Cecilia Dart-Thornton was born and raised in Melbourne, Australia and graduated from university with a Bachelor of Arts degree in sociology. Shortly after leaving university, she became a schoolteacher. When not writing she enjoys painting in oils, clay sculpting, performing in folk music bands, and growing heritage fruit. Cecilia is a keen supporter of animal rights and wilderness conservation.
I recently had the opportunity to sit down and chat with Cecilia Dart-Thornton, the best-selling author of The Ill-Made Mute from The Bitterbynde Trilogy who’s path to, and since, publication are absolutely remarkable.
Join us as this former schoolteacher from Melbourne, Australia shares about her road to publication, crazy fruits with even crazier names, the transition from writing fantasy to non-fiction, and all the things that fall between.
ANTHONY VICINO: Cecilia, your path to publication might not seem so unique in this day and age of self-published authors getting plucked up by big publishing houses every other day, but getting noticed in the way you did all the way back in 2000 is mind-boggling. To my knowledge, you really were one of the first authors to strike it big with this method. For those unfamiliar with your story, tell us about the process that led to Time Warner offering you a six-figure contract seemingly out of the blue.
CECILIA DART-THORNTON: At the time it was so extraordinary, Anthony, that I was figuratively pinching myself for the next two years. I mean, think of it this way – there I was, sitting alone in a darkish room for 12 years, and at the end of that time I emerged as a published author with a hefty advance in my bank account. All because of the Internet! I felt as if I’d turned some invisible corner and entered a parallel universe.
My family was not really aware that I was writing a series of novels. They had a vague notion that I appeared to be obsessed with pens and papers, and later with a computer, but part of my writing modus operandi is to be utterly private about my work until it is finished. So they didn’t know. And when I walked out of that room announcing, “I’ve just been given a six-figure sum and a publishing contract”, it was kind of hard for them to believe.
Hard for me to believe, too, as I’ve indicated. Some journalists picked it up and before long they were calling it a “real-life fairytale”.
I joined that SFF writer’s workshop out of curiosity, just to find out what it was like. It was one of the very first writers’ workshops on the Internet. Back in 1999 nobody knew much about this kind of platform. It was run by SFF publishers Del Rey, to their absolute credit. The workshop is still operational. You can view their “Hall of Fame” here, and it’s a pretty impressive line-up of writers.
AV: Wow, that is an impressive “Hall of Fame”. I’m curious, when you sat down to write The Ill-Made Mute, did you do so with an eye towards publication or did it just sort of happen?
CDT: The Bitterbynde Trilogy simply evolved. I had always written stories as a form of self-expression. Writing, for me, was pure recreational pleasure. To me, the primary purpose of writing was to create stories and worlds of my own. If anyone else should ever read those tales, well that would be either terrifying or a bonus, depending on how they responded.
As a matter of fact I had written all three books in the trilogy before I ever showed anyone. The first person to read them was a very close friend. After that, the manuscripts lay gathering dust in a drawer for a long time. The only reason I was willing to upload a few paragraphs to the writing workshop was that I could pretend that the other workshop members were not actually real people – they were only figments of cyberspace, and therefore if they disliked my work it wouldn’t matter. (I am quite good at playing mind-games with myself.)
AV: We were chatting a bit beforehand and you spoke passionately about heritage fruit and something called a “Pig’s Snout”. I hate admitting ignorance, but I’m a bit of a food dunce, and haven’t really a clue what any of that means. Now that I know there’s a fruit in the world called “Pig’s Snout”, however, I feel I must know more.
CDT: I can’t tell you about the ‘Pig’s Snout’ because Australian quarantine laws are (rightly) very fierce. Importing an apple variety costs several thousands of dollars and takes around 2 ½ years. However, we have plenty of other heirloom fruits here in the Great Southern Land. The heritage fruit trees that exist in Australia today are clonally descended from trees brought to our shores by the early settlers, when no plant quarantine laws existed.
As a matter of fact, this country is officially fire blight free, so when that hellish bacterial plague swept across Europe and the Americas wiping out vast tracts of apple and pear orchards, the only place in the world where some of those ancient fruit lineages survived was Australia.
In the USA, ancient fruit cultivars are generally known as ‘heirloom fruits’ while in Australia they are called ‘heritage fruits’. As for a definition:
Old fashioned or ‘heritage’ fruit trees including apple, quince, fig, plum, peach and pear trees are increasingly popular due to their delicious and diverse flavours and their nutritional qualities. In 21st century supermarkets only a limited range of commercial fruit varieties is available to us. They are chosen for their keeping qualities, their ability to be transported with very little bruising, their good looks… flavour is often low on the list of desirable characteristics. Diversity is also sadly lacking.
During the 19th and early 20th centuries the diversity was huge. Old nursery catalogues were filled with hundreds of varieties of plums, peaches, pears, grapes, figs, medlars, apples etc., few of which are grown today.
Cloning by grafting means that new trees are genetically identical to their parents. The genetic code of heritage trees is unchanged from that of the original trees which grew centuries ago in China, Great Britain and Europe. For example, one apple variety, “Court Pendu Plat”, is 1500 years old – the oldest known apple variety. Introduced into Europe during Roman times, it flourishes to this day, in backyards and heritage orchards around the world.
AV: You talk about fire bight, cloning and grafting genetically modified trees, and seemingly immortal fruit… I’m beginning to suspect the world you live in is way cooler than my own.
When you aren’t in the orchard, what’re you working on these days?
CDT: At the moment I am working on a biography of an ancestor of mine who had an extraordinary life and left behind many letters and diaries recording his experience from the First World War.
AV: Oh wow, writing about the First World War sounds amazing, so much material to sift through, so many possibilities! I’m curious how the writing process for a non-fiction biography differs from something like The Bitterbynde Trilogy? I imagine the research aspect is significantly different, but is your general approach similar?
CDT: It’s a totally different approach, Anthony – one that I had to learn. It was utterly new to me. It’s true that I engaged in a good deal of research for The Bitterbynde – research into (for me) fascinating topics such as the history of the etiquette of dining, British folklore, historical costumes, and festivals and traditions of the British Isles… but with fantasy, the writer has the freedom to taste and sample from one huge and virtually never-ending buffet of exotic dishes. With non-fiction that buffet still exists (one could spend several lifetimes writing about the Real World and not even scratch the surface) but one is strictly limited to tasting and sampling within a restricted time period and geographical area. So I found myself asking questions like, were there steam-powered buses in Melbourne in 1915? Were electric toasters common in households back then? What were people’s attitudes to, say, military conscription?
My aim with the non-fiction work is to be completely, rigorously factual. Otherwise there’s no point. And unlike The Bitterbynde, the First World War story was already written before I was born – my job is not to invent, but to trace the threads, gather them up and make sense of them, weaving them into a beautiful, intricate, amazing tapestry of truth and flesh-and-blood adventure.
AV: So, in addition to The Bitterbynde Trilogy you also wrote The Crowthistle Chronicles, carving out a name for yourself in that sort of high fantasy world. Do you think you’ll ever return to this genre?
CDT: Like most people I never say never, but I have to admit that it’s not looking very likely. That said, I recently penned a short story for a forthcoming fantasy anthology.
AV: There you are fans of fantasy, she has not abandoned us! Between heritage fruit and the First World War, you must have a really cool reading list!
CDT: Oh yes, I think it’s cool! ? I’ve just finished reading some of E. Nesbit’s delightful and inspiring children’s stories, and I’ve started “Landscape And Memory”, by Simon Schama. After that I intend to delve into Storm Constantine’s Wraeththu trilogy. The First World War reading list is absolutely riveting and includes titles such as Lynch’s ‘Somme Mud’ and Mitchell’s ‘Backs to the Wall.”
So much to read, so little time!
AV: So little time, indeed! I want to thank you for sharing yours with us. Chatting with you has been absolutely wonderful (and educational).
CDT: Thank you, Anthony, for your thoughtful questions and for the opportunity to interact with SF Signal’s readers!