Tony Shillitoe burst onto the Australian fantasy scene with the Andrakis Trilogy beginning in 1992. As the story, he was convinced by a friend to send a sample to a publisher even though he had only about 10 chapters written. He didn’t hold much hope for it being seen, as he says that only about 0.1% of manuscripts get published. Much to his surprise his was accepted. A little bit of amazement and a lot of shock and Tony had himself a trilogy.
He then went on to write ‘The Last Wizard’, which was shortlisted for the Aurealis Award for best fantasy novel. It would then be some 7 years before he would return to fantasy with the Ashuak Chronicles. In 2006 Shillitoe released the first novel in a new fantasy series, the Dreaming in Amber quartet.
But since then he has been very quiet. The great news is that there is something new coming. Something very new, and I cannot wait for it. Until then Tony agreed to do this little interview with me.
What genre would you like to write a book in (that you haven’t yet)?
Oh I’d love to write a thriller along the lines of Bourne Identity or similar – I just don’t have the background or knowledge to tackle one J And I would like to write a ‘literary’ novel, one that is not genre-driven as such but explores the human condition. I do have a fledgling crime detective novel developing (80 pages), but I don’t know if I’ve got the goods to make it successful.
Where do your ideas come from? Do you have a standard formula for plots or do stories come to you as a whole construct?
Hmmm no formulae as such – and ideas really come from my life experiences, from daily events to readings and viewings and watching other people. Sometimes I get the kernel of a story – a point of view, an event that takes place requiring exploration, an interesting relationship, a moral dilemma – and let that percolate over time to see what the possibilities are for a story. I never start writing unless I know what the end of the story is likely to be. I treat it like a journey overseas – I have start point and a destination: what happens between is creative.
When you start a new story, do you have a title for it? Does that trigger the story?
Titles, at least for me, come after the story is written. I often have a potential title when I begin, just to focus the project, but very few of my published novels carry the title they had in first draft. I believe the story creates a title, not the other way around.
Do you see the future of fantasy and science fiction as bright? If so, which authors are driving it?
JK Rowling and George RR Martin have driven interest in fantasy fiction well beyond anything seen pre-C21. The cult of Tolkien, thanks to the Peter Jackson film projects, also has given fantasy a massive push. What worries me as a minor author is that more publicity for a privileged/lucky few might actually mean less for the wannabes in the genre. What’s really driving fantasy and science fiction is the film industry finally being able to replicate fantasy characters on the screen. Dragons and dwarves and magic no longer look crappy. The self-publishing online world that has exploded in the past twelve months might provide even more avenues for people who have not been able to publish through traditional publishing methods.
What themes are being overused?
All of them. And none of them. Every possible theme an author might tap into is being replicated every day in new works. Readers make choices when they read as to which themes appeal to them and which ones they’ve over-read or just don’t like. One reader says they will scream if they read another ‘poor kid becomes powerful wizard’ story while the next reader begs for more. Fashion and taste dictate whether or not a theme is overused. Authors have no choice but to tell the story they want to tell.
Are movies of books ruining the book?
No. How many books would JRR Rowling have NOT sold if there were no movies? Who, apart from fantasy tragics, would have heard of George RR Martin if not for the HBO series? Would Batman be as big if it wasn’t for the Dark Knight films? And films and books are different mediums and should be treated and appreciated as such. A movie provides an interpretation of a book, just like chatting to a colleague who read the same book as you, but you will always hold onto your own interpretation as well, providing the film doesn’t challenge it. I wish someone would make films of my books – I’d happily have them ‘ruined’ J
Do you see ebooks threatening traditional publishing?
Yes, yes, yes – but not in the way publishers would like us to think. The argument is about an industry and its ability to maintain its monopoly on stories and the creative genius of writers. eBooks have several challenges for traditional publishers:
- They can be interactive and far more creative than any print book (insert video, interviews, etc)
- They should be cheaper to distribute
- Authors can self-distribute to a vastly greater audience
- Authors can get far more than the piddly 10% royalties offered by traditional publishers
Traditional publishers either have to morph into a whole new industry and be prepared to give the creator greater cuts of the profits or face the democratic revolution of online publishing and their demise.
Do you prefer to read established authors or debut authors? How do you choose which ones to read?
I usually read on recommendations from other readers, because I rarely have time nowadays to go fishing for books to read. I’m not author-centric (ie I don’t have favourites), so I rarely know anything about an author until I’ve read his/her book.
What is it about fantasy that appeals to you?
My first favourite book as a kid, as far as enjoying the whole story and characters, was The Three Musketeers. While it’s not really a fantasy book, it set up for me the reasons for writing fantasy. Characters struggling with the big questions in life, against incredibly impossible odds, discovering inner abilities and the courage to face the odds, and succeeding – this is what appeals to me in fantasy.
Can I get an autographed book? (lol)
Do you have a group of people that you show a new story to? How much impact can they have on the whole story?
I do, although it’s been almost 8 years since we last engaged with a project. I ask my small group of readers to read critically – not to tell me what they like in the manuscript but to point out what they don’t like, don’t understand, or simply think is wasteful. They don’t have major impact, but they have critical impact – that’s important. They will be engaging with my new project probably near the end of this year.
Do you set yourself a word limit for each book?
150,000 words in fantasy novels – but that’s not a rigid limit. In the end, the story dictates the length. The last series I published – Dreaming in Amber – was planned to be 3 books, but the story settled into 4 books as it progressed. Each book is about 150,000 words J
Do you have a target each day?
No. I work full time in a job that doesn’t have limits to the work day, so I try to target writing slots in the week and write what I can in those slots. I did have targets in the earlier years when I had a different education role – about half a chapter per session. When I was on leave writing The Last Wizard, I worked on a chapter per day – draft in the morning session, edit in the afternoon session, polish in the evening session. The project took about 3 months as a fulltime writer. That would be my dream job of course – fulltime writer.
Do you write constantly or have breaks between books?
If I could write constantly, I would. I managed to publish 14 books in 16 years, and was working fulltime, so that was constant writing (with time to be a real person as well). The two breaks in my career (1997-1999 and 2008-now) have been forced by factors outside writing. I have even worked on different projects simultaneously. I love writing and can’t walk away from it.
Do you have characters running around your head? Do they dictate events and their histories to you?
Characters always ‘grow’ as I write their stories. It’s like getting to know them. When a project reaches a critical mass I often take notes about the key characters to ensure consistency, but they become friends and acquaintances for the life of the project, and they never cease to surprise me. I heard a write say something like that years ago and I thought ‘What a wanker’, but now I know that it’s true.
After so many books, how do you keep them unique?
While there’s no chance of creating a unique theme or story (really, they’ve all been done many, many times), unique characters and events are still possible, and the permutations are quite significant. Having said that, I’ve stalled and changed quite a few aspects of stories I’ve been writing because I come across the same thing in another book, or a movie. The characters and their struggles are what give me a sense of uniqueness in each story I write. Sometimes the settings also add a unique quality that makes writing the book (and reading it) unique.
What is your biggest (self-imposed) time waster?
Easy – digital games. I have been a World of Warcraft addict, years ago I was a Dungeons and Dragons addict, and European Air War stole a lot of my time several years ago. Now I wander between NBA Jam, Stick Cricket and Civilization V as time wasters. I’ve played a host of other games and loved them too. I play too much.
Do you remember the first time you saw your book in a shop?
Oh yes indeed. I had a goal in my life to be a published author some day and when that day became real in 1992 I couldn’t wait to get down to a bookstore and buy a copy of my own book. Actually, that feeling has not diminished. Every book being published is a special moment. When my most recent series became available online through Kobo, I downloaded all four just because I could!
Do you read other people’s writing?
I used to while I was working in the Professional Writing Unit at Adelaide TAFE, and I offered mentorships for a couple of years at the SA Writers Centre, but I eventually realised that every minute I spend reading someone else’s manuscript is a minute I don’t spend on writing my own. I already spend my daily life teaching and mentoring. I can’t afford to do more of it in my own time.
Would you read mine?
Here’s my current web site www.tonyshillitoe.com.au