Andrew McGahan, author of The White Earth, Praise and more… answers Ten Terrifying Questions

 The Booktopia Book Guru asks

Miles Franklin Literary Award Winner

Andrew McGahan

author of The White Earth,
and more…

…and now The Coming of the Whirlpool,
the first volume in a stunning  fantasy series, Ship Kings

Ten Terrifying Questions


1. To begin with why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself – where were you born? Raised? Schooled?

Born in the town of Dalby, a couple of hours west of Brisbane, in 1966, and raised very happily on a wheat farm near there, the ninth of ten kids. Went to the local Catholic schools in Dalby – St Columba’s and St Mary’s – up until grade ten, then it was off to boarding school in Brisbane for senior – Marist Brothers Ashgrove.

2. What did you want to be when you were twelve, eighteen and thirty? And why?

At twelve – a mad-scientist, with a white coat and wild hair and a laboratory to blow things up in. Why? Well, why on earth not? But I also already liked writing by then.

At eighteen – hmm, I was in first year Uni studying Arts and realising I didn’t want to be there, and that maybe I should just quit and start a novel right away instead of waiting till I was older.

At thirty – I wanted to be a novelist who could publish more than two novels, because at the time I was stuck on two, and couldn’t imagine a third ever happening.

3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?

I was a sincere (if not particularly devout) Catholic at eighteen, and would’ve been surprised to be told that I would abandon it all only a year or two later. Mind you, I currently live across the road from a church, and even as I type this, a statue of Jesus is staring at me through my window.

4. What were three works of art – book or painting or piece of music, etc – you can now say, had a great effect on you and influenced your own development as a writer?

There are too many to contemplate, but here are a random three, taken just from my childhood.

The Muddle-Headed Wombat on a Rainy Day, by Ruth Park. In essence, the story is just the wombat and his friends mucking about in puddles during a rainy day in the bush, and then coping with some minor flooding – but it captures exactly that sense of novelty and possibility that all children (and some lucky adults) seem to find in a thing as simple as a bit of rain. I was enthralled by the book at age six or seven, and even now it remains a salient example to me of how a story of even the most modest scope can be fascinating if told well.

The Nargun and the Stars, by Patricia Wrightson. I would’ve been about eleven when I read this, and until then (despite Ruth Park’s efforts) I’d always thought of the Australian landscape around me as disappointingly dull, and Australia’s mythology as empty. I wanted Europe’s far more dramatic mountains and forests and castles, and Europe’s dragons and witches and ghosts. It was Wrightson who first made me appreciate how evocative Australia’s landscape truly is, and how populated it can be with magic and spirits of its own.

And then when I was about thirteen I had my first honest-to-god transcendental hallucination brought on by listening, one hot afternoon, to Pink Floyd’s symphonic ‘Atom Heart Mother’ – which was a pretty wild experience at that age. It made me realise – long before more adult experiences – that perception is a highly malleable thing and, most importantly, that it’s expandable.

5. Considering the innumerable artistic avenues open to you, why did you choose to write a novel?

Innumerable artistic avenues? What innumerable artistic avenues? Writing is the only artistic skill I remotely possess.

6. Please tell us about your latest novel…

The Coming of the Whirlpoolis a fantasy novel, the first volume of a series called Ship Kings – fantasy being a new style for me, but also something I’ve long been keen to try. It’s a seafaring tale, set upon an ocean that at a glance appears much like our own, but which in fact is subtly different, and vastly more dangerous. This first volume – as the title suggests – pits our young hero Dow against a gigantic whirlpool. But the heart of the story is not the whirlpool itself, but rather the dread and despair that the whirlpool has cast upon all those who have encountered it previously, and how it comes to be that Dow, and Dow alone, feels compelled to descend into its depths.

(BBGuru: publisher’s synopsis –

From the award-winning author of Praise and The White Earth comes a magnificent young adult series about destiny and desire, set in a brilliantly realised fantasy world.

‘If you go to sea, you will come to the attention of the Ship Kings. And if they discover who you are, they will kill you.’

Young Dow Amber is no sailor. But driven by a strange sea-longing he ventures down to the great grim bay known as the Claw. He hopes to learn there of seafaring, but he finds only a fearful people who scarcely dare sail at all, for they have been cursed by a monstrous whirlpool that haunts the bay, stealing away their sons.

Then the rulers of all the world – the proud and cruel Ship Kings – arrive in the Claw. Dow is fascinated by their fine tall vessels, and even more so by a mysterious girl who lives aboard their flagship.

It is a perilous attraction to be sure, but could it be that his future somehow lies with the Ship Kings? Or will he be called upon to descend to his death, when the terrible whirlpool rises once more?

The Coming of the Whirlpool is the first volume in a stunning series from Miles Franklin Award winner Andrew McGahan.)

7. What do you hope people take away with them after reading your work?

For this book, just a sense of having been on an adventure – to somewhere cold and wet and bleak, maybe, and even dreadful at times, but also somewhere compelling.

8. Whom do you most admire in the realm of writing and why?

Well, since we’re talking fantasy, I’ll confine myself to fantasy writers here. And there’s no going past the obvious – Tolkien. He’s such a titanic figure in the genre that he hardly needs me to sing his praises, but for one thing he can paint a landscape – especially a mountainous one – more vividly than any other writer I know. But what I love most is the sadness that imbues his entire creation; the sense of slow decline and fall from what might have been, and the very relevant lament he makes that every hope or promise of mankind can so easily be destroyed by our most foolish but abiding of sins – pride.

9. Many artists set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?

At the moment, I’ll be happy just to complete the four books in the Ship Kings series. I know, I know, in the fantasy genre four books is nothing. Any self-respecting fantasy series these days has at least seven volumes, or even nine! Still, I’m only a beginner here …

10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?

Oh, I dunno. How about this :– If there’s an exception to every rule about writing, then the exception might as well be you.

Andrew, thank you for playing.

The Casuals by Sally Breen (A must if you hit adulthood in the early 1990s)(and have gaps in your memory)

′Three things happened at the dawn of the 1990s that would change everything about how we had lived before. We graduated high school, Microsoft shipped Windows 3.0 and America started the Gulf War. We became adults in the 1990s. The start of the world gone mega. Gone global. Gone mad. We became The Casuals and this is our story.′

The Casuals is the story of the life and times of one young woman′s journey through the last two decades of the 20th century; from her pop-fuelled adolescence in the 1980s to a full-blown grunge ride in the 1990s. Sally Breen takes up the mantle of her generation, the casuals, and gives them voice. A charged and heady exploration of sex, drugs and pop culture, The Casuals is also a meditation on loss, death and grief, as the author struggles to reconcile her place in a chaotic world after the loss of her Continue reading

The 50 Must Read Australian Novels (40 to 31) (The Popular Vote 2010)

If we mometarily ignore the genius of Hal Porter (37) and the Nobel Prize winning Patrick White (32), the next ten titles on our list could be said to represent the best of modern writing in Australia. Who am I trying to kid? I can’t ignore Hal Porter or Patrick White. The next ten, therefore, can be said to represent the best of Australian writing. No more said. (Full List of 50 Must Read Australian Novels now available – click here)


40. A Fraction of the Whole

Steve Toltz

Meet the Deans.

The Father is Martin Dean.

He taught his son always to make up his mind, and then change it. An impossible, brilliant, restless man, he just wanted the world to listen to him – and the trouble started when the world did.

The Uncle is Terry Dean.

As a boy, Terry was the local sporting hero. As a man, he became Australia’s favourite criminal, making up for injustice on the field with this own version of justice off it.

The Son is Jasper Dean.

Now that his father is dead, Jasper can try making some sense of his outrageous schemes to make the world a better place. Haunted by his own mysteriously missing mother and a strange recurring vision, Jasper has one abiding question: Is he doomed to become the lunatic who raised him, or a different kind of lunatic entirely?

From the New South Wales bush to bohemian Paris, from sports fields to strip clubs, from the jungles of Thailand to a leaky boat in the Pacific, Steve Toltz’s A Fraction of the Whole follows the Deans on their freewheeling, scathingly funny and finally deeply moving quest to leave their mark on the world.

978014320305639. Butterfly

Sonya Hartnett

On the verge of her fourteenth birthday, Plum knows her life will change. But she has no idea how.

Over the coming weeks, her beautiful neighbour Maureen will show her how she might fly. Her adored older brothers will court catastrophe in worlds that she barely knows exist. And her friends – her worst enemies – will tease and test, smelling weakness. They will try to lead her on and take her down.

Who ever forgets what happens when you’re fourteen? Continue reading

That Deadman Dance by Kim Scott

Kim Scott won the Miles Franklin more than a decade ago for his novel Benang. His latest, That Deadman Dance, must surely be under consideration for a raft of major prizes.

A Noongar man from SW Western Australia, Scott has written a novel of first contact, which traces the first couple of decades of British presence in a fictional settlement on the coast. The story revolves around Bobby Wabalanginy, his people and the shifting alliances and relationships that link him into the fledgling colony as much as distance him from it.

The insights into earlier colonial times in WA are fascinating, especially the contact with the Yankee whalers. However, it is Noongar people, and their light touch on the landscape, which hold the greatest interest in the book. What starts as a reasonably promising relationship between English and Noongar, gradually deteriorates as the power shifts towards the newcomers until Bobby is forced to choose between the old world and the new.
There is interest enough in the story to make this a compelling book.

However, what lifts it way above that is the writing. Scott’s prose shimmers. This is a book that demands to be savoured. The readers will want to pause and re-read passages for the sheer beauty of the language and imagery.
The book has much to say about the first Australians and the English who changed their lives irrevocably. While contemporary writers such as Kate Grenville, Richard Flanagan, Andrew McGahan and Alex Miller have all wrestled with related themes, Kim Scott’s flawlessly written tale adds both meaning and depth to the Australian writing experience.

That Deadman Dance is available in both hard back and paper back now.

(Review by TW  published in  Bookseller and Publisher Magazine)

Trespass by Rose Tremain

Trespass 9780701178017 Trespass opens with a young girl bullied away from a school picnic in a remote corner of the Cevennes in southern France. Longing for escape, she finds a woodland pool but her cooling swim turns to horror when she sees something unspeakable.

The sense of menace in Trespass is set from that opening scene. And it is not just the menace wrought by human hands. There is a palpable feeling throughout that the earth itself is alive, seeking, indeed reclaiming ,what was taken by those who trespassed.

Trespass tells the intersecting stories of two sets of brother and sister. Anthony Verey is an aging gay antique dealer from London who seeks respite with his sister Veronica. Veronica is a gardening writer living in the Cevennes, with her own lover, the untalented painter Kitty. Meanwhile, Aramon Lunel, the obsessive and violent alcoholic who is living amongst the ruins of his once prosperous inherited farm, decides to make his fortune by selling the farmhouse to the increasingly reclusive Englishman. His sister Audrun, who has experienced a lifetime of cruelty and drudgery, has other ideas.

This is a story about space, place, territory and the iron grip of the past. The characters are stalked by the memory of soil in the same way as those in Andrew McGahan’s The White Earth and Alex Miller’s Landscape of Farewell. I couldn’t put this book down.

Rose Tremain won the Orange Prize for The Road Home. She is sure to garner a wider audience with Trespass and it is no surprise that she is a favourite for the Man Booker.

Spec fiction that everyone will love – the Aurealis Awards

I realise I am the last to know, having been away for several weeks, but the Aurealis Awards were announced a little while ago.

These awards showcase the best of Australian science fiction, horror and fantasy writers, a subject our very own Richard Bilkey covers brilliantly in Booktopia’s Sci-Fi and Fantasy Buzz. This isn’t a genre that I read voraciously. However, even the most fantasy-shy of readers can be seduced by the genre if it is presented to them in the right way.

And so it was with Andrew McGahan’s brilliant Wonders of a Godless World.  Fair enough, I admit that I am always the first to line up for a new McGahan so perhaps this wasn’t a true test of endurance for me. I absolutely devoured this description defying novel when I was lucky enough to get my hands on a pre-pub proof. It is totally unlike his previous work. In fact, it is tour de force of imagination.

Wonders of a Godless World has been awarded the Aurealis for 2009’s best science fiction novel.

But it wasn’t just darling of the lit fict that took our fancy in Booktopia Buzz during last year. Three more of our favourites have picked up various speculative fiction awards.

Nathan Jurevicius won best illustrated/graphic novel with Scary Girl. I knew that one was good when it was snaffled up by my kids, and their various friends. We have some internal images and a google preview on the site, as well as my review. Pamela Freeman and Kim Gamble won the category of best children’s short fiction/illustrated work/picture book (8 – 12 years) with Victor’s Challenge, which is quite simply, too too divine. It is the kind of book that makes you want to re-live those years doing reading at primary school – it just begs to be shared aloud.

Finally, Scott Westerfield picked up the best young adult award for his gloriously vivid steam punk saga, Leviathan. Check out the trailer and internal images here.

These four books were all featured in Booktopia Buzz. It just goes to show that a good book is a good book, not matter what label we put on it.


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