Richard Harland interview: WORLDSHAKER

June 17, 2009 at 12:30 am (book reviews, interview, speculative fiction, young adult) (, , , , , )

Hello all,

Rowena was kind enough to put me in touch with Richard Harland (who I believe I already described as “fascinating” in the “Worldshaker” review I wrote). This is the unabridged interview.


When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

 When I was about 11, still living in England, my cousin and I wrote down adventure stories involving planes, castles, submarines – basically, the adventures we’d been making up in games played in the junkyard at the back of his house. We copied them and sort of sold them in the school playground – ‘sort of’, because we only got swaps for them (comics, lollies, etc), never hard cash. It was a real buzz when people came up asking for more.

That was when I first thought how great it would be to be a writer. But it took more than 40 years for the dream to come true.

You have recently produced a website full of writing tips. Do you miss teaching?

 I do miss it. When I resigned as a uni lecturer, I always knew I would – the stimulation of bouncing ideas around, the intellectual interaction. Writing can be a very lonely activity. Maybe the writing tips were a harking back to the uni days – not that I ever taught creative writing, only English literature. But I suppose my way of looking at texts was always the way of a writer.

Producing the writing tips – 145 pages, as big as a book – re-activated that analytical side of my mind, I guess. I never thought of it as teaching, though, more as a sort of sharing and personal confession.

You struggled with writer’s block for twenty-five years. What made you keep trying?

 Sheer pig-headedness? I don’t know – I don’t give up on things easily. I always felt I had stories to tell and the imagination to make them real for other people, I was just such a manic perfectionist. The simple instinct was there and never went away – I don’t think I ever had doubts about that. What I had doubts about was my ability to turn what was in my imagination into words. I lost myself every time in a thicket of fiddly revisions and hesitations.


Looking back now, I know I should’ve let other people be perfectionists for me. Instead of taking it all on myself and agonizing internally and getting the guilts like you wouldn’t believe, I should’ve let other people read what I was writing and tell me what was and wasn’t working.

Tell us the background of writing “Worldshaker”. What was the inspiration?

The inspiration was a desire to write a Mervyn Peake/Dickensian novel, sort of urban gothic. I had a dream where I discovered a third Gormenghast-y novel in a library – not the real Titus Alone, but a book that had all the flavour of the first two books. I read it and loved it, but when I woke up, I couldn’t remember a single thing in it. All I had was the flavour, the atmosphere. I wanted to recapture that. When I started planning, it stayed urban gothic, but became more and more steampunky too.

What were the obstacles you needed to overcome?

No particular obstacle, not like my long black period of writer’s block. It was more that I couldn’t see much chance of getting it published. No Australian publisher was bringing out urban gothic or steampunk or Dickensian Victoriana. I had other things to write, so I just let the Worldshaker world of juggernauts slowly accumulate in my mind. The characters too – they evolved and solidified over many years. It was ten years after the planning that I started writing, and another five years before I finished the writing. But that wasn’t writer’s block either – just making the story better and better. I actually enjoyed doing the re-writes, it was exciting to feel the novel improving all the time.

What happened, and what was your reaction when you found out what a large advance you’d get for the overseas sale?

 I was in Brisbane, and I checked my email in a booth in a shopping mall. Urgent message to ring my agent. So I rang on my mobile, hardly able to hear for all the noise – and she let the news out bit by bit. US contract – yippee! Then how much did I think it was for? I guessed – then guessed larger – then guessed larger again. When she finally told me, I gave a whoop that must’ve been heard across the whole shopping mall.

Why do you (usually) prefer writing young adult books?


In my own mind, I’ve never written a YA book – only books that have YA-aged characters in them. I can’t think of writing WORLDSHAKER any differently – well, I suppose I could’ve made the sexual side of Col and Riff’s relation more explicit, but I doubt it would have been an improvement. I made the decision that the book would be YA before I started writing it – and then forgot the decision once I’d started writing.

Fact is, there isn’t much you can’t put in a YA novel these days. The important thing is the age of the main characters – plus a rip-roaring story that younger readers won’t lose interest in. That’s the kind of story I like and always hope to write anyway.

What is your next project?

 The sequel to WORLDSHAKER, called LIBERATOR. Col and Riff are the main characters again, and most of the (surviving) characters from the first book. But it’s a further stage of the revolution we see in WORLDSHAKER, as the fanatics and extremists take control. There are internal threats to the new order, plus an external threat as the Prussian, Russian and Austrian juggernauts converge. From being the favoured child of fortune in the first book, Col now becomes the persecuted victim, a representative of the old regime.

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