Isobelle Carmody: An Interview/An Apology/An Introduction

To set the context here, let me tell you a story. One Ramadan, I picked up the Obernewtyn series and read the first three in a daze. I was glutted with good storytelling, a fantastic world and complex issues that made me think hard (and become hungrier as a result. I think with my stomach). When I realized that November was going to be our Dystopian month, I was determined to get an interview with Isobelle Carmody who is the wonderful author of the Obernewtyn series. There were scheduling issues as this was going to be a skype interview and Ms. Carmody is (or perhaps was) in Istanbul at the time while I remain in Vancouver. Our time zones were different and getting a convenient time for both of us was difficult but we managed to get it. And my goodness everyone, Ms. Carmody is a wonderful speaker. I was stunned by the breadth of her knowledge and the confidence and ease with which she discussed her work and opinions. Also, I felt gleeful as I was the one who got to listen to her. I recorded the skype interview, audio recording, so I would be able to transcribe her answers. It was only after the interview that I found that technology had failed me and the recording cut off after ten minutes of an hour or so interview. I must apologise for that because I have no idea what happened and why it happened. I just know that it did and I am so very sorry.

Instead of transcribing Ms. Carmody’s exact answers, I have to paraphrase them and hope that I cause no offence.

But first, an introduction.

isobelle_bioIsobelle began the first of her highly acclaimed Obernewtyn Chronicles while she was still at high school and worked on it while completing a Bachelor of Arts and then a journalism cadetship. The first book was accepted by the first publisher she sent it to and went on to be short-listed in the Older Readers section of the Children’s Book Council Book of the Year Award for older readers. The series and her short stories have established her at the forefront of fantasy writing in Australia. (source)

You can find her at her website.

The Obernewtyn Books

I discovered that you began writing The Obernewtyn Chronicles when you were still in high school and completed it while continuing your journalism cadetship. Now that you have acquired experience, both in life and writing, if you were to rewrite the first novel of the series, are there any elements of the story or characters that would emphasize or perhaps frame differently?

Ms. Carmody replied that she wouldn’t change a single thing as what she wrote was “the best she could do in the moment.” She said that “it is the best it can be which is not say it is perfect, only that [she] couldn’t do more in that moment; it’s the most honest, faithful thing she could produce in that time. To go back and rewrite would be a kind of desecration and also it would be usurping that younger self who might be quite different than her, who may be braver because she’s less knowledgeable. The Obernewtyn Chronicles have grown up with her as she has been working on them over time. It would be like rewriting her own history and she’d rather write a new book instead.

Ms. Carmody is working on a screenplay for one of her books and finds the process fascinating as she has to resolve certain things that work in a written medium but would need resolution for a successful adaptation to the screen. She revealed that she is seriously thinking of writing the Obernewtyn Chronicles (somewhere down the line) as a miniseries for (presumably) TV once the books in the series have been completed.

Obernewtyn was first released in 1987 and while children’s literature had created a niche for itself then, it did not enjoy the same popularity as it does now. Is there a marked difference in being a children’s literature writer now as compared to before when children’s literature, including young adult fiction, was not as widely read? Is there any pressure to write in a certain way to conform to what is trending or do you find it easier to be a children’s writer now that children’s literature is better read and more loved?

Ms. Carmody argues that children’s literature has been popular since the concept of childhood was conceived. Before it became universal, childhood was limited to the upperclass and books were produced for children who read. The difference now is that adults read children’s literature as well. She stated that though there is no pressure to write in a certain way, there is pressure to write faster because publishing and publishers are more concerned with the “bottom line” and economics. Children’s literature in a sense has been validated by the fact that it makes money.

You wrote Obernewtyn long before YA dystopian fiction became a “thing,” and, in fact, I would not classify the series as strictly dystopian fiction because it contains many tropes more common to high fantasy. What the series has in common with a lot of dystopian novels, and also emphasized in each book, is the destructive relationship human beings have with nature. You wrote the novel before climate change and global warming became common topics of discourse among environmentalists. Was there a specific instance or incident that led to the genesis of Obernewtyn? Would you consider The Obernewtyn Chronicles dystopian fiction?

Ms. Carmody would not consider The Obernewtyn Chronicles as dystopian. She wrote it when she was fourteen years old and interested in science and the Manhattan Project (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manhattan_Project). At that time, the newspapers were flooded with articles about scientists all over the world working on effects of the Nagasaki bombs and that inspired her and got her thinking.

Obernewtyn and the subsequent installments of the series consider a number of themes in their narratives but I believe that one of the most prominent and frequently recurring themes is power. The protagonists usually find themselves lacking power and involved in both mental and physical battles to regain it. Kimberley Reynolds, a children’s literature theorist, “some areas of YA fiction, which like children’s literature generally is almost without exception produced by the adults for the young, have begun to serve a wider cultural project concerned with subduing the perceived teenage threat by re-presenting youth and youth culture not as disruptive and powerful but as impotent and puerile to readers who are anticipating and undergoing adolescence” (Reynolds 71). As both a writer and reader of YA fiction, would you agree with her statement?

Ms. Carmody replied that she does not agree with Reynolds because as an author, she writes her for herself. She agreed that power is the theme most prominent in The Obernewtyn Chronicles. She finds herself writing about it very frequently. There is a scene in one of the books where the protagonists lose a Gathering because they refuse to compromise their morals in order to triumph. According to Ms. Carmody, that scene has a particularly strong message and implications about the characters and their willingness to acquire power.

Many authors have talked about how their experiences with stories and storytelling in their own childhood shaped their understanding of narratives and played a part in the way they wrote their stories as adults. Are there any books that you read as a child that remain with you as an adult and affect the way you tell your stories?

Ms. Carmody read a lot of science fiction and fantasy and spent a lot of time in the library; she was somewhat steered by the librarian. She loved science fantasy and fiction because she did not much like the real world. Chronicles of Narnia is among her favourite childhood novels. Most beloved of all was Land of Far Beyond by Enid Blyton because it showed Isobelle what she wanted to write about was not the heroic journey outside but what happens inside a character – more about the emotional journey than the physical one. She loved the book so much she kept on checking it out from the library until one day she just kept it.

You write for both teens and younger readers. Which audience do you find is more challenging to write for? Do you prefer writing short stories or are novels more your style? Or does it all depend on the story you are telling?

Ms. Carmody replied that it does not matter which audience the books are for, she follows the story. As an example, she  said, “Llook outside a window and see a boy with a chipped tooth, his name is Heath, he is the one to whom all the questions are drawn and he is the one whom the Story follows.” It all depends upon the story.

Reynolds, Kimberley. Radical Children’s Literature: Future Visions and Aesthetic Transformations in Juvenile Fiction. New York: Macmillan, 2010. Print.