The talent that is Isobelle Carmody
By Shelley Kenigsberg
“I’m very fortunate,” says Isobelle Carmody, one of the guests at this year’s UWRF, “to have spent pretty much my whole life as a writer. Before I was a ‘real’ writer [read: published], I was a storyteller”.
And for the many thousands of her fans, there is great joy that this has been a lifelong pursuit. Carmody is regarded as one of Australia’s favourite fantasy authors and since her debut book in the Obernewtyn Chronicles, begun when she was fourteen, she has published almost fifty titles — short stories, picture books, series for younger readers, young adult and fantasy.
As a young girl, Isobelle’s storytelling was what mattered a great deal when it came to helping out at home. Responsible for looking after her 7 younger brothers and sisters while their mother (widowed when Isobelle was fourteen) worked nights to bring in a family income. There was no television as babysitter and no radio to entertain the young brood. But there was Isobelle’s prodigious talent. The stories, “needed to rivet my audience so they didn’t even think of getting up to mischief”. And each night, the Carmody clan was beguiled with her thrilling and magical stories which each had “a scary thread”, she adds, “but also a question about why people do the things they do — the terrible things and the wonderful things”.
In addition to her young-adult novels, (the Obernewtyn Chronicles and Alyzon Whitestarr, which won the coveted Golden Aurealis for overall best novel at the Aurealis Awards) Isobelle’s published works include the Gateway Trilogy which has been favorably compared to The Wizard of Oz and the Chronicles of Narnia. The Little Fur quartet is an eco-fantasy starring a half-elf, half-troll heroine for which Carmody has done all the illustrations. She has also been the illustrator for her recent children’s book, Magic Night. Published originally as The Wrong Thing, it tells the story of Hurricane, an ordinary housecat who stumbles across something otherworldly. ‘There’s a wrong thing in the house …
flying around on wings of light. Hurricane, the cat, is the only one that sees it.”
In 2011, Carmody was the participating editor, with Nan McNabb, of the first of a two-book collection taking a dark look at fairy tales, The Wilful Eye. Her recent The Red Wind was shortlisted for Book of the Year and The West Australian Premier’s Prize. Her collection of stories Metro Winds was published in 2012 and she is working on the final book in the Obernewtyn Chronicles, The Red Queen.
Her novel, Greylands, published in 1997 won the Aurealis Award for Excellence in Speculative Fiction, and was named a White Raven at the 1998 Bologna Children’s Book Fair. And this year, Greylands is being produced in an e-edition. The microsite for the July launch of the e-edition was designed to run for a limited time and self-destruct on publication date. Each day till then, it featured guest posts from a range of writers — successful and highly awarded authors, publishers, editors, actors, poets, students, teachers, librarians, agents); each covering a different side of writing, but all engaging with the world of digital publishing in a stimulating demonstration of the vast possibilities of the emerging forms. Carmody and her publishers have not only expanded possibilities but have given voice to readers and followers and stretched traditional definitions of how to read. It’s not just content that she’s stretching, but also form. Here, again, we have Carmody intent on helping her readers see many more things than those immediately visible.
When she’s asked what is it about the fantasy genre that she loves, Carmody answers, “It allows me to step outside the constraints of everyday life … buying band aids and Drano and washing powder… to think about things that matter to me. Like what it means to have free will and yet to co-exist with others who also have free will that might infringe upon mine; about why some people are cruel and why some are courageous; about how it is that someone grows up to be Mother Teresa while someone else becomes Hitler…”
So what is the best part of being a writer for her? “I write what I want and so it is never just pounding out words to meet a deadline or a word limit. I am always inside what I write. It always matters to me. …If you look at the body of any writers’ work, you can figure out the questions that animate them. I think that is what real writers do. They don’t tell people how to live or what to think. They write in order to try and answer their own deepest questions.”
The compulsion to balance and integrate all the worlds she is inhabiting is precisely, what makes her fiction so vivid and engaging. Carmody currently divides her time between her home in Australia, and her life in Prague, Czech Republic with her partner, a poet and jazz musician, and their daughter. The dramatic differences in landscape and climate give Carmody the spurs for her exceptional imagination. She describes a winter’s day skating on a lake near Prague. “It was surrealistic, stunning, spookily magical, to be skating alone on a lake that was white. I later learned that … I had been blithely skating on twelve meters of black water under a fractured layer of ice, over which fresh snow had fallen thickly”.
We can only imagine what more worlds she might divine in those dark depths. The stories, “come from things that are happening in the world around me. About my relationship to the world. Writing lets me think about it. For me, to write is to think.” And to imagine. Carmody talks of her “overactive imagination. … I did pretend lavishly when I was a child, but I give myself permission to pretend now that I am grown up by telling myself that is what writers do. But,” she says, in another interview, “ imagination and fear and paranoia is the perfect fuel for a writer. And curiosity. It makes me hyper aware of the world and all its possibilities. Imagination is a muscle that you need to exercise”.
It all works well, we are assured by a recent reviewer. “Isobelle Carmody’s writing is like a smorgasbord of greatness with a side of fantastic, drizzled with some awesome sauce.”
What can we expect this October? If you’ve read her books, you’ll race to her sessions. If you’ve yet to meet her books, prepared to be thrilled. “Writing fantasy is like conscious dreaming,” says Carmody. So come and dream into her sessions. Perhaps there’ll be answers to some of your deepest questions — strong themes about how to live and why people do the things they do; perhaps you’ll be filled with even more questions. But either way, there’s no doubt, Isobelle Carmody’s sessions at the Festival are not to be missed.