Meet Geoffrey McSkimming

Geoffrey McSkimming
Geoffrey McSkimming

Geoffrey McSkimming is the author of Ogre in a Toga and Other Perverse Verses, the Cairo Jim chronicles, and the Phyllis Wong books. Today  he is visiting to talk about writing and his new book Phyllis Wong and the Return of the Conjuror. Welcome!

Can you tell us a bit about where you live?

I divide my time between two places: Sydney, where I live in an old apartment by the water, only a short ferry ride to the Sydney Opera House and the city, and the second place is Cawdor in Scotland.

I write the Phyllis Wong books in both places (in Scotland we light the fire in the old stone cottage we stay in, and it’s the perfect place to lock myself away and travel into Phyllis’s world).

This is your second Phyllis Wong book. Is writing the second book of a series very different from writing the first book?

Yes and no. In Phyllis Wong and the Return of the Conjuror, Phyllis’s world opens up in huge new ways that she has never encountered before. She discovers magic far greater than the magic she has known. So that meant that because of what happens in the second book (and also in the third mystery, which I’m finishing at the moment), the story is very different from the first, even though many of the characters from Phyllis Wong and the Forgotten Secrets of Mr Okyto reappear in the second story.

But the overall atmosphere of Phyllis’s world from the first book is still there — the friends and neighbours, the places she visits in the city, the humour and the suspense. And the unexpected.

What gave you the idea for the Phyllis Wong books?

My publisher at Allen & Unwin, Anna McFarlane, got in touch with my agent and asked whether I’d like to write a novel for A&U. I hadn’t written a novel for a while, after having completed the 19 volume Cairo Jim chronicles; I’d been writing other things — character-based tours for the Art Gallery of NSW and a performance piece based on Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.

At about this time I’d come into contact with Australia’s leading female magician, Sue-Anne Webster, and I was publishing, in a magazine, a regular series of magic tricks she’d written. I’d also been using stage magic in the Hamlet presentation, which I performed for a while. Anna McFarlane became aware of all of this and when she asked whether I’d like to write a novel, the idea of a young girl magician came slowly to mind. The character of Phyllis has developed (and is developing) with the more I learn about magic from Sue-Anne (I don’t know the secrets behind the tricks; I don’t want to!) … it’s so true that magicians think in ways very different to most other folk, and I’ve learnt that from knowing Sue-Anne as well. It’s this way of thinking that propels Phyllis through the amazing mysteries she encounters.

Do you prefer to write with pen and paper, or using a computer/laptop?

Both. I make lots and lots of notes by hand in my notebooks, but I write the stories onto the laptop, simply because when I’m in the full force of the story I can write faster on the keyboard than with a pen.

What do you like to do when you are not writing?

Reading. I read lots, mainly old crime and detective novels. I never watch TV. I like to go for long walks (that’s great for sorting out story problems often), and we go to the pictures usually once a week — there’s a glorious art deco cinema nearby and it’s the perfect place to escape!

Did you have a favourite author when you were growing up?

I’m still trying to work out what growing up involves, but when I was younger I liked Ray Bradbury’s stories and Roald Dahl’s and Tolkien’s. Later on I read Shakespeare (and acted in some of his plays when I worked, long ago, as a professional actor), Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, Agatha Christie and a swag of Golden Age detective novel writers.

Do you have any advice for young writers?

  1. Read lots.
  2. Always carry a notebook around with you and jot every idea down, no matter how silly or little it might seem at the time. You never know when one of those little ideas will become a gem!
  3. Listen and watch and soak up the atmosphere around you all the time.
  4. Try to write a little bit every day (or a lot if you can manage it).
  5. Enjoy the wonderful craft of scribbling. Have fun!

Are you working on any new projects at the moment and if so, are you able to tell us a bit about them?

I’m finishing the third Phyllis Wong mystery and I’ve just started on the fourth. I’m having a ball finding the things that Phyllis discovers … with the new magic she finds in Phyllis Wong and the Return of the Conjuror, it enables her to try to solve crimes and mysteries that have started at various times way back in history and which have consequences for us today. I love the fun and the intrigue and I really enjoy uncovering things from the past that are, to use a robust cliché, stranger than fiction …

Is there is anything you would like to add?

The only thing I can add is to always remember: there is no such thing as a wicked gherkin.


Check out Geoffrey McSkimming’s website to find out more about him and stop by for more about the Phyllis Wong books! Phyllis Wong and the Return of the Conjuror is published by Allen & Unwin and is now available at all good bookshops and online.