I want to thank E. J. Beaton for taking time out of her busy schedule to sit down and answer some questions about her life, writing, and her debut novel, The Councillor (The Councillor #1) from DAW Books – OUT NOW IN EBOOK/PAPERBACK/HARDCOVER/AUDIOBOOK (3/2/21) – and narrated by the amazing Moira Quirk (Th Locked Tomb Trilogy, The War Eternal Trilogy, The Checquy Files)
1. First off, tell me a little bit about yourself.
Where to start, for a writer? I’ve always had a deep love of language and the beauty of words. I’m fortunate to live in a city known for its art galleries, live music, and literary scene, and I try to experience the arts as often as I can, from contemporary jazz to opera and baroque music, and from poetry readings to new exhibitions. Soaking up the beauty of others’ creative work inspires me.
Wandering and travelling is in my blood, and when I’m not meandering about in person, I’m travelling through books and images. I’m interested in places that vibrate with history, buildings whose corners and archways help me to converse with the past; landscapes that sing with colour and texture and light; ruins that throb with secrets.
Growing up, I was a javelin and discus thrower, a sprinter, a basketball player, and a badminton player. In the last few years I’ve taken up weight-lifting, and I’m still into running. Sport has its own kind of magic, to me, a song of breath and movement and muscle-rhythm that endures.
2. What sort of career were you pursuing prior to writing?
a. Do you still have a full-time job outside of being an author?
I had the good fortune to study creative writing and literature, and completed a PhD, in which I wrote a draft of The Councillor and analysed Renaissance literature and fantasy fiction. Between my degrees, I worked in Cambodia as an English teacher at an NGO.
My part-time jobs have included copywriter, scriptwriter, administrative assistant, supermarket check-out staff, private tutor, and research assistant.
In recent years I’ve taught classes at university, typically doing casual teaching for half of the year and leaving the other half free for full-time writing.
3. When did you start writing? When did you start writing seriously?
My parents believed strongly in the value of education and encouraged me to write from an early age. There was a kind of joy and freedom in writing that I didn’t find in anything else. I wrote rhyming poems in primary school, and the short stories I created at school usually ended up involving magic – one of them featured a magical cockroach who could talk, as my father likes to remind me.
In late high school and university, I started getting more involved with poetry. I always wanted to be a novelist, but it wasn’t until my PhD that I began to write long-form. Studying writing, reading widely, and mingling in the writing community all helped me to learn more, so there was a natural journey to develop my work and expand it.
4. How do you combat writer’s block, or do you simply not acknowledge it?
Fortunately, writer’s block hasn’t been a problem for me. I have so many ideas that I never have enough time to write them all as projects, although I do squirrel them away for the future.
The problems I’ve faced have had less to do with inspiration and more to do with the intensity of my work schedule, along with the stress of other factors impacting my writing.
5. Who are some of your writing influences?
A really broad range of writers from different periods have influenced and inspired me. I fell in love with the Greek and Norse epics at an early age, and was particularly inspired by the powerful goddesses (like Hera and Athena) and the male figures with an alternative masculinity (like Loki). I’ve also been immersed in the works of Renaissance writers, including Shakespeare, Machiavelli, Marlowe, Amyot, Castiglione, and others, as well as the academic discussion of their works.
In terms of contemporary fiction, I found Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy very compelling, with its multi-layered protagonist and complex portrayal of power and identity. Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin novels contain some exceptional use of language, and the character of Stephen Maturin fascinated me. I also love the work of N. K. Jemisin, Susanna Clarke, Madeline Miller, and Ocean Vuong.
Even if a book has played a part in influencing me, there may be parts of that same work which I question. This is particularly the case with older works, where the social values of the time show through. For example, in Machiavelli’s The Prince, you find a simile about beating women into obedience, used casually, as if such behaviour would immediately be understood and accepted by the reader. It’s very natural to be drawn to the style of older writing, but I think it’s also important not to let an affinity with the prose or the central subject lull you into ignoring the more insidious social context that seeps through. Writing fantasy offers a great opportunity to take what interests us about the past and twist it in new ways.
6. Did you read growing up? If so, what genres really struck you?
Growing up, stories offered me fuel for my imagination and new avenues of thought. I read voraciously – on one trip to Hobart, my parents must have taken me through every second-hand bookshop. I was drawn to poetry, to literary fiction both old and new, to fantasy, and to historical fiction.
7. Tell me about your writing process, and what was it like navigating the publishing process for your debut novel?
The path to publication had several different stages. I did a lot of research, which helped me to understand that it was a long-term process and not a matter of luck. After editing the novel, I did further revisions where I tried to remove any elements that seemed weak or generic, and really scrutinised the book. It is extremely tough to get a debut novel published. For most people, it takes a long time.
I tend to be a linear writer, working through each chapter in order until I reach the end of the story. I have an overarching plan of the novel’s plot when I begin, but I flesh out the details of each chapter prior to writing it, and I’m always open to changes because some things alter or metamorphose in the process of writing. There is also a special magic where certain elements tie up and link in to each other as I write; it seems to be a subconscious weaving and interweaving of threads inside the brain.
Despite my linear style, I do find that experiments are important for breaking through a block on a particular scene. If I’m struggling to make something work, I might try writing it five different ways and see what emerges. This was particularly helpful for revising and rewriting the opening scene of my novel.
I find it fascinating that some scenes will be firmly imprinted in my mind, and others need lots of development and work. Some parts of my novel were easy to write, and others were not.
8. Can you tell the audience a little bit about your debut, The Councillor?
The Councillor is a story about a palace scholar, Lysande, who becomes tasked with choosing the next monarch of Elira. Lysande tries to make the right choice from among the city-rulers of the realm. At the same time, she suspects that one of these rulers may have murdered the late queen. Since she enjoyed a close friendship with the last queen, unravelling the mystery gets personal.
I’d describe it as a character-focussed story about power, with an intellectual as the main character. Although it’s a drama of political intrigue, it’s fundamentally the story of Lysande developing her confidence as a leader, grappling with conflicting interests in power and justice, and struggling with her feelings about addiction, grief, and lust.
The story unfolds in a reimagined world where things like gender and sexuality are equal, and so the novel engages with power, persecution, and class hierarchy in a slightly different setting. There are queer princes, powerful women, low-born people with sophisticated skills, and misfit intellectuals all rubbing shoulders within the story.
Many thanks to anyone who picks up the novel!
9. What influenced you to write this specific story?
I began writing because I felt compelled to use my experience of a health struggle as the basis of a story. At the time, I felt as if my thoughts and emotions were out of my control, and I came up with the metaphor that my mind was being controlled by a malignant queen. So the seed of the story was a woman struggling against a queen who could control minds. It then grew and took on other characteristics.
I studied Shakespearean drama, and those plays helped me to think about exploring and depicting human psychology: how people think and feel, and especially how that influences their efforts to grasp power. I was also hungry for a story about a female intellectual, a woman who used her mind to solve problems – so I wrote the kind of story I wanted to read, where a scholarly woman could be the main character in a political drama.
10. The Councillor is being promoted as “Machiavellian fantasy”. What exactly does that mean, and how do you frame it to readers?
If I may give an explanation I recently gave for this same question: the term “Machiavellian” is associated with the politics of Niccolo Machiavelli’s treatise The Prince, which lays out instructions to a feudal ruler on how to lead effectively. It’s a very pragmatic treatise – it’s all about what actually works in government, rather than what is morally right. Machiavelli was living in a conflict-riven country, though, during a chaotic and dangerous time, and he was arguing for stability rather than gratuitous cruelty. At the end of The Prince, he pleads for a prince to unite Italy and end its “devastation” and sacking. Across his other writing, there are republican themes; he suggests that governments based upon the will of the people are better than autocratic ones. So it’s arguable that Machiavelli was both a realist and someone who hoped for a better society.
I think that a “Machiavellian fantasy” can encompass both of those things: it can include political pragmatism and strategizing, but its characters can also question social structures. The Councillor has a bit of a dialogue with Machiavellian thought. Lysande confronts the tragic underbelly of ruthless policies, and considers who has historically paid the price for leaders’ choices – as a less privileged person, she’s aware of the allure of power yet also critical of it.
11. What significance does the Chimera play in your novel, or is that too spoilery?
Through her work as a scholar, Lysande understands that chimeras existed around the time of the Conquest, when non-magical people defeated the magical “elementals”. Since then, chimeras seem to be extinct, but remnants of the creatures linger on in products that are traded on the black market. Lysande is addicted to a drug made from shredded chimera scale, which she buys from her friend and ex-lover, Charice.
The chimera remains a potent symbol for elementals, and some keep a drawing of a chimera hung on their wall. The dreaded White Queen used a chimera as her emblem, too. Lysande finds herself fascinated by depictions of the creature, despite its fearsome reputation as a fire-breathing threat.
Chimeras suited my novel because they’re hybrid creatures – a mish-mash of different animal parts, a combination of fur and scales. Lysande is a hybrid person, herself. As a palace scholar and friend of the queen, she’s immersed in the royal world but not truly part of it; she’s no longer living in poverty, yet she’s not accepted by the nobility. As a bisexual person, her sexuality also encompasses attraction to more than one gender. I think I’m probably a hybrid writer, too; I love fantasy, poetry, and what is shelved as literary fiction, and I find history fascinating, and all of those things swirl together to inspire and influence my work.
12. What are the biggest takeaways you hope readers glean from your debut?
Readers will inevitably value and enjoy different things, and that’s the beauty of our individuality. I hope that the characters will seem fully human and that Lysande’s reflections on knowledge and power will be of interest. Since writing style is important to me, I hope that readers will also enjoy the prose. If there are some readers who feel a personal connection to aspects of the novel, I’d be honoured.
13. What are you working on now?
I’m working on the sequel to The Councillor at the moment, grappling with some key moments in the story. Some of the tension between two characters boils over in the second book and there are personal and political consequences. Lysande is also reconsidering her identity and trying to make sense of who she really is. So far, some words that hint at parts of the story are: book, rope, fire, birth.
14. Do you have any reading recommendations? Maybe something that has come out recently, or a novel or two that deserve more attention?
I recently read Hilary Mantel’s Beyond Black. I think it deserves more attention; unlike her Thomas Cromwell trilogy, it centres on two women, one of whom is a psychic, and shows the complexities of their difficult friendship. It also puts a new twist on the ghost story, depicting a chaotic and often-comedic spirit world, and perhaps most compellingly, it engages with the haunting power of trauma.
I’ve read Tasha Suri’s The Jasmine Throne and Shelley Parker-Chan’s She Who Became The Sun, two upcoming novels that are rightfully gathering interest. Both contain powerful and determined women who take on their enemies. Last year, Anna Stephens’ The Stone Knife and Sam Hawke’s Hollow Empire entertained me with vivid tales of political conflict and struggle. Moving outside fantasy, I found Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation to be a memorable read – I’m not sure if I’d say I enjoyed it, but the narrator’s voice and attitude lingered with me, and the ending of the story stands out powerfully in the mind like an image in relief.
I’ve mentioned it a few times lately, but Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi offered me so much to think about. An exquisitely written novel, it depicts the slow process of removing oneself from physical and mental entrapment. It’s a story to savour and to return to.
About the Author
E. J. Beaton is the author of the fantasy novel The Councillor, to be published by DAW Books on March 2, 2021. She has previously published a poetry collection, Unbroken Circle (Melbourne Poets Union), and has been shortlisted for the ACU Prize for Poetry and the Ada Cambridge Poetry Prize. She studied literature and writing at university, and her PhD thesis included analysis of Machiavellian politics in Shakespearean drama and fantasy literature. She lives in Melbourne, Australia.