I started writing The Ragwitch when I was 20 years old, early in 1984. It was the second novel I started, and the first one I managed to finish. It took me a long time, longer than any novel I’ve written since, and was eventually published first in Australia in early 1991.
When I began The Ragwitch I had been writing steadily for about three years, and had some small success in getting short stories and articles and scenarios for role-playing games (like Dungeons & Dragons and the SF equivalent, Traveller) published. But I wanted to write a novel, and though I like to read all kinds of fiction, I do have a particular love of fantasy for children, so it was a natural choice to want to write something of that sort. I guess at that time it was not that long since I had the wonderful experience of reading as child, the imaginative explosion in my mind as I encountered for the first time books like The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis; The Weirdstone of Brisingamen by Alan Garner; The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper; and so many other wonderful novels.
I wanted to write a book that might find its way on to shelf at least near these great books, I wanted to write the kind of book I liked to read, something I have continued to do throughout my career.
I knew in 1984 that I wanted to be a professional writer, but I also knew that I would need a degree so I could get a better day job to support my writing, some remarkable common sense that surprises me looking back! Luckily I could combine both ambitions by doing an undergraduate course in professional writing at what was then the Canberra College of Advanced Education, later to become the University of Canberra. At the time, it was the only university-level writing course in the whole of Australia, which seems surprising nowadays.
The course primarily focussed on journalism and screenwriting, but there was an option for writing prose fiction. I took it, and while I’m still not sure you can be taught to write, the discipline of having to write new chapters for course work and the experience of being in a community of beginner writers, all intent on their creative work, was very useful. No one else was writing genre fiction, and none of the lecturers or tutors had any experience in it, but fortunately there was none of the snobbery towards writing fantasy and science fiction or writing for children that sometimes occurs in writing degrees.
The story itself came from my desire to write a kind of harder-edged Narnia. While I loved C.S. Lewis, I thought it would be much more confronting and scary to be transported to a fantasy world. I aimed to write a more ‘realistic’ story to address this, while still retaining all the fantastical elements I love. Possibly I succeeded too well on the scary part, because when The Ragwitch was first published in the USA in 1995, some critics considered it to be a horror novel. I still think it is simply scary, and a somewhat tougher portal fantasy than might be expected!
Like all my books, it is an adventure story. I tried to imagine what it would feel like, both physically and emotionally, to be 12 years old and land in an unknown fantasy world full of both wonderful and terrifying people, and magic, and creatures both benign and malign. Or even worse, to arrive inside the mind of an ancient evil sorceress, as Julia does, with her brother Paul appearing in this world all alone, with no idea how he can even begin to rescue her, and at first has to concentrate on his own survival.
I can’t remember where the basic idea came from, but it may have been something as simple as this old, well-worn but useful advice for beginning a story: put your characters in an impossible situation, and find out what happens!