Due to recent events, many Australian authors have had to cancel book launches and festival appearances. For some, this means new novels, series continuations and debut novels are heading into this scary, strange world without much publicity or attention. The good news is, you can still buy books – online or get your local bookstore to deliver if they’re offering that service. Buying these books, talking about them, sharing them, reading them, reviewing them – are all ways that for the next six months at least, we can ensure that these books don’t fall by the wayside.
Over the next few months, a lot of us will be consuming some form of art – entertainment, movies, TV, radio, music, books – the list goes on. It is something we will be turning to to take our minds off things and to occupy vast swathes of free time. One of the things I will be doing to support the arts, and specifically, Australian Authors, will be reading and reviewing as many books as possible, conducting interviews like this where possible, and participating in virtual book tours for authors.
One of my participants is Allison Tait, or A.L. Tait – author of The Mapmaker Chronicles, The Ateban Cipher and the soon-to-be-released (in September) – The Fire Star. Allison has studied freelance writing and has written on pretty much any topic you could think of, which must have been very interesting. Like many authors, Allison has had lots of festival appearances and events cancelled due to the pandemic, as well as school visits. Below, she talks about her books, the Australian Writer’s Centre and her freelance career, and of course, Procrasti-pup makes an appearance too!
Hi Allison, and welcome to The Book Muse
Thanks so much for having me Ashleigh! It’s lovely to have an opportunity to connect.
- When did you decide you wanted to write professionally, and was there a specific course you did at university?
It’s a long story because when I was growing up, I didn’t have a sense that being a professional writer was a viable career path. I was in regional NSW, before the internet, and I thought that authors were magical unicorns who created their work in turrets in England.
I got my break as a writer when I landed a magazine journalism cadetship and I worked in that industry for 15 years before I ever wrote a book. My first book was non-fiction and was about how to pay off your credit cards…
- You started your career as a journalist – was this as a freelancer, or a regular journalist and where did you get your start?
I began as a cadet journalist with Federal Publishing Company when I was 19. I learnt every aspect of magazine publishing, from sub-editing and production, to writing features. It was very valuable training for all aspects of my career.
I worked as staff on different publications in Australia and in the UK from that point until I had my first baby, though I had periods where I worked part-time on staff and part-time as a freelancer, because I was transitioning from editing roles into fulltime features writing.
- What sort of articles have you written in the past, and do you still write for publications, whilst working on your novels and at the Australian Writer’s Centre?
If you can think of a topic, I have probably written an article about it at some point. I have written about everything from cars, golf, gardens and finances, to home interiors, sex, business and dating. One of the things I have always loved most about being a features writer is the variety of the work. These days, I only write articles when there is something in particular I want to say, and that is becoming less frequent all the time. Most of my words are reserved for other arenas now.
- At what point during your journalism career did you decide to write novels, and which age group did you start with?
I started writing novels when I travelled to the UK in my early 20s. I had taken a temporary job as a switchboard operator while I applied for journalism jobs in London, and I was, not to put too fine a point on it, bored out of my mind. So I began writing a romance novel to amuse myself and a friend I was corresponding with at the time.
I picked up a job on Homes & Gardens magazine not long after, but I kept chipping away at the manuscript and then wrote two or three more, before branching out into longer works of contemporary fiction for adults. None of these manuscripts ever got published, but I learnt a lot along the way.
- The series I probably know you the best for are the Mapmaker Chronicles and the Ateban Cipher. How do you feel these books have changed your writing career?
The Mapmaker Chronicles changed everything about my writing career. The idea had come to me thanks to two conversations I’d had with my oldest son, then nine years old, but I ignored it for a good six months because a) I’d never written for children and b) I’d never even contemplated writing a series and I knew that a race to map the world was going to take more than one book.
Once I did sit down to write it, with encouragement from my agent at the time, I could not believe how effortless it felt. The first draft of the first book took me six weeks and the published version is not that different from the first draft. It was the most fun I’d had sitting down and I realised I’d found my true writing love.
- Each series features male and female characters in fantasy medieval settings whop may not fit into the gender binaries that people expect. What was it about Gabe, Quinn that you think appeals to readers across the spectrum?
There are two things I love most about both of those characters – one is that they are reluctant heroes, and I do love a reluctant hero, and the other is that both of them are clever enough to recognise when they’re not the smartest person in the room.
I think readers recognise the true bravery involved in not wanting to do something – but doing it anyway for the good of other people. Quinn and Gabe are both questioners. They don’t blindly follow orders – not even Gabe who has grown up in a monastery with all the obedience that entails – but they understand duty and the importance of doing the right thing.
- The Mapmaker Chronicles is about mapping the world – when you started writing this, was there something specific about the role of maps in our world that sparked this idea?
The idea was sparked by two conversations with my son Joe, which brought about a feeling and a question. One was about how far space goes (and the feeling that accompanies staring out in the black night sky and wondering where the edges are) and one was a question about how the world was mapped.
I’ve always loved antique maps – as much for the fact that they show us what we didn’t know about the world at any given time as for the fact that they show us what we did know.
So I brought together that feeling of not knowing where the edges are and the fact that explorers could only map the world by going.
And then I added in a character who would really much rather stay home.
- With The Ateban Cipher, was there something about ciphers, and communication that helped you form this story and idea?
This series was again built about a feeling and a question. I love old books and have travelled to Dublin twice to see The Book Of Kells, a medieval manuscript. Each time, I was struck by how much I wanted to possess the book.
The question came from a tiny article in a newspaper about the Voynich Manuscript, a very famous antique cipher, which has been pored over by scholars for 100+ years. I got to the end of the article with one question in my mind: Why would you write a book that no-one can read?
So I took the feeling and the question and added in a character who has been raised in a monastery, where such books were written and read, but must leave it for the first time every to keep the book, with all its secrets, safe. Once in the outside world, he runs into the most foreign thing that a boy who has always been surrounded by men could encounter: a group of rebel girls.
- Are there more books in those series in the works, or are there any new series or books planned?
At present, there are sadly no plans for more books in either of my current series, though I would happily dive back into either of those worlds in a heartbeat!
I do, however, have a brand-new book coming out in September 2020 with Penguin Books! It’s called THE FIRE STAR (A Maven & Reeve Mystery) and is a mystery adventure novel for readers 12+.
This is the blurb:
A maid with a plan.
A squire with a secret.
A missing jewel.
A kingdom in turmoil.
Maven and Reeve have three days to solve the mystery of the Fire Star. If they don’t, they’ll lose everything.
This could be a complete disaster . . . or the beginning of a great friendship.
Preorders available at your favourite online bookseller!
- Has the COVID-19 Pandemic impacted any releases or events you may have been attending, and what were they?
So many things. I was booked to appear at several literary festivals this year, all of which have been cancelled. I am also the program director of the Shoalhaven Readers’ & Writers’ Festival, now in its third year, but we have had to cancel the 2020 program.
And, then, of course, there are the school visits that are no longer happening, as well as the fact that Valerie Khoo and I were scheduled for a So You Want To Be A Writer event at VIVID Sydney again this year.
On top of this, CBCA Book Week, which is a massive event for children’s authors has been shifted from August to October, which is going to make things much more difficult for me, both as a writer and as a parent. Term 4 is very, very busy in Australia, as any parent will tell you, and trying to factor in a week or two of Book Week author visits around that is not going to be easy.
- When did you start working at the Australian Writer’s Centre, and what courses do you run there?
Hmmm. Now that’s a good question. I have been working as an AWC presenter for seven or eight years, I think. I started out tutoring the online Freelance Writing course, and have since moved across to the Creative Writing 1 and Writing For Children and Young Adults online courses. I’ve also developed three online self-paced courses: Build Your Author Platform, Make Time To Write and the 30-Day Creative Writing Bootcamp.
Two years ago, I created the Kids Creative Writing Quest, which is a 12-module self-paced creative writing course for kids aged 9-14.
- Of these courses, which do you enjoy preparing for the most?
I enjoy all the courses I do with the Australian Writers’ Centre. The courses all aim to be practical, industry-based and incredibly useful. The feedback I get suggests that students get a LOT out of their courses, which is very motivating for me as a presenter.
- Do you have any favourite booksellers, and who are your local ones?
I think booksellers are amazing and they are all my favourites. My local booksellers are Dymocks Nowra and Dean Swift Books and they do a brilliant job of keeping books and reading alive in our regional area.
- With the arts in trouble, and living through a time when people are going to be relying on the arts to fill their time, what do you hope comes from this crisis in terms for support for the arts and authors in Australia?
To be honest, I hope that people understand the importance of the arts to their lives, and how dull life would be without the books, the music, the theatre, the television and everything else.
- Procasti-pup makes many appearances on your social media. Does he help the writing process?
He is without doubt the best thing to ever happen to my Instagram account! On the practical side, he accompanies me on a long walk every morning. Walking is, for me, a very important part of my creative process, and it’s lovely to have such accommodating company as I wrestle with my stories in my head.
- Do you have a favourite author, or suggestions for pandemic reading?
I’ve just read ‘The Dictionary Of Lost Words’ by Pip Williams and very much enjoyed the journey to the absorbing world of words.
- Finally, what are you doing to pass the time over the next few months?
I am reading, writing, and arguing with my children over screen time (much like every other parent in Australia). Seriously, though, I’m working on a new manuscript, teaching, podcasting and doing the myriad things that always fill my days, such as managing my Facebook groups (Your Kid’s Next Read, Your Own Next Read, So You Want To Be A Writer), social media, updating my blog and generally keeping things ticking over. I’m busy!
Thank you Allison!