A Q-and-A with Louise Cusack

In another lifetime, and another city, I used to be a shelf-monkey at Borders. (I think the technical term was ‘store associate’, but ‘shelf-monkey’ is more accurate.) Given different duties over time as more staff quit and the store’s resources were stretched thinner and thinner, I started off by being in charge (ie the cleaner and sorter) of both the fantasy and romance sections, which were right next to each other. That made me realise that there were a lot of books on one set of shelves that could just as comfortably sit on the other (and vice versa), and a lot of overlap between the readers of those two genres.

One of the writers working in that overlap is Louise Cusack, author of the ‘romantic fantasy’ trilogy The Shadow Through Time. Louise jumped into the Australian fantasy scene in the early 2000s, at a time when the genre was getting a lot more attention in this country than usual (a high we’ve fallen back from, unfortunately), with novels of intrigue, erotica and fantasy adventure that spanned generations and worlds.

Recently the Shadow Through Time trilogy has been rereleased by Macmillan, this time as ebooks on their Momentum imprint, giving Louise a chance to reach an entirely new market outside Australia. That seemed like a good opportunity to ask her some questions about ebooks, fantastic romance and John Carter of Mars.

I always like to start with the big one. Why writing? Why do this rather than some other creative outlet, or indeed some kind of regular job that pays better?

I remember being in primary school and telling other kids that one day they’d see a book with my name on the cover. I was always good at English, but high school and dating distracted me. It was only after I was married and my first child was born that I remembered the writing. I took a couple of TAFE courses and entered short story competitions but I always knew I’d be a novelist. I don’t think I really considered the idea that I might never succeed. I was convinced that I just had to persist, and after eight years of full-time writing I finally got a three book publishing deal with Simon & Schuster Australia.

I never really wanted to do anything else. I’m not crafty or domestic. It’s all about story for me – books and movies. I can’t bear lifestyle shows because they don’t have a beginning, a middle and an end. I think I was just born with some storytelling gene, and I was lucky enough to have been in a situation where I could give it room to flourish. I don’t ever want another career. For better or for worse I’ve defined myself as a novelist. I think there are worse things to be!

What exactly is ‘romantic fantasy’? How is that different from, well, non-romantic fantasy?

‘Romantic fantasy’ is written mostly by women for women. It’s a fantasy that has a strong love story as one of its plot threads. There’s less focus on the ‘boy’s own adventure’ aspects of fantasy like interminable questing and battles for the sake of bloodshed. But the adventure aspects are still important. It’s a delicate balance, but there’s definitely more focus on characterisation than straight fantasy novels.

It’s almost like the difference between erotica and pornography. There’s a greater focus on the sensuality, the senses, and how the action makes the characters feel emotionally as well as physically.

What is it that attracts you to romantic fantasy? Is it the same thing that attracts you to regular fantasy?

I love a good love story, no matter the genre, and most of the great books do have some form of love story in them. But my career focus as a writer is the ‘stranger in a strange land’ theme. It most readily lends itself to fantasy – someone going from our world into a fantasy world, like John Carter to Barsoom or Jake Sully to Pandora in the movie Avatar. I grew up reading sci fi, mostly the classics (in fact my first big crush was Capt James T Kirk!), and they were all about man meeting the unknown. My favourite SF novels were Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, Ursula Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness, Frank Herbert’s Dune and Edgar Rice Burroughs John Carter series. Add to which, my all-time favourite book is Alice in Wonderland which I must have read a hundred times, at least!

I’ve also had a lifelong fascinating with Leonardo da Vinci, whose perception of the world around him was unique. It was almost as if he was a stranger in our world observing things from a fresh perspective. I think there’s something to learn from that, and I try to bring that to my own work, seeing the world I’m writing about through completely fresh eyes, taking nothing for granted. It’s a personal belief of mine that the world’s problems can only be solved by people looking at the situation with fresh eyes, so anything I can do inspire that is time well spent.

You’ve blogged recently about the effect Edgar Rice Burroughs’ work, especially his John Carter of Mars novels, had upon you when younger. But my recollection of those books (and I read them like 20 years ago, so I could be completely wrong) is that they don’t have much of a romantic component. Am I wrong? In what ways did those books inspire you to write something like Shadow Through Time?

The John Carter novels were incredibly romantic! How could you have forgotten! I remember my rapture on first reading these books, how I thrilled to Carter’s inherent bravery, and the fact that he’d rather kill a warring opponent than a ‘brute beast’ (I think that was the vegetarian in me coming out). He had a pet Martian dog, and was a true action adventure hero, a man’s man, yet when he met the princess and fell in love with her he was endearingly hopeless.

Early in their romance he inadvertently insulted her, being unaware of their customs, and when she wouldn’t speak to him he was gutted. In his narrative he said:

…my foolish pride kept me from making any advances. I verily believe that a man’s way with women is in inverse ratio to his prowess among men. The weakling and saphead have often great ability to charm the fair sex, while the fighting man who can face a thousand real dangers unafraid, sits hiding in the shadows like some frightened child.

He knew he was putty in her small, fragile hands, and for the first time (in the eighties) I was reading a male viewpoint in what was for all intents and purposes a romance novel, and finally getting to understand why men act like idiots when they’re in love! Mills and Boon novels at the time were all from a female viewpoint, and in any case I craved fantasy worlds and adventures. So these books gave me everything I loved, along with insights into the male psyche beyond battle and bloodshed. That male perspective on falling in love is something I’ve brought to my own Shadow Through Time trilogy, alongside the adventure that makes fantasy stories so thrilling.

What kind of process do you follow when you’re writing? What’s a typical day like when you’re at work on a book?

I find the first draft the most challenging part of the process, and I usually can’t do more than about 6 hours a day before I’m emotionally wrung out. I try to write my first draft in one uninterrupted run. When it’s flowing I can write 10 000 words a week, so theoretically I can finish the book in three months. Sometimes life intervenes, but I try to offset what I can until after the draft is done. Editing is more like creative bookkeeping to me so I can do longer hours and be interrupted more often.

My first draft is character driven and I write that ‘seat of the pants’, sometimes stopping to look at goal/motivation/conflict if I get stuck. When I’m finished I do detailed spreadsheets to pull apart my plot and subplots and restructure it to make it tight and interlocking. I have readers who help me with my structural and line edits before I send the manuscript to my agent for feedback and possibly more editing. Then it’s submitted to publishers.

Is there an aim for you in your writing – something you want to achieve through your work, over and above creating good stories that people want to read?

My main aim is to entertain. Bringing people pleasure shouldn’t be underestimated. It’s a worthy goal. Secondary to that is the hope that my character’s experiences will inspire readers to look at their own world with fresh eyes. It’s also a by-product of the writing that it empties my head of conflict and makes my life tranquil. When I can get all the story out, I’m in my calm centre. When I’m blocked because of circumstance, I’m not as happy. I want to be able to write every day so I’ll be happy.

Macmillan have republished the Shadow Through Time trilogy as ebooks, which is very exciting. How do you feel about ebooks and epublishing?

I love ebooks! I bought my first Kindle last year and I adore it. As a completely impatient person I find it miraculous that a whim or internet link allows me to find and download a book in seconds. No more going to the bookstore, maybe finding it out of stock, having to wait until it’s ordered in. Then there’s the price of ebooks. Most are under $10; my Shadow Through Time series sells for AUD $4.99 an ebook. I can now feed my voracious appetite for books without guilt.

What are you currently working on?

I’ve been developing an untitled young adult series I’ve been calling the Medici books and I’m close to handing in the first one. It’s based on a lost world discovered by Florentines in the time of the Italian Renaissance. I did a research trip to Rome and Florence in 2010 to help me imagine what sort of culture they would have created in the five hundred years since then. I’m really excited about that story. I’ve also written an Arabian fantasy in first draft. That has to be edited. Then there’s a very, very scary fantasy that I wrote an opening for and need to get back to now that I’ve had time to work out what the characters want.

You can find more of Louise’s writing at her blog, which also has full details on her books and the Shadow Through Time trilogy. All three novels in the series are available as ebooks from the Kindle Store, Barnes and Noble and iTunes.

You can also follow her on Twitter as @Louise_Cusack.

In closing, Louise sent me a link to the trailer for the new John Carter movie, which I wanted to share but I can’t work out how to embed it in the blog. So much for ‘idiot-proof’ interfaces! In any case, most of the reviews from people whose opinions I value say it’s a lot of fun. Hopefully I can get off my butt in time to see it in cinemas!

4 replies on “A Q-and-A with Louise Cusack”

Well said, Louise. Story is so important, and your books show you relish the telling of your stories. I loved your books in print and I’m sure new readers will be just as enthusiastic about the e-versions.

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