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School interview, Erskine Park High, NSW - Part I

A class of grade 9 students over at Erskine Park High have been reading The Runes of Odin and sent me a whole slew of great questions about the book, my writing process and tips for being a writer. Below are the first ten questions and my answers, with the first name(s) of the student(s) who asked each question. It is a great pleasure to hear from them and I'd like to thank their teacher, Natali, for setting this all up.

9Fantasia, from Erskine Park High School in NSW, chose The Runes of Odin for their novel study in English. We really enjoyed the elements of fantasy and the references to Norse Mythology. We were enchanted by Calum and Lena’s journey of self discovery and have so many questions to ask Ben Julien: 

 1. Have you always desired to be an author? Was there anything else you wanted to be?  Felicity

I remember dreaming about writing books in primary school, so yes, I guess at some level I’ve always wanted to (a) write novels (b) write for a living. It was definitely something I wanted to accomplish, though I was fairly doubtful I ever would. Writing a novel always seemed like such a huge accomplishment, which it is, but no more than a lot of things people work at for years, such as a university degree.

I mostly had no idea what or who I would be as an adult. In High School I assumed I would be a teacher (following in my mother’s footsteps), or considered something involving foreign languages, such as being an interpreter, translator or even working as a diplomat at a foreign embassy. I have followed through on the idea of travel and languages – I taught English as a second language in a number of countries – but I have mostly found work that complemented a flexible lifestyle (i.e. lots of travel and writing).

What’s great about working now, as opposed to when my parents were starting out, is that we can work in a lot of different areas if we want to. We can be teachers, travellers and writers simultaneously or separately. It’s really up to what you want from life, and what opportunities you can grab onto.


 2. What inspires you to write?  Jess

I love telling stories. In print. I love telling them in spoken word too, but I’m only an average speaker. I like creating worlds, filling them with people, places and weird things. I like the intricacies of plot twists and turns. Writing is a way to communicate how I feel. It isn’t always fun, and is often like doing a school assignment (I remember!), but having a completed story is a great feeling. Short or long, it doesn’t matter, it’s finished and added to my (small) collection.

I also write for my readers, especially my family. My mother and sister are big fantasy readers, and I like to entertain them.

I write because it’s something that fulfils me and gives me a sense of purpose.


3. Are you currently writing any new novels?   Kieren

I am! I’m in the final chapters of a new book tentatively titled “The Decay Chain”. It’s likely the first in a series of 3 or 5 books (I like odd numbers) and is about the journey of two characters, Dekus and Jaspar, who are imprisoned in a dark place deep underground with a lot of other people. No one seems quite sure why they are there, and mostly they’re too busy trying to survive to care to ask, but, of course, Dekus and Jaspar do start asking questions and looking for answers, and of course, a way out.

I also wrote another novel, a much longer book, called The Bhel Sea. I wrote it over the past few years while starting a family (2 daughters), so it’s taken quite a while for me to follow up the Runes Saga with a new book. But The Bhel Sea should be published around Xmas or early in the New Year. I decided to publish it myself because I wanted to try commissioning my own illustrator and editor and seeing how the publishing process works from end-to-end. You can see the great cover design the illustrator has come up with on my website.


4. Do you find yourself writing personal experiences or feelings into the books you write?  Tarek

It’s a great question, and I think personal experiences and feelings are at the heart of any story. I didn’t realise that I was doing this for a long time, but in hindsight, while the characters I created are not based on my friends or family, all of them have bits and pieces of people I’ve known and especially of me. Writing is so subjective, that I find it hard to imagine an author being able to convincingly portray any character that doesn’t have some part of him or her.


5. What do you like most about the fantasy genre?  Joshua

Fantasy, Science Fiction, Speculative Fiction – all of these types of stories attract me because anything goes. While a classic high fantasy story might have warriors and castles and magic and different worlds, a fantasy or fantastical story can be anything. Because I especially like creating new places, either in the future or the past or another time, the Fantasy genre suits me well. It lets me ask the “What if?” question over and over.

Growing up, I was particularly attracted to the high stakes in many fantasy stories – people’s lives were at stake, the city was at stake, in fact, more often than not, the whole world was in danger. It’s fun stuff.


6. What inspired you to write The Runes of Odin?  Christopher

I had read a lot about Norse history and mythology, and also about Saxon Britain and the many invasions by the Vikings into Scotland, England, and Ireland, not to mention into mainland Europe (the Vikings seemed to go everywhere, even sailing up the Seine River to burn Paris, and heading round the coast into the Mediterranean. They even ended up as the special bodyguard of the Byzantine Emperor in Byzantium (now Istanbul) and were called the Varangian Guard – amazing travellers). I was particularly intrigued with the accounts of the people who were attacked by the Vikings. To them, it seemed as though the sea had spewed forth an unending torrent of murderous raiders from nowhere (which of course it pretty much had). To monks writing about the attacks, and living through them, during that time, it was as though the world was ending, and the Apocalypse was drawing close. Can you imagine living in such a time? Imagine now that Australia or the world was being attacked by strange invaders, killing and taking everything, and coming to raid year after year.  No Internet or TV or radio or telephones – a complete communication blackout. Only what you see and hear yourself or stories from others. Scary stuff.

The stories and writings of the monks always showed the one side of the conflict. I wanted to come up with characters from both sides of the fence because despite what those living in the invaded towns and countryside must have thought, the Vikings weren’t (necessarily) evil. Why were they coming? Who were they?

So that was my starting point. I certainly didn’t set out to write an historical account, but to base a story on those sorts of times and those sorts of conflicts.


7. What do you like about Norse Mythology and why did you use it in your book?  Kelsy

Norse mythology is great. It’s filled with gods and monsters, magic and conflict, and more importantly, it’s full of fallible gods; gods who are selfish, self-centred, and secretive. It’s full of adventure and power and mystery. And it’s overshadowed by the end of times, Ragnarok, when the Norse gods are destined to fall fighting their enemies.

I used it because it was easy and fun to do, and made for a much richer and more enjoyable story. We live in times now where religion plays a much lesser role in many (most?) Australians’ lives, but in those times, the gods were everywhere and in everything. So to create characters who weren’t a product of their own religion or mythology or stories, would be perhaps to create characters who weren’t so sympathetic or believable.

I also wanted to write a fantasy story where the main characters share a discovery that sets them apart and gives them freedoms and opportunities they wouldn’t otherwise have at their age, or any age. Using the Norse mythology and its gods and power meant I could do that by way of Odin’s runes.


8. How much research did you conduct on the Norse era before writing The Runes of Odin?  Matthew

I could have done more, to be honest. I read a lot of secondary material (books about the Norse written after the time, text books etc ) and not a lot of primary accounts. That was a time consideration – I didn’t have a lot back then. With enough time, it’s always better to read the first-hand accounts if possible. It’s the only way to get some insight into what people thought during that time, and not what the author writing about the people thought. But I did read or skim through a lot of books. I went to the university library on weekends for a few months. I didn’t spend a lot of time each day there, but over time it meant I had a lot of notes to draw upon. Little things like the types of clothing worn, or food eaten, or accounts of a talented warrior catching a spear that was thrown at him, flipping it around and throwing it back. It’s all good for generating ideas.

Importantly though, I didn’t want to write historical fiction. I was writing a fantasy story, so I used the Norse facts and their mythological stories and made my own account. I didn’t need everything to be perfectly correct, because I was writing an alternate Norse universe. One where the runes could create magic, and two people from opposite sides of the conflict could meet and help each other.


9. Why did you call the novel The Runes of Odin?  Brendan

Naming a book is always difficult. I tend to think of a name early, and stick with it, even if it isn’t always super appropriate. For example, on the book I am about to publish, The Bhel Sea, I’ve been told by a few people that its name and the cover design suggest a book centred around pirates and ships and naval adventures, which the book most definitely isn’t. So, the title of the Bhel Sea may change before it’s finalised.

For the Runes of Odin, the title seemed to fit from the beginning. The runes weren’t a character in the novel (and characters are the most important element of any story, in my opinion), but they were the means for the characters to rise above and to meet each other and to influence the world and the events around them. In short, Odin’s runes, in my interpretation, made everything possible.


10. What events or people inspired the creation of the main characters? Are they based on anyone you know?   Rachel, Joel and Rhys

11. Identity is a big theme throughout the book. Was this inspired by past experiences?  Cristina

I’m going to answer these two excellent, but difficult, questions together as the characters were all about my past experiences:

When I was 16 years old, I went on a student exchange to a host family in Germany (near Duesseldorf). I stayed there for a year, going to school and learning German, and getting to know a lot of different people. I made quite a few life-long friends. And while I loved being there, I was also very homesick and wanted to go home, back to Brisbane, even if only for a few days, just to feel normal again. A whole year in another country, away from everyone I knew was difficult, particularly as I didn’t speak much English with anyone.

Calum and Lena were both based on that experience. The feeling of being different (speaking with a different accent, not understanding the language spoken around me, having different ideas and cultural background, even dressing differently) for them was at the heart of their personalities. Each of them knew they didn’t really belong. For Lena, it was more openly acknowledged – once her father died, she literally had no family left, and not much in the way of protectors or guardians. For Calum, he was raised as a foster brother or son, and while he felt loved and was a part of a family, it wasn’t enough. He wanted to know where he came from, what his origins were.

I remember the last 2 months of my student exchange to Germany when I had a German girlfriend, spoke German well, and it was summer holidays and we were pretty much just enjoying the great weather and party mood. I still missed Australia. I still wanted to go home. Homesickness and wanting to belong are powerful drives. Calum and Lena are characters who are frightened and confused and looking for something more, something to help them find their own identity.


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