An interview with Isobelle Carmody

By Joshua S Hill

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to sit down with one of Australia’s most beloved authors. Isobelle Carmody is author of the critically acclaimed Obernewtyn series, as well as a veritable cornucopia of books for young and adult alike. Nominated for more than a dozen awards over the space of two decades, she has become a fan favourite across the planet.

We met on a dull and dreary Melbourne afternoon, in a restaurant where they thought we were doing a radio interview. We’re still a little uncertain as to why, considering that the only evidence that an interview was taking place at all was a small Dictaphone sitting between our drinks; gin and tonic for Isobelle, a cappuccino for me.

Originally from Australia, Isobelle now splits her time between home on the Great Ocean Road and Prague. If she’s here in Australia, she’s away from her partner and daughter, but contents herself with sitting in a chair by a crackling fire, and looking out over the sea. Needless to say, she “would choose that over just about anything ... at the end of the day.”

One thing I need to know about anyone I interact with is their opinion of animals. For Isobelle, animals have been always been a part of her life. “I’ve always had cats, dogs, goats, you name it, when I live here in Australia.”

But only recently has her home in Prague acquired an animal, as Isobelle related to me. One night, she received a phone call from her partner in Prague, who let her know that her daughter Adelaide was babysitting a cat for her grandmother that night. Isobelle, immediately clued into what was going to happen, asked if it was a kitten. It was, and as she tells it, “that cat never left.”

One of the few things that people often know about Isobelle is that she started writing Obernewtyn when she was fourteen. It’s one of those factoids that often surfaces but has little context. What people probably don’t know is that before that, Isobelle wanted to be a scientist. “I used to have my Bunsen burner and bug catcher and my magnets,” she told me.

As for her transition from wanting to become a scientist to a writer; well that’s simple. “Science, to kids, and before all the hard math stuff comes, is magic. And I think that it was very easy to graduate from a chemistry set to magic, and all sorts of magical things.”

Add to that her discovery that she was rotten at maths, and it wasn’t a hard decision to put off being a scientist.

But writing Obernewtyn did not start out as a means to a career. For Isobelle, writing was her escapism from the harsh and ugly world around her. “I started writing Obernewtyn as a way to survive, as a way to step away.”

Her father had died in a car crash, and she was the oldest of eight children. So the responsibility fell to her to look after her siblings in the housing commission they lived in. The way she managed to do this was to tell them stories. “I was a good storyteller, I entertained them, I held them, I controlled them with stories.” So while Isobelle wrote to escape, to escape the life where she was “a slave, a worker, a misfit,” she was also telling stories to her brothers and sisters.

“At the one side [there was] a very strong awareness of audience, being built without me realizing it. On the other side, [an] intense personal exploration. And both of them are really important parts of writing. The inward journey to myself, and to understand my place in life, and what life means. And the external journey, which is the secondary journey, to the reader. So both were happening simultaneously, in this beautiful organic way without me ever planning it.”

And for Isobelle, writing Obernewtyn not only helped her survive, but it also shaped her teenage life. “It helped me incredibly. It was like I had someone I could talk to, and a world where I could think. I absorb the world around me as a writer, and I did back then too.”

“And I felt powerless as a kid, and as an adult, I very often feel that same level of powerlessness. But I think that when you move into those alternate worlds, they don’t just have powers, they have powers to save the worlds. And that is such an antidote to hopelessness.”

It wasn’t until her early 20’s, when she was just a cadet working at the Geelong Advertiser that she was given the push to publish. “I started to write this story, using letterhead paper for the Geelong Advertiser, turned over, and using my boss’s typewriter (because his was way better than anyone else’s).”

“The next morning he called me into his office, and I thought ‘I left the story in there!’ And I went in there and was fully expecting to have him rake me over the coals, and before I even got out the words ‘I’m really sorry’ he said to me, ‘was that story your story that you left here last night?’”

“I replied that, yes, it was my story, and before I could apologize, he said that it was really good. He’d been reading the story that morning with his coffee, explaining that because I’d used his typewriter and office he should be allowed to read it. And then he said, ‘why don’t you think of getting it published,’ and it was the first time that anyone ever mentioned the word publishing to me.”

And, from a fan and a critic, I’m glad that her editor did mention the word publishing to her.

Though Isobelle does find herself gravitating towards fantasy and sci-fi, she doesn’t think that writers should deal with categories. “Categories are things that other people apply.”

“To me, it becomes interesting when something fantastical happens,” she added after her disclaimer. “We create unicorns because there is a thing we can’t describe, some spark that flies up that we cannot describe with simple words, and therefore we find an image that fits it. And often those images are fantastical.”

“And the other thing is, I also like writing about extremes. I could write about a terrible man, or a wonderful self sacrificing man. But I can also write about a beast or an angel. And I love the fact that when you choose something like that to write about, you can turn the archetype on its head. You can write about a beast who understands he’s bestiality and wishes for it to be recognized so it will end. And you can create an angel who wishes to destroy the world. So you can take those things and turn it on its head. And that’s another thing that science fiction and fantasy allows you to do. “

For Isobelle, in writing Obernewtyn, she had found her place to escape; her place to pour out onto paper, to someone who cared, all those feelings that she was encountering and all those situations that were hard to deal with as a kid. And, whether she meant it or not, she created a character that very much taps into the human condition. “In a way, all of Elspeth’s powers are just extrapolations of human communication. They just mean, if we could communicate better, if you could understand better, if I could make myself understood better, If I could put you in my place literally, so many of the problems that we endure as humans wouldn’t exist.”

As an Obernewtyn fan-boy, I had to measure my desire to squeal and have her sign everything she had written that I owned. But I did get the chance to ask a few questions about some of the characters she has written.

One of the topics that we both got hooked on was the relationships within the book. “It was lovely building their relationship,” she told me, referring to her lead Elspeth and her love interest, Rushton. “I really do like a thread of human relationship, a very intense, passionate, loving relationship. It was very important for me, because she started out like I started out; feeling utterly unlovable, prickly and difficult to love, as well as feeling that she would never be loved. I think she was difficult to be loved. And as she grew and grew in confidence, she learns more and more about love.”

She continued, branching to encompass some of the other characters that appear in her series, and the different types of relationships that readers encounter. “The relationships between people should grow with the people. And sometimes, as with Kella and Domick, they grow apart. And that’s life too. And other times, there’s a ghosting of things that happen. Selmar is a ghost of Elspeth in a way; she is an echo of what she might have become. And all the way through there are these kind of echoes, where a theme is struck which is “if it could go that way, this might happen.” Domick is also another ghost, a ghost of Rushton himself.”

It was at this point that I finally got to ask the question I had been longing to ask all interview. “Does Dameon love Elspeth?”

“I’ve never said it, but between the lines, of course he loves her. Matthew loved her too, but in a different way. In his early stages, he hero worshiped her, in that young boy’s way. Dameon’s is a full, deep love. He’s just loved her faithfully all along. He’s also Rushton’s best friend, so there are times when it has been very hard for him. But Elspeth doesn’t know, and she’s the only one who doesn’t know. Rushton knows, and understands more than anyone else.”

And before I knew it, Isobelle was telling me about a new series that she is planning to write, set in the same world as her Obernewtyn Chronicles. The Beforetime Chronicles will be a prequel to the Obernewtyn series, and will be a story shown through the eyes of Cassandra, a character already introduced to Obernewtyn readers. “The first book will be about Cassandra as a young woman in the beforetime, the second book will be about the period of time up until when she leaves the red land. And the third book will be about when she’s taken by the slavers, what happens, and how she ends up in Sador.”

Isobelle’s agent at this point was starting to get antsy, as we’d been going much longer than my allotted time. So I rushed through a few last questions. In short, the final book in her Obernewtyn Chronicles will be released early 2010, followed by a new picture book and the last Billy Thunder book. In 2011 Darkbane, the last in her Legendsong Saga, will arrive, which will then leave room for her Beforetime Chronicles to appear.

We had to wrap up then, leaving Isobelle to rush off to yet another engagement after an already pressing day. But I had just interviewed one of my favourite authors, and was feeling pretty stoked.

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