Success, Inspiration and Writing: An Interview with Best-selling Author Lian Tanner

Lian Tanner is the award winning, Australian Author from the island state of Tasmania behind the children’s trilogy, The Keepers.

The first book in the series, Museum of Thieves, has been published in Australia, the US and India and was translated into many languages. Lian’s stories have won numerous awards and her most recently published novel, Ice Breaker (book one in the Hidden series) has been shortlisted for the Aurealis Award for best children’s book and was listed as a notable book for younger readers in the council of Australia “Book of the Year” awards.

The Australian College of Journalism spoke to Lian about her success as a writer, how her life has changed since she found success, and where she finds her inspiration.

- Have you always known you’ve had a creative side and an amazing imagination?lian tanner profile

Lian Tanner: Yes and no. I wrote a lot as a kid - stories, poems, plays - and had a vast confidence in my own creativity. But as I got older I lost that confidence - I think it was a mix of life getting in the way, and the fact that the older I got the more risk-averse I became. And of course, creativity is all about taking risks. So there were quite a few years when I didn't do much writing, and didn't really believe in my own imagination. It wasn't until I went to drama school, and got pushed to take risks, pushed to create, that I started writing seriously again. And since then I haven't stopped.

- What did it take for you to realise your passion for writing and story-telling and ultimately to realise your dream and turn it into such literary success?

LT: Vast amounts of stubbornness, mostly! As a writer you really have to believe in yourself, because it's pretty much guaranteed that you're going to get knockbacks, one after the other. But it has to be a questioning belief - i.e. you have to look very bluntly at your own writing strengths and weaknesses, and work out what needs improvement, and how to go about getting that improvement. Writing is an interesting mixture of art and craft, of talent and learned skill, and while you can't do much about the talent you were born with, you can keep learning about structure and character building and all the other things that go to make up a good story. I think this learning probably goes on for your whole life - it is certainly continuing for me, and it's one of the things that keeps the writing interesting. 

You also need an idea that you love and believe in - for me that was the idea behind Museum of Thieves. I knew without a doubt that it could make a fantastic book, but it took me a few years to learn how to make it work. 

- As a children’s author, do your ideas stem from those you had as a child or as an adult?

LT: The actual story ideas come from my adult self, but the things I like writing about - dark places, museums, old ships, caves, talking animals, etc. - come from the things that fascinated me as a child.

- When you’re writing and editing, how do you keep that first taste of inspiration and motivation alive?museum of thieves cover

LT: Sometimes I don't. Writing is like any other job in that there are good days and bad days, and there are often times when inspiration deserts me and motivation drags along the floor. But I have contracts to be filled, and if I don't do the work it's not going to get done. So I sit down and write, even when I don't feel like it.

Of course when I was writing Museum of Thieves, I didn’t have a contract, so that was different. And there were times when I despaired that I could ever make the story publishable. At times like that, I usually put it aside for a few weeks and worked on something else until I got my breath back and could charge back into it. Leaving stuff alone like that is good practice anyway - you can see it far more clearly and see its faults if you've got a bit of distance from it. I guess at base, the answer to your question is about having an idea that you believe in and love. Otherwise keeping up the energy would be impossible, even with breaks from it. 

The Goldie Roth character in the Keepers trilogy, and the Petrel character in the Hidden series make for very strong, determined, female leads. Have you deliberately created such strong girls as role models for young readers?

I don't think it was as conscious as that. It's got more to do with the fact that I was a very shy, anxious child, and that I write about the sort of girls who I would like to have been, and who I loved to read about. 

- Do you pay close attention to your market audience as you’re writing or do you just write what you know and love? Do you write to appeal to a target audience or does the audience more naturally find you based on what you’ve written?

LT: For me, the only thing that works is to write what I love and hope that it'll find an audience. I wrote for myself when I was in Year 5, and so far it has worked! But I know writers who research the market and structure their work very carefully to appeal to that market, and that's also a valid way of going about it. I think it's one of those things that depends on the temperament of the writer. 

- When the idea forms for a story, how organised are you? Do you create character maps or keep an ideas journal? Or are you completely unstructured and just sit down, write and see where it takes you? And what do you believe is the best, most constructive method?

LT: I'm pretty organised in some ways, and not at all in others. When I'm beginning to think about a story I keep a notebook and jot down everything that might be relevant. I find pictures that intrigue me (and that might or might not have something to do with the story) and characters that interest me.

As the story develops, I sometimes use Scrivener to work out scene outlines - other times I do it in Word. I do quite a bit of free writing on character, on what each major character wants, why they want it, what sort of things influence them, their backstory, etc. I also do a bit of brainstorming on things like character and possible scenes. So by the time I start writing, I usually have quite a detailed plot.

But when I actually start the first draft I follow my nose and let the story take dives off to the side if that's what it wants to do. My first draft never ends up exactly the same as my plot.

I have tried the unstructured method and it doesn't work for me - but again I think this is a matter of temperament. I don't think there is a 'best' method overall - just a method that works for each person. And it's up to every writer to find their own 'best' method.

- How long did it take you to write Museum of Thieves, City of Lies, Path of Beasts and your newest novel, Ice Breaker? Do you find that your novels are getting quicker and easier to write or has the process and time stayed relatively the same?ice breaker cover

LT: Museum of Thieves took three years and twenty drafts. City of Lies and Path of Beasts each took 18 months and were easier because I already had the world and its rules and most of the characters established.

Ice Breaker took about a year, but that was because another book I was writing fell apart, so I didn't have as long as I wanted for Ice Breaker, and the same with book two in the series, Sunker's Deep. So in some ways, yes, it does get easier to write, because I'm a bit more confident and my skills are greater. At the same time, each book presents different problems, and the way I write one book never works for the next one. I think a bit over a year works best for me, and I'd really like to go back to having 18 months. 

- In previous interviews you’ve mentioned how you’ve had a dozen professions, including professional actor, playwright and science teacher. As someone that found their dream profession in their late 30s, how has your life changed since writing, particularly since gaining such literary success with the Keeper’s trilogy?

LT: The main way my life has changed is that I can now write full-time, rather than having to keep a part-time job. So it means I can focus on my books more, and as a solitary sort of person (with occasional bursts of sociability) it really suits me to be able to stay at home and write. But the success of the books has also greatly increased my confidence levels - knowing that I am good at something is a really nice feeling!

- The moment you know you’ve “finally made it” is every writer’s dream. What was that moment like for you? Do you feel the same now, knowing Ice Breaker, the first book in the new Hidden series has been met with the same enthusiasm?

LT: It turns out there's no such moment. Your success lives or dies with each book, so the worry about whether or not the next one will be well received or not, never goes away - not for me, anyway. And the whole publishing industry is in a pretty fraught state at the moment, trying to work out how to deal with digital books etc., so that makes it even more precarious.

Having said that, getting the first big contract was pretty amazing. I think I was in shock for the first week, and then in a state of panic for a while after that, because I now had a contract and a timeline, instead of just being able to deliver a book when I felt like it.

These days I don't think about it a lot, but every now and again it hits me that I'm doing what I love, and that kids (and adults) love my books, and that's a very warm thing to have behind me. As for Ice Breaker, I'm really pleased that it's doing well - it's a book that is very dear to me, so I care about whether people love it or not. 

For further inspiration see Lian’s Advice for Young Authors on her website.

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