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Author Masterclass Interview: Keith Austin

Born in London’s East End, Australian author Keith Austin has worked as a journalist for more than 36 years.  His career has taken him across the globe seeing him assume various roles that included chief sub, production editor, travel editor, feature writer, regular columnist, news reporter, restaurant and book reviewer.  He has also edited two cookbooks, “Blokes and Seafood”, and four editions of the “NSW Good Pub Food Guide”.  cropped-keith-austin3

Austin’s first novel, “Grymm“, a YA Paranormal Horror was published in 2012 by Random House in the UK and Australia.  This was followed in 2014 by the publication of “Snow White“, also with Random House.  Later in 2014 Austin took the giant leap into the unknown world of self-publishing with his YA novel “Jago“.  His books have broad appeal with middle grade and young adult readers with his stories resonating strongly with boys.

The Kitten Tapper, Demelza Cotton, Jago Quinn and Cleaver Flay are some of the amazing characters brought to life in your books. Where does the inspiration for your characters come from and do you have a favourite?
I wish I knew because I’d bottle it! Some of it just springs to life in my head but I also get a lot of inspiration from real life. The Kitten Tapper was a real person, for instance. Adamina Wollondilly [from Jago] was the name of someone’s doll when she was young. The rest of Adamina came from the writing. I particularly like Cleaver Flay [the mad butcher from Grymm] as he was one of the first and I love his name. He came to me while I was sitting in a café and a man with a bald, pointy head passed by. Bang! There he was.

The theme of ‘Good versus Evil’ is one which emerges clearly in each of your novels. Is this battle something which occupies your thoughts in daily life?                                                                                               I wouldn’t say it’s something that occupies my every waking thought but it’s certainly a universal theme for me, particularly in Grymm, where the idea of the decision to CHOOSE to do evil is pretty strong.

I understand that you have had a long career as a journalist. What was the catalyst that inspired the leap to YA fiction?
I have always written manuscripts. Journalism and books are the only thing I’ve wanted to do since I was about 11 or 12. The leap to YA was simply because my son was in the target market at the time and I thought it would be good to write something for him. Luckily he was already a pretty sophisticated reader or Grymm and the rest would have been much lighter instead of grotesque and dark. Much more fun to write!

Which authors inspire you and which books have influenced your writing the most?
Roald Dahl for sure; I like how dark he can get. Neil Gaiman, of course, especially American Gods. Also, Stephen King and Peter Straub. Straub’s Shadowland is probably one of my favourite books in the horror genre. Salem’s Lot and The Shining are among my King favourites.

What was your favourite book as a child and why?
I liked Norman Hunter’s Professor Branestawm series. Wild and wacky and bonkers, with lots of weird inventions and mayhem.

In terms of writing successes what is your next goal to achieve on your ‘writer’s bucket list’?
Oh, just to keep writing and turning out books that people like to read. I’ve had some interest in making the current three into movies so that would be on my bucket list of things to happen.

What has been your greatest challenge as a writer and what do you enjoy most about writing?
Trying to find my own style, which I hope I’ve done. In the early days many writers end up writing in the style of their ‘heroes’ so my early attempts were very Stephen King-ish. When a reviewer said that Grymm was like nothing he’d ever read before I knew I’d managed it.

Oh I love all of it. As I explained above, it’s about writing so that what you’re writing is easily translatable. I like it when I feel that that ‘magic’ has worked. I love it when people say they could ‘see’ the book clearly when they were reading it.

What ‘excites’ and ‘delights’ you most about YA fiction right now?
That there’s so much of it and so much of it is GOOD. It’s also nice that people are starting to realise that YA isn’t JUST for young adults. A good YA book is for any aged 11 to 111.

How do you approach the writing process? When do you write? How do you write?
I tend to have a vague plot outline and then just make it up as I go along and hope that my brain will supply the answers. I can write pretty much anywhere. I like to write longhand in an A4 notebook, in pubs or cafes and the like. I like the noise and bustle. And you never know when a great character is going to walk past your table. I also like to parcel months off to write. I find it hard to write in dribs and drabs.

What are you working on right now, and how long are readers likely to wait?
I’m halfway through a book called Surreal, about a girl who gets trapped in her grandparents’ upstairs toilet. It’s more exciting than you think! Trouble is, I’ve been halfway through it for about 18 months. I‘m hoping it’ll be finished some time next year. As for publication it depends on whether I get a traditional publisher or go the self-published route again, as with Jago. I like the immediacy of self-publication and also the thrill I get from designing my own cover.

What mistakes have you made as a writer and how did you learn from them?
Oh, the usual things – using too many adjectives, too many adverbs, trying to be too clever rather than let the story tell itself. I have also been known to put characters in to books that are only there because I liked them even though they didn’t really fit into the narrative. That’s where it’s good to have a good editor and/or good readers go over your work before you offer it to the public.

You are frequently compared to the extremely talented Neil Gaiman? Why do you think this is the case and how do you respond to such comparisons?
I think it’s because we’re writing in similar genres, and our styles are similar. We obviously both like the weird and the wonderful and are not afraid of that edgy darkness that makes the best stories so attractive. There’s also a touch of the modern fairy tale about them. How do I respond? I’m over the moon! Neil Gaiman is the man!

What advice do you have for teachers who hope to incite their students to read?
Be enthusiastic. Do some reading off curriculum. Remember that reading isn’t confined to novels; graphic novels can be a good bridge. Find out what each kid’s interested in. It’s no good trying to thrust a Jane Austen on a boy who’d gobble up World War Z or a Walking Dead comic.
What advice would you give to young aspiring writers?
Read, read, read and read some more. Read anything you can get your hands on. And then write, write, write. Doesn’t matter what. I started with poetry – really short poetry of just a few lines. Here’s one:

They said I was mad,snow white
So I’m strapped to this bed.
But I’d rather be here,
Than inside my head.

Eventually you’ll move on to longer forms. And let people read your stuff but don’t be precious about it. Suck up all the advice you can get.

Why should someone pick up your books and read them?
Because you’ll be surprised. Here’s a review I got for Grymm: ““This is unlike pretty much any other book I have read … if you like your stories to be darker than a city banker’s soul then GRYMM is for you. This book is one of those that really does need to be read to be believed, and I only wish I could come up with a more coherent way of describing it. Dark, macabre, bizarre, hilarious, chilling – none of those words are really enough …”

What you won’t get is a wrinkle on something you’ve read before. All three of my books are hugely different from one another and all, I hope, are original, with twists you won’t see coming.

For more information about Keith Austin head on over to his website here, or, to read my reviews of “Jago“, “Grymm” and “Snow White” please follow the hyperlinks. 

Tanya Grech Welden


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