Welcome to the blog, Kate. So, to start us off, your new book, The Puzzle Ring – who’s it for and what’s it about?
‘The Puzzle Ring’ is an historical fantasy for children aged 10+. It tells the story of a girl who discovers that her family was cursed long ago, and the only way to break the curse is to find and fix a broken puzzle ring. To do this, she must travel back in time to the last tumultuous days of Mary, Queen of Scots … a time when witches were burnt and queens were betrayed and the dark forces of wild magic still stalked the land … Essentially its a time travel adventure, with lots of fascinating stuff about Scottish history and fairy lore and curses in it. It was huge fun to write!
You spent a month in Scotland, I hear, to research myths and lore – what was that like?
It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. I’d longed to go to Scotland all of my life, having been brought up on the stories of my grandmother and great-aunts, who had been brought up on the stories of their grandmother, Ellen Mackenzie, who left Scotland in 1840 at the age of 14. Her story is as tragic and romantic as any old family story, and basically the story of Hannah – who finds herself heir to a mysterious old castle in Scotland – grew directly out of that family history.
My husband says I set ‘The Puzzle Ring’ in Scotland just so I could finally go there – and there’s some truth in that. I think its really important for writers to go where they set their books – and so I packed up my whole family (one husband, three kiddies) and took them to Scotland.
Nothing was strange to me. I felt like I was coming home. As we drove around that wild, lonely, beautiful country, I told my children all the stories that I had been told as a child, and found my voice falling into the same soft lilt of my grandmother and great-aunts.
We stayed in a real 14th century castle near Gatehouse of Fleet, a place where John Knox himself had once stayed, then had four nights in a cottage on the shores of Loch Lomond, in the grounds of Arden House, a grand old Scottish baronial mansion which helped me imagine what Wintersloe Castle might have looked like.
We drove to all the places that appear in the book – the fairy mountain Schiehallion; the whirlpool known as the Hag’s Washtub; and the village of Fortingall where a five-thousand-year-old yew tree grows. We travelled over the Rannoch Moor to Glencoe, a place that looks as if it has not changed in a thousand years, and along the sea road to the Isle of Skye, where we occasionally saw the most extraordinary mountain crags looming out of the mist and rain.
Three days staying in an old monastery on the shores of Loch Ness was definitely a highlight of the trip, particularly as the rain cleared and we had some beautiful warm, spring sunshine. We went monster-hunting, and ate some great Scottish cuisine in the local pubs, and then headed to Edinburgh for a few more days.
I loved Edinburgh! I think it’s one of my favourite cities in the world. One of the highlights was the Beltane celebrations on Calton Hill. We listened to a wonderful Scottish storyteller who told us that Calton Hill was once believed to be a gateway to fairyland. This solved a massive problem I had with the plot of ‘The Puzzle Ring’ and so it turned into one of the best nights we had in Scotland (though we still cannot get over all the mad Celts with their bare arms and bare legs in the freezing cold of a Scottish spring evening.)
When I came home to Sydney, I found my fingertips could not fly over the keyboard fast enough. The oral history of my own family, the fairy tales and folklore of my great-aunt’s bookshelves, the Scottish history I had devoured as a child, all wove itself seamlessly into the book, keeping me as enthralled as any of my grandmother’s stories. And of course, I dedicated the novel to Nonnie and my great-aunts, women of the Mackenzie clan, who first told me the grand and tragic stories of Scotland.
You also spent some time researching curses, do you believe in them now?
One of the first triggers for the book was discovering an amazing old hardback called ‘The Book of Curses’ in a second-hand bookshop in Rye, just at the very moment when I was first thinking about ‘The Puzzle Ring’ and wondering about why Hannah must find the broken ring. When I found the book, it fell open at a story about the Seaforth Doom, a very famous Scottish curse laid upon the Mackenzie clan (my own clan!) I was instantly fascinated.
And one of the reasons why I was so fascinated is that when I was 9 years old I laid a curse upon the biggest, meanest girl at school, a bully-girl called Brenda. She used to pin my plaits to the back of my chair, give me Chinese burns, and mock my stammer. One day I told her I’d curse her if she was ever mean to me again, and in response she pinched me and called me a crybaby. So I went home and pricked my fingers and, with my own blood, I wrote her name on a piece of paper, and burnt the paper over a candle, chanting something along the lines of ‘I curse thee, I curse thee, I curse thee.’
The next day she fell down the stairs and broke her leg. I have never doubted the power of curses since.
Did anything surprise you in writing The Puzzle Ring?
It’s impossible to write a novel and not be surprised by the mysterious synchronicities and serendipities of life. Sometimes I surprise myself, what’s in that bog of the imagination. Sometimes it’s being in need, stuck and afraid, and reaching out a hand and finding just what you need, right then. (Finding ‘The Book of Curses’ is a perfect example of this). And sometimes its realising something in the book that seemed to be there the whole time and you just discover it, as if it was always there and you were just too foolish to see it before. It’s one of the reasons I love writing novels so much.
How does The Puzzle Ring compare with your other books?
Interesting question! ‘The Puzzle Ring’ draws upon the same wellspring of ideas as many of my other books – history, in particular Scottish history; fairy lore, in particular Scottish fairy lore; paganism and Wicca; theories of time travel (I’ve written other books that involve trips back in time); a fascination with jewellery, herbs and flowers, food, art, music, animals; a red-haired heroine (why do so many of my heroines have red hair?); an emphasis on the importance of human relationships and connectedness; and of course it has a happy ending.
How is it different? It is set in contemporary times for much of its story, unlike most of my books, and I draw upon my own passion for soul music, something I’ve never done before.
Stylistically, I think it feels the same as my other books. My books are usually thick and intricate and complex, with unexpected twists and turns, and filled with songs and charms and spells and chants, which is I think my natural love for poetry and song finding an outlet.
You write for adults as well as younger people – are the two processes vastly different?
Not at all. I always know when I start a book who my audience is. I believe strongly that each story has its own natural shape, its own structure and rhythm, and knowing who I am writing for is one way I find that shape and rhythm. Chapter length, sentence construction, word choice – all are linked to that shape – and I find it a very natural, intuitive process discovering it. If I ever do start going astray, it helps me to visualise who is reading it – usually myself at a different age, or my own children and nephews and nieces – and then I know if I am growing too dark, too scary, too sexy, too sophisticated. Ideally, I like to write two or three books for children, and then two or three for adults – its a pattern that seems to suit me.
Talking of the writing process, what’s yours?
First, I daydream a story to life. An idea comes to me – for example, I first thought of writing a book about a quest to find and restore a broken puzzle ring after reading an article about the history of puzzle rings (they were first invented by an Arabian king who was so jealous of his young and beautiful wife that he wanted to devise a way to know if she ever took her wedding ring off her finger). This seemed to me a perfect narrative stratagem – someone, somewhere, wanted to fix a puzzle ring that had been broken. I begin to wonder and ask myself questions. Who? Why? Where? I scribble notes, and when I have more than a page of them I start a new notebook. I have quite a few of them for different ideas – more novels than I could ever write.
I usually begin by assembling a cast of characters, and by writing down a list of possible adventures ie objectives to be achieved, obstacles to be overcome, lessons to be learnt. By the time I’m doing plot points, my brain’s on fire with ideas. Just last night I was up at 1pm, scribbling down possible scenes for the book I’m writing now, and didn’t get to sleep till 3am. This, unfortunately, happens a lot.
Then I begin to write. I always like to begin at the point of change, and then I will write my way steadily through the story, from beginning to middle to end. I edit & polis as I go, and often will have a week or two fixing up what I’ve already written before I can move onwards again. Once I have finished my first draft, I edit very cruelly, and rewrite a lot, and solve lots of problems, and then I send it to my agent and editors, ready to begin the next stage of the story emerging from its chrysalis.
Where did it all begin?
I wrote my first poem at 4, my first story at 5, and my first novel at 7. I have never stopped since. I think I was born knowing I was destined to be a writer (or at least, wanting it very badly)
If you weren’t a writer, you’d be…
What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve been given?
What should all writers do?
Read a lot, write a lot, and don’t be afraid to cut. Cruelly.
What advice would you give to someone wanting to be published?
Wait until you have something you are really sure of, really proud of. Be patient. It takes time to learn the craft
What’s next for you?
I’ve just finished a YA heroic fantasy called ‘The Wildkin’s Curse’ which is being published in Australia in May, and I’m now starting its sequel, tentatively called ‘The Sword of the Storm King’. Then I plan to write a historical fantasy for adults called ‘Bitter Greens’, retelling the tale of Rapunzel.
Anything you’d like to add?
Thank you so much for having me!