Richard Harland

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The True Life Story
On Writing
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I always dreamed of being a writer, but it took a long long time before the dream came true.

I was born in Huddersfield, England, in 1947. My mother was a teacher, my father was a public servant, an election agent and a banana salesman. We moved from place to place around England, but when my father died, my mother settled in Hadleigh, Suffolk.

I had a cousin who lived just down the road in Hadleigh, and behind his house was an area called 'the chicken run'. Every kind of junk was collected there: old baths, rubber tyres, bricks, planks of wood - you name it, we had it. We used the junk to build all kinds of things - castles, airplanes, submarines, all big enough to live in. Then we invented adventures that sometimes ran for days, defending the castle, going on a mission in the submarine, etc.

One time when it wouldn't stop raining, we wrote down some of our adventures as stories. My girl cousin read them and said they weren't bad, we ought to try to sell them at school. So we made copies and hawked them around the playground at recess. We didn't get money for them, only lollies, swaps and stuff! But that was when I first discovered the thrill of having someone come up to you and say 'Hey, that was great, have you got another one?' From that day on, I wanted to be a writer.

I was about eleven or twelve then, but the desire didn't make me into a writer. The more I tried to write, the less I managed to finish. I completed school, hitchhiked around Europe, went to university . . . and still I had writer's block. Twenty-five years of writer's block altogether - is this a record? I have a cupboard at home stacked high with unfinished manuscripts (though most of the best parts of them have found their way into other novels).

After uni, I had a theoretical book I really wanted to write, a theory of language. I wanted someone to pay me to do it as a Ph.D, and the only place that offered me a scholarship was Newcastle, Australia. So I came to Australia, never expecting to stay. It took me about four weeks to decide that this was my favourite place in the world, and a good place to spend the rest of my life.

It wasn't only novels I couldn't finish - I couldn't finish my theory of language either. So I geared down to a smaller MA thesis. Then I moved to Glebe to do another ambitious thesis at Sydney University. Same result - I bogged down again. The only writings I could finish were poems and short prose pieces. They were almost all published, though there weren't very many of them.

When I dropped out of the Sydney Uni thesis, I hit the pits. Bummed around in Sydney and the Blue Mountains . . . part-time work here and there . . . break-up of a long-term relationship. The only good thing in my life was writing songs (sort of folk-rock mix) and performing them at venues around the city.

Somehow I snuck back into tutoring at the Uni of NSW. I started writing an article which turned into a thesis which turned into the original theory of language that I'd tried to write ages ago. And this time I could finish it! Divided into two, it was published in the UK as Superstructuralism and Beyond Superstructuralism.

(I can't explain the separate halves of my mind. There's one very abstract logical half which produces - used to produce - theories, and there's the other inventive half which loves to tell stories just for the love of stories. I don't think they fit together at all. I certainly never learned anything about telling stories from my theory of language!)

Anyway, I now had a Ph.D and an impressive academic publication - which got me a job in the English Department of the University of Wollongong. Also - things going up and up! - I met Aileen, the most important woman in my life. We married in 1983, and have lived in Figtree, near Wollongong, ever since. No children of our own, but two lovely stepchildren from Aileen's previous marriage.

I lectured at Wollongong for ten years, and really enjoyed my job, especially when I managed to introduce courses on fantasy and speculative fiction. I wrote another theoretical book which was published in the UK, Literary Theory from Plato to Barthes. Also, finally, wonderfully, miraculously, I managed to finish a novel! This was my gothic-bizarre-grotesque farce called The Vicar of Morbing Vyle. Too off-beat for any mainstream publisher, but it came out from a small press in 1993. It received great reviews and gathered a cult following. Copies are still selling ten years later.

One of the reviews was from Van Ikin in the Sydney Morning Herald - and here I had my huge slice of luck! I wrote to Van to thank him, and he wrote back - one chance in a hundred! - to say he'd be happy to read any other manuscript of mine - one in ten thousand! - if I had one written. When I finished and sent him my latest manuscript, it turned out - one in a million! - that he was just then acting as a reader for Pan Macmillan!

The manuscript was my SF detective thriler, The Dark Edge. Pan Macmillan offered me a contract for that novel and a sequel, which had to be completed within a year. Decision time! because I knew I couldn't continue in my uni job and also write a 500 page novel in a year. I loved lecturing and tutoring, but I'd wanted to be an author since the age of twelve. In the end, it was no contest, the job had to go and I resigned my tenured Senior Lecturship.

With my history of writer's block, I still didn't know if I could finish the sequel; and when I did finish it, I still couldn't know how long I could keep on getting published. People called it a 'courageous' decision, meaning crazy like a fool. But so far - touch wood! - the gamble has paid off, and my career as a full-time writer keeps getting better and better.

The sequel to The Dark Edge was Taken by Force, starring the same two detectives, Eddon and Vail. The third in the series, Hidden from View, came out a year later. Then I switched publisher -to Penguin - and genre - to fantasy. The idea for the Ferren novels had come to me in a dream ten years before, and I'd tried to start writing soon after. But then I had to stop and do huge amounts of research and world-planning - it took ten years before I was truly ready to produce Ferrren and the Angel.

That first novel turned into a trilogy, continuing Ferren's story in Ferren and the White Doctor and Ferren and the Invasion of Heaven. Most recently, I've moved into younger fantasy fiction, with the wild and wacky Walter Wants to be a Werewolf! Then came the multi-award-winning The Black Crusade (I always wanted to say 'multi-award-winning', and finally I got my chance), which is a gothic fantasy and prequel to The Vicar of Morbing Vyle. A year later, Omnibus/Scholastic published Sassycat, for younger readers, and then the Wolf Kingdom quartet - Escape! Under Siege, Race to the Ruins and The Heavy Crown - also for younger readers.

Now I'm into steampunk, which is probably what I really wanted to write all along. I had my big international breakthrough with Worldshaker, which Allen & Unwin sold to Simon & Schuster in the US, along with publishers in the UK, Germany, France and Brazil. Liberator was the sequel published in all the same countries. My latest is Song of the Slums, which is gaslight romance as well as steampunk. It's set in the same world as the two previous fantasies, but a different part of the world and a different time.

I think I must be a very lucky person! I've never worked so hard in my life, but everything I wanted is finally coming true!

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Richard Harland.