Melbourne-born, Canberra-educated and now based in Sydney’s eastern suburbs, Nix has sold more than 6 million books worldwide, according to publisher Allen & Unwin. His fantasy and science fiction books for children and adults have been translated into more than 40 languages.
The 56-year-old says he is mostly spared the “ludicrous” online criticism from men who argue women cannot be knights in a medieval fantasy. “I actually don’t get them very often, but women authors do,” he says. “Which again is a male privilege thing. If a woman had written the same books I did, they would have copped much more flak about gender equality.”
Nix says other contemporary issues also “creep” into his novels – the books in his Old Kingdom series as well as Angel Mage are concerned with the plight of refugees and “the blaming of others for what is seen as their faults”.
“You can address things allegorically,” he says. “Whatever you write it will be infused with things you’re concerned about.”
Nix also expresses an interest in reversing stereotypes in his novels “or just subverting readers’ expectations”. His 2017 book Frogkisser!, which is being developed into a movie, twists the traditional frog-prince fairytale into a story of a feisty princess who can break curses with magic kisses.
“Their plan is to make an animated musical,” Nix says of the film production. “Whether it will be made, who knows?”
Nix’s Keys to the Kingdom series is also set to be adapted for the big screen, but the author has learnt from past experience not to count on Hollywood. He co-wrote a pilot based on the Old Kingdom books for Amazon which, he says, “loved it up until the moment they decided not to pick it up”.
It was previously pitched as a feature film to Brad Pitt’s Plan B production company, he says. “Curiously back in 2009, the studio’s biggest problem with Sabriel was it had a female protagonist. In fact, we kept getting asked ‘When’s the guy coming in?’.”
Above a branch of the Commonwealth Bank in Sydney’s eastern suburbs, Nix’s office is a hive of creativity. His neighbours include film director Kim Mordaunt and producer Sylvia Wilczynski, whose last movie was the award-winning The Rocket, documentary producer Kelly Stoner and whale photographer Jem Cresswell. His workspace is filled with towers of books he has authored as well as a standing desk from where he conjures fantasy worlds at the impressive rate of a book each year.
Nix became a full-time writer in 2001 after a career in publishing including as a literary agent, book editor, marketing consultant and bookseller. He signed up Liane Moriarty’s sister Jaclyn and sold her first novel Feeling Sorry for Celia a week after finding it in a pile of unsolicited manuscripts.
He studied writing at the University of Canberra and was a part-time soldier in the Australian Army reserve for four years. “We mostly made things and blew them up,” he says. “We built bridges and placements, and demolitions was a big part of it.”
He was also one of the authors chosen to be an ambassador to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the National Library of Australia last year.
Nix acknowledges the praise politicians lavish on cultural institutions such as the library, but “they’ve got to give them the money”.
“As is so common with politicians, they say one thing and do another,” he says.
He will appear at the library on December 12 with fellow screenwriter Felicity Packard, one of the creators and writers of true-crime drama franchise Underbelly as well as a contributor to television dramas such as Janet King, G.P. and Blue Heelers.
Nix is modest about his success as a writer, attributing a significant part of it to luck. “A lot of that is just about what’s going on with the zeitgeist,” he says. “You can write a wonderful, wonderful book but it’s just at the wrong time. It can be too early or too late or it can be badly published. There’s so many things that can not work.”
He says publishing and bookselling is about the “transfer of enthusiasm” from one person to another: “Word of mouth is still the most powerful tool.”
An avid reader since childhood, Nix confesses to a “particular love” for fantasy and science fiction. “It’s the ability to draw your own boundaries and create things within it,” he says. “You do have a great scope to make stuff up. Even though to make it work it does have to be connected to reality.”
Nix’s fantasy landscapes bear little resemblance to Sydney’s eastern suburbs, yet he draws inspiration from locations such as Waverley Cemetery. “It’s quiet and it’s peaceful and maybe the presence of all those other past lives does help you think about characters,” he says. “My emotional reaction to places are certainly things I use in my fiction, so the environment in which you live is always important.”
Acclaimed for his fictional world-building, Nix is a bower bird when it comes to ideas, finding inspiration from what he reads, sees and hears. “I guess the popular conception is that books have one big idea and it all flows from that,” he says. “But I think most of the time books have lots and lots of small ideas that coalesce together over time.”
Nix traces the lineage of Angel Mage to his childhood in Canberra when he first read Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers and later watched the 1973 cinematic version featuring Oliver Reed and Raquel Welch. “I knew I wanted to write a book like The Three Musketeers about friendship and a small group of comrades,” he says.
Angel Mage is marketed as an adult novel in Britain, but it’s “half-and-half here”, Nix says. What counts as a work for young adults is a “huge question” debated by authors, librarians, booksellers and publishers, he says. “It’s a marketing term. It’s not about the content of the book in a lot of ways. It’s about where to sell it.”
He describes himself as “a very secretive writer” who won’t share his work with anyone until he is satisfied with it. “My motivation is always to write a story I would like to read myself,” he says. “I guess I want to make it work for myself and then I test it out.”
Andrew Taylor is a Senior Reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald.