Australian best seller Karen Brooks’ latest book The Chocolate Maker’s Wife is a historical thriller set in the time of King Charles II when chocolate was regarded as “sin in a bowl” and the commercial houses that served it were hotbeds of revolution. Damnation never tasted so sweet.
Hi there, I’m you host Jenny Wheeler and today Karen talks about the lush, fascinating world of Restoration London and of a beautiful woman drawn into a world of riches, power, intrigue – and chocolate.
And we’ve a paperback copy of Karen’s captivating story of power , intrigue and greed for listener’s to win in The Chocolate Maker’s Wife Giveaway. You can enter the draw here or find it on Facebook. Entries close June 30.
Six things you’ll learn from this Joys of Binge Reading episode:
- The friendship that inspired Karen to write fiction
- Three overlapping careers that have blessed her life
- How she came to move to Tasmania
- The book that inspired a family brewery
- The writers she admires most
- The challenge of being a high profile woman
Where to find Karen Brooks:
What follows is a “near as” transcript of our conversation, not word for word but pretty close to it, with links to important mentions.
Jenny: [00:00:01] But now here’s Karen. Hello there Karen and welcome to the show. It’s great to have you with us.
Karen: [00:00:08] Oh hi Jenny. Thank you so much for having me.
Jenny: [00:00:12] And I just wanted to start by saying very reverently; Dr. Brooks. Because indeed you have Ph.D in Humanities and you are recognized in your home country of Australia as a weekly columnist and an expert on all sorts of controversial popular topics..
But you’ve also a wife and mother so you’ve got a very busy life apart from your writing. You’ve published twelve books beginning with fantasy and moving into historical fiction. The $64 million question is: Beginning at the beginning was there a Once Upon A Time moment when you thought I’ve really got to write fiction or I will have just not done when I’m meant to do somehow.
Inspired by a friend
Karen: [00:01:04] I wish I had a story like that to tell. I love it when authors say that they have always wanted to be a writer and they wrote since they were out of the cot, but no, I never saw myself ever as a writer.
I always write. I mean I think lots of kids do and as a teenager I kept diaries. All right, terrible lovelorn poems and messages of adulation to people I admired – political figures or actors and people like that. I think it was my girlfriend becoming quite successful in her field as an author. That was Sara Douglass, the fantasy writer. It was a really aspirational moment for me and she really encouraged me.
I’d written a couple of plays and one of them was performed in Sydney a few years earlier. And so again dabbling, dabbling, dabbling. But I kept saying ‘I really should write a book one day’ or ‘I think I’ll write a book’ and basically I think Sara got absolutely sick of me going on about it and said “Oh for God’s sakes just stop saying you’re gonna do it and just do it.”
[00:02:05] She had a few expletives thrown in there, I’m being polite. She was a damn good friend. She really was. So I thought ‘yeah you’re right.’ And I just sat down one day and basically did it.
Jenny: [00:02:16] Yes! You make it sound so easy!
Karen: [00:02:21] It was torturous! No, no, it actually wasn’t. It was a real pleasure but I was in my late 30’s from memory. Yeah when I wrote my first book.
The Chocolate Maker’s Wife
Jenny: [00:02:29] The most recent one just out is The Chocolatemaker’s Wife and it’s a historical thriller set in the Restoration period. It’s got the backdrop of Charles II on the throne, and the Great Plague and the Great Fire of London. It’s your third historical. And I just wondered what attracted you to that genre after having spent quite a lot of time in fantasy.
Karen: [00:02:55] Yeah I think that’s a great question. I think like a lot of fantasy writers I drew on history anyway to construct my fantasy. So although they were more or less historical fantasy, I had real figures in them. I had actual moments in history, but of course I played with that and I speculate about ‘what if’s.’
[00:03:11] So for example my last fantasy trilogy was set in an equivalent to Renaissance Venice and Elizabethan England – that was barely recognizable as Elizabethan England. The Venice was very recognizable and it was really my agent who helped me see it. Selwa Anthony is saying to me ‘Oh Karen I think that your real strength is history. you love it so much’.
She was too polite to say ‘you bang on about it’ but I did and she said ‘Why don’t you just focus on the history?’ So I took her advice and I’m really really glad I did, it was something profound. I’m really comfortable doing that, I really love it.
[00:03:49] So was an easy shift is what I’m trying to say. I just dropped the fantasy element. I still love fantasy and I still read it a lot and I appreciate it very much.
Popular rise of historic fiction
Jenny: [00:03:59] It’s probably just very serendipitous that historical fiction seems to be enjoying a real resurgence at the moment as well. So it is quite a hot niche to be in.
Karen: Yes it is. I mean again it’s a genre I always loved and really appreciated too and I think that when you find a writer that really respects history as well, then creates this wonderful story set within it, you can learn so much from it. And you know, the greatest predictor of the present and indeed the future is the past. We learn about ourselves, and I guess about our own humanity, by reading history. It just helps you make sense of events around you. I find that anyway.
Jenny: [00:04:42] Yes. As we might expect from the title the book contains a fascinating amount of information about chocolate. This is the time when chocolate had just become very fashionable in London and was also regarded as rather controversial and indeed even sinful. Can you tell us a little bit about how it’s regarded at that time.
Karen: [00:05:05] Yes sure. It was a drink for a start, so people didn’t eat it. It wasn’t confectionery and it came to England via Spain and France, who of course colonized the Americas – the South American countries and then started developing plantations in Africa. So it was also tied up with this awful slavery and the exploitation of various cultures and crushing of them indeed. So it came to England,as I said via the Continent. And when it first came it was seen as a decadent, really naughty drink.
Chocolate: Sin in a bowl
[00:05:42] It was called ‘sin in a bowel’ because they didn’t drink out of cups they drank in bowels and they put various additives in. Everything that we are accustomed to, like milk and sugar, to eggs and almond meal which again is not too strange. read chilli, flowers and ambergris, which is I think a while a product of whales. Anyway they added all sorts of really strange things and it was said to be quite the aphrodisiac.
So men in particular liked to bring it home for their women to drink and they used to bring it home in the form of a chocolate cake. And by that I mean a very solid mass of the cocoa butter really, the beans all crushed and the hull, the shell taken out. Winnowed out, and then made into the paste which they would break up into little bits and mix with boiling water. So that was how it was consumed. And they set up houses for people which were like taverns or a more sophisticated version of a tavern.
Men only Chocolate Houses
[00:06:43] And people for four pennies could go in and drink chocolate. So it broke down social barriers to because providing you had the money anyone of any class could go in and drink and converse with the other men. It was only men allowed into these places, although women did serve. And eventually women were admitted.
But yeah in the beginning it was very much a man’s environment. And they used to discuss politics, they’d gamble, they’d conduct auctions, and discuss the latest big discoveries. It was really fascinating places where plots and plans were fermented.
Jenny: [00:07:15] So yeah sounds fascinating. In fact the chocolate house that your heroine runs sounds like a wonderful establishment. You almost have the feeling you want to be able to visit it yourself, it’s such an exciting sounding place.
Karen: ] Oh that’s nice to hear because that was trying to evoke. I think they would have been quite thrilling places and because chocolate also coincided with the birth of journalism as we know it. Meaning that they were paid what they’re called correspondents who would go out and seek news and report it back to their the equivalent of an editor who would print it. The press was very tightly controlled at that time. There are only twenty legal printing presses allowed in London for example and the king and the government were very much control what went on.
Plotting revolution over chocolate
[00:08:06] So of course that meant there were underground presses as well where again things were published that the powers that be didn’t want out there and didn’t want people discussing. So literacy was on the rise as well and people were really becoming aware of their rights.
They were also equivalent to chocolate houses for coffee houses so coffee again was another drink that where in the past people always drank beer and ale and cider and wine and mead. Now they were drinking two popular drinks coffee particularly but also chocolate that kept them sober. So they were remembering what they were discussing and really having these deep meaningful conversations and instigating change which of course change is always a danger to the government in power.
Jenny: [00:08:51] Yeah. Yeah. You’ve got a huge list of characters true and fiction listed at the back including Samuel Pepys the very famous diarist. It’s clear you’ve done a huge amount of research. I just wondered how do you tackle setting at one of these books.
How to research historical fiction
Karen: [00:09:15] Yes, another great question. Very methodically. Again I didn’t really know much about the period before I began about King Charles II. I knew about the Plague and The Great Fire. When I say I knew, I had that vague general knowledge that a lot of us who like history possess. So basically I look at the broad overall period and then I start to drill down so I start with the big overarching books. Maybe a biography of the King, they’re always great to start with.
[00:09:44] So I read a couple of different biographies and then I start to drill down into the social changes that were happening. I read the plays of the time. I look at the artwork. I read literature of the time too if I can. And then I read a lot of studies and surveys. So everything from scientific discoveries of the time to the way gender was represented. And then I read lots of wonderful fiction historical fiction set in the period too. And what was a bonus about this period is there’s been many great books written about the Plague and the Great Fire and the consequences of these.
[00:10:18] What led up to them and the changes that they forced upon society at the time. And how English people and indeed people in the Continent coped with them and they were quite fascinating absolutely fascinating. And then of course on top of that I have books about chocolate and coffee to also help my research. So yeah there’s a bit of research.
Samuel Pepys diaries
Jenny: [00:10:40] So do you research solidly before you start writing or plotting anything? Or do you do it parallel with the plotting or the thinking about the structure and characters.
Karen: [00:10:52] Yeah well before I start research I always have the beginning of the book and I pretty much know how it’s going to end. What happens between is anyone’s guess so I have that vague idea and probably the main characters. That’s all.
So then I start my research and I’ll probably research really solidly for anywhere up to a year just reading and note taking and poring over maps. I’ve been fortunate enough to go to England a few times and walk the streets and take photographs and things like that. So being in situ is really a privilege and really wonderful.
[00:11:23] And then I start the writing and of course as you write you continue to research because I’m a stickler for detail. Like the fabrics that they used. Studying the condition of the roads, the proper names and things where I can get them. And of course what really helped me with this particular book were the diaries of Samuel Pepys which – they were just amazing. What an interesting little fellow he was. I don’t mean to sound condescending because he was quite a marvelous, smart man a naughty man, a bit scandalous.
Inside Restoration London
He was indicative of the rising middle class at the time and how education could really change a person’s fortunes. And he kept diaries for 10 years pretty solidly and from them I was able to gain practically everything. We learn about his bowel movements, his sexual fantasies. He coded them in French actually.
He coded his diaries and fortunately we have good people that have translated it all this for us. And you’d also get the weather and what plays were being performed at the two major theatres and the people he’d encounter and what he really thought of them, so all those things are gems for a writer. I felt like I got to know him, like I sort of he was a friend who I didn’t always like the way they behaved. But he confided in me, he trusted me, because this is how I felt. So I had to include him in the book.
Jenny: [00:12:44] You don’t just stick to one period either. I mean the one before this. The Locksmith’s Daughter is a Tudor spy story and your first book was set in medieval England and was set around a brewing company, a family that were brewers. So you’ve been a beggar for punishment in terms of setting yourself up with these projects.
[00:13:08] You’re very kind, Jenny! Other people would call me a fool! I just didn’t want to do this to myself, But you get the story and once the story takes hold of you, you can’t let it go. It’s like a package deal. It comes with the period and so yeah I have to got to learn a whole period. But that’s the beauty, as well. I’m learning so much as I go and that that’s been fabulous.
Next book set in 1700’s Scotland
I made a promise to myself because my next book is actually set in Scotland in the 1700s and it’s actually based on a true story.
It’s a terrible true story and I discovered it well I knew a little bit about it and I went to Scotland with the intention to research a slightly different story and found this one. And once it got its hooks in me and ‘Hooks’ is probably really appropriate because it’s to do with fish wives and witchcraft. I couldn’t let it go. The story of these women and what happened to them needed to be told, so yes. So I had to learn not just a whole new period but a whole new culture because Scottish culture was – is – really really different.
And then back to Medieval times
And now I’m back in Medieval times. I’m researching back in Medieval times. OK right. You know I’ve already done that. I should be really comfortable but I think I’ve leapt ahead so often over the years I’m going to be like Doctor Who. I’ve forgotten a lot. And also I’m setting it slightly earlier than my previous one so new kings. Different governments, different things going on. So yet again I’m on this huge and wonderful learning curve.
Jenny: [00:14:39] Now The Brewers Tale had extra significance for you, I think because things were happening in your personal life at that time that made it very difficult. You’ve mentioned this dear friend of yours, Sara. I believe that she has passed on and that it happened in that period. And also I think you suffered a little bit of ill health yourself. Do you feel like talking about any of that?
Karen: [00:15:02] Oh look. Thank you Jenny. Yeah I’m fine talking about Sara. The reason we actually shifted to Tasmania. My husband Stephen and I, we came for one year and that was with the intention to care for Sara, who had stage four of ovarian cancer. Sara and I had been friends for a couple of decades and very close friends. Basically,long story short, she had no one really to care for her.
A very personal story
[00:15:25] And I also had been diagnosed with cancer, but I was going to be all right, but I was on extended sick leave. And when I could travel I came down to see her and I was so distressed at how isolated and alone she was. And when I came back home I’m all sitting up in Byron Bay at the time. I was incredibly distressed and the house we’d been about to offer on in Brisbane had actually gone under in the floods and it was like the universe was telling us it’s not time to go in that direction.
And my beautiful husband said look I have this idea. Why don’t we put our stuff in storage and go to Tasmania for a year and look after Sara because he loved her too. And we did. And nine months after we arrived or nine and a half months, Sara died. And you know it’s funny, Jenny because intellectually you know it’s going to happen, but you somehow think because you’re there, you’re going to make things different and change it.
Losing a close friend
[00:16:19] And we were devastated when she died, and I think we existed in a bit of a fug for quite a few months after. But we had made the decision before she died that we’d stay, because we fell in love with this place. It’s a beautiful place, beautiful people. And yes. So we’re still here eight years later and that was when I was finishing the last my fantasy trilogy. and really struggled that night.
I still have ill health because of the cancer. That’s the thing when you have cancer. It’s it’s such a invidious horrible illness and people don’t realise that just because it’s cut out of you it doesn’t mean it’s all over. And yes sometimes sometimes things continue. So I’m about to head up to Sydney for another operation to do with it. Actually the week after next but I’m one of the lucky ones.
[00:17:09] I’m still here and I’m still able to do what I love and I count my blessings very much. But anyway. Yes. So we’re still here and yes it’s good. I feel like Sara’s with me actually. I’m looking at a photo right now as I’m talking to you.
Birth of Captain Bligh Brewery
Jenny: [00:17:23] It sounds like a remarkable story. The Brewer’s Tale also had another effect. Sound like it really was a ‘meant to be’ thing because of while you were researching it, I believe that your husband decided that he might open a beer brewing business, a craft beer business. Are you still doing that I believe, are you?
Karen: [00:17:43] Yes we are and that’s right. Sorry I should have extended the story. Sara had only died a couple of weeks before, and my sister came to stay with me because she knew how sad and bereft we were. I was taking her out to see the sights of Hobart. There is a lovely bar here called Bar On The Waterfront and I was sort of daydreaming a bit, not really focused on the young woman was talking my sister through of all things the whiskeys that gave her a tasting platter.
[00:18:18] And I remember saying to her ‘Do women play a big role in whisky making?’ and she wasn’t 100 percent sure but I said ‘they did in brewing, didn’t they?’ I don’t know how I knew that, you know you pluck stuff out of your head from somewhere and you don’t know how you knew it. ‘Yes,’ she said ‘actually yes they did. Women were huge with brewing.’ And after that, I didn’t hear another thing she said. So I always put it down to Sara, because we were there because of Sara, and because I used to go there to buy Sara a particular whisky for her to take with her medication. That’s another story. And that’s why I went to Lark Bar.
A joint venture in craft beer
[00:18:50] So this whole story came into my head and Stephen was my research assistant on it and introduced me to all these wonderful brewers and he was looking for a business himself. He’d been in psychiatry for twenty five year, and he was a little bit burnt out and he was looking for a business. He really wanted to go into hospitality because he loves people.
But every time he mentioned an aspect of the business he’s faced would fall. But he said ‘I could brew I home brew I’ve always brewed’ and I said to him one day ‘Why are you even bothering with the other aspect? Why don’t you just be a brewer? And he looked at me and he said ‘Would you be okay with that?’ I said ‘Hell yes, go for it.’ So yes. Five and a half years later he’s doing really well. We have Captain Bligh’s ale and cider and now a distillery. Our son has joined us in Hobart and he’s our distiller. So we we now make whiskey gin and rum as well as beer.
Jenny: [00:19:43] Yeah it does feel like it was all meant to be.
Karen: [00:19:46] Yeah well we’re all set because of the Sara and The Brewer’s Tale..
Academic and columnist
Jenny: [00:19:51] Turning to your wider career we’ve mentioned you’ve had a very full life as a social commentator and part time in academia. I gather you have semi-retired from lecturing. You have copped a lot of abuse for being up ‘above the parapet’ so to speak. You been called things like ‘the 6’2″ transvestite Sheila’ – Sheila for people who don’t know is an Australian term for female; ‘a witch and a loopy leftie.’ How do you cope with this kind of insult?
[00:20:27] Yes. Look. And that’s just the polite stuff. Honestly I’ve had death threats I’ve had rape threats, I’ve had all sorts of terrible things and still do. Yes, I was actually a full time academic for over 20 years. I now just act as a consultant and I write some academic articles.
[00:20:44] But yes I have a weekly column and I get really tired of people saying ‘it comes with the territory,’ but to a degree it does. And again you get told ‘don’t take it personally’ but everything in a way is personal. Really, it’s just the echo chamber that social media has become, because a lot of these people will either comment anonymously online under one of your articles, or the more angry will write to you and make sure that you get the abuse in your inbox. And I keep them all. I’m not sure why.
How to manage controversy
[00:21:19] I have blocked the more angry. I reported a couple of people. Yes, I think it’s particularly being a woman and daring to have an opinion and a public voice. Or you’re given a platform for your opinion, I should say. Everybody has an opinion. And that’s a privilege. And I like to think it’s a privilege that I really respect and try and make sure my opinion is always informed. I do my research. But there’s a lot of people don’t like that.
And I guess on the one hand we live in a world where people can express that displeasure and providing it’s done respectably respectfully and civilly. I’m all for it but unfortunately there are those that don’t know how to do that or just don’t think you deserve it. And they become incredibly abusive and threatening and yes it’s not easy.
Is Australia unforgiving of women?
Jenny: Do you think that Australia is particularly hard on women in public life. I am thinking about your former Prime Minister Julia Gillard who I personally thought got a pretty rough deal.
Karen: Yes I do. I think you’re absolute right Jenny. She did get a rough deal and I don’t understand why there are those people still in denial about that when the evidence was – is – everywhere – everywhere. I really admire any woman who enters public life and puts herself right out there. I’ve withdrawn a lot from television commentary and even radio commentary because of threats I’ve received and also the comments on your appearance. I get really tired of that too.
[00:22:45] I think a comment on my work, don’t comment on the way I look. However, women get that. We don’t ask for that, we don’t invite that. And yet there’s like a standard that we have to meet, whether you’re below it or exceed it, then you are judged.
Younger generation offer hope
But I also have learned I’d rather people underestimate me than overestimate me because at least then I don’t have anything to live up to. And then they can sort of reassess me when they get to know me. I don’t know. It’s such a strange thing Jenny,For all that I appreciate what the internet has done for us in terms of improving gender equality and gender respect.
I think the younger generation coming up – I’m so proud of them and I’m so proud of what many of them are doing and I think they’re going to get it right. But I think for my generation and the one above me I think you know we could learn from them and I think it’s really sad that instead of respecting and appreciating equality and what somebody else might offer you feel threatened and challenged and you lash out.
What Karen treasures most
Jenny: [00:23:52] Yes. You’ve done a tremendous amount outside of your fiction writing. Just to mention a couple of things – you had a writer in residency stay in China. I think you were the first Australian to be accepted into that program. And you worked as a consultant on the brains trust for The Einstein Factor on TV for a few years. I just wondered if you were going to pick one highlight out of your non-fiction career could you do that and what would it be?
[00:24:23] Oh gosh. Yes there’s two. I think teaching. I really loved teaching. It was such a again – I keep using the word privilege – but I don’t take anything for granted. It was a real privilege to be given that role – or earn that role rather You earn that role, you’re not given it. I still to this day miss it. I loved that. I didn’t like the politics of university, but I love teaching.
[00:24:52] And the second one would be writing my column every week. I really really enjoy that. It’s challenging. You have a deadline, so you have to write fast. You have to write topically and it keeps your brain tuned and it keeps your instincts honed and it’s great for my fiction writing as well. And again it’s – I feel humbled that I have that, I truly do.
Learning the craft of writing
Jenny: [00:25:15] It’s interesting that you say it’s great for your fiction writing. How does it help your fiction?
[00:25:21] Because you don’t use extraneous words. If you consider my books. Somebody might say they might need more of an edit, but my editors always say that they’re good to edit. And I think that’s my training, writing for a newspaper where you’ve got a word limit and you have to write to that word limit.
[00:25:38] And if you don’t somebody will cull it and it can change the whole meaning of what you’ve written,so you’re very careful to write to the word limit. I’ve been doing that for 18 years now and I’ve worked with that have taught me a lot. And the editors that work my fiction books continue to teach me heaps too. So I don’t write the perfect book, by any means but the team of editors that are with me fantastic but yeah it teaches you the power of words, how to put a good sentence together. You’re always learning, it’s great..
Reprise for sweeping historic sagas?
Jenny: [00:26:10] I guess that in a newspaper you do have to try and make sure that you catch your attention immediately don’t you.
Karen: [00:26:16] Yeah absolutely. And there’s the thing I used to do and I think because I write fiction as well. And that’s ‘burying the lead’ where you don’t grab the readers and you have a key thing a few sentences down? You learn very quickly to move that to the top and I think the same should apply with fiction. If you don’t grab a reader within a page you run the risk of losing them.
Jenny: [00:26:38] Yeah but interestingly somebody was just commenting to me the other day that 20 years ago we had those books like the James Michener books where they included a huge amount of extraneous information which I used to love – botany geology etc. and then that went out of fashion and those sorts of books they felt as if it was it was loaded with too much information.
But somebody was mentioning to me the other day that a lot of the best-selling historical authors are going back to providing a lot of rich detail and I think your books have got a lot of rich detail without being overloaded with it. Would you agree with that? And do you find it hard to keep that right balance?
Is historic fiction like slow cooking?
Karen: [00:27:19] Oh yeah. Gosh you ask good questions. Yeah. It’s like the slow movement with cooking and that isn’t it? It’s almost like that, yes. People are returning to wanting that. You’re right. You know I love history fiction that gives me information as it slowly unfolds. Again the author has to grab me with a story within a couple of pages, but I don’t read historical fiction because I don’t want information. I actually do want to learn about the period. So yes, I think you’re right. I think there is a change afoot. Look at Ken Follett’s books. They’re enormous and laden with information.
And consider CJ Sansom. He’s one of my favorite historical fiction writers And I love Philippa Gregory’s works too and Geraldine Brooks. Unfortunately she’s no relation, but she writes beautiful historical fiction that’s laden with information but never ever does it detract from the story. Yes. I think you’re absolutely right. I think there is a swing back towards that and I think if you don’t like it you wouldn’t choose the genre would you?
Jenny: [00:28:15] Perhaps historical readers are looking for something other than just plot and characters?
Karen: [00:28:20] Yes I think so. And you know I think that’s why I really love crime too, because sometimes I just want plot and character because you know that the crime significant important but it’s also very much a part of the plot. Yeah. And I really enjoy a great crime book.
Karen’s secret of success
Jenny: [00:28:38] If there was one thing in your writing career that you’ve done more than any other that is the secret of your success what would it be?
Karen: [00:28:48] Oh all right. Can I say two things again. Yes. Like not giving up. As in, once you start a project, finish it. I think that was something I learned doing my PhD because I was told that once you get accepted into a Ph.D you’ve already proven you can do it. But it’s a long haul and it’s about stickability and belief in yourself and maintaining a standard. .
[00:29:15] Writing a novel is exactly the same. Fiction writing is the same. It’s about sticking with it, respecting your readers, respecting the genre, the market everything and just following through and then of course edit edit edit cut cut cut. And don’t be afraid of that. And I think the other thing that really helps is having a great support network around you, your family, your friends. People who understand what you do and respect that as well.
Multiple drafts before satisfaction
Jenny: With your editing do you do more than one draft.
Yes! Laughing – Oh my goodness. I do. Oh gosh you know every morning when I’m in the writing process I read over what I’ve written the day before, depending of course on how long the book is getting. But definitely I read the chapter that I wrote the day before. And that gets me back into the flow and then I go on. I don’t get writer’s block.
I realize writer’s block just means I’m going in the wrong direction. And I just need to delete what I’ve just written and start that part again. Or I get up and go for a walk I just need a break from my desk and then I come back and I’m fresh and it’s fine
Jenny: You can’t have writer’s block when you’re a journalist.
Karen: No. And in fact if you do because you’re writing something 800 words each week that I have to produce my column. Yeah I just ditch it and start again. And that’s not a problem so I’m not afraid of deleting I think lots of people think their words are so precious and they are to you. And that’s what editing teaches you have the courage to delete. Having said that I have a delete file. So a lot of my stuff goes into a file just because I need to put back out. If I discover I actually did need that bit.
Well I cut 30000 words out of The Chocolatemaker’s Wife, for example so that had a really big edit, and that was before my editors got to it.
I do loads of drafts. I probably do close to 10 drafts.
Karen Brooks as binge reader
Jenny: [00:31:56] Yeah. Turning to Karen as reader. This is called The Joys of Binge Reading and it is predicated a little bit around the idea of binge reading becoming something a bit like binge watching do you binge read too and what do you like to read Jean really.
Karen: [00:32:13] Oh yes I’ve binge read all the time. I love love love Crime. Crime is my ‘go to’fiction and I love historical fiction and I love fantasy. They’re probably my favorites. And so like I binge read all Elizabeth George’s books.
[00:32:36] We have such great authors in Australia too. And if I find a good author I’ll go and read all their books that actually Elly Griffiths.
Trent Dalton – exciting new name
[00:32:42] I’ve just binge read all hers and I’m now waiting for the next book to come out. She’s a lovely English mystery writer. There’s Kate Forsyth another Australian, check I adore her books. She’s got a new one coming out called The Blue Rose which I can’t wait for.
[00:32:56] Kim Wilkins another great Australian fantasy writer and then a colleague of mine Trent Dalton just wrote the most beautiful book Boy Swallows Universe and I can’t wait for his next one because that was just glorious. You know I just I’ve binge read all the time
Jenny: I haven’t heard of Trent Dalton I ‘ll look out for him.
Karen: Boy Swallows Universe. It’s won every award and then some over here. I think it’s sold into 34 countries. It’s amazing. I’ve not read anything quite like it. I couldn’t put it down and I’ve bought it and recommended it and given it to so many people and they’ve all loved it.
What Karen would do differently
Jenny: [00:33:40] We’re coming to the close of our time together. So just looking back over your writing life, your fiction life, at this stage of your career if you were doing it all again would you take exactly the same steps and do it the same way?
Karen: [00:33:56] Oh wow. I don’t think I can give any answer but yes, because if I hadn’t, I wouldn’t be where I am now. And I’d be scared of a misstep in case I didn’t end up here. And you know I’m one of those really fortunate people that can write for a living. And I love what I do. You know it’s like stepping into Dr Who’s Tardis, to being taken on an adventure in a different time and place and meeting all these amazing characters. I work from home alone a lot of the day with my dogs, but I never feel alone because I’m always surrounded by people. You know the ghosts of Christmas past if you like. And it’s pretty magical.
Three overlapping careers
Jenny: [00:34:43] You’ve really had at least two careers, probably three. A lot of writers say they wish they’d given up the day job earlier. Or they wish they’d started earlier. But in your case you’ve obviously had a very fulfilling life. In all areas.
Karen: [00:34:59] Yeah I have, and a lot of my careers overlapped and I was always eternally grateful that I had the writing while I was an academic. I was writing books and my column while I was an academic. So when the cancer meant I could no longer remain in my job as an academic I became unreliable because of my health. So I was fortunate to have the writing to fall back on. Yeah I am lucky.
New books in development
Jenny: [00:35:23] So tell us about your next project. You’ve mentioned this new book set in Scotland. Has that got a title?
Karen: [00:35:31] Do you know what, Jenny? It’s the only book that hasn’t got a title. I gave it one. I’ll tell you. I called the Sea Witch of Caledonia but my publishers quite rightly said it sounds too like fantasy and I think because my back list is fantasy they were worried it would confuse readers. So at the moment it’s untitled. It’s set in 1704 – 1706 in Scotland in a little village called Pittenweem on the East Coast. So where we’ve got a couple of titles up sleeve but I don’t know that we’ve settled on one yet.
[00:36:02] So that’s pretty exciting to say well because that would be a team effort to decide and then again the book that I’m about to start writing is based on a character from The Brewer’s Tale, Alison runs a brothel in Suffolk in medieval times. She was based on Geoffrey Chaucer’s is Wife of Bath. So I’m doing her story from 11 years of age to how she ends up becoming a brothel owner in Suffolk. . So we’ll see what that comes up with at the moment. They don’t like the title I gave up that so we’ll see what comes of that . I’m calling it The Mostly True Story of the Wife of Bath.
Where Karen is found online
Jenny: [00:36:45] And so the Scottish one will be out next year and the second part of The Brewers Tale I mean it’s the standalone – but yeah it’s out after that…
Karen: [00:36:55] It’s like more of a prequel of The Brewer’s Tale. I don’t know if I’ll have the lead girl from The Brewer’s Tale in it or not, yet. I don’t know. This is where I sort of know the ending but I got a lot more to work out.
Jenny: [00:37:21] Do you like interacting with your readers. And if so we can they find you online.
Karen: [00:37:27] Oh I love interacting with the readers because I’m unlike a column readers. They are really lovely. No, that’s not fair. I have a lovely column readers too. And in fact that’s what I should say. I have people write to me thanking me and saying really lovely things too. Unfortunately you tend to remember the more negative things but the readers of my books – people don’t tend to write to you and say I hated your book which is really nice.
Inviting book clubs to join in
They tend to want to interact with you and ask you questions and they can get me through my website through Facebook. I’m on Twitter. And somebody put me on Instagram. I think my daughter, which I’m still learning to use but I am a presence online and I welcome them talking to me. I love it.
Jenny: [00:38:04] I’d imagine that your books also would lend themselves to book club sessions. To have even been asked to do one of those? Say on Skype?
Karen: [00:38:12] No but I would. It’s a good idea. I think you’re right. You should copyright that.
Jenny: [00:38:19] I should gather a group of girl friends together. We’ll have to see about that. Well, look it’s been wonderful, Karen, to be able to talk. It really has. And I just wish you all the very best with it.
Karen: [00:38:37] Oh look. Thank you so so much Jenny. It’s been an absolute pleasure too. Can I just tell you what we were going to start a movement. My husband and I down here , we wanted to cede Tasmania to become the westernmost state of New Zealand. if you’ll have us. Or maybe just us . . . Thank you so much, Jenny it’s been great.
Jenny: [00:39:15] Wonderful. Thanks so much.
If you enjoyed Karen’s book The Chocolate Maker’s Wife you might also enjoy Bart Casey’s dual time line story of Elizabethan intrigue – The Vavasour Macbeth.
Thanks To Our Technical Support:
The Joys of Binge Reading podcast is put together with wonderful technical help from Dan Cotton at DC Audio Services. Dan is an experienced sound and video engineer who’s ready and available to help you with your next project… Seek him out at firstname.lastname@example.org or Phone + 64 – 21979539. He’s fast, takes pride in getting it right, and lovely to work with.
Our voice overs are done by Abe Raffills, and Abe’s another gem. He got 20 years of experience on both sides of the camera/microphone as a cameraman/director and also voice artist and television presenter. Abe’s vocal delivery is both light hearted and warm and he is super easy to work with no matter the job. You’ll find him at email@example.com