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Q&A with Karen Brooks

Renowned internationally for her work on popular culture, Karen Brooks is also a dynamic and award-winning teacher. She is a weekly columnist for The Courier Mail and an 'expert' on Channel 7's Sunrise and The Morning Show and has appeared on 60 Minutes. She was also a regular on ABC's The Einstein Factor as part of the Brains Trust. Here Karen talks about her new book, Votive, part two in 'The Curse of the Bond Riders' series.

Where were you born, raised and schooled?

I was born and raised in Sydney, Australia, in a little apartment in Crows Nest, where I lived with my mother, an Israeli immigrant, and my younger sister, Jenny. I went to Cammeray Primary School and loved it there. It was quite a large school for its time and the teachers were fantastic and very encouraging of creativity. Drama was important as was writing and stretching the boundaries of your imagination. I read a great deal and used to spend all my pocket money and too much time in St Vincent De Paul, where I would buy second hand books. I had the full collection of Enid Blyton books and later, C.S. Lewis and so many others. I would also play with other kids on the street where I lived. We would clamber over fences, build cubby houses and play cricket and never venture home until the street lights came on, that was our cue to leave. My mother was married a total of eight times so, it’s no surprise that for many complex reasons, we went to live with our father and step-mother and, as a consequence, changed schools quite a bit. Later, I went to North Sydney Girls High School for one year, then to Hornsby Girls High. I also spent a year and two terms at Tweed River High on the Gold Coast. I finished my schooling at Hornsby Girls High where I was elected, much to my sister’s chagrin, Head Prefect. I was one of those kids who loved school and the entire learning environment. I should add, a constant in my life was my German grandmother, who instilled in me a love of myths and fairytales as well as musicals.

What did you want to be when you were 13?

I wanted to be an actor. Not the Hollywood starlet you see today, but one with substance and longevity! Theatre was my great passion. That dream didn’t change until I auditioned for NIDA at 17, was asked back for a re-audition and didn’t make the cut. I was told I would get in the following year, but twelve months is a long time when you’re a teenager so, after trying university (Sydney University) and dropping out, I joined the army as an officer instead. I swear my acting was what enabled me to pass all the tests. I ‘acted’ like an officer. J It wasn’t until I was in my late twenties that my dreams of the stage evolved or dissolved and I went into education – a career I’ve loved.

What did you strongly believe at 15 that you don’t now?

Gosh, that’s a hard question as I think life experiences change your beliefs and ideas about things so much. But, if I had to name one that has changed, it’s the fallibility of parents. I used to think my father could do anything except be wrong. I learned that’s not true and, in doing so, learned to be more generous about his faults.

I also believed that wishing hard for something would make it happen. I quickly learned that you have to put in effort as well J

What led you to your writing career?

In many ways it evolved very slowly. I wrote a children’s play when I was 20 and it enjoyed two seasons at Marian St Theatre in Sydney, which was wonderful and firmly planted the idea that this was something I thoroughly appreciated – the translating of ideas onto a page that is not only shared, but has the potential to transport others and give them pleasure/move them out of their comfort zones/enable them to escape their lives for a time. When I did my Ph.D., I used to creative write as a sort of balm for the heavy-duty academic reading and writing in which I was engaged. From that, I had a few short stories published. Part of the job of being an academic is to contribute to knowledge culture by getting published, so I would beaver away on intense and meaningful articles (!) of around five to seven thousand words, which were published internationally and, if I was lucky, attracted two or three readers. It wasn’t till I began writing a column in Brisbane’s Courier Mail (Wednesday’s opinion piece), and picking up some freelance work with other publications, that I found an outlet for writing that was both imaginative and yet turned a critical eye upon culture and found a wide readership. At the same time, I began writing novels with the intention that ‘one-day I’ll….’. My dear friend, the writer, Sara Douglass, was the one who finally spurred me. Fed up with my constant refrain, she said, ‘Stop saying you’re gonna’ do it and just DO it.’ I listened. I did. I am forever grateful to her. She has been an inspiration and amazing support.

What should a reader expect from The Curse of the Bond Riders series?

What a writer expects a reader will take from a book and what they actually do, don’t always coincide J Seriously, I hope they discover a story that allows them to escape into a world that is both strange and familiar, that they invest in and care about characters who are worthy of their time and commitment. I would hope that they’re transported to a fantasy equivalent of Fifteenth Century Venice and into the lives of, firstly a young, confused candle maker who, as the series progresses, discovers a capacity for great cruelty and kindness, who is both betrayed in unspeakable ways and yet forges ahead to meet destiny.

Frankly, I don’t like to tell readers what to expect or build up expectations, but I sincerely hope they will share with me what they take away from the series.

What do you want a reader to take away from the second novel, Votive?

Above all, the desire to read the final book in the series! J

I would love readers to feel that the stakes are higher in this book and to have them on the edge of their seats. Early feedback tells me that’s the case – so that’s lovely to know. While Votive is the sequel to Tallow, it’s wider in scope in that other places and people are introduced – many of whom are historically accurate. In this book, Tallow has been taken under the wing of the corrupt Maleovelli family. Under their roof, she slowly sheds her old identity as a candle maker’s apprentice and becomes Tarlo Maleovelli, a beautiful courtesan with a deadly secret. The reader follows her transformation from callow youth, to beautiful courtesan to cold-hearted assassin and learns more about her amazing abilities and why she’s both feared and desired. In the meantime, powerful forces stir within the world, all of whom seek Tallow and what she can do for them. Only to late will she realise they hold the key to her survival and the one thing she cannot possibly resist….

Was the inspiration behind your series an animal, an experience or a curiosity and what was it?

An experience. I walked into a new candle shop in my area to purchase some candles. The scents, the flickering flames, the dusky colours, and the pockets of shadows all created a wonderful sensual ambience that immediately transported me. When I made my purchase, a small pamphlet was placed in the bag. In the car on the way home, I began reading it. It explained, in very basic terms, how scents were infused in candles in ancient times. I turned to my husband and said: ‘I’ve just had a great idea for a book…’

Which writer or writers have floored or astounded you?

There are so many. Shirley Hazzard, Charmian Clift, Virginia Woolf, Lian Hearn, Sara Douglass, Feodor Dostoevsky, Charles Dickens, J.K. Rowling, Margaret Atwood, Geraldine Brooks (no relation), Kate Morton, Shakespeare, John Keats, William Blake, Elizabeth George, Peter Ackroyd, Graeme Turner, Kirstyn McDermott, Angela Slatter, Anthony Eaton, Katherine Howell, Kim Wilkins, Richard Harland, Claire Corbett, Marina Warner and so many others. I keep discovering brilliant new and old ones who make me suffer word-envy. I feel like they’re treasures I want to share with the world.

When writing, what quirky habit/s do you have?

Not too many… I think. I play classical music, light candles, talk to myself as the characters, act out scenes that are emotional in order to get hand gestures and facial expressions right… Actually, this is a little embarrassing! I also wear Ugg Boots when I write. OH, and I have a favourite cardigan that I wear, even in the heat – I simply turn up the air-conditioner. I also flick between writing the novel, Facebook and email… my (in)sanity checks.

What did you intentionally not do when writing your novel, Votive?

Upgrade my system. I am too afraid I will lose the material. I also didn’t go to the hairdressers so, by the end of the writing phase, I looked like Grizzly Adams – without the beard but with gray roots.J In fact, I’ve had a new computer sitting in a box for three weeks now, which I refuse to unpack until the third book, Illumination, is safely with the publisher. I will edit on the new computer, but I’m too worried to transfer files mid-book, so tolerate a clunky system till then. Towards the end of the book, in the manic phase, I also don’t respond to emails or pay bills… then I spend the day after the manuscript departs apologizing and depleting the bank account. I have some very tolerant and understanding friends – never mind my beloved partner and family!




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