Friday, September 14, 2018

Interview with Karen Brooks

I so wanted to talk with Karen Brooks on New Books in Historical Fiction. We were all set, too, until I realized we live so far apart the only way the timing could work would be if one of us wanted to get up at dawn or stay up until midnight. Fortunately, she was willing to answer written questions instead.

An actress, children’s playwright, academic, and social commentator as well as a writer of fiction, Karen Brooks has had a fascinating career that has already produced ten novels. Today we’re discussing her latest, The Locksmith’s Daughter, published by William Morrow in July 2018. It follows her heroine, Mallory Bright, through the turmoil of Elizabethan London and the flourishing espionage network headed by Sir Francis Walsingham. Read on to find out more.

 

Your career has already covered a range that includes both acting and academics. Where does your decision to write fiction fit into that overall progression, and what drew you to the particular story that became The Locksmith’s Daughter?


I think the one thing in common with all the different jobs I’ve had is words. As an actor, I had the privilege of breathing life into others’ words; as an academic, I was able to teach and research and write my own by standing on the shoulders of giants. But as an academic, you use words in a particular way and with a particular purpose. And let’s face it, when you publish an article in a scholarly journal, you’re lucky if three people read it. ☺ But I was mainly exercising the rational part of my brain. I always read—nonfiction and fiction—but the desire to be creative with words became overpowering. So I began to write fiction. Short stories at first and even a play, but soon I branched out into novels. It was like I was trying to have a balanced word diet, feed my imagination in all sorts of ways.

The Locksmith’s Daughter
came to me as a consequence of watching a locksmith named Bruce fix the ignition in my husband’s car after he snapped the key in it. He had to give him a new lock and key, and I watched him do this. I began to think about locks and how they most often were used to protect things, to keep secrets. Once I started thinking about secrets, I thought of secret keepers and spies and then, bang! The idea for a female spy embedded in a male-only network and at a time when secrets were not only currency but often the difference between life and death—the Elizabethan era—came to me right there and then. 


When we meet your main character, Mallory Bright—the locksmith’s daughter of the title—she’s already, as they used to say, a “woman with a past.” In her own words, “Only God … knew how akin I was to the prodigal son, and how great a wastrel.” What can you tell us about her history and her character—in the sense of her personality?


Mallory is a strong woman who has been (temporarily) beaten by poor choices and some terrible people. Educated, confident, attractive, she was also very young when she fell victim to a charming con man and had her trust badly abused. She thus loses a great deal of her self-esteem and confidence. When the story opens, she is still vulnerable, physically safe but emotionally fragile. The story is about her learning to regain self-trust and love, learn her place in the world, as much as it is anything else.

How does Mallory become involved with Sir Francis Walsingham? What does participation in his spy service mean to her?


Sir Francis, it turns out, is a family friend—someone her beloved father has known for decades. Mallory is shocked to learn this, but when she does and is invited to become part of Walsingham’s spy network, she understands the opportunity being given to her. She seizes it as a way of regaining a sense of self and proving to herself and others that she’s worthy. After all, there’s no greater service (at that time) than to queen and country. Mallory will learn the high cost of that.

Even from the back cover, we know that Mallory, sooner or later, becomes disenchanted with Walsingham’s spy network. How does that happen, and what effect does it have on her life?


Ah, I have to be careful here … if I say too much, I give away the plot! LOL! Basically, as I said above, the book is about secrets and those who keep them and why. The price to be paid for keeping secrets, for locking them away, is very high, and what it extracts from a person, what it demands of them, is enormous. Keeping secrets requires a level of betrayal—to the self and others. When Mallory starts to understand this, she begins to question what she’s doing and who she is becoming … where she is giving trust and who’s abusing hers. But she’s committed to a cause and, more importantly, has been entrusted with the greatest of secrets. When doubt sets in and she queries her purpose, she transforms from a great political asset to a dangerous threat and thus must be dealt with.

There’s no way we can cover the richness and complexity of your 600-page novel in a blog Q&A, but there are two other characters I’d like to mention. Who are Caleb and Nathaniel, and what can you tell us about them as people and their roles in Mallory’s story?


I love Caleb.
Caleb is an actor and playwright in Elizabethan London. He exists in the period just before William Shakespeare took London by storm. Astute readers might note, however, I still use some Shakespearean phrases (“bat of an owlet’s wing,” etc.). This because I thought, like most writers, Shakespeare would have picked up common patois and deployed it in his plays and poetry and so put some of his phrases in characters’ mouths, including Caleb. Caleb is a boarder in Mallory’s home and has known her for years. He is a great friend to her as well as being flamboyant, irreverent, loyal, and kind. He’s also very talented.

Ah, Nathaniel. Nathaniel is a lord who, like Mallory, has a past. He is physically huge. Tall, broad-shouldered, and, as a consequence, often in fights—or was—as men see him as both a threat and a way of testing their own masculinity. As one of the only surviving members of his family, when we meet him, he has responsibility for his younger sister, who is a sweetie. He doesn’t suffer fools and is also a great supporter of the arts and therefore a patron of the group of players to which Caleb belongs. Nathaniel and Caleb are also friends and have great respect for each other. It’s through Caleb that Nathaniel and Mallory meet.

And what are you working on now?


I have just completed the final edit of my next novel (due out next year), The Chocolate Maker’s Wife, which is set in Restoration England (1660s). This was a time when not only was there war, plague, fire, plots, and plans, but chocolate was considered a naughty, decadent drink (it wasn’t eaten back then). It made its way to English shores via South America and Spain and France and into the newly established chocolate houses of London. These were places where news was exchanged (it was also the era when journalism as we know it was born), gossip flourished, and nefarious plots were hatched. The novel is about a young woman and her rise to the top of the chocolate game—how she makes a deal with the devil to succeed and the cost of this to her and others.

I’m also writing my next book, which is set in Scotland in the early 1700s and focuses on the fishwives of Fife: their strength, independence, great camaraderie, and the threat they posed to certain sections of the community. It’s about what happens when a few of them are accused of witchcraft. It’s set during the height of the “witch craze” and is based on a terrible true story. I’m loving writing it while at the same time being torn up with sadness and anger at humanity’s capacity for cruelty.

Thank you so much for such great questions and for having me on your blog.

And thank you for your answers, Karen!


Karen Brooks, the Australian-born author of ten novels (and counting), is an academic, a newspaper columnist, and a social commentator. She lives in Hobart, Tasmania. Find out more about her at http://www.karenrbrooks.com.


Image © Stephen Brooks.

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