Brin Murray is the author of the Children of the Furnace series for YA readers. The second in the series, Crosstrees, is being launched at Page & Blackmore in Nelson on February 21. More details here.
We talked to Brin about the series, genre lines, books she admires and her twin-inspired writing plans.
What draws you to fiction writing?
A creative writing tutor once said to me that at the heart of all great fiction is the truth (spot the paradox!) and I believe that. We read fiction for the story – to be entertained, to find out what happens – but I think great fiction also helps us think about our world and about ourselves.
And, I’ve always loved stories. Who doesn’t? According to Christopher Booker, stories are one of the oldest forms of human communication and connection: imagine primitive man and woman spinning stories round the campfire on long dark winter nights ten thousand years before TV, to entertain and make sense of a puzzling world.
So – great fiction is gripping, thrilling, exciting, emotional, powerful, satisfactory – and basically massive fun to read.
Can you tell us about your work?
Well, obviously I love my characters to bits, but that’s not because I’m biased – it’s because they’re brilliant!
The three MCs are wildly different people. The story is unusual in YA (and I love it for this), because individually the three are amazing – but realistically wouldn’t make much difference. Only together do they truly become a force for change.
In book one they’re thrown together in a hideous “redukayshun” centre, Ferule, and while each does what they need to do in order to survive, gradually they forge the bonds of an unbreakable loyalty.
Leah is smart, ruthless, manipulative, and the driving force behind them. Wil, the main narrator at the start, has had a sheltered childhood and seems naive, but he’s not weak. He has core qualities of integrity and decency, plus he’s physically incredibly resilient, outspoken and courageous. Wil’s illiterate and Leah’s educated so initially she’s harsh and sarcastic towards him, but gradually she realises that ignorant does not mean dumb: he’s highly perceptive, with a retentive memory for words and a gifted orator. He’s the one who makes people believe. Jace is for a long time an ambivalent character in the story, extraordinarily reserved, with a shocking history. He’s an indigenous of this land (kind of a transplanted NZ, in my imagination), torn from his cultural roots, physically immensely powerful and a natural warrior. He’s the one you want on your side when the fighting starts.
Each one is fascinating character alone, but only together do they become a force to be reckoned with. And there’s no being swept along in events not of their choosing – from early on they make the decision, that this is what they have to do: “Bring down the Revelayshun,” as Jace says, “any way we can.” Not that they have much choice by that time, being hunted fugitives.
I did want my characters to be the agents of their own destiny: not chosen ones, just ordinary kids with extraordinary passion and determination. I worked with a South African teacher in Blenheim who, as a school child, had been active in the demonstrations that eventually brought about the end of Apartheid. He told me, that the kids were fierce against injustice when adults were afraid – although tragically, maybe the adults understood what the kids didn’t: that the authorities would open fire on unarmed children. But I’ve always remembered that: young people can be fierce and courageous in their convictions, and can change the world.
My stories aren’t really dystopian, because the world isn’t properly broken, but it has changed a lot due to climate change and the rise of fanaticism. In this world, the lands between the parallels – Tropics of Capricorn and Cancer – are uninhabitable, a furnace, so human habitation has been pushed away from the equator towards the polar regions. But there are still cities, and unevenly distributed technology and wealth, and tyrannical regimes… so, not a lot different to the world we know!
I’ve had a few readers shocked at the violence and horrible things that happen. It is dark, I know – but then the worse the odds your heroes have to overcome – the more bitter their struggle and sacrifice – then the more dramatic and powerful their triumph (If they triumph! – book three still to come).
What does ‘ReadNZ’ mean to you – how important is it that we read books from this place?
I think that every place, every culture, needs its own voice, but I also have quite complicated feelings about that – because in every culture there are dominant voices, and others that are less visible, less easy to hear. Those less visible voices are easy to overlook: the dominant voice becomes the recognised or accepted voice of that culture. For instance in England, the dominant voice even now is of the propertied middle/upper classes: even now, when there has been a (belated) headlong rush to recognise the voices of diverse cultures, working class voices – the majority who historically had no vote till 1918 and often dire living conditions before that, with astronomical child mortality rates – are still drastically under-represented.
It seems to me that in New Zealand we are pretty good at recognising Māori and Pacific voices now – not in the past. Coming as an adult to New Zealand, I think that reading about a place is a window into its soul. Also that you can’t get a deep sense of a place without understanding its past as well as its present. A knowledge of history is empowering, because when you understand how things came to be, you have a deeper understanding of how to be now, and how to move forward. That is not the same as creating a sense of victimhood. My feeling is that few Māori writers fall into that trap: they see themselves as part of a living, vibrant culture with a firm place in the modern world.
Which New Zealand books or writers have been special to you in your life?
Books which have made a deep impression on me are Michael King’s History of New Zealand and Maurice Shadbolt’s Māori Wars Trilogy. I found them immensely valuable in developing a deeper sense of New Zealand’s past and present.
Dystopian/sci-fi: Elizabeth Knox’s Dreamhunter duet; it’s strangely refreshing to read a wildly imaginative alternative world set right here.
NZ books I love include:
Witi Ihimaera: I love Witi – he gives such a strong, deep sense of Māori culture, but at the same time his awareness of gender issues is unapologetic and sharp. Whale Rider and Bulibasha.
Eleanor Catton: The Luminaries. I thought (sorry) this is a slightly immature work, but so very clever and enormous fun. Loved the setting, the wild west coast. I think that Eleanor is a very great writer, who will get better and better – it’s tough winning the Booker so young, I think, because it puts a huge amount of pressure on the winner. But I’m sure she’ll get over it! Incredibly talented.
Margaret Mahy’s Down the Back of the Chair: I think this is an absolute classic, at a worldwide level. I love anything by Mahy, but this one stands out for its sheer vivacity and joy in the use of language: it fizzes and sparkles and is one of the best read-alouds of all time. I can’t think of another children’s (or adult’s) book which gives us such enormous wit and pure brilliance, with such a light touch.
Books I want to read:
Rachael Craw’s best-selling Spark series looks like heaps of fun. I’m not a big romance/Twilight fan (ugh) but how can you ignore an international YA best seller by an New Zealand author?!! Looking forward to it!
Do you think you’ll stick with YA and sci-fi?
YA feels like a natural fit for me. I love the intensity, the freshness, everything being acute and new and full of enormous possibilities for change. YA isn’t afraid to go at the big issues in a way that adult fiction is too self-conscious and “mature” for. Injustice? Stick it to them! Tyranny? Let’s rebel! Alien invasion? Save the world! Also, where else do you get genuinely kick-ass female heroes outside YA? The adult world is trying to catch up – but they’re still wearing high heels.
As for sci-fi – I’m not a space-age hard-out sci-fi writer, but science is huge: genetic engineering, AI, the age of mass extinction due to us, the last and worst pest species… The issues are out there and rich with possibilities for story. Makes sense to use them.
What’s next in store for you?
I’ve got truckloads of half-finished projects.
One of my favorites is: twin sisters in a patriarchal racially divided society (I love twinny tales, and have got twins myself). One sister is (seemingly) obedient and traditional in her values: the other is wild, fierce, doesn’t fit in – and is in love with a forbidden boy, just condemned as a traitor. It’s got amazing characters and a great premise, I just can’t work out how it ends!
One thing I can promise: a brilliant female hero is coming.