Sarah Xanxa Wallace
Updated: Jul 2, 2019
Welcome to Writer's Corner. Today we are privileged to chat with Sarah Xanxa Wallace.
Amanda: Hi Sarah. Thank you so much for coming along to chat today. As the author of The Virian Chronicles, I’m fascinated to hear your process behind this vast and amazing fictional universe. Let’s talk about The Virian Chronicles. How did it all start? Was there a moment in your life where you couldn’t ignore the story any longer and had to get it down on the page?
Sarah: I’d always made up stories, even before I learned to read and write. I used to recite them aloud or act them out with dolls and teddy bears, putting on different voices for the various characters.
The Virian Chronicles started almost by accident. I’d had a go at writing sci-fi but decided that I wasn’t much good at the technical side of it. I’d always loved detective stories, so I set out to write my own, aiming for the old-school style of Dixon Hill and The Maltese Falcon.
Somewhere along the way, that early draft of “Neurotic Mothers’ Battleship” evolved from a straightforward detective story into a melding of mystery and fantasy. The grim city (based on an area of London where I worked at the time) became a fictional city on an invented world. I enjoyed playing in that universe so much that I was compelled to write other novels set there. NMB ended up as the third novel in the series of seven.
Amanda: Can you tell us about your approach to world building? How did you create the world?
Sarah: Because of my love of sci-fi, I wanted to invent my own fictional universe. I’d had a few attempts while I was writing my sci-fi series of adventures. But I ran out of steam with that project and abandoned it. However, I took what I’d learned and turned it into what later became the Fenian Galaxy.
It started when I had the idea to write a sort of tourist guide to that galaxy, inspired by the Lonely Planet and Rough Guide series. I wanted each planet to be distinctive in some way. Thus the mythology and culture developed and grew with each novel that I added to the series. It’s taken over 30 years to get to the stage I’m at now. Like the real world, it has changed over the years and will keep changing as I add new concepts.
Amanda: Thirty-years! That’s amazing. I read somewhere once, that writing no longer becomes a passion, it turns into life. Tell us about your life as a writer. Is there something that sets you apart from the rest?
Sarah: Writing is a huge part of my life, that’s true, but I can’t see me ever losing the passion for it.
At school, some of my essays had the teachers scratching their heads. I used to bend the rules and try to make the topic fit what I wanted to write about, not what they wanted me to write about.
One of the things that sets me apart is my refusal to follow the so-called rules of writing. I have come to loathe the phrases “Show, don’t tell” and “Show what the camera sees”. There are some scenes which can’t be shown, like introspectives where a character is trying to work out in their own mind how to deal with a situation. A camera would only show a moody person, maybe pacing up and down, staring out of a window or moping in their bedroom. So it’s necessary to tell those scenes. Also, the fantasy genre requires more scene-setting and world-building descriptions than novels set in the real world.
I refuse to cut out all my adverbs. They’re a legitimate part of language. Using adverbs doesn’t make me a lazy writer. I do cut some of them out in the revision and editing stages, but that often involves longer and more convoluted sentences. Hemingway would definitely not approve!
Likewise with the passive voice. Used in moderation, it can help vary sentence structure and pacing.
I like to give my characters accents. So many writers don’t seem to make much distinction between their author’s voice and the voices of their characters. My characters use slang and don’t always speak in grammatically correct language.
For many years I worked as a legal secretary. Not only did it give me good proof-reading skills, it also provided inspiration for some of my novels. Several of my characters are lawyers and I’ve put prison and courtroom scenes into my fantasy novels, most notably “Malachi’s Law”, which is about a disgraced lawyer who ended up in prison.
Amanda: You must have some interesting stories. Do you believe in writer’s block? Or do you have a writer’s kryptonite? Or has it been smooth sailing through thirty years of passionate story telling?
Sarah: I’m a multi-tasker so writer’s block usually doesn’t affect me too badly. If I get stuck or fed-up with one writing project, I switch to another. I often collaborate with other authors in group novels. I’m involved in two of these at the moment - a fantasy one and a murder mystery set in a medieval castle. I also write fanfiction when taking a break from my main novels. If all else fails, there’s always editing to be done.
I wouldn’t say it’s all been smooth. I’ve had times where I’ve become discouraged and thought of giving up. My husband and some of my fellow authors have persuaded me to keep on. I think self-doubt goes with the territory. As an author, I started out writing for my own enjoyment. But when you get a readership, that changes. I find myself thinking more in terms of what the readers would like and I have to check myself. I’ve never done what’s popular. I tend to stay on the margins in terms of how I write. To do otherwise would be too much of a compromise.
I’m an avid people-watcher. I look for inspiration whenever I’m out and about. One time, I was in a small newsagent and I saw one of the most interesting cross-dressers ever. He was an elderly man wearing a floral dress with a black hat and Goth accessories. He became the inspiration for a bookstore owner in my novel “Probyt’s Progress”, which is still in the first draft stage.
Amanda: I am one of those writers who has a bunch of drafts written and several different projects on the go. Are you like that? Or do you have a structured one book after another strategy?
Sarah: A mixture of both really. I have two novels in the first draft stage and a further two in the planning stages. They go in a specific order when they’re finished but I don’t necessarily write them in that order. For example, the one nearest completion will in fact be the fourth and final novel in the series. The one which will become the first novel is being worked on right now and the second and third of the series are nothing but an outline and a few notes so far.
Amanda: And what are you working on now?
Sarah: The one I’m working on right now is “Probyt’s Progress”. It’s a departure for me because I’m writing about a society where technology is rarely used and there aren’t many cities. The people are wilderness dwellers, living in harmony with nature. Then in the second part of the novel, the main character will experience massive culture shock when he moves to live in a large bustling city. Imagine a man in his mid-twenties who has never seen a motorised vehicle and has never used money. A bit like an Amish. I’m making a deliberate contrast between the two cultures so that the reader can experience the sense of panic coming from the main character as he tries to adapt to city life. He ends up persuading a beggar child to help him and gradually they form a bond. The fact that an adult has to rely on an eight-year old for protection, food and shelter is an awkward inversion and I hope that will be a big draw for readers.
Amanda: That sounds so fascinating. You have such a flair for blending world building into the dynamics of plot structure. I’m looking forward to devouring that book in the future.
I would like to say a big thank you for coming along today and having a chat. Could you please tell everyone where’s the best places to find you.
Sarah: OK, I think these are all my links:
Amanda: Thank you so much Sarah - you are an amazing and fascinating woman.
Sarah: Thanks very much. I’m honoured.