Can you give us an outline of the story and the characters?
The Stolen Prince of Cloudburst is the story of Esther, a perfectly ordinary girl who is surrounded by brilliance: her sisters, her best friends, her cousin Bronte, are all dazzlingly talented. Along with her older sister Imogen and younger sister Astrid, Esther has just returned to Katherine Valley Boarding School for the new school year. Rumours are flying that her new teacher is an Ogre; there’s an undercover Spellbinder among her classmates; and Katherine Valley itself – usually a picturesque region of teashops, glaciers and bright magic – is becoming overrun by Shadow mages. What happens is perfectly-ordinary Esther finds herself having to save no only her school – but her entire world!
What was your inspiration for writing The Stolen Prince of Cloudburst?
In The Extremely Inconvenient Adventures of Bronte Mettlestone, which is the first book set in the Kingdoms and Empires, Bronte goes on a journey to visit her ten different aunts.The least pleasant aunt, Aunt Nancy, has three daughters at boarding school. We only spent a little bit of time with Aunt Nancy and her family in Bronte’s story, and I liked the idea of getting to know the three girls better. I was especially interested by Esther, the middle sister, who dreams of being a Spellbinder—and in finding out what it would be like to have Aunt Nancy as a mother.
You have created a very detailed magical world. What process do you use to keep track of the worlds you create? Do you ever get confused?
Thank you! I find maps very helpful and keep them stuck to the walls around me. I also try to keep plenty of notes. My notes confuse me though—my handwriting is terrible and often illegible. Also, I seem to write notes in the middle of notebooks and then misplace the notebooks. So I’m always running around the house picking up random notebooks and flipping through the pages, trying to find key information. It’s a really time-wasting approach.
The book begins with Esther’s writing assignment which Esther’s teacher does not appreciate. The comments are rather harsh! Have you ever had harsh criticism of your own writing?
Of course not. My writing is perfect so I hear nothing but praise. (Ha ha. I love constructive criticism—I have wonderful editors who point out where things are going wrong and I am always very grateful to them – but I find harsh criticism to be destructive and soul-crushing. It makes me question the very essence of who I am, and also makes me wake in the night and enter long, imaginary arguments with the critic. For this reason, I never Google myself…).
Did you always plan to be an author? When did you start writing with a view to becoming a published author?
I wanted to be an author from when I was six years old. I’ve always written with a view to getting published—even when I was seven and writing stories on the backs of used serviettes. I would fold them carefully, ready for when a publisher called. When I was eight and told bed-time stories to my younger sister each night, I made her memorise the plot of each so I could compile them into a collection one day—again, when a publisher called. I was pretty sure a publisher could track me down at any moment.
I guess I became most determined to get published when I was doing a PhD in Law at Cambridge, England. I was going to become a lawyer once that was finished so I thought this would be my last chance to write. So I wrote my first novel, Feeling Sorry for Celia, in the evenings.
You studied law at university. What are the most important lessons you learnt at university?
That people are all talk when they claim not to have studied for exams…
What three pieces of advice would you give to young people about their creative writing?
Read in every different direction – not just your favourite sort of book, but many different genres, history, science and poetry (and then come back to your favourite…). Don’t worry if you can’t finish your stories – as you are growing up you are developing and changing as a writer so there’s nothing wrong with letting one story stop halfway through and starting a new one. At the same time, it can be great to enter short story contests as that will give you practice in constructing a complete story, with a beginning, middle and end, and polishing it until it’s perfect.
The main character in this book has two sisters. Do we see a link to real life? Do you think that having two sisters who are also published authors gives you all a superpower?
I didn’t see a link to my real life until I’d finished writing this book and gave it to my older sister Liane to read. One of the first things she said was: ‘I’m Imogen, aren’t I? And you are Esther?’ (Imogen is the older sister).
I have four sisters and one brother so Esther and her sisters don’t precisely match me, but I do have two author sisters, one older and one younger—Liane and Nicola—and there might have been some subconscious insecurity coming into play when I let Esther be the ‘ordinary one’ while her two sisters were brilliant. (On the other hand, Esther turns out to be the hero, of course, so that must be subconscious vanity!).
It is definitely a superpower having two sisters who are published authors too! I love it. We read each other’s writing, understand the importance of effusive praise, give advice, and are sympathetic about the difficult parts of writing. I feel very lucky and very proud of my sisters (both the author ones and the non-author ones!).
Garth Nix is rumoured to have discovered your manuscript in the unopened mail. Is this a true story?
It is! I was working as a lawyer when I sent the manuscript of my first book out to a Sydney literary agency, Curtis Brown. When my phone rang and the person on the other end said, ‘This is Garth Nix,’ I thought: ‘That’s a very familiar name – it must be a client of mine I’ve forgotten’, and I wrote it at the top of my yellow legal pad, ready to take notes. He was a fantastic agent and found me publishers all over the world, and when he left to concentrate on his own writing, my current agent, Tara Wynne, who is also fantastic, replaced him.
What are you reading right now?
I’ve been reading a wonderful series of children’s books, The Mennyms by Sylvia Waugh. It’s about a family of life-sized rag-dolls living in a suburban house and passing themselves off as regular people. Before these, I read The Left-handed Booksellers of London by Garth Nix (coincidentally…), which I adored and next, I’m looking forward to the very funny Will Kostakis’s Rebel Gods. (In grown-up books, I recently read The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett, and am about to start reading my sister Nicola’s latest manuscript, You Need to Know).
What were your favourite books as a child?
The Mary Poppins books by P.L Travers, Roald Dahl’s books (especially James and the Giant Peach) and E. Nesbit’s books (especially The Pheonix and the Carpet). was also keen on Chalet School books and Enid Blyton’s various boarding school stories (as well as her stories of the Enchanted Wood and the Faraway Tree).
Christmas is a magical time of year. What do you think Esther would wish for?
I think she would wish for her family to be together in a cosy cottage with windows overlooking a frozen lake and snowy mountain range. She and her family will go ice-skating on the lake together and then come back inside for hot chocolate and marshmallows by the wood-burning fireplace. (And if she found herself in our world, Esther would wish for cures for pandemics, sensible and civilised transitions of power, and a lot less vitriol on Twitter, so that she could drink her hot chocolate with her family in peace and without anxiety).