Seven Writerly Sorts of Questions for Ian Irvine


I first met Ian Irvine at Supanova a couple of years back, he was an absolute delight, a great author to hang around with, and very funny as well. But I was familiar with his work long before that – my uncorrected proof of A Shadow on the Glass is a treasure. Ian has had a great career as fantasy writer, for both adults and younger readers. If you go to the fantasy section of any bookstore you’ll see a stack of his books: the latest of which is Rebellion book two in the Tainted Realm Trilogy. Epic fantasy is rarely more epic than in Ian’s books. (I’ve also just found a short novella published in the Tainted Realm world – you can check it out here and I’ve embedded it below the interview so you can get a taste)

He also has a very rich webpage filled with sage writerly advice.

So, when I had a chance to hit him with a few writerly questions I couldn’t resist.

1) Vengeance and Rebellion are part of The Tainted Realm Trilogy. The third book, Justice, is out in twelve months.  What is the Tainted Realm, and why is it tainted?


The Tainted Realm is the remote island nation once called Cythe, which was brutally colonised long ago by the invading Hightspallers. Cythe’s naïve young king, Lyf, was betrayed and murdered. Its history, art and culture were erased and its clever native people were reduced to despicable degradoes, on the verge of extinction when, without warning, they vanished.


Two thousand years later, when the story begins, Hightspall is crippled by an unending succession of natural disasters, and even the magic that bought their initial victory is failing. It feels as though the very land is rising up to cast them out – as though the realm itself has been tainted by the means Hightspall used to take Cythe.


Then the Cythians reappear from underground, armed with terrifying alchymical weaponry Hightspall has no idea how to fight. Worst of all, the Cythian armies are directed by King Lyf’s immortal wrythen, an embodied spirit bent on a terrible vengeance for all the wrongs his beloved land and people have suffered.


2) There are definite (but heightened) parallels with Australia’s history (and the history of a lot of colonial countries); was this deliberate?


I did have the global history of colonisation in mind when I was creating The Tainted Realm, though the world I’ve created wasn’t based on or even inspired by the colonial history of Australia or any other country.


Rather, my initial inspiration lay in modern politics – in particular, the way that the authority and even the legitimacy of some political leaders can be undermined by the things they do to gain or maintain power.


I was thinking of Richard Nixon and Watergate, for instance; and Malcolm Fraser’s toppling of Gough Whitlam in Australia in the 1970s; and, more recently, Julia Gillard’s takeover from Kevin Rudd.


The leadership of each of these people was tainted by their actions; in the case of Richard Nixon, it created national rifts and scars which still affect American politics to this day. It was these kinds of scars that I wanted to explore and use as the background to The Tainted Realm.


3) These are big books, truly epic fantasy. How do you keep control of the narrative? I guess what I’m trying to say is, are you a planner or a pantser (someone who writes by the seat of their pants)?


I must be a natural plotter, I suppose, since my editors rarely have a problem with the structure of my books. I used to be a pantser – I would do only a sketchy outline, and a small amount of world-building, then make the story  up as I went along. This is how I operated for my first five or six or seven books. I often wouldn’t know what was going to happen on the next page, much less the next chapter. And it worked – some of my most successful and well-liked books, such as The View from the Mirror Quartet, and Geomancer, were written that way.


However these days I’m very much a planner, for a very good reason. Having written so much (28 books, mostly big ones, and nearly 4 million published words) I’ve used up an enormous number of characters, settings and plot ideas. It’s increasingly difficult to be original ‘on the fly’; the writer’s mind tends to follow well-worn grooves. By planning a book in detail before I write, I can identify repetitive characters and ideas, and either change them or give them a twist to make them fresh.


My outline for Book 3, Justice, which I’m drafting now, is 25 pages, 55 scenes or super-scenes, and it has about 1,000 1-line dot points. There’s a picture of it on my News Blog,


4) Your world-building is always top notch. Do you go into these books with a detailed bible, or is the world “revealed” to you as you write? (I know two questions about planning, but I am an appalling planner!).


I wouldn’t exactly call it a bible, though I do a lot of world-building before I begin writing, including maps, fairly detailed histories of the key races or peoples, the design of unique cultures and a fair bit of work on technologies, how magic or the uncanny works, and all the other aspects of the story.


But the world is also revealed to me as I write – I often find that aspects of the world-building I did beforehand don’t fit the story. It’s common for me to ditch such aspects for things that just pop into my head, or to be tweaking parts of the world right at the end.


For instance, in Vengeance, the business of the Herovians coming to Cythe, following instructions laid down in their Immortal Text, only occurred to me while I was doing the edits of the final draft (the 10th), a couple of weeks before the book went to typesetting. The consequences of their obsessive quest become a major plot driver in Rebellion and Justice, and changes everything.


5) What’s a typical writing day like for you?


I have two kinds of typical writing days: the first draft kind, and the rest.


When I’m writing the first draft, which these days I do following a detailed outline, I start around 5 am and write furiously all day, and sometimes well into the evening, if I can. I like to write first drafts as fast as possible, seven days a week, because by working this way I’m always in ‘the zone’, i.e. fully in the story. I find the story works better, and requires less editing, than when I grind out a draft over a period of months. For instance, last January I did the first draft of Rebellion, 164 k words, in 22 days and this is fairly typical.


But of course I do many drafts – a minimum of 6 per book, though more typically 8 or even 10. When re-drafting, I generally start around 7 am, write until the early afternoon, go for a walk in the garden, have a brief nap, then work through until dinner time. Evenings are family time; only when I’m up against a tight deadline do I work after dinner.


6) What was your favourite scene in Rebellion? (No Spoilers).


I can’t restrict myself to one scene, but whenever I think about the following scenes they move me greatly, one way or another:


  • Early in Rebellion, the painting Rix does on the wall of the crypt, showing himself and Tali about to kill their dearest friend. Afterwards he is consumed with horror and guilt. Why would he paint such a terrible scene? And is it prophetic, or not?
  • The entrance of Axil Grandys, one of the most outrageous villains I’ve ever created.
  • Tali’s fateful choice after she’s incited the slaves’ rebellion in the underground city of Cython – whether to use her great gift of magic for healing, or destruction.
  • The ending – the most poignant I’ve ever written.


7) Your villains are outstanding. Hero or villain, which is the most fun to write?


Villains, definitely. I had such fun writing Axil Grandys – he’s a towering figure in every respect. He says and does things no one else could get away with, through the sheer force of his personality. In some respects, he’s the villain we’d all like to be, if only we had the courage and the drive – and great dollops of innate evil, ha, ha!


Ian’s Website:

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Ian Irvine is a marine scientist who has developed some of Australia’s national guidelines for protection of the marine environment, has also written 28 novels. These include the bestselling Three Worlds fantasy sequence (The View from the Mirror, The Well of Echoes and Song of the Tears), which has sold over a million copies, a trilogy of eco-thrillers, and 12 books for younger readers. Ian is currently working on Book 3, Justice.



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