Name Karen Hughes
Where are you from
I grew up on a 6000 acre wheat and cattle farm in Australia, and went to a tiny country school with only six children. As a child, I spent my days riding horses and exploring the countryside. When I went away to boarding school at age 12 I almost died of homesickness. Maybe this explains my love for the land. Maybe it also explains why I believe creativity is so important for kids – it gives them the tools to cope when life gets tough.
Fiona: Tell us your latest news?
I’m currently working on the 4th book in my Kalika Magic series, which is due out at the end of 2017. I’m also busy with school visits, literary events, and the rest of the circus that comes with being a children’s writer.
Fiona: When and why did you begin writing?
My childhood was filled with short stories, poems, songs, and plays. I started my own newspaper at age 10 and delivered it to the whole neighborhood for the next two years. I also sent lots of stories to magazines – mostly they sent them back, sometimes they published them, once they even paid me. As an adult I missed the richness and wonder of writing fiction, so I started writing the Kalika Magic series about eight years ago.
Fiona: When did you first consider yourself a writer?
I didn’t really call myself a writer until I published the third book in the Kalika Magic series last year. ‘Writer’ was an unattainable title reserved for people like J.K Rowling. I’ve learnt now that you can be whatever you want to be – it just takes hard work and perseverance.
Fiona: What inspired you to write your first book?
I began writing the Kalika Magic series as a way of maintaining my sanity. I was practising as a commercial lawyer in Canberra at the time, and I had three small children. Life was pretty intense. Writing magical stories was my escape. At first I was influenced by all the books I’d read and loved as a child – books like The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, A Wizard of Earthsea, Howl’s Moving Castle, and of course, The Lord of the Rings – but as the series continued I found I was tuning into the natural world and my own experiences. That’s when the writing became really magical.
Fiona: Do you have a specific writing style?
At the moment I’m writing fantasy, so I write to create a sense of mysticism and wonder. My writing style is direct, and as pure as I can make it. Hemingway, who said ‘Write the truest sentence you know’, inspires me. So do poets like Rumi and Tagore – I love the beauty and simplicity of their language.
Fiona: How did you come up with the title?
I wanted a word to describe the earthy tribal people at the centre of my stories. I was playing with words in my head, and settled on Kalika. I only found out later that Kalika is a word used in India to refer to the goddess, Kali. It seemed fitting. Kali is a goddess who liberates souls, and the writing of this series has certainly liberated mine.
Fiona: Is there a message in your novel that you want readers to grasp?
I’m always surprised by the themes that emerge in my stories. Most of the time they are unintentional. I started the Kalika Magic series as a fun-filled adventure, but it has become so much more than that. It’s a story of courage and perseverance – reminding young readers that there is magic and wonder in this world, and they’ll be okay in the end, no matter what happens. It’s also a story about our connection with the land, and the importance of caring for mother earth.
Fiona: How much of the book is realistic and are experiences based on someone you know, or events in your own life?
The books are fantasy, but like all good fantasy they have their roots in the real world. I’ve based the settings on places I’ve visited or researched. The Kalika forest, for example, is much like the rainforest property my parents owned when I was a university student. The trek through the Dasa Mountains in ‘The Shaman’s Secret’ has echoes of my own trek through the Nepal Himalaya in 1994.
The characters are fictional, but I do have four children and they have lots of friends, so I’ve had plenty of inspiration. Like most of the teenage girls I know, Indie is strong-willed and no one can tell her what to do. She’s smart and reckless, and she has a fiery temper. Kai reminds me more of my son. He’s quieter, more serious, and he likes to think things through.
Fiona: What books have most influenced your life? A mentor?
As far as children’s writers go, I’m a huge fan of Diana Wynne Jones, Neil Gaiman, Ursula Le Guin, and Eva Ibbotson. Patricia Wrightson has always inspired me, because her work, in books like The Nargun and the Stars, explores Australian mythology and our connection with the land. I also love Jane Yolen, Margaret Atwood, and Isabel Allende, because their writing is rich, contemporary, and inspiring.
Closer to home, I’m inspired by the people I know who are passionate about their work – Australian writers like Kate Forsyth, Jacqueline Winn, Hannah Kent, and poet, Melinda Smith, just to name a few.
Fiona: Are there any new authors that have grasped your interest, and who is your favorite author and what is it that really strikes you about their work?
Angela Slatter (Australia), and Theodora Goss and Usman Malik (USA) are three contemporary authors I think will be interesting to watch. Their short stories are richly woven and unique, and they seem to be going from strength to strength.
My favourite author has always been Ursula K Le Guin. Others come and go, but she stays with me. Her work is intelligent, powerful, and beautiful.
Fiona: Name one entity that you feel supported you outside of family members.
I’ve had a lot of support from local libraries and schools, and I’ve found the Australian Society of Authors and the Children’s Book Council of Australia to be valuable resources.
Fiona: Do you see writing as a career?
Definitely. If you’re going to be a professional writer, you have to treat it as a job. On writing days, I’m at my desk by 8am and I don’t stop until I’ve written at least 2000 words. I usually spend the rest of the day researching, editing, and rewriting. On top of that, I manage my website and social media, and arrange school visits and other events. It’s a full time business.
Fiona: If you had to do it all over again, would you change anything in your latest book?
I tend not to look back. Once the book is published, I move on to the next project. I’m pleased with the way the 4th book is turning out, even though it’s only a first draft at this stage.
Fiona: Do you recall how your interest in writing originated?
I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember. I guess it started when I developed a love of reading as a small child. My grandmother loved the Australian poets, Henry Lawson, Banjo Patterson and Kenneth Slessor, and she would teach us to recite their work.
In primary school I was always scribbling stories (usually about secret tunnels, dark caves, and hidden spaceships) when I was supposed to be doing sums. My teacher, Gary Porter, was a wonderful man who encouraged me to write every day. I also had some very supportive English teachers at boarding school.
Fiona: Can you share a little of your current work with us?
This is an excerpt from ‘The Shaman’s Secret’, the second book in the series – ‘an engrossing tale of magic and mystery … well worth unlocking.’ The Sydney Morning Herald
The shaman took four small objects from his medicine pouch. He drew a circle in the dirt with a stick and laid the objects around it, one by one.
At the top of the circle he put a tiny wooden turtle. ‘Earth, element of the North,’ he said. ‘Ground us and keep us strong.’
He held up a small velvet bag. ‘Take the totem out,’ he said to Kai, ‘and lay it at the bottom of the circle.’
Kai felt inside the bag and pulled out a big yellow tooth. He turned it over in his fingers. ‘Tiger tooth,’ said the shaman. ‘Very powerful.’
Kai put the tooth on the bottom of the circle and watched the old man place a feather on one side and a dry shrivelled claw on the other.
The old man touched the tooth. ‘Water, element of the South. Let awareness flow through us.’ His hand moved to the feather. ‘Air, element of the East,’ he said, stroking the soft red and gold. ‘Help us search within.’ Then he closed his eyes and put both hands on the claw. ‘Fire, element of the West. Give us the passion and the strength of the great snow bear.’
He threw back his head. ‘In this sacred space I call on you – the turtle, the owl, the tiger of the forest, and the great snow bear. Let the medicine wheel spiral into the earth.’ He swayed and his voice grew louder. ‘Let this boy know who he is and what he is here to do. Let him meet his animal guide.’
Kai closed his eyes and watched the dark space behind his eyelids. It flooded with colour. He could see the medicine wheel spinning, the animals reaching out to him. The four energies swirled around him, so that he was the centre of the wheel. He could feel lightning in his toes, sparking up from the earth at his feet.
He knew that he was still in the cave, with Indie and Jabar and Nima; but they were like a picture rushing through his head. He watched Nima walk across the cave and sit beside him and touch his arm, but he felt nothing, and he sank down and down and far away from them, into the darkness.
The Shaman’s Secret ©Karen Hughes 2014
Fiona: Is there anything you find particularly challenging in your writing?
Writing for children is a challenge, because you have to keep the writing simple and direct without writing down to them. Children are harsh critics. You can lose their attention easily, and if they don’t believe in the world you’re creating, they won’t bother finishing the book.
Fiona: Do you have to travel much concerning your book(s)?
I’m about to begin touring regional schools in Australia, so that will involve driving long distances and staying in motels for a few weeks. I haven’t done much travel, because I have four children who need me at home, but they’re nearly all teenagers now, so I’m planning to do a lot more in the near future.
Fiona: Who designed the covers?
The brilliant Andrew Carraro. http://www.carraro.com.au
Fiona: What was the hardest part of writing your book?
The first draft is always the hardest. Imagining a whole fantastical new plot can sometimes be tricky. Once I have the plot mapped out and I’ve got past the initial self-doubt, the writing becomes much easier.
Fiona: Did you learn anything from writing your book and what was it?
I’ve learnt a huge amount! Each book I write hones my technique and teaches me more about my craft. On a deeper level, these books have taken me to places I never even knew existed. I thought I was writing some kind of Narnian fairytale. I had no idea it would evolve into an earthy, mystical, shamanic adventure.
Kalika Magic has developed into a story of courage and perseverance – reminding young readers that there is magic and wonder in this world, and they’ll be okay in the end, no matter what happens. It’s also a story about our connection with the land, and the importance of caring for mother earth.
Fiona: If any of your books was made into a film who would you like to play the lead
There are lots of brilliant young actors who could play the roles of Indie and Kai – but they’d have to be strong and smart, and very physical. There are swords and knives, battles on horseback, flying with power animals, escaping through the forest, climbing glaciers etc etc. It might suit someone like Maisie Williams, who plays Arya Stark in Game of Thrones.
Fiona: Do you have any advice for other writers?
Don’t give up! It takes sweat, tears, and dedication, but you’ll get there in the end.
Fiona: Do you have anything specific that you want to say to your readers?
Thank you so much for being part of this journey! I can’t wait to share the next Kalika Magic book with you in October.
Fiona: What book are you reading now?
I’m dipping back into Terry Pratchet’s Discworld series, because his books are original and funny, and he inspires me to keep my work playful. I need to remember that writing can be profound and powerful, while retaining a sense of fun.
Fiona: Do you remember the first book you read?
I remember reading The Magic Faraway Tree at a very early age, and discovering The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe at a second-hand book fair when I was 8.
Fiona: What makes you laugh/cry?
Fiona: Is there one person past or present you would meet and why?
Frida Kahlo, the Mexican painter. She fascinates me. She was strong, creative, and passionate, and her work is so personal and honest.
Fiona: What do you want written on your head stone and why?
I don’t want a headstone. I’d rather have my ashes scattered over the sea.
Fiona: Other than writing do you have any hobbies ?
Reading, of course. Spending time by the river and among the trees. Travelling and experiencing other cultures – I’ve just come back from a family trip to Bali.
Fiona: What TV shows/films do you enjoy watching?
I don’t watch TV shows, but I do love movies. Musicals, Classics, Historical Drama, Sci-Fi – The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Star Wars, X-Men – anything really, as long as it tells a good story.
Fiona: Favorite foods / Colors/ Music
Food: anything I don’t have to cook myself
Colours: rich golds and burgundy. Ochre, mustard yellow, dusty orange – warm desert colours
Music: folk, indie, jazz. Mumford and Sons, Cat Empire, Lana del Ray, Amy Winehouse
Fiona: If you were not a writer what else would you like to have done?
I was a lawyer for 10 years. I also have degrees in Japanese and Classical Herbal Medicine. Sometimes I think I’d like to be a historian, or maybe a naturopath. Other times I think it would be good to be a hermit in a cave somewhere. I’m enjoying the writing life at the moment, but who knows what the future holds.
Fiona: Do you have a blog/website? If so what is it?