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Garth Nix in Conversation with Felicity Packard
Something in Lake Burley Griffin
Talks / Lecture
Something in Lake Burley Griffin
12 December 2019
Join two world-class writers and old friends, Garth Nix and Felicity Packard, as they chat about their childhood and university years growing up in Canberra; their work; and their most recent venture together, a pilot for Amazon Studios adapted from Garth’s Old Kingdom books.
About the speakers
Having sold more than five million books around the world, you will often see Garth Nix books listed in the New York Times bestseller lists, the Guardian and the Australian, with his work being translated into forty languages. His award-winning fantasy novels for young adults include Sabriel, Lirael, Abhorsen and Clariel, Shade’s Children, A Confusion of Princes and Newt's Emerald. Garth has been a full-time writer from 2001, having previously worked as a literary agent, book editor, book publicist, bookseller and part-time soldier in the Army Reserve.
Felicity Packard is a freelance screenwriter, script editor and producer with her name frequenting Australian screens. Felicity was one of the creators and writers of the true-crime drama franchise Underbelly, wrote and associate produced Wolf Creek season one for Stan, and most recently created and wrote for the Netflix political spy miniseries Pine Gap. She has won the Queensland Premier’s Literary Award for screenwriting and has won five-Australian Writers’ Guild Awards. Over her career spanning more than two decades, she has written hundreds of hours of Australian television drama for shows including Janet King, MDA, G.P. Blue Heelers and Home & Away.
Garth Nix in conversation with Felicity Packard 12-12-19
*Speakers: Kathryn Favell (K), Garth Nix (G), Felicity Packard (F)
*Location: National Library of Australia
K: Good evening and thank you all for joining us here at the National Library tonight. My name’s Kathryn Favell and I’m the Library’s Director of Community Outreach and one of the perks of my job is to be able to welcome you all here to the Library, whether you’re here with us in the theatre or perhaps joining us online through the livestream.
Tonight we’re going to be talking something about Lake Burley Griffin and that reminded me that the Library of course stands on the shores of the lake but perhaps more importantly I was reminded a couple of weeks ago that beneath the lake’s surface lies the bed of the Molonglo River, a river which provided sustenance to local indigenous communities for tens of thousands of years. I have to admit it’s not something I think of every day so it was quite surprising to be reminded that there is this riverbed winding below the surface.
As we begin I would like to acknowledge those communities who lived along the edge of the riverbank, the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people on whose traditional lands we’re meeting tonight and whose culture we celebrate as one of the oldest continuing cultures in the world.
I’d like to pay my respects to elders past, present and emerging for caring for the land that we’re very privileged to live on, to work on and to call home. I’d also like to extend my respects to any first nations peoples who are joining us this evening here or via the livestream.
One of the other perks of my job is that I get to hang out with people like tonight’s guests even if it’s only for a few minutes and tonight I’m delighted to be welcoming Garth Nix and Felicity Packard back to the Library. Garth of course is the award-winning Australian author who’s sold more than six million copies of his novels in 40 languages around the world. His first novel, Sabriel, from the Old Kingdom series is on display in our Story Time exhibition and if you haven’t had a chance to visit that I’d encourage you to take a trip down memory lane and look at the stories that you read as a child and that you’re probably reading to your children and grandchildren and family and friends now too.
Garth has been a champion of books, libraries and reading. You’ve got to love someone who can turn a librarian into a hero as he has and we were especially delighted when he agreed last year to be an ambassador for the National Library as we celebrated the 50th birthday of this building.
Felicity has created a career putting words into the mouths of some of Australia’s best actors. You may know her work as the writer of the drama series, Underbelly, but she has written hundreds of hours of Australian television shows such as the Stan adaptation of Wolf Creek, Janet King, Home and Away, Blue Heelers, McLeod’s Daughters and ANZAC Girls. I think the Library would like to take a little bit of credit for some of that work because we know sometimes the writing happens here in the National Library.
One of the things these two world class writers have in common is our city. Garth and Felicity have called Canberra home for large parts of their lives and attended school and university together so tonight we’re pretty sure that these two old friends will have some very interesting stories to tell about their upbringings, their city, the lake and their careers. Please join me in welcoming Garth Nix and Felicity Packard. Thank you.
G: Thank you very much. It’s very nice to be here in Canberra looking out to so many friendly and closely related faces. It’s always very, very good for me in particular to come back to Canberra so thank you all for coming along and it’s also great to be here chatting to Felicity who I mentioned to my mother this afternoon, who now lives in Queensland but only relatively recently, that I was doing an event with Felicity this evening and she said don’t forget to remind Felicity that she was the first person at your third birthday party.
F: Third birthday party.
G: Third birthday party in the flats in Northwin Avenue at Dickson which Felicity tells me no longer –
F: No, they’ve been knocked down, those ones, yes indeed.
G: Yeah so she said yes, I remember her beaming little face appearing above the stairs.
F: Oh well that’s very sweet. I remember your mother made finger puppets, they were so cool.
G: Did she? Actually I think my seventh birthday party she put on a puppet show of Moominland Midwinter for me.
F: See that’s the sort of parents you need, who really value storytelling.
G: You had them too and I think this is one of the topics we quickly were scribbling questions down is to talk about our parents and their influence. But perhaps backtracking, one of the other things we were chatting about before mentioning Lake Burley Griffin, and I think this probably speaks to the way both our minds work to some degree, is that – and this’ll be familiar to some of you of the Canberra tradition of riding your bikes around at night back in the day, in the ‘70s and ‘80s -
F: Yeah, ‘70s and ‘80s when there was less traffic and fewer roads to cross.
G: Yeah and I remember riding with Felicity and a whole bunch of other people, whole bunch of friends, riding around the shores of Lake Burley-Griffin and I saw something in the water I was sure was a severed head. It looked like a head with long hair in the dark just quite close to the edge and of course I brought it to the attention of Felicity and -
F: He yelped.
G: - her other friends, yeah, probably. Yes, I'm not quite sure what noise I made. I guess for some time we all thought that it was -
F: Absolutely, we were gazing at it, at the hair waving in the water. Won’t surprise you to realise it was weed waving in the water.
G: Yes, weed on a stone. Eventually I poked it with a stick. I’m not quite sure what would have happened if I’d poked it with a stick and it was a severed head but we were very sure and I think possibly the two of us were more sure it was a severed head than the others because that natural tendency to think of story.
F: Yeah, overactive imagination.
G: Which is a good thing if you’re going to have a lifetime of writing stories. An overactive imagination is a positive.
F: Yeah, absolutely and look, mine developed. I grew at ANU, my father was one of the heads of one of the halls of residence and so we literally lived at ANU and in those days it was a much quieter place even than it is now and I just used to ride my bike all around the ornamental ponds and in the ornamental ponds and I’d climb the fire escapes of all the buildings and I had a very lonely childhood in some ways ‘cause I’m right down the end of my family but at the same time that opportunity to just roam, freely roam and tell myself stories was really powerful.
G: And imagine.
F: And imagine, yeah.
G: I don’t actually have a very continuous memory of my childhood but I do remember certain peaks, I guess, including back to Turner Primary School, we both went to primary school at Turner or Turner Infants’ -
F: Turner Infants’.
G: - and then Turner Primary. We were lucky that in Year 2 – well actually in Year 1 both of us could already read, again I think a testament to our parents and so were quite bored and my parents were very grateful that our teacher and the principal recognised this and so didn’t force us to sit in the class trying to learn to read when we already could but just gave us jobs and made us feel important. We were the principals’ assistants and did really important stuff.
F: Yeah, we had to carry messages, yes over to the senior school and things like -
G: Yes and pick up rubbish on the playground but it was an important role and I’m very grateful and I wish I could remember the principal’s name.
F: I’ll remember it.
G: It’ll come back, it might rise to the – stay tuned. But one of the things I remember from second grade is leading a whole group of my friends on the oval next to Sullivan’s Creek where I was describing being inside a pyramid to them and saying now we have to crouch down to go through this part of the tunnel and jump across the pit and all this sort of thing and they would follow and do what I was doing as I described it to them. Much, much later I realised that that was really kind of a very early roleplaying game like Dungeons and Dragons where I was inventing an interactive story for my friends in the middle of the oval which must have looked very strange from a distance, these kids hopping and jumping and crawling along all in a row. No-one ever asked us what we were doing, I guess that’s a Canberra thing. No-one ever asked what we were doing.
F: What other influences do you think growing up here had? Does Canberra appear directly, indirectly in your writing? Is it something that you return to? The landscapes, where does it sit?
G: I think it’s all an influence, I mean everything’s an influence so everything’s grist for the mill. I mean maybe its part of the aspect of your childhood talking about the opportunity to imagine and to do things by yourself. I mean reading was a very big part of it and I owe a very big debt, which I’ll always happily acknowledge, to the children’s public library service, Canberra public library service and in particular what was then the children’s library at O’Connor shops because I used to go past every afternoon coming back from Turner Primary going to my parents’ house in O’Connor and I would get a new book every afternoon, I would read it that night invariably and I’d come back the next afternoon and ask them for something else by the same author and maybe it would be Joan Aitken or Susan Cooper or Robert Heinlein or Andre Norton, any number of very, very informative writers for me.
They wouldn’t be in that tiny little library, that library was the size of a garden shed but it was a portal to a world of books and they would order the books in for me from the other parts of the library or from other library services if they needed to. Sometimes I would say I want to read something like this author and then they would find books for me and that was certainly part of – I didn’t know it but it was part of my training to be a writer. Did you use that library?
F: I did, absolutely, along with going to the O’Connor shops and buying cobbers and -
G: From Mr Sheedy.
F: From Mr Sheedy, yes. We really had a very Canberra childhood.
G: It was tough, it was very tough. Two for a cent, I think, cobbers.
F: Yes and Paddlepops were four cents.
G: Yeah, I mean I think the dark side of that story is I believe Mr Sheedy committed suicide so that’s the underbelly side of the story. See I segued into that. You were already being prepared to write Underbelly except I didn’t actually know he committed suicide until many, many decades later so that probably doesn’t count. But the library was really important and I think its part of that training. What about for you in screenwriting terms? Do you think the things you – I mean you watched – what sticks around as being formative or was it later maybe or -
F: A little later. I mean a bit like you I always loved writing stories. English was by far my best subject at school and it was the one that I just went to and I wrote stories at home all the time, that was something I did and I had a very active imaginary friend, squadron but screenwriting actually came later, not until I was in my 20s but I do remember a particular moment when the world of screen storytelling opened up to me. It was 1977 and the brother up from me had been to see a film and I was 12 or 13 and he said you’ve got to come to this film with me. So he took -
G: 1977, I think I -
F: What are we? Fourteen? Thirteen?
F: Yeah, we’re literally almost the same age.
G: 1977, it’s a magic number, I think a lot of people know what that might mean.
F: Yes and so he took me along, Mum dropped us off in Manuka at the old Capital Cinema, beautiful – remember the Capital Cinema? Don’t we grieve the Capital Cinema, how beautiful it was? Art deco and angels and cherubs all over the place. Sat down and Star Wars began. Now I don’t count myself among a Star Wars fan girl in that really powerful sense but we’re talking the very first Star Wars and so you have the scroll up the screen, the crawl up the screen and then the little spaceship comes across and then this giant spaceship came across and it fills the screen and it goes on and on and on for what felt like minutes. My jaw dropped and I thought how can anything be that powerful? That storytelling moment, I just plunged headlong into that world. I realised now I wanted to be part of that world, that big picture and you could just immerse yourself. Not that I wasn’t immersed in novels as well but that moment, that was very, very powerful for me ‘though I didn’t actually become a screenwriter ‘til I was 26, 27, something like that, it was much later.
G: Well you were a screenwriter at university -
F: Yes, we did – Garth and I went to the University of Canberra together and we did the creative writing – well it was then called the professional writing degree -
G: That was surprisingly random because – I mean this is a question I wrote down because I didn’t see you after the end of school and I worked for a year in the public service here, I was a pay clerk. I still in fact remember the codes for changing someone’s salary because back in those days it was just writing codes on giant computer forms in triplicate, 10040 would change someone’s salary forever. We also updated leave on little cards in cabinets and it was very Dickensian and quite a soul-destroying job in many ways but I was saving money to travel which I then did and I travelled and I came back. In the course of that time I’d been thinking about what I wanted to do and when I travelled I wrote some short stories, I wrote half a novel because I hadn’t yet learned that half a novel doesn’t count for anything. Finishing stuff is actually what it’s all about.
When you finish something you create possibility so anything can happen once you’ve written a whole novel, the whole screenplay, whatever. If you write half of something you got nothing. But I hadn’t learned that then so I wrote half a novel and I looked at it a few years ago, it wasn’t actually terrible. It wasn’t any good but it wasn’t terrible so I could possibly have fixed it up and maybe got published even earlier than I did. But I came back and I was thinking I do want to be a writer but I’d read enough about writers’ careers about publishing and informed myself – I knew I’d certainly need a day job and I would get a better day job if I had a degree so I thought I need to do a degree, what’ll I do? I was looking around and University of Canberra which was then Canberra CAE had the only writing degree in Australia, I think and so I thought oh well that will combine things very well so I’ll do that and I applied for that and I got in.
First day at university at what was then Canberra CAE I saw Felicity and I hadn’t seen her for two years. Hi Fiz, what are you doing? What are you here for? What are you in for? Not quite like that at that stage, day one and she said professional writing. I was like oh, I’m doing that too.
F: It was amazing.
G: It was a great course and learned a lot of things, not always from what was taught but it was very educational on many levels and a lot of writing was done.
F: Yeah well I think the thing that certainly I got the most out of it – I mean I got a lot out of the academic stuff and the assignments and all of that learnt to me the deadline, learnt to write to a brief, learnt to write across a whole range of forms of creative writing but mostly I got Garth back, which was very good, but also a bunch of other friends who also thought that telling stories was an important thing to do. It was valuable and that they wanted to talk about and they would talk about your work and you could talk about their work and they accepted criticism and feedback and you’d accept criticism and feedback and that was the biggest thing that came out of university from me, that cohort of fellow writers and that was very, very, exciting.
G: Being in the company of writers was invaluable, particularly at that time I think and we also got some paying gigs, writing stuff which I’m astonished to find that Felicity actually still has the script of the first paid screenwriting work that we did.
F: It was not good.
G: Well in retrospect.
F: It was not screenwriting as such, it was stage writing.
G: I apologise, yes, stage writing.
F: We wrote -
G: Theatre restaurant.
F: - theatre restaurant piece for the Southern Cross Club. It was a commission, they came and commissioned us but it was about two young guys from Canberra travelling’ the world on a plane and it was called Take-off.
G: I think fair to say two complete idiots from Canberra travelling the world.
F: It consisted mostly of a lot of very bad puns -
G: Yes. I just looked at it then and I read a couple of immortal lines, one of which was, haven’t you seen any old buildings – no, I haven’t seen any old buildings before, haven’t you been to Bungendore? Meaning -
F: To say it was parochial -
G: It was playing to an audience, it was playing to an audience but it was quite well paid and certainly for students being paid to write stuff was fantastic.
F: Indeed being paid to write to a brief like it was not the story either of us or the person we wrote it with, Andrew Etheridge, would have chosen to write but I write to briefs all the time, I like it.
G: It was very far from what we would have chosen to write and actually probably particularly Andrew who sadly passed away in 2012 who was a very cerebral, a deep-thinking poet being – but he -
F: He got into the swing of it.
G: Yeah and he got totally into the funny side of rewriting lyrics from popular songs for our duo of fools. So that was a good experience.
F: That was great and then of course after university you and I ended up in the same place again, Dalton’s Bookshop.
G: Oh Dalton’s Bookshop, yes.
F: Remember Dalton’s Bookshop? Anybody here remember dear old Dalton’s?
G: In the book store in Garema Place?
F: Yeah, where Landspeed Records is now.
G: Yeah which was a great experience. I mean it’s probably a cliché I guess of arts students, writers ending up working in a bookshop. There’s a story to be told there, I guess. Many of the people we work with have become writers and artists and it was almost a breeding ground for creative people and it was a lot of fun and it was very educational, particularly for me because I then went on to have a sort of dual career in publishing and writing for many years before I was solely a writer so it was a very good training ground for that.
I’m just going to backtrack a second because I keep forgetting to ask you this, where actually were you between the end of high school and University of Canberra? ‘Cause I still don’t know.
F: Okay so like I love Canberra, I live here and I grew up here, we’ve raised our children here but I did need to get away but after I finished at Dickson College where we both went, we’re inner north kids all the way, I took off to Europe and I was there for two years and I lived in London, I travelled in Europe a lot and I lived in Edinburgh. When I came back I actually enrolled at ANU and lasted 10 days because then I had to do a tute paper and I thought I’m out, I’m not doing that tute paper. Then I worked as a gardener at Duntroon for some time ‘cause I got a job gardening at Duntroon -
G: I do vaguely remember that.
F: - and then luckily a friend of mine, not Garth, another friend said Felicity, you quite like writing, why don’t you do a writing degree? I thought that’s a good idea, I’ll do a writing degree so talk about a career plan, no, she just said why don’t you do this? There’s this writing degree so I thought oh that’s a good idea, I’ll go and do a writing degree -
G: The rest is history.
F: Well yeah, as they say. But that’s kind of how I got into screenwriting too. I thought I wanted to be a novelist at the end of university, couldn’t write a novel to save myself now, let me just put that out there -
G: You never know until you try.
F: - but another friend of ours who finished the degree a couple of years after us, a guy called Michael Miller, he went back to Sydney where he was from and got work on GP, the medical drama on the ABC and he started off making the coffees and doing the photocopying and worked his way up to being a script editor and then he started writing. Then he used to come and visit us in Canberra and he showed me some of his work and we’d talk about it and I really enjoyed that form, the screen form and he said well why don’t you have a go? So I did an observer spot with GP and finally got a gig and went on from there. But I don’t know what I’d be doing, I think I’d still be mowing lawns at Duntroon if I hadn’t have -
G: You might be writing as well. It’s interesting, I mean I love Canberra too but I haven’t lived here for 30 years but I easily could have and in fact at various times I tried to move back without success for all kinds of mainly work-related reasons but it’s an interesting question. You’ve sustained a very successful career in screenwriting from Canberra. It would have been harder presumably back in the day – I mean now it doesn’t really matter so much where you are to a degree but how do you think that affected getting started and so on?
F: Oh look, I mean in the early days I would literally finish my script or the scene would break down or whatever, part of the process I was doing, I would print it and I would put it into an envelope and go down to the Ainslie shops and pay for a stamp and send it off to Sydney. Those days are long gone. I used to travel to Sydney for work a lot, I would set off in the morning and drive up there and stay overnight at friends’ houses or whatever I needed to. When I worked for Home and Away which I did for many years I would just drive up and back in the day and that was just how it went. For some years now I’ve been at a stage in my career where I say if you want me, I live in Canberra, you’re going to have to fly me and so I now fly where I need to go and I do still spend a lot of time out of Canberra.
G: Is the face-to-face still as important -
F: Oh yeah.
G: - even though you’re still delivering everything electronically and so on?
F: I tend to always write collaboratively. All the projects I’ve developed I’ve developed with somebody else just because generating that amount of material for 10 hours or eight hours or six hours is difficult so I’ve been very fortunate that the people I’ve worked with, really two people, the people I did Underbelly with I’ve worked with for years on different projects. So yeah, I really need but even if it’s not with them I really need those early – well everyone does those early stages of brainstorming around a table and then plotting.
When you're all having to put your heads together and figure out what happens and the order in which it happens and especially because you’re generally leading – episode 1 finishes here so episode 2 has to pick up from it so you need to all be in the room together. I really value those times away. Usually if you’re plotting you’re plotting for a week or so because the rest of the time you would know, writing’s fairly solitary and introspective.
G: Well it is, it’s an interesting comparison between being a novelist and being a screenwriter. I mean writing for screen is collaborative all along the way and of course what you’re creating is an intermediate document which is then going to be used for a very collaborative enterprise to create what’s on the screen. If you’re writing a novel you mostly are just doing it by yourself ‘though some novelists do a lot of backwards and forwards with their editors and so on. I’m not one of them. I’m actually a very secretive writer when it comes to prose, I don’t share with anyone until it’s done to my satisfaction or in fact I’ve just wearied of it and I have to get rid of it which is almost the same thing. Then I send it to my agent and editors and so on. But that is quite different but I also can work in the collaborative mode as well, I mean we worked together and I’ve worked with other people on various things. I like that as well, it’s just different.
F: Yeah, no, that’s true and look, I mean screenwriting is much more collaborative in the sense that at the beginnings of the development stage you work together but when I think of myself as a screenwriter I mostly think of myself alone in my study starting at the screen making stuff up -
G: Well ultimately it always comes to that, doesn’t it?
F: Yeah, it comes to that and that’s where the hard yards are done and then it’s like when I go to Sydney or Melbourne or wherever we happen to be working out of and I get to talk to other people about it, it’s like oh my goodness, that’s so exciting and there are other people who care about this stuff too which is really -
G: It’s good to have both, I think.
F: Yeah, it’s very nice, it’s very nice. ‘Though I do admire and kind of envy – like you have no-one else to refer to which is both terrifying and gratifying.
G: There’s a control thing which is very appealing in that you can basically do whatever you want, which is not necessarily the case in screenwriting. I mean ultimately there is of course editors and there’ll be backwards and forwards but generally speaking a good editor, and I’ve been an editor in my publishing career, one of the things that makes a very good editor is knowing when not to do anything and is also always realising that the book ultimately is the authors. So if they really, really want to do something that you don’t agree with and you think is a big problem and is going to make the book worse you have to let them do it in the end. I'm actually thinking of one particular example from when I was an editor where this foolish author would not listen to me about the ending and he’s paid the price. But also I could have been wrong but anyway. But ultimately you can say no, this is my work and I want it to be this way and that’s the way it will be.
F: For many years I taught screenwriting at the University of Canberra and the first lecture I would give in the introduction of screenwriting we’d talk about the difference between prose and stage and screen and I think students most got it when I talked about as if you’re a prose writer you are the author, you are the authority whereas a screenwriter you’re a hired hand and generally they don’t even want you on set. If they can do -
G: Or to exist at all, actually.
F: Yes, yeah which is actually why later in my career I’ve been able to be a producer as well, has been very nice because even from Underbelly on I’d have had carriage of my episodes all the way through which is really nice so you get to see them from when you start talking about them right through ‘til they’re finishing the editing process and post-production.
G: This is an early lesson too if your work is being adapted for screen because the only control you have if you’re the original author of the prose piece is whether you sell it or not ‘cause once they’ve bought it or even optioned it they can do whatever they want and that realisation comes quite hard to some people and it can be a horrible realisation on many different levels from being totally shafted on a bad deal. I heard about an awful one recently where a very successful television series which is based upon a couple of books has actually delivered nothing to the author ‘cause she did a deal without an agent and really just the worst thing in the world but also they completely changed everything too.
That’s how it works and this was brought home to me very early on I think in the sort of mid-2000s when I was on one of my various many times discussing Sabriel and the other books in Hollywood and I had a meeting at a studio where the producer wanted to actually love, love, loved everyone, they all loved Sabriel, fantastic, beautiful, wonderful, incredible book. It wasn’t Donald Trump but it sounded like it but the only thing was they wanted to change the setting to contemporary America and they wanted to make her a kindergarten teacher who could just go into death. It just so utterly changed the whole nature of the book that I realised instantly that I didn’t want to have anything to do with these people. But if I had in fact done a deal with them they could have done that and that would have just been the way it was.
F: Yeah and then that’s it, done, you're never getting it up again.
G: Yeah so all you control is before you do a deal, after that it’s -
F: But I’ve been very impressed by you. Garth and I’ve been working – he asked me and I said oh yes to help adapt -
G: Well to write with me -
F: To write with Garth a television adaptation of the Old Kingdom series which we’ve done and that’s another story which perhaps Garth can tell -
G: We should probably set the scene for that because the Old Kingdom’s been set up – I mean for a long time all our focus was on feature films and so at different times it was set up with different people and it came closest in 2010 when it was set up with Plan B which is Brad Pitt’s company and I did the rounds in Hollywood and we had a director attached. I was cowriting with Dan Futterman who wrote Capote who’s got an Oscar nomination for it. We had the whole package and we were doing the rounds of the studios and that was very interesting because there was a lot of keenness, ‘though it’s always very hard to judge how real that is.
One of the things that came out in the course of all those meetings which was very interesting was that they were all very concerned about when the man came in. Very different from today. They didn’t think that a fantasy film with a woman main character could carry the weight of the film. It was like when does the guy come in? It was a constant question which was very dispiriting, of course, but ultimately it didn’t get set up that time and then there’s various other times it was almost set up as a feature film. But then about three years ago I thought well there’s so much great work happening in television, maybe it’s time to actually look at trying to set it up as television and adapt it as television for one of the streamers possibly. I had the brilliant notion of calling Felicity and seeing if she’d be interested to work on it with me because I wanted to be involved with it, which is not always the case for all my books.
Frogkisser! For example is being adapted by Fox, now Disney, as an animated musical. I have really nothing to do with it. They keep telling me they’re going to send me the script but never do. I knew that going in that, that’s what it would be but the Old Kingdom books I wanted to be involved and luckily Felicity wanted to come on board and we wrote a Bible for a series which is really a background document about it all and outlined a pilot. Then my agent in Hollywood took it around and there was lots of interest and Old Milly Amazon Studios came on board, they optioned the books and they commissioned us to write a pilot and that was a good experience.
F: Yeah, we had great fun -
G: Up until the moment when they decided not to do it. So that’s the scene now we come back to Felicity to -
F: No, I just wanted to say that one of the things that really impressed me particularly about the Old Kingdom because it’s very, very dear to your heart and as you said I think its 20 years’ work across the whole -
G: Yeah, more now.
F: - series was you weren’t going to do it at any price.
F: Like the trick – because it’s so compelling and so attractive, the idea that oh my gosh, somebody wants to make my book into a TV series or into a film and you just think oh I’ll sign anything and you have always been very careful not to -
G: Well it’s the same trap for an unpublished manuscript as well. You have to resist the blandishments and look at the business. I educated myself with that very early on and then working in the business but the same principle applies on an even greater level with film and TV because the capacity to be horribly treated is even higher.
F: Well the money is so enormous, I mean -
G: Or you not getting it.
F: - millions of dollars per episode.
G: Yeah, you not getting it is actually -
F: No, you don’t get the money.
G: Well no but you might get the money but the potential for you seeing lots of money being made and you getting none of it is so much higher. But yes, it’s important. But it was great to work on and we actually worked on some of it here downstairs.
F: Yes, over in the grey area.
G: Did you know it was called the grey area?
F: I thought it was called the brown room ‘cause it’s sort of browny orange but I clearly got it wrong.
G: Anyway the cooperative working area over there, whether it’s the brown room or the grey area or -
F: Greg who I wrote Pine Gap with, he and I did a huge amount of our work over there -
G: They should put a little plaque up, I think, they should have a plaque in the room. Screenwriters have written here.
F: Yes, indeed. Pine Gap was written here.
G: Where are we with our questions? We are going to go to audience questions in a little while so everyone has to have a question in their mind at this point or not as the case may be.
F: Yeah, I’m also interested in what effect your parents had on you. We have similar parents in some ways but also very different -
G: Sorry, just a little visual gag there, parents. Yeah well we do have similar parents in many ways.
F: Yes, I think yours read more than mine but anyway. My mother read, my father wasn’t much of a – he read geography books but not -
G: Interesting. I mean that makes sense, you’re such an adventurer, you’ll be out and doing things. But then my father is still very into the natural world and getting out in it as much as possible but they both were massive readers. They had enormous influence. Yeah, I guess lots of similarities. My father, scientist at CSIRO and then a professor at ANU, Director of the Centre of Resource and Environmental Studies. I'm often reminded of him in the current moments and he’s alive, he’s fine, he’s living in Queensland for those of you who might know Henry. His health isn’t as wonderful as one might like but Henry and Catherine are living near Yandina. They moved from Canberra about 10 years ago. They’re both Queenslanders originally.
So my father, a scientist, my mother is an artist and I think I’ve got things from both of them but they’re both big readers and interestingly both readers of science fiction and fantasy and I think that was a very big influence because I think back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, that wouldn’t necessarily have followed. My father did a lot of work in the US and every time he came back he would bring back lots of American paperbacks of classic science fiction and fantasy.
F: That wasn’t necessarily published here.
G: No, not at all. I think my mother reading – more fantasy than science fiction but also reading both. Now the example coming from both sides I think was a very positive thing and of course being read to as a baby and a child. I quite often like to quote the fact that I’ve read Lord of the Rings younger than anybody else ever because my mother was reading it when she was pregnant with me -
F: You went by osmosis.
G: Yeah, I absorbed it invitro. But they also – I mean they read The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings to us when we were very young and many other books and of course Moominland Midwinter puppet show and things like that. So I think that bookish influence was extraordinarily strong so the library, the books at home, all of those things fed into a love of books and writing.
F: I think from your father, well you say a love of the natural world too because in all your books place and landscape tends to feature.
G: Yeah ‘though I have a much woollier notion of it than my father ‘cause as a scientist he knows the names of everything and I’m like that nice bird with the colour here. Of course not only does he know what it is, he knows the Latin name and he can also do the call of both genders so he can summon the birds to him and so on.
F: He’s a magician.
G: He’s a wizard. He actually is a wizard really in that regard and I'm a sort of like failed apprentice. I mean I’m much better at writing about three things but my descriptions and so on, they come from my head rather than from life so if you said to me write a description of a pied butcher bird I’d be totally stuffed but if I was inventing one I’d be fine. But yeah, the influence of both of them I think in the reading and in creative work too because my mother as an artist was always creating work and so I saw that, I think, from a very young age, making things and creating art as a viable way of -
F: So they never wanted you to be a lawyer. Apologies to the lawyers out there.
G: Well I mean I think - and this is something I’ve noticed particularly because I have children now and I compare my childhood and particularly my teenage life to theirs. Our parents had no clue what was going on -
F: No. We were riding ‘round the lake at 2 in the morning.
G: Well it’s not just the riding ‘round the lake, it’s the drinking and the stormwater drains, they were so hands-off and I think this is a feature of the ‘70s -
F: Maybe our parents in particular.
G: Well and also I think they were busy, I think that’s another good example that they gave, was that they were doing stuff, and they were always doing things. It wasn’t just their jobs, they also always were engaged in intellectual and artistic pursuits and I think having that role model of just doing stuff and wanting to make things was very important. For you?
F: Well I mean like your parents my parents migrated here. Yours came from -
F: - Melbourne or Queensland.
G: Via Melbourne briefly.
F: Mine were economic migrants from New Zealand and yeah, I mean they both worked, my mother worked from – I’m the youngest and she went back to work when I was four-and-a-half going to preschool, going to Haig Park Preschool – we seriously are inner north people. Yeah, I think she was the reader. My father was the sort of person who would pick up the Lord of the Rings and then put it down three days later having not slept. He could only do things – yeah, he was feast or famine when it come to reading.
G: Was it the map that draw him in?
F: No, he wasn’t going to start a book until he could finish in one sitting, more or less.
G: Which would be quite rare opportunity, I imagine.
F: Yes, very rare. But as my mother, she got to the stage later in life where she would always have whatever book she was reading with her because life was short and you never knew when you were going to get an opportunity to keep reading your book so she just took it wherever she went.
G: I’m with your mum.
F: She would put it in her bag. She said you might get stuck in a traffic jam. So I really learnt the value of -
G: What did she read, in particular?
F: Look, she read a lot of Margaret Drabble and A S Byatt and Margaret Attwood. She’d read a lot of Agatha Christie. She read all the big crime writers, she loved -
G: Dorothy Sayers, Margery Allingham.
F: Dorothy Sayers, Margery Allingham, loved all of that.
G: Ngaio Marsh.
F: Ngaio Marsh, being a kiwi. I think in some ways her biggest influence on me is one of my two favourite writers, Garth notwithstanding, she read Ursula Le Guin and when she introduced me to Ursula Le Guin my – a bit like Star Wars – my eyes opened to another whole way of seeing not just a fantasy world or a science fiction world ‘cause Ursula can move seamlessly between the two or have both in the same piece of writing but a kind of honouring of the female experience without it being flag-waving. It was just there, it’s just there. Seriously I could talk forever about Ursula Le Guin, I cannot pay her enough respects as a beautiful writer and I think when I saw my mother reading The Left Hand of Darkness and The Lathe of Heaven which had these incredibly scary covers, they’ve got weird sort of spaceshippy covers and they’re grey and mysterious and had very beautiful but mysterious titles, I thought I want in on that and that was -
G: They’re wonderful books -
F: Wonderful books and I think my mother reading those really powerfully – ‘cause I read those before I got to the Earth Sea ones which are the more traditional way into Ursula but -
G: Well they’re all fantastic books. I mean her ability to deliver philosophy through story I think is unrivalled and I didn’t realise that as a child. I mean you just absorb it and enjoy the story without realising you’re getting so much more at the same time. I’m a big fan of Le Guin as well.
F: One of my proudest moments at University of Canberra is when I was teaching the unit on the novel, was elbowing other stories, other novels out of the way to put The Dispossessed on the reading list.
G: Oh good, excellent.
F: It was really good.
G: That’s good to be able to do that.
F: Yes indeed.
G: Now I think we are actually at about 18 minutes to so shall we move to questions? Have we got more -
F: Ask away, we can segue into that. Have we missed anything crucial?
G: Well I’m sure there’s all kinds of stuff here. Just talk amongst yourselves while I read a bit. No, let’s move onto questions from the audience and we can always come back -
F: There’s a microphone over here if you have a question.
G: Yeah, hands up for questions. There we go.
F: There we go, we’ll take this one.
A: A lot of the literary world seems to look down a bit on fantasy and yet oddly enough when you get readers’ polls the best book of the millennium was The Lord of the Rings, the people refer to Harry Potter and so on as wondrous achievements in literature and yet somehow fantasy doesn’t quite make it.
G: Well I think times have changed quite a lot. I agree that for a very long time – I mean genre fiction in general so not just fantasy and science fiction but also detective stories, romance -
G: Horror, they’re all seen as being a bit subpar but I mean particularly for fantasy and science fiction it’s moved far more to the mainstream and so some of that looking down has largely disappeared. I mean I find interesting myself as a practitioner of these tawdry things that over the years I’ve felt it change like at writers’ festivals and so on. Also children’s and YA is often seen as lesser as well even though often people’s favourite books are the childhood favourites and the ones that they remember their whole lives are not necessarily literary classics but they’re their favourite childhood books but I think that’s kind of changed as well. But interestingly and maybe this is a reflection of our society in general I noticed some years ago that the more successful you are the more that goes away as well.
So it’s like being successful transcends the looking down the nose stuff which is very welcome but it is kind of pathetic at the same time but there’s far less of that now. I used to see it much more, particularly at literary festivals where you’re mixing together a lot of different writers and critics and commentators and so on that people would want to know what you wrote and once they found out would not be interested in you anymore if you wrote fantasy and science fiction. Then children’s and young adult as well, it’s like the double whammy. But I do think as our culture’s changed, and this applies to screen stuff as well, that is lessening fortunately for me ‘cause I do think fantasy and science fiction in particular has come much more to the mainstream.
F: Much more to the mainstream and I think it’s always been in film, there’s always been film a bit but I think the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy was a huge gamechanger in terms of what people thought and then of course Game of Thrones. But I don’t think Game of Thrones would have happened without The Lord of the Rings, I think the success and the enduring success of that and the fandom that that trilogy spawned made HBO think oh what’s this? Who’s this George R R Martin person? Has he got a good story to tell?
G: It wasn’t greatly reduced by the awful The Hobbit -
F: No so don’t worry about – yes, Peter Jackson -
G: Let’s forget The Hobbit, the movies, I mean.
G: Another question.
A: I have a question for each of you if that’s okay.
G: Of course. Make mine easy.
A: Well it sounds like the process for trying to get the Old Kingdom books onto the screen has been full of disillusionment at times so I was wondering what keeps you going, why you don’t decide to just put that aside and focus on something new since it has obviously been a more than 20-year project?
G: Well I do, it’s one of the many things that I have going on and actually it’s a good question because I think it’s very important not to be focused on only one thing in a writing career so it’s important to be writing new things, it’s important not to be wondering what’s happening to the old things. I mean the Keys to the Kingdom is in development with an American production company, Frogkisser! is being developed by Fox and Disney and it’s slowly progressing, they have a script and other things. The Old Kingdom’s come and gone at various times, other of my books have been optioned or they’ve had various directors wanting to do them and so on but that’s all secondary to my main occupation which is a simply writing books and stories.
In fact I have a new story out today on tour.com which I might as well mention just to – is a story that came into my head out of nowhere and it’s set in the Soviet Union after world war two so not necessarily something you would think I would write but I love writing short fiction, it’s one of a number of short stories I have out over the next 12 months. It’s called Dislocation Space and like all the fiction on tour.com you can just read it online. Tour.com is probably now the biggest – it’s the most widely read and the highest-paying market for fiction probably in the world for those writers amongst you who are interested in that sort of thing. So I’m always writing new things and then trying to do something with the old things is important but it’s not what I focus on except there are times where I have to focus on it very intently but then back to the other stuff as well.
Getting dispirited I think really depends upon your expectations at the beginning. I’ve always been very realistic and I’ve also always tried to be very well informed about how things work and I’ve worked in the industry, I’ve been an editor, I’ve been an agent so I hope that I have realistic expectations. So the incredibly long haul to try and make things happen in that world, it doesn’t dispirit me, actually or it does occasionally dispirit me but it doesn’t last because I guess I have a realistic viewpoint -
F: And you’ve got other things going on.
G: Which harkens back to – it’s very important to have other things going on. But you’ve got a question for Felicity.
A: Yes, thank you and I will check out tour.com later on tonight. Felicity, I just want to ask you, you talked quite a bit about writing to a brief so I guess I was interested to hear if you also enjoy writing to your own brief or do you do that kind of writing at all or do you prefer writing for a particular project?
F: Well I have several projects of my own devising or that I’ve devised with other people out there, out there like Garth, out there you’ve got various things going on. I love doing those. I’ve spent most of my life as a freelance screenwriter. The reality in Australia is for most of us that means working on other people’s projects and whether that’s Home and Away or MDA or Blue Heelers or – Underbelly’s a different thing because I really helped devise that. By the time Underbelly came along, from then I’ve been very much involved at the very beginning of the project and I’ve had that opportunity.
So even though Underbelly is based on real events, there were books notionally to be optioned and we worked from and things like that, for me there is so much creativity that goes into any project even indeed an episode of Home and Away. As a writer the pressure is on you, they want you to write to that brief but they want you to do more than that. If you only write to the brief then you're not going to last very long, they always want you to be slightly surprising, they want you to do something just beyond it but not too far beyond it for Home and Away.
So look, I mean I often think of ideas but I tend to develop them with other people and also for TV, which I’m very much a TV writer, not a film writer. I don’t write scripts on spec, I wouldn’t write a whole script on spec ‘cause I know how much work it is and I know that it’s not likely to get you over the line unless you’ve got other development documents first.
So I will spend time working on those development documents and thinking of the story and it doesn’t have to be very long but I’ll do that sort of work first so that you end up with 15, 16 pages outline of a series, outline of episode 1, outline of the characters, tell me about the world, tell me about the theme, that sort of stuff. Then try and sell that or try and get somebody interested in give me some more money, or me and my fellow writers, to give money to write a first draft. Because a first draft takes six weeks, something like that, bills to pay, that sort of thing so I don’t write on spec as such but I'm constantly trying to develop new things. I’ve got a gig at the moment working on an existing project, not mine and I’ve had a great week in Melbourne plotting that and developing that and I find that just as much fun in lots of ways and less pressure.
A: Felicity. When I was watching Underbelly I thought how can such a well brought up young woman know such appalling language and I was wondering if you used as consultants criminals or policemen or both to advise you on the scenarios and the language, the appropriate or inappropriate language to use.
F: Yes, I mean in all the seasons of Underbelly except Razor which was set back in the ‘30s so nobody was alive left we would always talk to whoever would talk to us, really. The Victorian Police talked to us for series 1 but then they didn’t want to talk to us after that ‘cause they got in trouble. The New South Wales Police talked to us for some of the seasons. So we would talk to hangers-on of the criminals.
Most of the criminals were dead or in jail so we couldn’t talk to them but I mean I think a lot of you pick up the vernacular, you listen to how people talk and I heard transcripts of Roberta Williams talking to her children from phone taps which was an eye-opener. But I have to say that you give an actor the chance to swear and we would put one swear word in the speech and they would add 10 more. They just loved the opportunity to swear so you might have one F word and they will add seven and then we had to say please, please just don’t adlib, can you just say – because even Channel 9 who were very excited about Underbelly would get so many complaints that they tried to pull back.
But look, I’d just enter into the spirit of the thing and enter into the characters and go for it. I mean it’s an imagination –
G: I was actually just going to say, I mean after Turner Infants’ most of that vocabulary would be there, wouldn’t it?
F: Oh it was a hellhole.
G: Playground Judy, Turner Infants’, you get all those words.
F: Any others? No.
G: Yeah, go on.
A: This young man would like to ask a question.
G: Sure, go ahead, please.
A: Will Keys to the Kingdom become a movie?
G: Keys to the Kingdom has been optioned by a company called Herschend Entertainment in the US and at the moment they’re trying to attach a director and they have a shortlist of about a dozen directors all of who are fantastic and their plan is once they have a director attached and possibly some other elements as they call them then they’re going to get to work on a screenplay. Felicity and I are actually attached to work on it if they can get it set up which will be great but there’s so many pitfalls along the way so it’s got to stage 1 where it’s kind of in play but it may not proceed.
So Herschend have made a bunch of children’s entertainment but actually mostly what they do is own theme parks in America including Dollywood, they’re in business with Dolly. They also own the Harlem Globetrotters so they’re kind of a strange company but I like them. I like the executives in their film side so it’s very hard to tell right now whether that will go on or not but at least it’s in that first step.
It has been set up once before where another company, actually a studio was working on it but then they ultimately let it go so that often happens with books and with actually all kinds of screen projects where sometimes a screenplay is written as in the case with The Old Kingdom where we wrote the pilot for Amazon Studios where they pay you for a whole lot of stuff to be written. Sometimes they even pay to make a pilot and they still don’t then proceed and show it or make the series so there's a lot of steps along the way. So I’m hopeful that it will be but I can’t make it happen, I can just cross my fingers and hope that you’ll cross your fingers too -
F: Of course The Keys to the Kingdom, it’s being set up as a TV series, not as a feature.
G: Yeah, well as seven 90-minute television films like streamed films for like Netflix or -
F: Hulu or -
G: Hulu, Apple, Amazon, any of the numerous streamers. But the thinking at the moment is it will be seven 90 or 100-minute effectively films but shown -
F: One per book.
G: Yeah, one per book. Which is your favourite book out of The Keys to the Kingdom? Do you have one? I always like to ask this question ‘cause there is no one book that everyone always chooses.
A: Lord Sunday.
G: Lord Sunday, interesting. Interesting, thank you. Good. That is actually one of the least chosen but it’s still very interesting.
F: Go you.
G: Go you, thank you. It’s the end, very important, thank you.
K: We could probably squeeze in one more question.
G: One more, yeah, absolutely.
K: If we have one more.
G: Lucky last question. Don’t feel any pressure but it better be good.
F: You meanie.
G: I am a meanie.
A: I’ll do my best.
G: My mean side’s coming out. I’m obviously feeling relaxed being in Canberra and I can make these comments. I apologise.
A: Both of you have spoken about your parents and the kind of influence they had over your work. I’m curious about what your parents think about your work, about what your parents have said to you or comments they’ve made about your work that they’ve either read or seen and whether they try and do the parent thing of giving constructive criticism.
F: Well unfortunately my mother died before I became a screenwriter, it’s one of the great regrets of my life that she never got to see anything I wrote. I mean she’d seen a few short stories I had published and things like that so that’s very sad for me. My dear father, he watched Underbelly under great sufferance. He really didn’t understand it or understand why everyone was so unpleasant. He quite liked GP. I think they were the only ones he really watched and I don’t think he saw all of Underbelly. He would say oh yes, I watched it, there were some people with guns, it was that sort of thing. Look, I think he was delighted. I don’t think he got it but he did say that he understood more about opera than television so I think he was happy. He certainly respected it but he wouldn’t dream of offering any criticism, I don’t think, ‘cause he didn’t really engage. He was proud in a sort of vague way.
G: More opera perhaps.
F: More opera. Where is the Verdi? That’s what he would say.
G: My parents have been just totally supportive ever since I got started way back to my very first stories ‘though interestingly sometimes things emerge like going back to Keys to the Kingdom. Mister Monday begins with the hero, Arthur, on a cross-country run, he’s an asthmatic and he passes out and luckily for him Leaf goes to get help and I actually base that on my life at Turner Primary. I am an asthmatic and I can smell the smoke coming in and starting to worry about it. I was an asthmatic then, I didn’t have asthma for years and years and years until I started writing Keys to the Kingdom when it came back. Careful what you write. But I was talking to my mother about Mister Monday and she was telling me she enjoyed it, being very positive as usual and I said oh well in the beginning where Arthur passes out from his asthma attack and passes out, that was like in fifth grade when I passed out in a cross-country run. She was like what? Apparently I never mentioned it and I was like did I tell you when I was knocked out with a softball bat in sixth grade? She’s like what? But no, they're incredibly supportive and in fact they have a much more extensive brag shelf of my books than I do in there. I don’t actually have any in my house really to speak of. Sometimes I have to go looking for them if someone asks about them. I have a separate office where I have some so yeah, they’ve been enormously supportive for my whole writing career. None of that go be a lawyer or anything like that.
F: No and I certainly never got that -
G: Mind you if I had been a lawyer I think they would be super-supportive of that as well.
F: Somewhat surprised but -
G: Possibly, yes. So yeah, no, I’m very grateful to them for many reasons.
K: Thank you, thank you for your great questions this evening and thank you both for a conversation which I think has done for us what perhaps being at uni did for you in providing a wonderful space to talk about stories and the value of storytelling and culture and how we should do more of it. On that note I would like you to do three things for me as we wrap up and we move towards the Christmas season. The first is that I’d love you to give the gift of Australian stories to your family and friends and lucky for us the bookshop is here to help you do that. Even luckier Garth is here to help us do that. His books are in stock, we’ve got a special discount for you tonight and you may even be able to convince him to sign the books for you -
G: It won’t take any convincing. Unsigned copies of my books are quite valuable.
K: The second thing I’d like you to do is to give yourselves the gift of Australian stories as you relax over the summer, read, watch, listen, enjoy the stories of our writers because if we don’t look after those stories and those storytellers no-one else is going to do it for us. The final thing I’d like you to do is join me in thanking tonight’s wonderful storytellers, Garth Nix and Felicity Packard. Thank you.
G: Thank you.
K: We’ll see you upstair –
End of recording