KAREN BROOKS is an academic, newspaper columnist and social commentator on national radio and TV as well as the author of eight fantasy novels. Having written fantasy for the YA market (five books), historical fantasy for adults (three) and a non-fiction book, Consuming Innocence: Popular Culture and Our Children, Karen has now written the first of what she hopes will be many historical fiction books, The Brewer’s Tale. When not writing, Karen loves being with her family (husband, Stephen, two adult children, Adam and Caragh) and her fur kids – the dogs, Tallow and Dante and her four cats – Claude, (Thomas) Cromwell, Jack Cade, and Baroque – spending time with friends, cooking, travelling, reading and dreaming. She lives in Hobart, Tasmania in a stone house with a name built in 1868, and which has its own wonderful stories to tell. Find her online at www.karenrbrooks.com
1. With your Bond Riders series, you delved into Venetian history, and in your new book coming out this year, you’ve delved into the arcane art of brewing – perhaps not so much fun for someone who doesn’t much drink beer … What comes first, the story or the era?
The story always comes first for me – though I also find that the era tends to accompany it, sometimes, almost organically. With The Curse of the Bond Riders trilogy, I couldn’t conceive of a better fit for the story than a fictionalised Venice of roughly the 1500s – candle-making, masques, mists, borders, crossings and secrets all lending themselves to both Venice and the high Renaissance.
With my new novel, The Brewer’s Tale, again, the story came first. The idea of a novel about a female brewer occured to me while I was tossing back a whisky in a bar in Hobart (Lark) and reminiscing about a dear friend. But it wasn’t until I began the research that I knew the novel had to be set in a very specific time and, indeed, place: England (with references to Holland, Flanders, and the Mediterranean and North Sea regions) 1406-1409. The title also gestures to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, so I guess the era came with the story.
And, just for the record, I don’t drink any beer! Though I did sip quite a few different styles as I talked to brewers and learned how to make the stuff!
2. The book reviews on your website show a wide range of interests – including but not restricted to, crime, mystery, non-fiction historical fiction, SF. In what ways is that important to your writing?
Not only do I love reading, but I love the craft of writing and the way different writers and the genres in which they work both meet and challenge given ‘rules’ (including readers’ expectations) within specific generic structures. The way writers still manage to be original and compelling within these genres is just fantastic, and I am filled with admiration and lexical envy constantly. I think reading across a wide range of genres not only entertains and gives me enormous pleasure, it nourishes my imagination and helps with my own writing. I learn so much from other writers and genres, and I pay homage to that through my reviews.
3. What can you tell us about your Harlequin deal? Has it given you a chance to further explore your interests as a social commentator and academic in the issues of gender equality and representation?
The Brewer’s Tale went to auction late last year and I was absolutely delighted when Harlequin ‘won’ the book. They have been meticulous in their care and vision for it and I have been privileged to work with some of the best editors and team of book professionals in the industry. The book comes out on October 1 and is a standalone historical fiction with a touch of magic realism.
What was wonderful about the three years of research I did before and during the writing was it did allow me to address, through fiction, issues of gender equality and representation because the the role of women in brewing, especially in the past, reflected and overturned what was happening in terms of gender in the wider world. What I discovered was historically, women were the principal brewers and responsible for making ale in virtually every community. It wasn’t until making ale and later beer became a commercially viable industry that men took it over.
As historian Judith M Bennett states, ‘when a venture propers, women fade from the scene’. This notion sparked my interest – perhaps more so because of my academic background, I am not sure, but I am a great believer in gender equity and social justice, so I wanted to explore why women ‘faded from the scene’, what were the reasons (and there are many – and they’re complex, it wasn’t simply men barging in and tossing women out) and what would happen if one woman didn’t ‘fade’. In that regard, writing the book really did help me pursue my research and writing passions.
I was fascinated by the history of brewing – how and why it became commercial, how it was managed prior to that, what was involved, the role of men and women, taxes, laws around pricing, distribution, quantities, etc., and so many other things besides in what was once a cottage industry. I was spellbound by what brewers of both sexes achieved and endured, and the fact that alcohol was such an integral part of the medieval diet – most people were a little (or a lot) pissed most of the time!
But of course, I am writing a novel, so what I learned (and still am) underpins the work, but it’s still a rollicking tale of adventure, betrayal, murder, mayhem and romance. But I have such a deep and abiding respect for brewers – men and women – and the products they make as a consequence of writing this book as well as their ongoing battles with multinational corporations. What I have also learned is that, apart from the sex of the brewers, when it comes to competition and craft or small-time producers trying to be recognised and compete in an industry dominated by major players who set the rules, not much has changed.
4. What Australian works have you loved recently?
Oh! So many. Kate Forsyth’s works, The Wild Girl and Dancing on Knives. I was astonished by the completely marvellous The Blue Mile by Kim Kelly, Michael Robotham remains one of my favourite thriller author’s – his latest is due out soon and I cannot wait. Katherine Howell’s Deserving Death, Kim Wilkin’s short story collection, The Year of Ancient Ghosts, The Fictional Woman by Tara Moss, Josephine Pennicott’s Currawong Manor, Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites and anything by Angela Slatter or Juliet Marillier.
5. Have recent changes in the publishing industry influenced the way you work? What do you think you will be publishing/writing/reading in five years from now?
The main changes to the way I work are around the use of social media to maintain a profile and interact with readers (which I love doing) and I guess opening a dialogue on the creative process – both for my newspaper columns and books. This is encouraged by publishers who understand that the world has altered and writers need to be accessible.
In terms of the nuts and bolts of writing, recent changes in publishing have not affected the way I write. A writer must serve the story regardless of anything else, so I focus on that – on hopefully producing quality and being entertaining as well.
In terms of what I think I’ll be publishing five years from now – hopefully, more books 🙂 Seriously, I hope my historical fiction will continue to be published. It’s what I intend to write. I have a few ideas up my sleeve that I want to nurture and write (including the book I am working on now). As for reading, I will be doing what I have always done, reading widely and voraciously and appreciating the wealth of talent and the dedication of the wonderful writers out there and the good publishers that bring this work to us – and across a wide variety of platforms as well.
THIS interview was conducted as part of the 2014 Snapshot of Australian speculative fiction. We’re blogging interviews from 28 July to 10 August and archiving them at SF Signal. You can read interviews at: