Mary Victoria is the author of the Chronicles of the Tree series, which starts with the fantastic Tymon’s Flight, a book whose world captivated me right away. It’s one of those rare trilogies with appeal to both YA audiences and adults and I love the way Mary established and used the world-tree concept, I was glued to the pages while watching Tymon and Samiha develop too!
Mary was kind enough to answer some questions for an interview and I’m happy to share them below:
(Also, check out Mary’s site here and get Book One, Tymon’s Flight right here in print and for kindle over here.)
Ashley Capes: Your fans will know that before becoming a writer, you worked in the visual effects world on films such as Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings adaptations. I’m curious as to what sort of adjustments, if any, you had to make when switching creative fields. How, for you, is writing different or the same as working in a heavily visual medium like film?
Mary Victoria: There were indeed adjustments, major ones. Words are a very different medium to images. I had written poetry and a few short stories before attempting my first novel, but even I knew, starting out rather optimistically after the film work, that I had much to learn about the craft of storytelling. (Over the course of the next decade I was to find out exactly how much – yikes.)
Learning is a lifelong affair. But in that initial period of apprenticeship, I had to acquire the novelist’s basic toolkit: an understanding of character development, voice and plot. I wrote for two years before producing anything remotely readable, let alone publishable. I set out to write an adventure story, and adventure stories require a certain type of discipline. They respect the reader. So I learned how to create a tale with a beginning, middle and end, with characters one could relate to and a story one could follow without severe mental contortions. It wasn’t easy. Simple storytelling isn’t easy.
How did it differ from animation? It’s true, a film shot is a narrative. Movement implies progression, and progression tells a story, even if it’s just “a terrifying dragon flies over the town.” But quite often, the story I found myself telling with animation was physical and emotional, and confined to the present moment. It was about weight, facial expression, verbal communication, comedy, tragedy, immediate sensations. It would have been good to know how my shot fit into the whole, but in practice we weren’t given much to go on besides direction for the scene in question.
When I began novel writing, I had to see the wider picture – plan character arcs, build whole worlds. I also conversely had to pull in much closer, to notice the physical environment, express minute sensory detail. There were no short cuts via images. My writing life so far has been about me learning to evoke the large with the small, the intimate as well as the far-reaching, inner and outer states of being, and to do so entirely in words.
AC: I think your comment about 'simple storytelling' being difficult is especially insightful and wanted to ask whether you think that has something to do with the tension between the possible universality of stories and the desire to take readers to new worlds?
MV: That’s a tough one. Does one have to try to be universal? Can one ever really be universal? Complex, abstract or highly personal narratives are also able take the reader to another world - witness the bizarre and magnificent labyrinth that is Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’. Love it or hate it, it certainly transports. But there is something about archetypal human storytelling, the classic styling of “once upon a time…” which immediately touches me as a reader. Naturally, everything is dependent on shared cultural references (not to speak of language.)
AC: I remember being instantly drawn to the cover of your first book, Tymon’s Flight, via the stunning cover art, provided by Frank Victoria. (I loved the contents of the book too, of course!) With two talented artists in one household, is there a particular routine you undertake when you both need time and space to work, but when ‘regular’ concerns must also be seen to?
MV: Thank you (and I agree about the cover art, of course!) Frank and I both dream of being able to work at home and create full-time. Alas, the way it has worked out in the past, practically, is that one of us always has a “regular job” outside the home to pay the bills, while the other is engaged in a full-time creative project. For a number of years, I worked in animation while Frank wrote and illustrated his graphic novels. Then we switched places, and Frank worked at Weta while I wrote books and took care of our baby daughter. Now he lectures in concept art at the university level. When we both have a chance to work at home (in the summer, for example, when teaching abates) it’s incredibly peaceful. We meet up at meals and otherwise remain plunged in our respective worlds.
AC: Writing is such a juggling act, isn't it? Would you say that skill in juggling aids the weaving of plot threads in any way?
MV: Ha, ha! I don’t know. My knee-jerk reaction to that is a big fat “No!” I need peace of mind to weave intricate plot threads, not chaos. But they say adversity is character-forming. ;)
AC: Obviously writing a trilogy requires a certain pacing and perhaps a sense of escalation of story and stakes – I’m curious as to whether that was something you felt came naturally to you as a writer with Chronicles of the Tree, or if there was a portion of design involved?
MV: I planned those stories in advance, as I didn’t have time on a six-month publishing schedule to do and redo ad infinitum. Also, the plots of the Tree books were intricate and I needed the adventure element of the adventure story to hold up! However, once I waded into the writing I quite often found that what worked in summary wasn’t the best choice “on the ground.” I would have to throw out a section of the plan and rework several scenes from scratch. But I had the overall framework in mind, which helped.
Prior planning and story development were also integral to the publishing process at HarperCollins, at least in part because of rapid release dates. I would run a chapter breakdown for each book by my publishing editor, the lovely and very talented Stephanie Smith, before I began the writing proper, so that she would be able to make suggestions. For example, I had originally planned the Tree books to be four volumes, but as I only signed up for a trilogy I had to condense my plans and cut out a section of the story. It made for a more streamlined approach.
As to what comes naturally – left to my own devices, without a deadline to keep, I love to explore, mix it up and make plenty of mistakes. I write a book then tear up a third of it, delete characters and shift action to new locations. It’s all part of the process. I do have a skeletal plot line in mind but those bones tend to be very bare indeed.
My latest book is one of these more organically evolved works. One luxury of writing a standalone work off-contract is the ability to put aside the manuscript for weeks, even months at a time. Forced periods of separation from writing (three successive house moves will do this to you) are gold, in my opinion. On returning to the manuscript, flaws are obvious, solutions also thankfully evident. I don’t know why this is, but I for one need to let the story “breathe.”
I suppose a novel might be like a good bottle of wine – or, more prosaically, stinky French cheese. Don’t tell Frank.
AC: I'd love to hear more about the new book, are there any details you can give away at this point?
MV: The new book is a departure from what I’ve done so far, a very different experience both in style and subject matter. For one thing, it isn’t straight fantasy, though there are fantastical elements. It could be classed as magical realism, with more realism to it than magic. Myth underlies the ostensible reality, however, a deep and buried rhythm occasionally surfacing.
The story is set on the island of Cyprus where I grew up, in 1979, five years after the ruinous war with Turkey that divided the country in two (a situation which persists to this day.) There are five main characters: Mitra, a Greek Cypriot woman who lost her daughter during the war; Saffi, the daughter in question; two hapless and frustrated expatriate Brits, an artist and an English teacher; and an Armenian involved in shady business dealings. Part of the joy of this sort of patchwork quilt story is figuring out how the different threads cross and affect each other. The narratives hop back and forth between present day and past episodes.
AC: Awesome, can't wait to read it! The mix of history and subtle magic and myth sounds great :) Thanks again for agreeing to do the interview, Mary!
MV: Thanks for giving me the opportunity to come by and chat.
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Ashley Capes is an Australian writer of fiction, poetry and very occasional non-fiction.
Imperial Towers (Never Book 5) - draft 1
Moss Dragon - draft 1
Reed Lavender (working title) - draft 1
Unnamed Spec Fic - draft 1
Whisper of Leaves (sequel) - Outline