I have been going through my old letters to my mum, which she returned to me before she died. Every now and then I dip into one and find out what a lousy memory I now have.
Many things that happened, I could never reveal publicly at the time, of course, but I guess … who cares now, right? Like this, written by me in 1992 in Vienna:
“We were invited to lunch on Wednesday by the Bulgarian Ambassador. He spent the whole time complaining about the terrible state of affairs in his own country, and in the USSR–he’s an old-fashioned communist who doesn’t approve of the way things are going at all. Thinks Lenin a genius, Gorbachev a fool and that he and Shevardnadze were just as guilty of Soviet crimes as their forebears, and both of them helped wreck their country. He was absolutely furious that the Turkish-Bulgars have been permitted to have their own nationalistic party in Bulgaria and is sure it will lead to civil war.”
Back in 1970 my husband took me to my in-laws’ house. We’d landed in KL at night, and were taken by car to the family home in Melaka (Malacca) where my husband had grown up. When I saw it for the first time, a coconut tree had fallen across the village power lines, so we arrived in the pitch dark in the kampung (village). The picture of the family house below was taken much later (2010), but even in 1968, when I first saw it, it was beautiful wooden building in the traditional Malay style of the area, where the tangga (steps) are a speciality, and the best side of the curtains always faced outwards… It had running water and an indoor toilet, and (usually) electricity. My husband was whisked away the next day to go to Kuala Lumpur to start his new job at the brand new university — in effect, going overnight from Ph.D student to uni lecturer, designer of chemistry labs and planner of degree courses, all for a uni that had no campus yet, let alone a permanent building– but with the first students already on their way. In the meantime, I was struggling to find my feet in the kampung. No one told me that the adult classes I had taken in Australia in the Malay language were really not all that useful, seeing as my husband’s village spoke a dialect that had more links to Sumatra than Malaysia! (Happily, though, the village was matriarchal, a bit of an oddity for a Muslim society.) Anyway, my husband’s lovely family did their utmost to help — and they became very dear to me over the years. Back in those first days, they were off working all day, my husband was off in Kuala Lumpur, so I was left to amuse myself. I looked around for something to read. There was not all that much in English in the house, just school text books and…shelves of Mills and Boon. For the next ten days or so, I read two M&B romances a day. Never, never ever, ask me to read another. Please. Especially ones written in the 1950s and 60s. Oddly enough the farmhouse where I was born, and this kampung house, had similar addresses. Back as a child in WA, I lived at the 14th mile peg in Kelmscott; this house’s address in Malaysia was at the 19th mile peg… 19 miles from Melaka town.
EPISODE 1: Early Days At eight years old, I decided that I was going to be an “authoress”. I wrote my first book when I was twelve. For some weird reason, it was set in Scotland even though I’d never been there.
My first completed serious novel was written in my twenties, a first-person romantic thriller set in Malaysia where, newly married, I was then living. I gave the manuscript to a member of my new Malaysian family to read for comment, but the story horrified her as she erroneously equated the opinions of the central character with my own. Which was when I turned to writing fantasy — I wasn’t eager to upset my new family.
What I didn’t realise was how hard and hellishly expensive it was to get one’s work considered for publication. This was the 1970s. Postal costs were enormous. Worse still, pre-internet the industry was opaque, the people to approach nameless, the hints on how to do it hard to access. I didn’t even know anyone else who read science fiction or fantasy of any kind! Send a book to UK, you waited six months for a reply. I did try, but in truth the closest I came to being published was with illustrated articles in local nature-based magazines, mostly about my other passion, bird conservation. Those paid little, but lord, it felt good to be in print!
EPISODE 2: An Agent After we moved to Vienna in the mid-1980s, I bought a copy of The Artists’ and Writers’ Yearbook on a visit to London, which ultimately enabled me to find a UK agent. She was married to a very successful and well known horror writer, and had once worked for a big London publisher. The year was 1990, the book I’d written was The Aware. After a few minor changes at the agent’s suggestion, that manuscript began its journey around London publishing houses.
My agent had every confidence in my tale about a tough swordswoman and her utterly feminine, sexually active companion — two vastly different women facing adversity as they travelled together. (Think Zena Warrior Princess — except that TV show was still 5 years in the future!) The 1990s might have been the heyday of fantasy epics, but I just couldn’t break into that largely male dominated world.
I wrote another book. A standalone called Havenstar. My agent sent it to a brand new publishing house, backed by a millionaire businessman with a flare for publicity. The book was accepted as one of the launch novels for this new imprint. I was over the moon. What could possibly go wrong?
A lot, it seems. I ended up renowned as one of the four authors who brought down a brand new publisher’s imprint…
EPISODE 3: Disaster I don’t know why things went wrong, but go wrong they did for Richard Branson’s Virgin Worlds. Maybe he should have stuck to airlines…
Editors came and went. Publicity seemed scarce. The books of the other authors tanked. The cover chosen for Havenstar was unattractive, dark and messy, and had nothing to do with the actual plot. However, my novel did get some nice reviews and I was chuffed.
This was in the early days of Amazon UK, when they mixed up fiction and non-fiction, kids’ books and self-help tomes, lumping them all together in a single list rated by actual numbers sold. To my utter joy, Havenstar rose up into the top 100 — and climbed even higher. It reached 81 on the best seller list of all Amazon UK books — and then disappeared. Literally vanished overnight. Sold out and unavailable. Virgin Worlds disappeared without a trace as well. No apology. No reason given. No explanation. Gee, thanks, Mr Branson. You had a best seller on your hands, and you walked away.
Much later, Havenstar was successfully re-issued in English, as well as in Russian and German, but in 1999, the publishing world was a small space and those in the business swapped stories. Guess what happens to a writer whose book apparently helped to crash an entire imprint, presumably one with lots of money behind it? My agent — bless her — was wonderful. She not only kept me on her books, but she sent The Aware out to every publisher and imprint of fantasy in the northern hemisphere. (I’m not exaggerating.) I continued to write, even as the rejections flowed in and my career as a writer was in tatters, torn to bits at its very beginning.
EPISODE 4: Persistence So ten years after finding myself an agent, the score was one book briefly published before vanishing, and two others traipsing from publisher to publisher yet to find a home: The Aware and a new one called The Heart of the Mirage.
My agent knew the industry inside out and refused to give up. I was exasperated by my lack of success, and insisted we try the Australian market. She was reluctant because 25% of UK book sales were to the Australian market, and she believed if we sold to Australia first, I’d never be published in UK.
She arranged for me to see a London editor interested in The Heart of the Mirage. Full of hope, I did — only to be told I shouldn’t have cast a female as the central character in an epic trilogy. If I completely rewrote the book making the protagonist’s offsider, a guy, as the hero instead, with his woman companion, then the editor would reconsider. Heroic leads should never be women, it seemed. I was NOT happy.
After that, on my insistence, my agent caved and sent The Aware to HarperCollins Australia, and it landed on the desk of the marvellous fantasy/science fiction editor, Stephanie Smith… The reply came back: love it, but can the author turn it into a trilogy?
Oh boy, could I! The Isles of Glory with The Aware as volume 1 came out over the next few years, and all the books were shortlisted for Australian awards.
Let’s look at the timeline again here. The Aware (spruced up version) was on my agent’s desk early 1991. It was accepted by HarperCollins in 2003, more than 10 years later, as the first book of The Isles of Glory. (Still later, the whole trilogy was published by Penguin USA, and much later still as an eBook by Orion UK. There were also French and Russian and German translations.)
I had made it. When The Heart of the Mirage became the first book of the next trilogy, my career was really taking off. I was in my fifties, and it was more than thirty years since I’d written that Malaysian novel …
EPISODE 5: Success at last! We are well into the new century, I’m writing my third trilogy, and all’s right with the world — right?
I have a contract with HarperCollins Australia, under a wonderful editor, my books are coming out in Australia and moves are afoot for more foreign language sales. Money is coming in from book contracts. In the non-literary world I have string of contract jobs that take me into the rainforest to my second great love: working for bird conservation. True, writing deadlines and field work have an annoying way of clashing, but laptop computers and internet connections are making all sorts of things possible. True too, there are times when I am reading book proofs by lamplight in a tent in a tropical rainstorm, or writing up field notes for a scientific paper as I’m about to fly off to a SFF conference, but I can cope.
Oh, and yes, those SF Conventions! I hadn’t known they existed. Now I’d found a whole new world to dabble in, of fans and writers and zines and readers and gamers, of real places, chat rooms and internet meet-ups. I made so many wonderful friends. I was welcomed to a world I’d not even known was there. In 2005 I was at the Worldcon in Glasgow, 2008 in Denver, 2010 in Melbourne, 2014 in London, as well as at local conventions. Life was very good indeed. In 2008, I was a guest at Swancon when it was also the national convention. I would have been a guest again at Continuum if Covid had not intervened in 2021. Of course, things just had to go wrong somewhere.
EPISODE 6: When things go wrong… The big upset for all of us HarperCollins Australia sff authors was announced at a horrendous function in Melbourne, billed as a celebration, during a convention. I can’t remember the year — I think I’ve wiped a lot of what happened out of my memory. Basically, HarperCollins Oz was being taken over by the UK parent, and we authors were going from being the stars in Australia to … intruders on a larger stage. The local Australian staff were gutted. It left a sour feeling of betrayal, and we all felt it. It was the end of a golden era, doubtless as a result of financial considerations, but the result for most of us was that when our current contracts finished, we left HarperCollins.
I personally could have taken them to court and won my case over something they did specifically to me, without consulting me or my agent — concerning an offer I received from elsewhere, but …well, what happens to an author who sues their publisher? Nothing good, for sure. It was a sad way to end a wonderful era of success and supportive relationships.
Fortunately the new kid on the block picked up the pieces, and most of us crossed over to them: Orbit UK. Ironically enough, though, in 2011 a trilogy of mine (The Stormlord trilogy aka The Watergivers) was being published by both competing publishing houses, though in different parts of the world.
Then in 2013, the worst happened. My wonderful agent, Dot Lumley, to whom I owed my entire successful career, passed away far too young. She ran her own agency, so it was closed down. I was on my own.
EPISODE 7: Triumph and Disaster… In 2013, I was at the peak of my writing career. From a standpoint of SFF friendly faces, I was also better off because I’d moved back to Australia. One SF convention at least was now just a train-ride away every year! I was being shortlisted for prizes. (I remember Kate Forsyth and I laughing as we vied for who had been shortlisted the most times without ever winning.) In the years ahead, I did win, both popular-vote and judged prizes, including the biggest, the Sara Douglass Series Award in 2017 for The Stormlord trilogy. Certainly that’s the one of which I’m most proud.
Not everything was rosey. Though my agent had left me with an Orbit contract for The Lascar trilogy, there was nobody to negotiate on my behalf. Subsidiary rights such as translation were now unwanted anyway because the major income earner, English language world rights, was gone. I was on my own.
Worse still, The Lascar trilogy became collateral damage under the feet of a behemoth and there was nothing I could do. The villain of the piece was Amazon.
Amazon controls a huge slice of sales and info about new books. Early in 2014 they decided to make an example of a publisher, Hachette (which includes the Orbit SF/F imprint), presumably over money. To wrest a better deal, Amazon deliberately set out to hide Hachette’s new books, or to make sales of them difficult or costly or to delay delivery. And guess what, the first book of my trilogy, The Lascar’s Dagger came out the very month Amazon was trying to ruin the sales figures of Hachette’s new publications. Nice one, Amazon. (If you want to read about that, try here: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2014/may/23/amazon-escalates-battle-hachette-publishing )
Of course, if the first book of a trilogy doesn’t sell all that well, neither will book 2 or book 3. I can’t blame everything on Amazon, but what they did certainly didn’t help.
Looking at many of the reviews of The Lascar’s Dagger, there is a comment that crops up often: scorn for the main character’s naivety. Saker, the “hero”, a scholar and a priest sent to the heart of the court and the government to be a spy, was easily fooled by the unscrupulous. Unfortunately many readers disliked that and had no sympathy for him because they could not see him the way I did.
This partly had its origins in my own history. I was the country kid sent from a rural background / small country school to a brash city one, and I was as naive as they come. No internet in those days. No understanding of city sophistication, and being intelligent or well-read doesn’t help if you can’t read the signals. I’d wanted readers to feel sympathy for Saker, not scorn. My mistake. Many readers would never buy book 2 or 3 to see how the hero evolved…Weirdly however, the books of the trilogy won more prizes than any of the other series of mine!
Anyway, whether it was fault of Amazon, or the fault of the way I wrote the main character, The Lascar Trilogy did not do as well as its forebears with regards to sales, and no publisher was waiting with bated breath for my next work…
EPISODE 8: Regrets, Advice, the Future, and the Best of Times Back in the late 1990s, I had received word that Havenstar had been bought by Virgin Worlds just one week too late… The news arrived from my agent, churned out by my sister’s fax machine when I was in Australia to attend my mother’s funeral. She never found out that, at last, I was to be published. She would have been so glad and I am sad she never knew.
What advice can I offer to wannabe published writers now embarking on their careers? I’ve no idea. Self-publishing can certainly be rewarding and successful — but it’s a job that takes a lot of work when you could be writing the next book instead. The one thing I really, really envy writers