Another conversation with Karen Brooks – author extraordinaire

What a great pleasure it is to post this interview. Karen R. Brooks is the author of nine books and is currently working on her tenth. She’s a columnist, journalist (with a column in Queensland’s Courier Mail), an academic and a social commentator. She’s also a treasured friend.

Karen Brooks, author

We got together last week whilst I was in Hobart, Tasmania and as usual those hours flew past as we discussed all manner of things. She’s the sort of warm person I’d love to take, (along with my copy of Shakespeare’s works, Lord of the Rings trilogy and the next favourite book) to that proverbial desert island – you’d never run out of interesting things to talk about.

So settle down with a cuppa (like we did), a juicy morsel to eat and enjoy our revealing conversation.

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So we’ve come to the final book in the series, The Curse of the Bond Riders, ILLUMINATION. Karen, it’s been a momentous and fascinating journey for me, one of your devout readers, I imagine journey’s end brings whole lot of mixed emotions for you?

Can I just say these are great questions, Sheryl?  Thanks for asking them. For a number of reasons, it’s both a delight and quite hard to revisit The Curse of the Bond Riders, but here goes…

Finishing The Curse of the Bond Riders was huge and not simply because the trilogy is between 700,000 and 800,000 words. I think, in the end, I spent almost eight years of my life in that world – that’s counting the initial thinking about it, research, learning Italian, some rough planning, the writing of Tallow (while working full-time, writing a non-fiction book and writing for newspapers and magazines as well – I’m a glutton for punishment) and then waiting for the novel to find a home. When it did, with Random House and the wonderful Leonie Tyle, who contracted the entire series, little did I know what lay ahead.

The writing of Votive and Illumination coincided with so many things in my personal life – being diagnosed and treated for cancer, losing one of my closest friends to the disease, moving house twice, moving jobs and, basically, being forced to make a serious career change. It was a bumpy ride in every sense of the word. Finishing the series was bitter-sweet as a consequence. It was both a great relief and a parting that was simply heart-wrenching. I cried buckets as I wrote the last scenes and then sent the manuscript away. It sounds so maudlin and self-indulgent now, but I also think I was weeping about many other things as well; things I hadn’t yet admitted to myself or confronted because I needed to be strong – others needed me to be as well. I love Tallow’s world and the characters but in the end, saying goodbye, as painful as it felt, was just a prelude to a much harder one.

We’ve talked before about the organisation of your work and during its writing journey, but it fascinates me how you were able to keep track of the plot and character development through this immense series (Illumination is 656 pages). How were you able to reel in the line on all those little story ‘fishies’ of information and action? 

I am laughing reading this because I wish I could say to you I had some grand master plan or that I have a whiteboard with arrows and sticky-notes and all sorts of things going on, or even that I keep know from beginning to end what’s going to happen. I wish!

When you were with me and I was showing you what I did, I realised how ridiculous it all seemed. I am not a planner, not in any great way. I now know I’m a panster – but I do research – possibly, too much. I’m ridiculously rigorous about making connections – within and across all books – so the internal logic of plot and character is consistent. I want the books to be able to stand close scrutiny (but, having said that, no doubt I missed some.  :)

Before I wrote Votive, I re-read Tallow and made copious notes about things I had to be sure to bring across into the next novel. I did the same for Illumination – I read Tallow again, and then Votive and tried to ensure that anything I’d started (and I could have kicked myself for some of the things I did – and didn’t), I finished – and not in an ex-machina way either, but in a manner that was true to the character, the narrative arc and the world. I hope I was successful!

But, I do keep a great deal in my head as well. That’s why, after I submitted the finished ms of Illumination to the publishers in July 2011 as asked, I couldn’t stop thinking about the book and realised, much to my horror, that I still wasn’t happy with the storyline. So, I recalled the ms and asked for an extension, which Random House generously gave me. I then rewrote entire scenes, tweaking and editing and changing a couple of the scenarios. Again, it was about being true to the characters and plot.

A dear friend, who’s a writer, said to me “Are you nuts? For God’s sake, woman, you just got rid of it – you have agonised over this. Let it go!” But I couldn’t let it go completely the way it was. It wasn’t quite right. So, I spent 15, 16 and even 18 hour days, where I’d beaver away until 1-2am, burning the candle at both ends, to get it right. The ms went back to the publisher in September and with nary a correction or query from my wonderful editors, so it was worth it…

 I adored Tallow, a courageous girl, then woman of immense strength and power, yet vulnerable, her beauty, her capacity for love, her honesty and of course, her extraordinary talent. I imagine you spent a lot of time thinking and planning her character development.

 Can you share some of the insights you had while writing her? And while you were writing, did you have a picture in your mind (and jpg) of how she looked?

I am so glad you liked her, I really am. Thank you – I love the way you describe her :). I love her and wish I were more like her. But again, while I knew where I wanted her to start, the humble beginnings and, to a degree, finish, I didn’t have a clue how she was going to arrive there – I thought about her all the time but did I plan her? No. I threw her into scenarios, pitted her against characters, broke her heart, made her endure what should never be endured and she not only survived, she thrived.

I think, for me, the most important thing was to make sure she was never a victim. Others in the novel perceived her that way (at their own peril), but Tallow never did. So, in that regard, I didn’t plan her or even spend a great deal of time considering how she was going to turn out – she just did. Phew! Of course, every time she was in a scene, I thought deeply about her motivation, her way of expressing herself, how she interacted, even her physical responses and made sure she developed as the tale progressed – that she (and other characters) evolved.  (Ed: Brilliant info here for writers, Karen).

As for how she looked. Funny you should ask that. In the first book, I could see her clearly. To me, she looked like Winona Ryder’s character, Call (the android who is asexual) in Alien Resurrection. Beyond Tallow, I didn’t see her so much as feel her – I just realised – how appropriate for an Estrattore. :) I know some readers have expressed discontent with the cover of Illumination, that she doesn’t have the silver eyes. Apart from the fact that she learned to hide and celebrate her differences by then, covers rarely satisfy everyone and I kind of like that some readers have such a clear idea of how they believe Tallow looked, they felt that wasn’t really her – they must have invested heavily in her and I feel humbled by that.

I like the cover – to me, it’s more a suggestion of Tallow – it’s alluring and it evokes my Venetian world and its heady seductiveness (as well as the misty threat of the Limen and Morte Whisperers) quite marvellously.

Karen’s beautiful work room

Here’s a nitty-gritty question about how do you write your first drafts? On paper by hand or on the computer? Freely without stopping too often to edit? Or are you a compulsive control-freak (like me) who must consciously push beyond those bonds to become a freer writer?

I note-take by hand into journals (which sit beside me as type), but I write straight onto the computer. I also have to get the beginning of a novel just right. I rewrite and rewrite and edit (sometimes twenty or so drafts) just to get the entry into the story right. Usually, the first 5-10 chapters, then I just go like wind to the end – freely and crushed by self-doubt!

I’ve met writers who are quite obsessive about not telling anyone about their plotlines, characters etc while they’re still writing. I’m a bit of a sharer and (as you know) can’t help talking about my story to someone I trust is truthfully interested. Sometimes, it actually opens other pathways in my brain whilst retelling too, (an extra bonus), and sometimes others have been very generous in helpful comments and critiques, for which I’m very grateful(Here’s looking at you, Karen, Dee and Angela).

Karen, I’d love to know more about how you feel talking to others during your work-in-progress. 

I am one of those who doesn’t like to tell – and border on being obsessive about NOT talking (I love that you do). I even recoil from saying the novel’s title, though I have in the past and add that it’s the “working” one. I don’t know. I think I am superstitious (stupid-stitious, my hubby, Stephen, calls it :)) and I don’t want to put the mockers on the novel.

I also want to get it right in my head first and then on the page, so I don’t tend to talk to anyone, except Stephen – he’s a fantastic sounding board. In the process of research, I’m obliged to speak to people about the novel, but I only talk about it in the broadest terms. I have had to do a lot of that with this next one. The research has been fantastic and moved me so far out of my comfort zone, but gosh, I’ve met some wonderful, passionate people who are so ready and excited to help and provide much needed information. Oh, and my agent. She’s wonderful to bounce ideas off – but she’s also read some of the work-in-progress (mainly to tell me if this idea is worth pursuing – according to her, it is), but that’s it. My lips are pretty much sealed :)

In the last interview we did after the publication of VOTIVE, I asked you what lies ahead in your writing world. Now that this series is finished, are you well into writing your next book?

I am, Sheryl. I am over 100,000 words in and not quite halfway! At this stage of the year, I wanted to be further along, hoped I would be. But I also promised myself I wouldn’t fret over it (ha!) and that I would take my time. I think, I hope, it will have been worth it.

Despite not really wanting to talk about the book, I will reveal it’s a stand alone, historical fiction set in the early 1400s – in England when Henry IV was king, but also with significant reference to the Low Countries and the relationship England at the time had with Germany and the Dutch. My heroine is of Dutch descent; my hero, English. It takes place over eighty years so is quite “epic”. It has intrigue, murder, loss, soul-shaking love, friendship, family, politics and, of course, the church. I have shared bits and bobs on Facebook – even had help naming the main characters which was wonderful. But not much else – superstitious me. I was born on Black Friday, after all :)

Thanks again for these wonderful questions, Sheryl. I love that you make me think about the creative process. I probably don’t do that nearly enough as I should!

Thank you, Karen for taking the time and the thought to answer my inquisition so generously – I’m sure it will be appreciate by all who read this post. All the best for the new story!

Being on the other side of the author interview

As you know, gentle readers, I interview people on my blog, usually authors and usually people I care about, and whose books I love. This time, I thought I’d swap places on the couch. I also got to share some things nobody knows about me in the Bio at the beginning.

Forgive me being ‘centre stage’ ! Promise I won’t do it too often. :) This post is reprinted from the October Creative Kids Tales blog where its owner and administrator, Georgie Donaghey interviewed me for her October post. Georgie has been a great supporter of children’s books and their creators during her blog’s first year. So Happy Birthday, CKT! Take it away, Georgie….

Q. Sheryl, where’s your favourite place to write?

I love my workroom with its view over my garden, but nowadays I find I can write anywhere – usually with my laptop stable-table (thank you, IKEA), and my trusty ASUS Zen computer. Often I head out to our back deck, the best place for winter sunshine or summer breezes. I can write away from home too. Once I start re-reading what I wrote the day before, I’m in another place and the story takes off again. Who’d want to trade this life?

Tidied up especially. Yep, that is tidy.

Q. What inspires you?

I think it’s mostly books and language that inspire me – all the wonderful narratives I’ve read since I was four; all the unforgettable characters who’ve kept me company for so many years; all the places I’ve been in my imagination because of fabulous authors.

I’m also inspired by people who fight against the odds to make this world a better place – the scientists, the artists, writers and political activists.

Q. Do you decide what’s going to happen in your story or do your characters tell you?

Good question, Georgie! For me, it’s collaboration – a combination of instinct about story-telling (maybe that’s the right-brain at the wheel) and an organised, thoughtful consideration about plots, characters, dialogue and all the rest. I can jump between right and left side brain without too much clanking of gears. Sometimes, the transition is so smooth, I’m purring along in a lovely, crimson red Maserati, with the hood down.

Enough of the car analogies, though! I do love it when an idea comes from out of the blue and I follow it at full throttle. Darn! I promised no more cars.

Q. How many rejections did you receive before you were accepted?

For my first book, Secrets of Eromanga, probably around eight rejections. The letters did get longer and more positive every time though, and I did improve the story after each rejection.

The question is why did I send off the story before it was fully baked? Impatient? Willing to take risks? Yep, that’s me. Nowadays, I curb my impatience, and I have to say my writing has definitely improved over the past six years. My short stories and my school plays are finding their place in the world without rejections – does that mean something? Mmmm, must think about that one more.

Q. How did you celebrate your first book being published?

I think we went out to our favourite Thai restaurant and drank a whole bottle of superb Margaret River Dry White. It did all seem a bit surreal though – seeing as it took 18 months from acceptance to holding the book.

Before the publication, I’d had the amazing experience of being awarded an Australian Society of Authors Mentorship. Now that really was an occasion to celebrate. It boosted my confidence no end – to feel that I must be heading on the right path if strangers who are experienced writers and editors believed in my story writing ability.

Q. Do you road test your ideas before you start your story?

I probably do a bit of road testing (are we back on cars again?). But it’s more in my head than in front of a person. I trust my conscious and sub-conscious, absolutely.

I do a lot of thinking before I start writing. I do a lot of thinking about everything. You wouldn’t believe what goes on in my head sometimes. Even when I’m cooking dinner or hosing the garden, the old brain is at work. I don’t do it consciously all the time, but I know that eventually the words will come. And that’s just the first draft – my favourite part is the rewriting, the re-working and editing, that’s when the magic can sometimes happen. And all is well with the world (of a word-crazy author, at least).

I have a couple of trusted writing friends that I share my stories in progress with and get valuable feed-back from them. Thanks, girls!

Last week, I was out in the bush, at the Chinchilla State School doing a writer-in-residence gig. I ‘road-tested’ the first chapter of my current work with the Years 5/6/7s. FANGUS FEARBOTTOM (book 1 of a trilogy) is still in the polishing stage, but you can tell when kids are interested and caught up in a story. And I reckon this novel could be a winner when (notice I say when, not if?) a publisher picks it up.

Q. What’s next from Sheryl Gwyther?

I have another school play appearing soon in The School Magazine (love writing plays!) It’s called SCAREDY CROW.

I’ll keep writing my novels – like FANGUS FEARBOTTOM, MACBETH & ME and SINGING THE WIRES – did I mention I have three works-in-progress? Yeah, that’s me, a glutton for punishment. But I love all three and they’re heading down to the finishing line.

I would like to do more art work, painting and printmaking… my other loves. But words keep getting in the way. Maybe this year sometime?

This year, I was elected on to the Board of Directors of the Australian Society of Authors (ASA) so that takes up some of my time too – it’s an honour to represent authors (in particular, children’s authors).

I’ve also taken on the Assistant Regional Advisor for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators in Queensland (SCBWI), and it’s a great experience. It’s great connecting up with other people who are passionate about children’s writing, like your good self, Georgie! All part of what keeps me going.

I also love visiting the wonderful and special writers I’ve met over the past few years, like Dee White, Angela Sunde, Tania McCartney, Karen Brooks and Lynn Priestley – they’ve become like sisters, and I love them dearly.

Thank you again, Georgie, for the opportunity of being on your fabulous blog.

The promise of a story … is it really there?

I bet you’ve all been there … up to your ears in another edit as you finish your final rewrite. Your manuscript printed out because you thought it finished. You’ve completed the synopsis, the envelope to a publisher is ready but doubt still dribbles around your mind.

Does the story live up to its promise? Is its theme articulated in the synopsis as well it should? Is this story the best it can be?

I’ve been working on a story that’s close to my heart. It’s about a working sheepdog and a girl who doesn’t give up on him even though he’s as useful as a dried-up swimming hole on a scorcher of a day.

At last, it’s finished! Ha, famous last words!

Before sending it out to publishers, three trusted friends (children’s authors) read it for me. Lucky, they did as their collective advice pointed to something I suspected, (but which was easier not to face) something was missing from this story – its reason for being, its promise. What had seemed clear in my head hadn’t translated on the page.

Back to the drawing board! i.e. sitting on the back deck with a cup of tea, despondent and grumpy.

Of course, Dr R, the much-appreciated ear, and wage-earner of the household comments. ‘Why the long face and the frown rivalling the Grand Canyon?’ (You get the picture).
I explain.
And in his usual logical, scientific manner, Dr R. asks, ‘If you don’t know what the story’s about, why write it in the first place?’

So I rave on about a working dog I once knew many years ago, on a cattle station – a cute-looking kelpie bitza, who failed the rule … a working dog is not a pet. And how distressed and angry I felt at the time about my uncle’s unfair (in my eyes), unjustified treatment of the animal. In those days, I didn’t care too much about the reasons behind an unwritten rule like that.

Dr R adds, ‘So you do know why you wrote the story.’
And there it was – the passion behind the story, the reason I felt compelled to write it – only I hadn’t connected the dots. From then on in, I knew how to improve the narrative and make the synopsis sing.

It made me think about the stories I’ve read that resonate so purely and with such clarity in my heart, I can return to them like old friends and new lovers (no, Dr R., it’s a figure of speech!)

Why? It’s the passion that radiates from their creators. Nothing to do with love or sex, just pure passion for their subject matter.

Some of my favourite ‘passionate authors’ include Marcus Zusak, Karen Brooks, Cassandra Golds and David Almond.

I have a special part in my ‘storytelling-heart’ for British author, David Almond‘s novels, and in particular, his first award-winning novel, Skellig. “I began to discover a way to expose the extraordinariness in ordinary things … After that, it was as if Skellig had been waiting.” David Almond

David Almond

Almond grew up in Felling, a town of steep streets and old mineworks set high on the banks of the River Tyne. One of six children, he was raised in a “big Catholic family in a big Catholic community, with a great big Catholic church at the bottom of the hill.” His stories are fired by and freighted with the stuff of his home: the 1960s Newcastle of Clay (2005);The Fire-Eaters‘ folk songs and coaly sea (2003); the pit cottages and pockmarked, heathery hills of Kit’s Wilderness (1999); Michael’s town in Skellig, which is a shadowy version of Almond’s own. (For the rest of the article, The Guardian newspaper)

David Almond’s passion for that part of England where he grew up – its people, the landscape, the language – have all fed his ability to create extraordinary stories. I recommend his work without hesitation – for children and adults.

Do you have a favourite author who weaves such magic for you too? Pray tell! :)

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A writing retreat is as good as a holiday!

It’s what many writers’ dream about – a quiet, comfortable, inspiring place to write.

Taroona, Hobart

You might already have that in your usual writing ‘bolt-hole’ at home, and let’s face it, anywhere is a good place to write – it’s the lack of willpower (and interruptions from family needs, a paid job or other various non-essential activities) that usually prevents one actually writing. That’s what it’s like for me, at least.

Making the break away from one’s comfort zone every now and then is important. With no other demands on your time or attention you’re forced to face those manuscripts banging on the door of your mind.

I’m revelling in my current ‘writing retreat from heaven’ – house-sitting in the beautiful city of Hobart.

Hobart is the capital city of Tasmania (the tiny island State at the bottom of the Australian mainland if you’re not familiar with our place on the globe). Not only is this a gorgeous small city, it’s home to some of my favourite writers, it’s filled with historical and beautiful buildings, it sits alongside a fabulous expanse of water, the Derwent River just before it reaches the sea, and behind, like some geological fortress, the 1,271 metre high Mt Wellington towers over the city. 

Hobart from Mt Wellington

The home I’m looking after for five weeks has large picture-windows that look out towards the ever-changing water. It also has a very efficient  fireplace – perfect for Hobart’s chilly spring nights. No freezing garret for me!

Dawn across the Derwent River

On my list of ‘to do’ writing during my time in Hobart:

  1. Work on the final edit of my story for 8-11 year olds, Fangus Fearbottom.
  2. Work on another edit of the series’ second story (well, it will be a series if a publisher likes it), Fangus Fearbottom – The Banana Bandits.
  3. Outline the plot for the third story, Fangus Fearbottom – The Vampire Sniffer. I want to write the first draft in this year’s NaNoWriMo – the global National Novel Writing Month.

I’ll catch up with several of my writing compatriots this week (can’t wait to see you again, Karen B!) and Tassie author, Julie Hunt.

With Tassie children's author, Julie Hunt.

Looking forward to meeting some new friends from the world of children’s writing this week too. Also have to go back to Fullers Bookshopto talk to their children’s books expert, the delightful Jen Murnaghan.

Outside my window - a European goldfinch.

So, yes, I recommend a writing retreat every now and then!

Where would you go if you had the chance? I’d love to hear about your dream writing retreat.

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Author interview part 2 – Karen Brooks … all about writing

PART 2 of my conversation with author, Karen Brooks, celebrating the release of her new book, Votive

Karen's work space

Here’s where I question Karen about some insights and hints about writing. (I know this will interest many of my writerly friends, for a start!)

Welcome back, Karen! Now to the writing side of things…. :)

Q.  Did you plan out the trilogy before you started writing Tallow, the first in the series? And how do you plan, on big sheets of paper, sticky notes?

I had the beginning, I knew that Tallow would become a courtesan and I have the end – everything in the middle is happening as I write…

So, I both plan and free form. I have sticky notes all over my computer, I have a corkboard in Scrivener, and I have scraps of paper, notebooks and all sorts of things scattered throughout the house and in my handbags.

How I don’t drive my very patient husband nuts is beyond me – I wake up in the middle of the night and begin to scribble stuff down. I open my iPad and send myself emails in the wee hours from bed.

If we’re walking the dogs, sometimes I stop, because I haven’t really been listening to the conversation so much as participating from a distance as my mind wanders and I come up with a plot fix, or character foible and need to write it down. If I don’t, I often don’t remember. Mind you, sometimes what seems like a brilliant idea at 3am is, in the cold light of day, utter crap! LOL! 

Q.  Are you a writer who can keep going with a first draft without stopping all the time? Or are you (like me) can’t resist a bit of editing as you go?

Both. I have to have a first chapter. Absolutely. I am linear. If I can’t craft a reasonable first chapter (the first chapter in Votive is the 9th version I wrote and, when I say version, they were all completely different), I can’t continue. But then I do try to revise what I did the day before and move on. However, when I get towards the end of a book, I just write…Fix it all at the end.

 Q.  What would be the best piece of advice you would give new and developing writers?

This was given to me a long time ago and it still stands out as the best I’ve been given (apart from read, read, read and write, write, write – the latter which implies, editing, deleting, revising etc.), is to read successful and unsuccessful books in the genre you’re writing in but read as a writer, not to lose yourself in the narrative.

Read to understand how the author has developed character, set place, created a ‘voice’, arrived at the tone, crafted dialogue. It’s a completely different way of reading – you deconstruct the book, analyse as a writer and pick up so many useful tips along the way.

Q.  What do you wish you’d known before you started writing The Curse of the Bond Riders?

Because I’d already written a few books, I thought I had a good idea of what it was like to draw all the narrative threads together… Ha! I should have given myself more time… it’s a more precious commodity than I realised.

Q.  What are you writing at the moment? A new series on the horizon we can look forward to?

I am just bringing the trilogy to a close with the third book, Illumination. It’s already far too long and I will have to cut it (over 200K!!!!) without losing the all-important narrative threads and making sure I tie them off satisfactorily (hence above comment).

After that, I plunge straight into a new series that is tentatively being called (and you read it here first): The Arwen Chronicles. This is for adults. It’s a story I came up with straight after Tallow– in 2006 as well (what was I drinking that year?). I have been steadily developing it and collecting my research. I am very excited about it. I also have another novel I will start after that which is set back in Italy and other parts of Europe and moves through time.

Karen's interview with ABC's Peter Thompson at the Noosa Long Weekend Festival

Thank you again, Karen. Like most authors, I loved hearing how you plan your stories and how you write and I’m sure many other readers on this blog will too.

All the very best with Votive – I hope the bookshops are swamped with readers clamouring for their copies.  I’m over half-way through the book, and although trying to stop reading so I don’t finish too soon, I’m afraid it’s looming on the horizon!  

More of Karen’s work as a social commentator. She also writes a regular column in Queensland’s Courier Mail newspaper.

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