discoballs

2012 Snapshot Interview: Karen Brooks

Karen Brooks is a fantasy writer, a non-fiction writer, a columnist with the Courier Mail, a social commentator on radio and TV, and an Honorary Research Consultant at the Centre for Critical and Cultural Studies at the University of Queensland. You can finder her online at her website, www.karenrbrooks.com, twitter, and facebook.

1. ‘Illumination’, the third book in your trilogy ‘The Curse of the Bond Riders’ will be published this year. How has the trilogy been received so far, and what can we expect from this final chapter?

Thus far, readers of all ages have received the trilogy and Tallow and Dante’s story very well, which is utterly fabulous (though some were upset and quite cross with me for the way in which the first book ended – including my adult kids!). Because of the slightly longer gap than usual between the publication of Tallow and Votive (due to the fact I was diagnosed with cancer) a great number of readers still aren’t aware that the sequel, Votive is out, so have been coming to it a little slowly. I have to say, their emails, after they’ve read it, have been humbling and wonderful. They also tell me they’re eagerly awaiting Illumination, which is released July 1st. So, in answer to your question, so far, so good, but I hope the best is yet to come (and I guess my readers are as well ☺)

As for what to expect in the final book… more intrigue and conniving on the part of the nobiles and church, a lot of action. There’s betrayal of the highest order and loss of life. It’s also the opportunity for some of the characters to shed the masks they’ve metaphorically been wearing and step up and prove who and what they really are. There’s also passion, romance and revenge ☺. But it’s also the book where all the narrative threads come together and Tallow has to make some huge choices that not only effect her personally but the outcome of many lives. I don’t want to say too much more in case I spoil things!

2. One of the key features of the trilogy is the richly detailed society and politics of Serenissima. How important is research to your writing, and why did you decide to incorporate fantastical elements into this historical setting?

Research is integral to my writing. I spend a lot of time immersed in books particularly to get a sense of the time and place of my chosen setting – language, customs, culture, food, beliefs, people. I knew very little about Venice when I first conceived The Curse of the Bond Riders (which was originally entitled The Candlemaker’s Apprentice), and one of the pleasures was learning about this amazing city-state. I turned to the wonderful writers and artists who had committed their version of the place to writing, art and music. I also learned Italian so I could access less-known works (un-translated) but also get a feel for the ways in which communication occurred – how things were described and imagined. By the time I wrote Votive, I had been to Venice twice and found it to be an amazing and difficult place. It’s elusive, strange, completely compelling and you want to resist falling in love with it (which is impossible) because you just know you are going to get hurt – that what you feel won’t be reciprocated. ☺ I know that sounds quite sentimental, but it’s true. Everything I had read, however, from academic treatises, historical accounts, travel narratives to poetry, novels and even the films I viewed, didn’t prepare me for the Venice experience. It was breath-taking and painful all at once. I also tried to put that feeling in the novels – I guess mainly through Tallow, but other characters as well.

The trick with research, however, no matter how much you do, is to not let it appear in the novels or, if it does, that it’s seamless, organic. That’s not as easy as it sounds and it’s hard sometimes not to include a gem of information into a book – to prove how much work you put in or share that little nugget. An example is the election process for the Doge. It was so convoluted and ridiculous and marvelous and as much as I would have liked to incorporate it, it didn’t serve the story. Also, I changed the system of government and made it hereditary and elected – twisted facts to suit the fiction I was creating. I did that with a lot of the material, but only a tiny bit. An example of a fact that did creep into the story was that only the Doge was able to wear golden fabric. There were sumptuary laws in Venice (and in many other places) that restricted the wearing of certain fabrics and colours to particular classes. When I discovered that it was a perfect piece of fact that played into the narrative and had to be included!

The role of the courtesan, her training and how they interacted with the public as well as the restricted role of women in Venice was all based on historical records. Courtesans had a lot more freedom than the average woman, though the lower class women had more than their aristocratic sisters.

The politics and manipulation of the Serenissian government, the Council of Ten, for example and the role of the nobiles (as well as many of the names) are all taken from history as well. Venice was the maritime epicenter of the Renaissance world and a power to be reckoned with – that was, until the Black Sea was opened and altered the trading routes forever. When Napoleon conquered Venice in the 1700s, Venetian power was already in decline. But memories of its former glory live on in the buildings and the people. It’s quite magical really.

That’s the beauty of writing fantasy, particularly within a known historical period, you can build on what happened, change it slightly – a tweak here and there – and re-imagine events and identities within your story. I love the verisimilitude that working with history gives you. It can ground your book, give the fantasy aspects depth and richness and add to the “what if” quotient that I know as a reader I love.

3. Your career to-date is the most fantastic mix of education, research and social commentary. How does writing fiction fit into this mix, and what do you have planned next?

In many ways, writing fiction has been a blessing, a boon. It has allowed me to escape, to use aspects of what I do in my other roles in different ways and has given me a freedom my other writing and professional roles don’t always allow. I am now semi-retired from academia, so can dedicate more time to fiction and research and I am enjoying that immensely. I still do social commentary and write for newspapers and do radio and some TV work and I find that very stimulating and energizing, working to tight deadlines, doing live-to-air opinion. Keeps you focused and nervous!

In terms of writing fiction, I am working on two adult novels: one a contemporary and historical fantasy (it shifts time and place) that involves witchcraft, but not as we think we know it (and yes, it is thoroughly researched ☺) and, another historical fiction with not so much fantasy, but more magic realism and then only a little, that’s set in England and Flanders in the 1400s.

4. What Australian works have you loved recently?

I read a great deal and could write you a very long list, but for the sake of brevity, I will name five ☺: Katherine Howell’s latest installment in her Ellie Marconi crime series, Silent Fear – fabulous. Kate Forsyth’s Bitter Greens – one of the best historical novels I have ever read. Kimberley Freeman’s Wildflower Hill – just sublime. Kirstyn McDermott’s Madigan Mine – what a haunting, fiercely imagined novel and, finally, Sara Douglass’ last novel, an historical fantasy, Devil’s Diadem – simply stunning. I could not put it down.

5. Two years on from Aussiecon 4, what do you think have been the biggest changes to the Australian SpecFic scene?

What a difficult question. I think, on the positive side, it’s been great to see some exciting new writers really step up into their own such as the absolutely amazing writer, Angela Slatter. The beauty of her prose takes my breath away. She is a star. On the negative side, I think there’s been a tendency in spec-fic, post-Twilight, to follow fads – particularly in the YA market and I find the glut of vampire/para-normal books especially a bit depressing. My wish would be that we take more risks – not just writers, because I think many are, but publishers.

I also think we’re all a little more confused and wary about where publishing, particularly of spec-fiction is going in light of changes to the industry. But I keep telling myself, a good story is a good story and readers will always crave those, regardless of the format or delivery, so we have to keep creating them!


This post is part of the 2012 Snapshot of Australian Speculative Fiction. We’ll be blogging interviews from 1 June to 7 June and archiving them at ASif!: Australian SpecFic in Focus. Snapshot 2012 is being conducted by Alisa Krasnostein, Kathryn Linge, David McDonald, Helen Merrick, Ian Mond, Jason Nahrung, Alex Pierce, Tansy Rayner Roberts, Tehani Wessely and Sean Wright. To read the interviews hot off the press, check our blogs daily from June 1 to June 7, 2012.