An Interview with Fiona McIntosh

Fiona McIntosh is one of Australia’s most prolific and favourite storytellers. She is a multi-genre author, who sells worldwide in a variety of languages. Lately, her historical romantic adventures have captured the imagination of the huge general fiction audience. Her books are regularly shortlisted for the Best General Fiction category in the Australian Book Industry Awards.

She hosts a series of masterclasses that are highly regarded by the industry as some of the best available anywhere, and many of her students are now happily embedded with major publishers and enjoying terrific success. Her How to Write Your Blockbuster continues to help aspiring writer tackle the big journey of the novel.

When she’s not writing, reading or guiding other writers she bakes and happily considers eating fine chocolate and drinking only excellent coffee as her hobbies.

Fiona kindly granted Etherea Magazine an interview for our second issue.

The Spy’s Wife is being released in November, how are you feeling right now?

Excited!  Always lovely to be at this stage where my part is done and we’re into all the fun stuff of marketing, publicity ideas, teasing the audience and bringing them pleasure through the build-up.  Plus, I do love this story.  It would be in my top three of historicals that I’ve written.  There’s also a wonderful sense of freedom as I leave that cast behind and am busy on the next.

You are renowned for creating strong and wilful characters, what can you tell us about Evie (The Spy’s Wife)?

It’s an exceptionally adventurous story for a female character.  I always enjoy a fish out of water tale and this fits that mould perfectly. She is doing things that no railway stationmaster’s daughter from a sleepy hamlet in Yorkshire should be doing.  She’s not qualified for the role she takes on and has nothing but her wits to rely on. Evie’s impressive in how she swallows her fear and straps on her ‘James Bond’ but the intriguing aspect is that unlike that sort of hero, she’s constantly terrified, living with the knowledge that if discovered, she’ll be executed. But she’s determined to save lives and that drives her to do extraordinary things.

Being a prolific writer for the last 20 years, which of your books stand out for you?

Well, I do love Myrren’s Gift for its originality back in its day and the confidence it brought to my storytelling life.  There’s a moment where all women readers probably cheer – I think I cheered when I wrote into that moment – and I don’t want to spoil it but we all want men to appreciate a little more this particular aspect of female life 😊  It’s such a powerful and emotional story too. Myrren’s Gift was the book that put me onto the global stage as well so I’m forever grateful for all the languages it was translated into and the pleasure that the trilogy of The Quickening brought to so many readers worldwide. 

More recently there’s The Pearl Thief. I consider this my best book, certainly my favourite book.  Everything about it speaks to the sort of story I love to read and I love to write.  It’s not always possible to write a book that has this much emotional underpinning to the main conflict, but the main character is unbearably traumatised as a child and it’s her resilience and ability to turn and face that fear that fuels the main power of this story.  She’s a wonderful character and her story, as we enter it, is dramatic, tense, fear-laden and emotionally charged at every turn.  Glorious landscapes too – London, Yorkshire, Prague, Paris…so good.  And the era…the terrifying WWII years and then the swinging sixties with its fabulous fashion and optimism. I just love it and readers have too.

And then Mirror Man probably. I’m not trying to give you a glimpse of my genres but I absolutely adore the character of DCI Jack Hawksworth. He arrived into my life in 2008 and I wrote a couple of crime books featuring the sort of enigmatic hero I like in stories. Writing crime came about because I was trying to slow down my turnout of fantasy novels. Unfortunately the crimes were released against my wishes under a pen name and of course they didn’t set the world on fire as a ‘debut novelist’ when we should have traded off my already well established name as a storyteller.  But we re-released them last year under my name and with new jackets, and their sales took us all by surprise as readers couldn’t get enough of Jack.  So I wrote this third book that was a marvellous tonic because it wrapped up a major storyline that had led book one, ghosted book two and needed closure.  I was able to do that in Mirror Man – it was like unfinished business  – while setting up a whole new and absorbing tale that seemed to thrill my audience because they took it very quickly to #1 in Australian fiction and several reprints already since June.  But the best news of all is that it got Jack noticed by a multi-national television production company, which has now eagerly optioned for TV production all the Jack books including book four that is yet to be written and will be published by Penguin Random House as soon as I write it. 

Which author(s?) would you love to recommend?

Well, no reader of fantasy should ignore the early work by Guy Gavriel Kay if you love quality fantasy that is brilliantly written by a master storyteller.  He, alongside, Robin Hobb and GRRM would be the fantasy books to devour in my opinion.  Tigana is my favourite work of GGK but his Fionavar Trilogy is superb and then there are several early standalones that are hard to not fall in love with.

For historical fiction I do love the work of Sharon Penman. She brings back the far past to life in ways I can only shake my head at.  I so enjoy her storytelling.

For contemporary fiction I am a fan of Ian McEwan but just as comfy reading John Connolly or Stephen King, particularly his non-horror. I could write a list of contemporary storytellers I enjoy but let impress that I would read anything by Bill Bryson including his shopping list.

How has the literary landscape changed since you wrote Betrayal (2001)?

Oh gosh! The internet was in its early days. Websites were a novelty, chat rooms were the go and email was the hottest way of communicating on the planet.  And the internet has changed publishing forever.  There used to be an enormous exchange of ‘foul material’ as we all jokingly called it…huge manuscripts back and forth. Now there’s none of that. We do everything on line to the final edit and then there’s one set of galleys to approve in hard copy. That’s a huge shift.  I remember the days of sending off a manuscript of 500 pages all bound up in a box and lugging it to the post office to be sent up to Sydney, taking days.  Loads of authors my age would probably recall sending off submissions this way and never hearing again or at best not hearing for months.  I was very fortunate that my first submission of a fantasy novel won the attention of the right commissioning editor and so it not only saved me much heartache to be picked up and offered a contract from my first attempt, but saved me a lot of postage in submissions.  Now we can whiz off a pitch to a publisher in seconds and get a much faster response.

I now not only speak to my publisher via email every day but I talk to loads of people within the publishing house most days…sales, marketing, publicity, rights, digital, art, distribution, audio, etc.  We’re all talking constantly and I’m sure it wasn’t like that 21 years ago when we had snail mail and expensive phone calls to consider.

Now we can print to order.  A few books or a tonne.  Great for publishers not have to worry anymore about huge warehousing dilemmas but also it’s made the self publishing world far more accessible and indeed acceptable. No longer considered vanity publishing but a legitimate and admirable way of getting your writing career off and running.

And now we can access books in so many ways.  We can read them in hard format, large format, paperback or trade.  We can listen to them, read to us by professional narrators…we’ve already forgotten about books on CD – that’s how fast technology has moved our lives on given that CDs used to be such a novelty to throw into the car and listen to books on long journeys…now we just download into our phone and off we go.  And we can read in the ether.  I used to layer the bottom of my suitcase with books when I was doing a long haul – I couldn’t cope with the notion of not having something to read and often if you were in Europe, the choice wasn’t there for reading in English so you couldn’t risk it 😊 Now, I can carry dozens…hundreds of books if I want to on an iPad/kindle etc.  I can carry books in my phone to read.  I can listen to them off my watch for goodness sake!

From the back end though it makes our life much easier with the new technology that allows us to fix any errors we discover for a new print, and electronically we can fix problems immediately. Most importantly we can add more value to packages especially in digital content. For example, on the audio version of The Spy’s Wife, I shall be doing a small piece to support it and listeners can enjoy hearing my remarks on the architecture of the story.

Myriad ways of change to the publishing landscape in the last couple of decades…let’s not even begin to talk about social media platforms.

How on earth do you have time for writing novels, teaching masterclasses, raising a family, research, and just general living? (I actually just want to know this myself, let alone for the interview!)

I compartmentalise with great ease. I think it’s my superhero skill.  So I can attend to one book for a few hours, shift to another when that writing session is complete. I’m super disciplined about writing sessions and I never keep hammering away all day at one task.  That means, a bit like spinning plates, I leap from task to task once I know I’ve got everything going in a nice, tight balance. And if I attend to each task daily, the plates keep spinning.

What advice would have been invaluable when you first started writing?

Never read reviews of your work. Don’t get twisted over what other writers are doing, achieving, saying.  The only chart that matters is a sales chart.

Which character that you have created do you have the greatest fondness for?

It has to be Katerina from The Pearl Thief. She’s a seriously damaged woman who is brave in the face of enormous fear, and highly resourceful.

Will there be a return to writing Fantasy in the future?

I’ll never say never but it’s doubtful. I don’t wish to disappoint readers but that was a particular and special era in my writing life.  I’ve set my course this past decade in historical fiction which derived all of its skills from me writing 14 big fantasy novels so I’m forever grateful to that first decade of training and books of such imagination into which I could throw the kitchen sink – no idea was too far fetched. But historical fiction is where I live.  I also take tremendous pleasure in writing crime novels and want to keep exploring that as a terrific change up from the hefty research and planning that goes into each historical novel.

What is next for you?

Right now I’m juggling two books – which is a first for me.  Normally I am writing one, editing another, researching a third like a happy hamster in my wheel.  However, with the pressure on to produce a new Jack book ready for TV scripting, I am writing that crime novel alongside the 2022 historical novel.  It’s requiring all my compartmentalisation skills but they’re both coming along at a steady trot with the historical taking preference.  I am also thinking long and hard about what to write for 2023.  Normally I could tell you but Covid is adding all sorts of hurdles to jump and restrictions to what I can and can’t contemplate.

Masterclasses don’t stop.  We are full across all classes for 2022 and I’ve had to push two of the 2021 events around to early 2022…so it’s a big year shaping.  I also have to consider that we are planning a major tour for the 2021 novel to all states but having done all the work in setting it up, we now have to wonder whether we can go ahead with it. We’re philosophical about cancelling but it’s tough on the audience that does look forward to meeting its favourite authors and I enjoy meeting them each year. This will be the third year in a row to cancel as the bushfires halted us in 2019 and Covid made it impossible for 2020, now twitchy borders and taking a responsible attitude to congregating in large groups might make 2021 difficult.  We shall see how the vaccination numbers go and how NSW especially fares in coming weeks.

I’ll just keep writing stories to bring pleasure to my loyal and wonderful audience. 

Thank you so much for your time!

Fiona can be found on her website, and her books are listed on every major
online bookseller. Her latest work is the historical fiction “The Spy’s Wife”, and I
can definitely recommend her breakthrough fantasy novel “Myrren’s Gift

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