I believe you're the product of everything you've read...

23rd January 2004 at 00:00
...and these writers - and others too many to list - were my teachers too

John Carter was inspirational. I spent a couple of years in his history class at Dickson College, Canberra (equivalent to sixth-form college), and what he taught me still informs my writing today and affects how I see the world.

He didn't just disgorge information; he wanted to pass on to everyone his own enthusiasm for the subject. We studied ancient history and modern European history. He made us read far more widely than we needed to for school and spent a lot of time finding us interesting primary texts. I'm fascinated by empires and how they rise and fall, both in my books and in watching what happens today. I can trace this train of thought back to my history classes.

He had the highest standards in essay writing that I'd come across. You couldn't just regurgitate material; he expected analysis and original thought. He would mark up essays as an editor would, which was a valuable introduction to me in working with an editor.

We moved to Canberra when I was a baby. My father was with the Commonwealth Scientific Industrial Research Organisation and my mother, an artist, was teaching at Canberra School of Art. When I was at primary school, there was a specialist children's library halfway between home and school with incredibly helpful librarians. I went there every day. I thought I could never read all the books in there, although the building itself, which is no longer a library, is quite small and it's possible that I now have more books at home.

I loved fantasy and historical novels: Cynthia Harnett, Rosemary Sutcliff, JRRTolkien, Lloyd Alexander, Susan Cooper, Joan Aiken, Robert Heinemann, Diana Wynne Jones. I can visualise the actual editions that I read; I even managed to buy some from a second-hand book store as retired books from the library service. I believe you're the product of everything you've read, and these writers - and others too many to list - were my teachers too.

John Carter's classes were the inspiration for my first big trip overseas when I was 19. To save the money I worked as a public service pay clerk; I tried to stick the job out for a year but could only manage 11 months and one day.

I spent six months travelling around England visiting castles and ruins; it was like a giant history field excursion. Hadrian's Wall was my inspiration for the wall in Sabriel (the first book in the Old Kingdom trilogy), and 10 years later I made another significant journey, overland from England to Pakistan, and saw the ancient city of Petra, which has also found its way into my books. That first trip to England was very important because it was then that I started writing and decided that was what I wanted to do.

I did a BA in professional writing at what is now the University of Canberra, one of the first degree courses of its kind. I'm not sure that you can be taught to write, but you can learn. If you're forced to practise day after day, you learn that a bit every day adds up and if you've done it once you can do it again.

We were taught by Ron Miller, a radio scriptwriter and journalist, who was an important influence. He has a pragmatic approach to writing as a business, and a business that works differently to how you might expect.

Ron was a great encourager. He didn't teach you how to write so much as how things worked when you'd done it and what opportunities were there. He was a Mr Fix-it: he got me and other students a gig writing comedy for a dinner theatre club. It was good money and the practice in co-writing was really useful.

Since then I've worked in every aspect of publishing - in a bookstore, as a sales rep, publicist, editor and agent - and remembered his advice. Having written something good is not enough; you've got to believe in it and work out what to do with it.

Author Garth Nix was talking to Geraldine Brennan


1963 Born in Melbourne, Australia

1976-79 Lyneham high school, Canberra

1980-81-85 Dickson College, Canberra, Canberra College of Advanced Education

1987-94 Editor with HarperCollins Australia

1990 The Ragwitch, fantasy story for children, published

2002 Sabriel, first book in fantasy trilogy, published in the UK

2003 Lirael, second part of trilogy, published

January 2004 UK tour to promote publication of Mister Monday, first in seven-book Keys to the Kingdom series, by Collins Children's Books. January 27: 10-11am, Ottakars, Milton Keynes (tel: 01908 395384); 2-3pm, Council House, Birmingham (tel: 0121 631 4333). Both events are free but booking is essential

Portrait by Murdo MacLeod

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