Fiona McIntosh writes about all manner of ghastly deeds but in real life she wouldn't hurt a fly. Genevieve Swart meets the queen of make-believe.IN THE world of popular fantasy fiction, Fiona McIntosh is a street-smart enchantress. With a background in PR, marketing and travel, McIntosh knows who her readers are and what they want: thrilling, fast-paced reads. Her third trilogy is the Percheron series, set in a fictionalised Ottoman empire, with a hero modelled on Colin Firth's Mr Darcy. Its first book, Odalisque, was included in the 2006 Books Alive Great Read Guide and the second, Emissary, was published in December, with series rights sold in Britain, the US and Canada. McIntosh's writing career began seven years ago at a writing workshop in Tasmania led by Bryce Courtenay, who has dedicated his latest novel, Sylvia, to his protege. Writing was then no more than a hobby. "[My husband] Ian said, 'Just do this course and get it out of your system'. We thought - everybody thought - that would be that. But it opened up this dreadful can of worms."At the end of the week-long course, students had to read their stories aloud. "I would rather have gone through childbirth again. I said to Bryce, 'I don't want to do this'. The others had all written very contemporary urban-type stories and I'd written this exotic, Odalisque-type story."So I burst into tears . . . he took me aside and said, 'You are going to read this story out to the class because you are the only one here who is going to make it and, if you don't learn to do this now, I don't know what you're going to do when you have to do readings when you're published'."McIntosh returned home in January 2000 inspired. She finished her first book in 12 weeks. By June, she had a publishing contract with HarperCollins.That first series, Trinity, was inspired by the loss of a triplet when she was carrying IVF babies in 1990. "When I started writing I realised there was a little ode to the third lost child. It was called Trinity, it was a trilogy and it was about three children. It's not a sorrowful tale, it's a great big, romping, rampaging adventure. It was just my way of working it out."Born in England in 1960, McIntosh had an exotic upbringing, spending many months in Ghana, where her father worked at a goldmine. "It was a tiny camp in the bush, known as Bibiani . . . very colonial, Pimms at five and billiards at nine. I'm sure I've got itchy feet because of it."She studied marketing in Brighton, then took a PR job in London. "It gave me an insight into how you promote a product. All of that helps now. I think subconsciously I'm always in marketing mode."I was 21 when I decided to travel and came to Australia. I have never gone home [to live]. I met the man I wanted to be with; he was Australian."She met journalist Ian McIntosh while working in tourism in Alice Springs; the couple settled in Adelaide, where they started a monthly magazine, Travel News Australia. The title grew to be successful, but in 2000 doubt set in. "I was turning 40 and had my midlife crisis. I thought, 'I don't want to do this any more."'McIntosh found her niche in fantasy, where she has become a ruthlessly visual writer; gruesome scenes include the making of eunuchs, children trampled by elephants and execution by impaling. She laughs: "There's no cruel streak in me at all, if we're watching a nature program I can't even watch insects killing insects. Yet in these books I can do the most extraordinarily evil things to people. So, I don't know, it's a dark side."A lot of it I base on real life, things I've read. People love to tell me terrible, ghoulish stories. I once had someone give me this amazing book about torture." McIntosh read the book on a plane to Melbourne, squashed in the middle seat. "I was in my own little world and I must've been like, 'Ohhh, lovely' . . . and I suddenly realised I had a lot more arm room."Research is now an excuse to travel. For Odalisque she went to Istanbul to explore the Topkapi Palace harem: "Most of the women never left the harem. It was all about bathing, attention to beauty, pampering and etiquette. Some of them might never have been called [to the sultan] - and they spent every day of their lives getting ready."On a visit to Dubai last year, McIntosh stayed in a Bedouin camp, where she saw a belly dance that has inspired a scene in the final Percheron book, Goddess, out late this year. "It was done with a sword - a belly dance with a sword! I thought, I've got to use it."Even magic needs rules, McIntosh says. "I made that mistake in my first series, where the character with the magic was very powerful and even I began to wonder, 'Why doesn't he just blow everything up?' So I gave him a conscience, he refused to use his magic to kill. I got a lot smarter by the second series and now, by the third series, my magic is minimal; it's limited, because it makes the story stronger."Fantasy is a booming genre. "The world has turned very dark," she says, with terrorism, war and clashes of faith fuelling a desire for escapism. Fantasy is also a simpler world. "The lines between good and evil can get blurred," she says, citing the charismatic demon Maliz from her Percheron trilogy. "I'm trying to give the villains more facets. Nevertheless, it is more clear cut [than real life]."McIntosh has an intimidating amount of energy. "From January 2006, I went full-time writing, that's why I can write two books a year. [This] year I'm writing a children's fantasy for nine- to 12-year-olds."She founded a fantasy book club in Adelaide, with 65 members, among them the author Sean Williams and other fantasy writers such as Tony Shillitoe, Joel Shepherd, Shane Dix, Lian Hearn and David Cornish. In August McIntosh will publish the first of two crime books under the pen name Lauren Crow. Bye Bye, Baby is about a Scotland Yard detective in contemporary England ("I can't help myself, I think all the best crime writing is British-based"). But, based in Adelaide, McIntosh needed insider help. A British fan of her book Myrren's Gift emailed her, saying: "You've astonished me, because you've surprised me."McIntosh learnt he worked for Scotland Yard. "I said, 'I'm writing this crime book, will you help me?' Now he scouts scenes for me and sends photographs. I went over and he took me into Scotland Yard - it was fantastic."None of this might have happened without Courtenay's help. "Bryce didn't help me get published, I just sent it to HarperCollins and it hit the usual pile, but to have that calibre of writer urging you on is huge. I've never quite known how to thank Bryce."In 2005 she found a way, passing on "a glimmer of an idea" about children fighting in the Crusades that became Courtenay's Sylvia. "So that's why he's dedicated the book to me, which is really lovely."Payback takes many forms. McIntosh set up writing workshops, then TAFE asked her to teach a course in fantasy. Now she has followed Courtenay's lead and whispered "in the right ears" about an "incredible" author.
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