David J Howe talks to Glenda Noramly whose debut fantasy novel is published in March by Virgin Publishing under their new Virgin Worlds imprint.
Getting published is the dream of a great many would-be writers, and as many will attest, it is not easy. Consider then how much harder it must be to get your first novel published in the UK, when you actually live several thousand miles away in Malaysia. This is, however, what Australian-born writer Glenda Noramly has managed to achieve.
‘You should really ask my agent, Dot Lumley, how it all came about,’ laughs Glenda. ‘Living as I do, in Malaysia, I can’t manage the marketing of my work in the UK. However, I believe Havenstar appealed to the editors at Virgin Worlds because it is very much character-driven, and that was apparently one of the elements they were looking for. There are so many fantasy books around where the protagonist has some sort of powerful magic – which they have to find out how to use – and then at the end of the book, they learn how to use it and wham! the problem is solved. I prefer to write about ordinary people with no great powers trying to cope in a world that is full of things they can’t control. (Pretty much like most of us in today’s world!) To win out in the end they have to use their wits and any other means – magic or otherwise – that is available to them. In most of my work, the fantastic elements are found outside of the main characters – it is the world itself that is magic or it is the opposition that has most of the power. I think readers can relate to that.’
Havenstar is a novel that has been inspired by a great many aspects of Glenda’s life. ‘I started writing when I was about nine or ten,’ she explained. ‘I wrote my first book when I was about eleven (it was awful). Fortunately or unfortunately I was eventually side-tracked into having to earn a living, raising kids and all those more mundane things! I don’t remember that there was any particular thing that influenced me to write as a child – it was just something that I had to do. Probably the more important influence was actually having a mother who loved reading. We had very little money as kids, but every room in the house had books stacked up somewhere. Fortunately we had an aunt who worked for a publisher and we used to get all the rejects – books with pages out of order or inserted upside down, for example. Our birthday and Christmas presents were always books. We lived on a farm with no access to a library and no neighbourhood kids to play with, so I read anything and everything that I could get my hands on – I had read my mother’s entire collection before I was out of primary school. An interest in fantasy came much much later, when I started reading C. S. Lewis and Tolkien to my own children.
‘The idea for Havenstar came when – after living in Europe and Africa for over eight years – I returned to our home in Malaysia and found that so many of the natural places I had loved before had now been ravaged by the rapid and often thoughtless development. Even worse, very few people could see that anything was wrong. So I started to think – how would people react if their world was being destroyed, not by development, but by some other force? Would they do anything about it? How could they fight forces that were larger and more powerful than they are? And so the idea for Havenstar was born. The main protagonist in the book is a map-maker’s daughter and the magic centres around maps. It was my niece’s interest in maps that gave me the inspiration for that. she is an Australian artist and she is the one who has done the map for the book.’
Set in the Eight Stabilities – islands of order surrounded by a disfiguring, corrupting chaos – Havenstar is the story of Keris Kaylen, daughter of a master map-maker. The maps are objects of power and when her father is murdered, Keris is forced to journey across the Unstable in search of the maps that will save the world. Along the way she joins company with others whose motives do not quite match her own.
‘You won’t find much about swords or magicians or dragons in Havenstar. Lots of very fine writers have dealt with those things before, and there have also been many not-so-good imitators. I wanted to present a world where the land itself is rather bizarre and the culture that has evolved to cope with this is rather different as well. You won’t have met this kind of world before. In the midst of this madness, though, the main character is still a very ordinary person trying to cope with problems – grief and guilt, growing up and being independent, falling in love with the wrong person. And in the end, the survival of the world depends on the courage and the wits of these ordinary people finding ways to solve extraordinary problems.
‘My main aim was always to write a rattling good story – something that was hard to put down because you wanted to find out what happened next. Anything else was secondary. Of course, it would be nice to think that reading the book makes the reader think about some of the issues that it addresses: should we enforce stringent rules to save the world we have? How much would you pay for freedom? To save your loved ones? Is there value in religious rituals? How far should we go to restrict population growth?
‘But first and foremost, I hope that my readers will enjoy a good story.’
Since her childhood in Western Australia, Glenda has moved around a lot. She graduated in history, and then moved into teaching English, and in this role she worked in Kuala Lumpur, Vienna and Tunis before returning to Malaysia in 1994. I asked if this ‘global view’ helped in creating a good fantasy novel.
‘Yes, I think so. So does growing up in Australia. In fact, I’ve lived on four different continents and they have all contributed something! The greatest influence was coming at the age of 24 to live in Malaysia for the first time, not as an outsider but as one of the family (I had married a Malaysian student I met while at college) to be assimilated into a culture that was not mine, where everything seemed overwhelmingly different: language, religion, dress, food – you name it, right down to what made people laugh. What better experience for a writer of fantasy? Living like that, you realise just how complex a thing culture is and how many elements must be included to invent a believable fantasy world. By the way, the name I have used for the main protagonist of Havenstar, Keris, is the Malay word for dagger, now a ceremonial dress item, but once a formidable weapon. So even in little things like that there has been a Malaysian influence.’
Glenda has a strong appreciation of fantasy fiction from her early reading right through to her own work. She especially feels that it is a shame that a great many people seem reluctant to read a fantasy novel. ‘They think it is not relevant to them,’ she explains. ‘All fantasy tells us more about our own world and ourselves, even if it is set in a land called Middle Earth or Malinawar. At the same time fantasy enables an author to explore ideas and to challenge readers in ways that are not open to mainstream fiction writers. Writing fantasy is hard work – not only do you have to make up the story and the characters, the world and the laws that operate in that world, but on top of that a fantasy writer is writing for a very discerning audience. People who read fantasy don’t let authors get away with anything! As a consequence, some of the best fiction writing today is to be found in the genre. It deserves a much wider audience than it has.’
With her first novel seeing print, Glenda has much to occupy her. ‘As well as the writing, I am heavily involved in environmental issues in Malaysia. I am honorary secretary of the Malaysian Nature Society’s Bird Conservation Council and I edit a bi-monthly publication on Malaysian birds. I’m also hard at work on another fantasy book entitled Grey Random yet despite this, I am just as likely to be found knee-deep in the mud of mangroves or dodging leeches on a rainforest trail as I am to be found at my desk writing!’
David J Howe