This week it’s my pleasure to interview Zoe Brooks, author of Mother of Wolves. You can read my review here. Zoe is a fascinating author and reading her answers is like reading one of her books. She has a real flair for words and description and it’s easy to see why her works are so popular.
Interview with Zoe Brooks
Where do you write? What’s your creative space like?
I write in a semi-restored farmhouse in the Czech Republic. The house sits on the edge of a small hamlet a few miles from a magical town called Cesky Krumlov. I love it there, it is so quiet and peaceful. If the words stop flowing, I will grab a basket and walk in to the forest and collect wild berries or mushrooms. There is something about the focus that requires, which allows the book to slip back into my subconscious and stew for a while. My house is simply decorated – just whitewash over granite walls, with lots of Indian and Mexican embroideries together with prints by my friend and mentor Hannah. I sit in the corner of the living room at a table with my laptop in front of me and music on full. Virginia Woolf said “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” I don’t have too much money but I have not only a room but a house of my own.
What is your favorite writing tool?
A mug of tea! It warms me when I am cold and cools me when I’m hot. It soothes me when I am stressed about not writing and it stimulates me when I need inspiration. I’m very British when it comes to tea – my dad is a great tea lover and so tea was the first thing the family drank in the morning or when you got home, and during the day the kettle was constantly being recharged. It still is. Like all British ex-pats I know, every time I fly into the Czech Republic my bag contains lots of proper British teabags. They do sell tea in the Czech Republic, but it is very anaemic compared to the British sort. When I’m writing I will be drinking tea pretty continuously, which reminds me I must put the kettle on.
What movie star would you pick as one of the characters in your book and why?
I’ve always thought that my main character in The Healer’s Shadow trilogy, Judith, would suit Angelina Jolie. She has the beauty but can also act – I really rated her in The Changeling. I can’t think of someone who could play Lupa in Mother of Wolves. It would need to be someone dark, small but with tremendous presence. Maybe there’s an Indian actress who would suit. I found this picture of a Rajasthani gypsy on the web, who sums up Lupa for me – that piercing look, you wouldn’t want to cross her.
What did you want to be when you grew up? Did you realize that dream?
Oh I had all sorts of ideas – actress, archaeologist, teacher, and poet. I briefly did some acting when I left university, but decided it was not for me. I am too much of an introvert and acting took too much out of me emotionally. I couldn’t study archaeology at university, because my secondary school wouldn’t allow me learn history, english and science for my final exams, which is what I needed to get on to an archaeology degree course. But I worked in heritage management for a while, running museums and heritage centres. I did quite a bit of teaching in that work, running schools workshops and training museum staff. I really enjoyed it and I am told the kids did too. As for poet, I was very successful when I was younger – I was published and won a few competitions – but I rather let that slip. When I became a mum and then as my career working with disadvantaged communities took off, I never seemed to have time or energy. I think writing is a selfish art, that’s why you need a room of your own, and for about twenty years I dedicated myself to others. You will have noticed that being a novelist isn’t in my list of “things I wanted to be”, that didn’t really happen until a few years ago when I reappraised what I was doing with my life.
Explain your creative process. Pantser? Outliner?
Outliner. I don’t write anything down though. I know a lot of writers use index cards and software programmes, but I find I don’t need them, instead I carry all the ideas in my head for months playing with various options, before eventually sitting down at my laptop and writing. I do have a very good memory which helps.
The other thing that helps is that I was taught by an expert in story structure. My friend Hannah was a professional story editor in the film business and lectured on the subject. She taught me a lot about story structure and the tools of the trade – like building suspense and dramatic irony. She died last year, but I can still hear her talking to me when I am writing and working on drafts. Recently I have been writing a series of posts for Indie Exchange called Notes of a Story Editor, in which I try to share some of what she taught me.
If you could only have one mode of transportation what would it be, a horse or a bicycle? Why?
I don’t know how to ride a horse, so that’s a non-starter. I do have a bicycle in the house, but I am rather put off riding by the very steep hills in our part of the Czech Republic. So I don’t think I would opt for a bike. I enjoy walking a lot, because it allows me to stop, examine a flower, gaze at the view or pick a mushroom if I want to. I will also be working on the plot of my latest book of course. So the answer to the question is not a bike, not a horse, but Shanks’s pony.
Do you dream about your stories? Ever written about a dream?
That’s a really interesting question. I am one of those writers who does not write all the time. I have periods of intensive writing, when all that work which went into mentally plotting the book is transferred on to the page or rather the laptop screen. When this happens I have noticed that my dreams change. It is a sign that I am “in the zone”. I dream more frequently and more vividly. In particular I dream in the third person: I am not in the story but watching it. It sometimes feels as though I am a camera tracking through a scene. Hannah and my other Jungian friends were horrified when I said that I didn’t take part in some of my dreams, they said it showed I was dangerously detached. But I think a lot of writers do this – the overview I have as a writer extends into my dreams.
And yes I do sometimes dream about the book. Sometimes when I’m stuck with the book, I will go to bed even in the daytime and allow the subconscious to work. You have to be careful about using your dreams off pat, as you need to think about the words, imagery and structure, but yes I have used them. In particular I used two dreams pretty well in full in Fool’s Paradise, but that is a long poem, albeit with a story, and I think it is easier to incorporate dreams in poems than into a novel. I am currently writing the first draft of the third book of my Healer’s Shadow trilogy, and I am playing with making dreams feature more prominently in that. I have used some dreams in the first two books, but one does have to be so careful about avoiding dream cliches.
What were you like in high school? Class clown? Nerd? Cheerleader type?
None of them. I was pretty ordinary, I fitted in okay. Yes I was bright, but not so bright to be a nerd and I was too non-conformist to be a cheerleader or a member of any team. The truth is I did enough to get through school. My real life existed outside of my rather boring grammar school. All my spare time was spent at an arts centre for young people, where I could talk about writing with people like me, where I used to act and where I was able to shine and be a bit of a star. I think my schoolteachers found it hard to square the Zoe they saw in front of them with the Zoe who was getting in to the local newspapers for her poetry and acting. When my parents said I wanted to apply to Oxford University the headmistress, Miss Moon, told them that I shouldn’t bother, but my mother insisted that I should at least be given the chance. It was with great pleasure that I rang up Miss Moon to tell her that Oxford has accepted me.
I have not been to America and so can’t comment on the famous parks there. There’s a theme park in the Isle of Wight that I am particularly fond of and which you and your American readers will not have heard of. It is called Blackgang Chine and it dates back to the Victorian period. A chine is a narrow valley that drops down into the sea. My son and I used to go to the Isle of Wight in the Easter holidays leaving my husband at home. A visit to Blackgang Chine was an essential part of the holiday. It didn’t have lots of adrenalin-packed rides, but it was absolutely magical. There were dinosaurs, fairy grottos, a pirate ship, wild west town and much more. I haven’t been to Blackgang for years and I do hope that my son (now an adult) provides me with at least one grandchild I can use as an excuse to go back. The British pleasure gardens of the 18th and 19th centuries were the original theme parks. The one at Vauxhall Spring Gardens in London was the most famous – with grottos, fireworks, automata, scenes and of course music (Handel’s Water Music was first performed there). It was copied all over the world. Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen were modelled on the Vauxhall Gardens and in turn inspired Disney. I ran a heritage centre on the Spring Gardens site and the history of the gardens fascinated me. For a while I was close to raising the money to rebuild the gardens, but family affairs took me away from London. So the theme park I would like to visit would be the new Spring Gardens I never got the chance to build.
Are you a reader? What types of books do you like best? What author(s)?
Yes of course. It’s essential for a writer to also be a reader, otherwise how do you learn. When I was a youngster I read nearly every book in the children’s section of the small local library. I stopped when I was at university. History students are expected to read up to twenty books a week, so I learned how to speed read which rather spoiled reading literature for a while. I have catholic tastes in books. I am not overly keen on “literary” books, I want a good plot and I don’t like the tendency in some novelists feted by the critics to structural high jinks. I don’t want to be thinking “how clever” but rather be caught up in the story and the language. Some literary writers are good storytellers too – I discovered Hilary Mantel several years before she became famous and was slight miffed that suddenly everyone was talking about her.
As a child I loved historical novels (no surprise there) – Rosemary Sutcliff was one of my favourites, and later I graduated to Mary Renault and Edith Pargeter. I’m still a fan and it’s good to see Mantel continuing that tradition. I was also a fan of fantasy as a child. There’s a picture of me asleep in bed with CS Lewis’ Horse and His Boy open next to my hand. I then discovered Alan Garner and of course Tolkien. My son introduced me to Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea novels, I love the way Le Guin writes about serious issues while telling a great tale and her world-building is simply the best. I was less keen on science fiction as a child, although I loved Madeleine L’Engle’s Wrinkle in Time. Sci Fi is a still genre I haven’t got into, although I have several of Ursula Le Guin’s sci-fi books sitting on my shelf waiting for me to take them up.
I now tend to follow two rules when buying books. The first is to buy books in translation, it doesn’t really matter what genre. My rationale is that in order to be translated the books have to be very good. I find it really interesting to read foreign literature – I get to see the world differently and also find different ways of writing. I discovered one of my all time favourite writers, Andrei Makine, by buying one of his books on spec like that. He is an interesting mix, he’s French but with Russian family, something his books reflect.
My second rule is that, with the exception of detective novels, which I have a weakness for, I tend to like books with an element of fantasy in them, not full-blown fantasy, but a touch of the strange or spiritual. I’m not sure why this is. I have always loved fairy tales and myths; even now as an adult I feel they have a truth in them. I remember vividly the first time I read One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. It blew me away. When I published my first novel, Girl in the Glass, one of my early reviewers on Amazon said that it was magic realism. I didn’t know what that was, so I looked it up on Wikipedia and realised I didn’t just write it, I enjoyed it too. I now have a magic realism blog, http://www.magic-realism.net where I review one magic realism book a week. Magic realism is not really a genre, it’s an approach to story writing. You get magic realism in books in all sorts of genres, for example I am currently reading The Silver Cloud Cafe by Alfredo Vea, which is a magic realism detective story set in San Francisco. My own books tend to be more realist than magical. In Mother of Wolves Lupa, like all her people, believes in spirit animals, but that’s just how it is for her. The book is written in an unspecified land and time, but these are very much informed by my historical training. I like to explore big issues such as the persecution of minorities and I feel that by restricting the story to a specific space or time limits the impact. By using an unspecific setting I allow the reader to bring her own interests and experiences to the book. For a European, Mother of Wolves is likely to be about the persecution of the gypsies, for an American it is more likely to be about the persecution of the Native American peoples. Both perspectives are correct.
All my books so far have had strong central female characters. And when I look at both my childhood and adult reading preferences I can see that playing too. A favourite book of mine as a child was Little Women and I of course identified with Jo. I read lots of historical novels. I had a favourite trilogy about the young Elizabeth I (I can’t remember the title or author) and another favourite called The Queen’s Brooch about Boudicca. As a teenager the first “serious” literature I read and reread was Jane Eyre. More recently I read Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus, feminist magic realism and tremendous fun. Andrei Makine’s The Woman Who Waited is a wonderful book about a man trying (and mostly failing) to understand a woman. As a writer I was excited when I discovered Women Who Run With Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes. It’s not fiction, but it’s about fairy tales and what they tell us about women. I found a lot in that book to aid my storytelling and plotting. I curate a weekly online newspaper about books by and for women – you’ll find it on http://www.womens-fiction.net.
Thank you so much for allowing me space on your blog and for asking such fascinating questions.
Here are other places you can find Zoe Brooks.