of eight children and my mother used to work at night and she left me alone to look after my seven younger brothers and sisters. I didn't have a television to entertain them with, the world's best babysitter, and my parents didn't buy books or magazines. So the only thing I could think of doing to control them was to tell them stories. So, right from the very beginning there was this really strong sense of an audience and having to control them, almost as if my life depended on it. I think you can still see, even twenty books later, those early oral story-telling aspects of how I began. That first book that I started when I was fourteen was my first book published. I worked on that for a lot of years again and again, not really to get published but because I just loved the story that I was writing. It was about a character that was a misfit. Very coincidentally, I was a misfit. So, I was really pouring myself into that."

Were there some negative aspects to being successful so young?

"Well, I wasn't really that young. I started writing at fourteen and I rewrote for six or seven years. I think one of the reasons why so many people write and have their first book turned down is because one minute after they have finished writing their first draft they are contemplating which publisher they are going to send it to. For me, that really wasn't in my mind. I came from a very working class background and there was no idea in my head that someone like me could be published. I was just writing a story over and over. Of course anything you do over and over you get better at...and I did.

"I wasn't particularly gifted and then I went to university and I became a journalist because that was the other thing I knew really well, how to write. I was writing at home and it seemed to me that when I was going and doing stories as a journalist there was a greater truth in what I was doing at night at home, writing about other worlds. That split was really very strong in me, that sense of writing some kind of higher truth at night, when it was fiction."

I felt this when I read your book The Gathering, maybe the most bestselling of your books. Even though it has this aspect of horror, never mind fantasy, it really seemed to me about a teenage boy coming to terms with past traumas and conflicts and dealing with reality even though his struggle in the book was with an evil headmaster in an evil school...

"For me, that book was a real watershed because I was for the first time coming into the real world to write. It was the first book that I had written, which was probably much more accessible than the three books I had written before. It was set in the real world, in the world that I knew. It was set in a housing commission, a low socio-economic area, the kind that I had grown up in. I was broke when I was writing it and was living in a renovated bus in the back of a housing commission house and I felt like I was camped out in enemy territory. At night I could hear in these too close two-people houses people screaming at one another and cars revving up and terrible music and there was an oil refinery quite clear. When I used to sit and write, it always seemed to me strangely significant that the rosy glow from the fire that came from the stack on top of the oil refinery used to be reflected on the pages and the dead smell on the book was literally the smell of an abattoir, as I used to walk at night with my little dog. So it was very much part of the real world."

I imagine that your books speak very directly to young people and teenagers. I know you have quite a wide fan base. What is your communication with them like?

"What surprises me, or what I feel most when I'm asked about the kind of people who read me, and I can only tell from those passionate people who write or run those incredibly well informed websites about me, is that they are the kind of people that I am. I care about certain things and I'm very passionate about certain things. I don't see myself as writing to convert anybody to anything. But because I'm passionate, that passion seeps into what I write. What I find is that the audience, no matter what age they are, is responding very much with their own concerns. So they are aligning very strongly. I remember reading a PhD about myself once, in which someone was very critical of me because they claimed that in my writing, you would be fine as long as you align with my point of view and my value systems but if you didn't you would find that the books didn't work for you at all. I think that was actually very true. I would have to say that I obviously think that good people align with me [laughs]."

Let's turn to Prague. You've lived here on and off and you have been dividing your time between Australia and Prague for around twelve years. I think this has been a new inspiration for your writing.

"Oh yes, absolutely. Growing up as I did with this poor background, I never imagined travelling. In fact, I gave it up mentally, as you can do at 21. I gave up everything - the idea of marriage, of children, of having any money in the bank ever, and to travel. That was never gonna happen. I was committed to writing and I didn't want to do anything that would get in the way. But as life transpires I did travel and I did come to Prague, basically because I fell in love with a Czech man. Then I ended up living here part of the time because neither of us wanted to lose their country. He's a writer too, so we were here every second year and in Australia every first year.

"So, the writing that I do here seems to me to be absolutely different than the writing that I was doing before. Living in Australia, you are completely separated from the rest of the world and many people feel like nothing's happening in the world that matters to us down there. I feel like the thing that happens when you live overseas is that you lose your innocence in a way and you gain some deeper experience of the world and you lose that stupid sense of borders, which I think is just so much the cause of so much conflict in the world. You lose a sense of 'this is my place, I have to protect it, I am defined by it' and you move into the world and you lose some skins. I think that's really what I see most in my writing, particularly the short stories that I write here and some of the books are to me much deeper than the things that I've done before."

I'd like to focus on a book of yours that is about to be published by Penguin. I know it has a real Prague inspiration. It's called Little Fur and I'd love you to explain its origins.

"I think nothing is as close to my heart as Little Fur. You always feel a bit this way about your books. You're in love with the one you've just written. But this one really is special to me. Just like my very first book, I didn't come up with it for publication. It's a story that evolved out of me telling a story to my little girl as we walked around Prague. She was three then, it was in one of our Prague years, and she was full of questions, as they [children] always are. Children always ask very profound questions and come up with strange solutions. They are really enchanting and they have strange ways of using the language. For me, the sound of language is really important. It goes back to that oral story telling and I will always choose something that's poetic over something that is grammatically correct. That's where editors and I often come to grief. Little Fur really rose out of Prague. Even though Prague is not mentioned in the story, it's certainly the city in the story, meaning a city that is very old. For me, it's that old that it's almost fantastical. I can even remember the very beginning of the book. We were looking at one of those basement halls that look down into the underneath of a building. My little girl said 'what's down there Mama?' and I said (I don't know why) 'trolls live down there' and she said 'are they bad?' and I said 'of course they're bad' and she 'it's dark down there' and I said 'they like the dark' and it evolved like this. That was the first day and it was like a spark. We told that story and she was certainly part of the making of it, proposing solutions, and I loved this to-and-fro story telling. And, since she came along, one of the things that has come to enchant me is how you build stories with children. I love that building of stories between you and there [in the book] is certainly that sense. So, the book is as much a book that an adult will enjoy reading to a child and talking about with a child as that a child would like to hear."

Could you read us something from Little Fur?

"This piece that I will read concerns one of the characters in the book, which my daughter and I really love. Perhaps my favourite character, as much as hers, is a character called Crow. Crow is very conceited and very rude. I should explain that the main character is an elf troll and she has these notions about humans based on no knowledge whatsoever, except the stories she hears from animals that generally come to her because they are wounded and need repairing. So, her soul knowledge of humans is what she has come to imagine. Of course this very much parallels the way children build a picture in the world with gaps in it that they fill with their imagination. So, this is Crow and Little Fur...he flies up to her:

Crow was Little Fur's other great friend. She had found him at the foot of a tree after a storm and nursed him until he stopped seeing three of everything. Crow was loud, boastful, conceited, opinionated. Yet like Brownie his mind was occupied, if somewhat giddily, with more than food and mates. He, too, dwelt among humans, but he regarded the city as a roost for birds, and saw humans as stupid, dangerously clumsy creatures that were of no consequence except for their production of crusts and seeds. But because of Little Fur's interest in them, he had taken to making announcements about their activities to her.

And so it was Crow, who brought the first news of the tree burners.

'A pack of humans burning trees,' Little Fur echoed, refusing to react too much. Crow liked to present news in the most dramatic way in order to make sure everyone was listening to him.

"They're creeping out at night and burning trees up,' Crow screamed.

Beginning to be alarmed, Little Fur questioned the bird closely and learned that he had got his information from a possum, who lived in the attic of an old human. She had heard the news from the human's talking picture box, which was very loud. Never exactly sure what a picture box was, Little Fur had learned enough to know this was one of the ways by which humans communicated news.

The book is also illustrated by you. I think this is the first time that you've actually entirely illustrated a book?

"Yes, it's not a picture book. I have written picture books that were illustrated by other people. It's full of black and white illustrations, a lot more than I anticipated when I wildly proposed the idea. The reason for illustrating it myself wasn't because I was in love with my own abilities or imagined that I could really even do it but it was because my little girl and I had drawn this character of Little Fur over and over again and we really wanted her to be the way she was. So, I felt that I needed to establish how she looked, myself. I sent this project idea off to the publishers. I didn't send any text for the first time ever. I always write books and then send them. I don't send synopses or anything like that. But this time I sent a couple of little pictures that I had drawn with Adelaide's (my daughter), three-dollar paint box and I was amazed at the response. But it could be that they saw it as being something of a gimmick."

When is this story about the Prague cellar dwellers due out?

"It's due to be launched on the 31st of July and I will go to Australia for that. So, I'm terribly excited about it."

Now, Adelaide, you have been with us. What do you like most about Little Fur?


And why do you like Crow most of all?

"Because he's boastful and conceited."

And you like boastful and conceited people?