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.


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!

9 thoughts on “Another conversation with Karen Brooks – author extraordinaire

  1. Doug! Talk about being in touch with the zeitgeist – a musical and food!!! And with one of the most beloved of food celebs, the darling Margaret. Good luck with it – I know it will be incredible. What’s it called? I will have to try and leave the Apple Isle and catch it (or will you tour?). As for the day you had the car accident, I will never forget. You were late, we were all worried, and you entered, shaken, not stirred, and like a real pro did the most magnificent sessions managing to tell us without so much as a blink that you’d just been written off on the streets below – and yes, your car was there as proof!!! I have dined out on that story countless times and regaled friends about your utter magnificence and wicked humour. I remember that day clearly. What, speaking with you and Shaun Tan??? How could I every forget.. It was so much fun. Hell, I was eclipsed by these bright suns of the creative world and loved every moment of it!


  2. Nice work. Karen (presuming you are reading this and it’s not Sheryl toute seul), do you recall that we did a panel at VIctoria University, but I was late because I was in a car accident? The proof was in Flinders Street seven storeys below, quite visible to all the students. It was one of those surreal occasions where all you can do is laugh. And we did! It’s weird what triggers the laughter response. I’m trying to write a book about it and it’s turning into a bit of a road accident itself.


  3. Great interview Karen and Sheryl. I felt like I was sitting there listening to you two chat…and so many great insights, Karen. (P.S. I love your study, Karen). x

    Doug, congratulations! That’s fantastic about your musical, I bet it’s truly fascinating, I hope the show goes well:)



  4. Thanks Sheryl and Karen for this insightful interview. I loved reading Tallow and can’t wait to read the next two in the series. I have the utmost respect for Karen and her social commentating … Karen T 🙂


  5. Fascinating interview, Sheryl and Karen. I found your sense of ‘feeling’ the character of Tallow as you wrote made complete sense. I think I’ll be re-reading this interview in weeks to come as there was so much to learn. Thanks for sharing.


  6. Doug, that sounds fascinating. I bet she never thought she’d end up with a musical about her life! I have one of her cook books from long ago.
    I’m well and happy, hope you are too, friend. 🙂


  7. A good interview Sheryl. Thanks for this. Karen bRooks is so energetic – I like to have a few projects going on, because – well, I’m impatient. I’ve just finished the script for a musical based on the life if Mararet Fulton. Margaret was wonderfully generous with her tie and helped me with the various drafts. It’s interesting to put words in the mouths of people who exist. And of ciorse, if Margaret says, ‘I would never say something like that!’ then you really have to lidsten. IT’s been an increduible experience, top work with such a talented cast, musicians and director. The show starts next week, in the theatreworks space, which is just up the road from where i live. I may be dropping in quite frequently. Hope this finds you happy and well, Doug


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