Interview: Juliet Marillier

This interview was originally posted at SentientOnline on the 23rd June 2011

Firstly, could you tell us a little about yourself?

Sure. I was born in New Zealand and I live in Western Australia. I’m a full time writer with thirteen novels in print, eleven for adults and two for young adults. My books are published internationally and have won quite a lot of awards. My work spans the genres of folkloric fantasy, historical fiction and romance. I love folklore and history, and as my ancestral roots are Celtic I use Irish and Scottish settings quite a lot, though I have ventured into Nordic, Romanian and Turkish cultures as well. My books are set in real world history with magical elements. They usually have young female protagonists. As well as writing novels and occasional short fiction, I’m a regular contributor to a writing blog, Writer Unboxed (

Q: Starting off easy, there are heaps of writing programs out there, as well as the general Word, Notepad and Open Office. What program do you do your writing in?

I use Word. I’ve never felt the need to use any of those specialised writing programs, though some people swear by them.

Q: How do you plan your writing? Some authors have storyboards, some have little index cards or a dozen A5 sized books…

I have a fairly untidy-looking ring-bound A4 exercise book, which gets plastered all over with post-it notes. Once I’ve done the research and written the outline /proposal for the novel, I move into chapter planning, and that is usually done as a Word document so I can keep tweaking and updating it as I go. I also have a Word document containing all the character names. That allows me to keep track of spear-carriers, grooms and kitchen maids as well as the major players in the novel. I do plan my novel very thoroughly before I begin writing. I always know where I’m going.

Q: Do you find you write better in certain conditions, or at certain times? If so, what are they?

It’s variable depending on what else is happening in my life. I write at home, either in my study or on the kitchen table. I like quiet – no music playing. I can’t write easily if there are other people around. Dogs are OK. I have three, and I am used to their interruptions, which help me remember to take stretch breaks. When things are going as they should, I walk the dogs first thing in the morning, then work for most of the day until it’s time for their afternoon walk. If I have a deadline looming I’ll work in the evening as well. I try not to miss my regular exercise – not only those dog walks, but trips to the gym and yoga classes.

Q: Some authors sit themselves down and don’t allow themselves to get up from their chair until they’d sat there for x amount of hours, or done x amount of words.  Can you tell us how do you write?

I am very good at distracting myself. The dogs, a cup of tea, a little gardening, the daily paper … But as a full time professional writer I have deadlines that absolutely must be met. At pressured times I set myself a minimum daily word count and keep to it. That works quite well but can lead to a rather fractured, non-flowing piece of writing, so of recent times I’ve been working to a weekly word count instead. I think that’s more effective. As a writer you are working in isolation. Nobody else is going to make up the work rules for you, or keep you at your desk. So you need a lot of self-discipline.

Q: What do you do when you’re having trouble writing?

I do the hundred and one other tasks a professional writer needs to do: research, editing, answering emails and correspondence, accounts, preparing workshops, doing Q&As like this one.

Q: Do you have any specific way to get to know your characters well enough to be so passionate when writing from the POV?

I believe the key is empathy – being able to imagine yourself as that character, walking in his or her shoes. My approach to character owes a lot to my spiritual beliefs. As a druid, I believe the divine exists in every living being: you, me, and everyone else out there, from the most flawed individual to the most saintly. Dogs, cats, bees, butterflies, frill-necked lizards. We’re all linked by that shared spirit. That belief leads to a deeper understanding not just of oneself but of people in general – you look at everyone with a degree of compassion and respect. A writer needs to be able to BE the character, not simply look at him or her from the outside. See through her eyes; know how she would react in any situation. Know WHY she reacts as she does.

Q: Do you have any writing rituals? Certain authors listen to certain kinds of music, others don a special writing hat…do you have any quirks such as these?

None that I can think of! I view it as my job, same as if I were a plumber or a gardener or a nurse. I sit down at the desk and get on with it.

Q: How did you get published? Did you submit to a publisher, to an agent, or…?

I submitted direct to a publisher. I sent my ms first to Fremantle Arts Centre Press (as it was then called) because they had a policy of providing feedback to all writers from WA. I knew they wouldn’t publish the book because it was outside their usual range. I got a nice encouraging letter from them suggesting a couple of mainstream publishing houses to try. After some revision, I sent my package to Pan Macmillan and got a two book deal, which later became a three book deal. I have remained with Pan Macmillan for my Australian editions ever since.

Q: What are your thoughts on self-publishing vs traditional methods (agent and/or publishing house)?

It’s hard to make a meaningful comment because the situation re self-publishing is changing so quickly right now. There seems to be a move, even by some well-established authors, to go down the self-publishing route for various reasons. It is certainly a way in which established authors can make sure their out-of-print titles remain available to readers, while earning them some income.

It is becoming harder for new writers to get agent representation and to be picked up by publishing houses. The global economic downturn had a major impact on publishers’ readiness to take risks, and the rise of the e-book phenomenon has also changed the way the game is played. So I can understand the appeal of self-publishing. But writers shouldn’t forget all the stuff a publisher does for you: editing, cover design, marketing and publicity, printing and distribution. If you opt to self-publish, you either need to pay people to do this work for you, or you need to do it yourself. That takes a huge amount of time and energy, and you need to acquire the expertise to do it all well enough so your finished book is of a professional standard. Any aspiring writer planning to go down the self-publishing route should do the homework first.

Of course, some new writers do still get picked up by publishing houses. You just need to write a really, really good book.

Thank you, Juliet!

You can follow Juliet at the following places:

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