Andrew McGahan’s first book in his ‘Ship Kings’ young adult series was a notable CBCA book and made the Inkys longlist. A rollicking and exhilarating sea adventure, the book feels like an ode to the greats like Robert Louis Stevenson and Herman Melville; it’s a remarkable new series, and both children and young adults will find themselves pulled into the swelling story.
Second book in the ‘Ship Kings’ series is released on November 1st, and is ‘The Voyage of the Unquiet Ice’
I was lucky enough to pose a few questions to Mr. McGahan in the lead-up to his second book’s release. . .
Q: Are you a ‘plotter’ or a ‘pantser’ - that is, do you meticulously plot your novel before writing, or do you ‘fly by the seat of your pants’ and let the story evolve naturally?
For most of my earlier novels I was content to let things develop as I wrote, although I usually had a fair idea of where I was going, but for a four volume fantasy series it did feel necessary to plot things out in somewhat more detail, book by book. That said, nothing turns out exactly as I planned, and I’m quite happy to veer off in new directions if they occur to me mid-manuscript.
Q: Where do story ideas generally start for you? Do you first think of the character, theme, ending? Or is it just a free-fall?
I generally have a beginning in mind, and an ending, when I start – but often only a vague idea of how to get from one to the other. Or to put it another way, I know what emotional and dramatic state I want the characters to end up in – usually that means exhausted or traumatised in some manner! - but the question is one of how to reduce them to that state in a way that feels meaningful and significant.
Q: Your ‘Ship Kings’ protagonist is a bit of a contradiction. The first page of ‘The Coming of the Whirlpool’ describes how Dow will one day be known as Last of the Ship Kings, but in a twist of fate the first half of his life was “a landlocked one.” I’m just curious if you wrote this series as a great lover of the sea, or as a “landlocked” author fascinated by it?
Entirely the latter. I’m no sailor – indeed, like Dow I grew up nowhere near the sea, and even as an adult I’ve never taken any great interest in boats or in getting out on the ocean. My interest is purely in seafaring tales, which I’ve always loved, from Moby Dick on; not seafaring reality.
Q: There’s such fabulous detail in the ‘Ship Kings’ series – everything from sea life to sea creatures is meticulously explored and beautifully bought to life. I’m curious what sort of research you did in writing these books?
I didn’t go overboard with research (if you’ll excuse the pun) as this is a fantasy series and so it’s as much about creating a new world as it is about accurately recreating the real one. So I didn’t, for instance, go and serve on a tall ship or anything. But I did read up a lot on both small boats and large ships and on how to handle them, and studied the raw basics of navigations etc, so as not to have my boats and ships doing things which are utterly ridiculous – hopefully. But I’m sure I wouldn’t fool a real sailor for five seconds, and nor am I trying to.
Q: ‘Ship Kings’ is your first foray into children’s literature after your great success as a writer of adult books (even winning the 2005 Miles Franklin Award). What prompted you to enter into children’s fiction? Did you consciously set out to make ‘Ship Kings’ for a younger audience?
I wasn’t overtly thinking Young Adult, it was more that I was thinking of a certain style of fantasy – a classic and simple style, if you will, which is less about the complexity of the politics and intrigues of the created world, and more about the pure wonder and adventure of it. I guess that style of fantasy just naturally lends itself to the YA category, but I’d like to think adults can still enjoy it too.
Q: Is it harder to write for adults or children/young adults? And since writing for this readership, have you started reading other young adult and children’s books?
I haven’t read much YA stuff, to be honest, even now. But then I’m always way behind the times in my fiction reading, whatever style I might happen be writing in myself, so that’s nothing new.
As for comparing YA with adult – I don’t think that one is notably any easier to write than the other. There’s more subtext perhaps in an adult novel, so the thought processes behind imagining the different levels of narrative might be more complex, but the craft of writing the actual story is just as demanding for a YA fantasy adventure as it is for anything else. You still have to strive and sweat in the effort to get it right.
Q: ‘Ship Kings’ is intended as a four-part series, with second book ‘The Voyage of the Unquiet Ice’ released on November 1st. Can you give us any hints about what’s in store for books three and four; ‘The War of the Four Isles’ and ‘The Ocean of the Dead’?
Ha – no hints, beyond saying that the scale and drama of Dow’s adventures will only increase as he voyages through battle and war and very strange seas to the utmost ends of the Four Isles world.
Q: Favourite author(s) of all time?
There’s too many to name. But as we’re talking YA fantasy, I’ll plug Patricia Wrightson, whose Australian YA fantasies like The Nargun and the Stars and The Ice Is Coming quite changed my life, as well as changing how I thought about the land I lived in.
Q: Favourite book(s)?
Again, there’s so many. But in the seafaring vein, Moby Dick, The Cruel Sea and The Kraken Wakes.
Q: What advice do you have for budding young writers?
For a first draft, don’t worry too much about the opening paragraph or chapter, just breeze on through quickly and get to the story’s end, then you’ll know what the start should really be like.