Tolkien, Journalism and Dante

Tolkien, Journalism and Dante

Ponderers, please focus your eyes on this wonderful creature- an award winning social commentator, journalist  for the Courier Mail, author, academic and columnist PLUS she reads Ponderings which makes her a fave, she is the gorgeous Dr. Karen Brooks. Some of you may know that I once ran a candle company, candle making was one of my FAVORITE hobbies which then turned into a lucrative business. I came across a book titled Tallow, and was swept away into a mystical land of magic, candles and fantasy. Who could imagine a candle maker infusing the ability to heal and manoeuvre? (Grin inserted) Karen was responsible for MANY an all nighter as I consumed the Bond Rider Series and more than a few packets of Tim Tams.

K: One of my favourite book series of all time is the Tallow series. I have never met a creative such as yourself that can write such exquisite fiction and then jump over to current news affairs and social commentary- you’re quite extraordinary in this sense. How do you make the switch and what is your secret?

KB: No-one has ever asked that question before. I think writing in the two entirely different modes, even though they’re both creative acts, makes it easier for me to shut out one and focus on the other. One also stimulates the other. You see, when I was an academic and lecturing at university, I was always writing lectures, papers and researching and my newspaper columns were, in a sense a liberating (because I didn’t have to footnote and could write in the first person!) extension of that. With the newspaper columns, I have to work to a strict word limit which is generally quite inflexible, so it’s great discipline for a writer. It teaches you to delete extraneous words. You have to write quickly, to topic, get your points across concisely, entertainingly (you want the reader to keep reading) and lyrically/persuasively. In many ways, both academic writing and the opinion pieces trained me for fiction. I researched the Tallow series very thoroughly (and do even more now with my historical fiction), but I also learned to write in a disciplined way which also meant being able to switch off while at the same time using the skills I’d been taught by great editors. It takes me one to two years to write my books, but every week, I also have to produce an 800 word column on a social or political issue. I look forward to those days (mostly LOL!) and no longer feel they interrupt my novel writing, they are just part of what I do. I don’t think there’s a secret – I simply flick over. I’d never thought about it before. But, after 17 years ( I started writing fiction and newspaper columns at the same time), I’m an old hack – at the column, that is. Still learning so much about writing fiction! So it’s not a secret, but something that I’ve become accustomed to doing and don’t think about anymore.

K: Who is your favourite character you have created and why?

KB: Oh, sheesh… That’s like asking who’s your favourite child! I love them all… however, I adore Tallow and Dante. I also love Anneke Sheldrake (from The Brewer’s Tale), Mallory Bright and Sir Francis Walsingham from The Locksmith’s Daughter (the latter being a real figure in history, he was such a challenge and treat to create from the bones of history, to make him three-dimensional) and, in my current book, The Chocolate Maker’s Wife, I have fallen in love with a few of the characters, including another real historical figure, Samuel Pepys, the great diarist, who features. I will keep the others a secret for now 🙂

K:  Who inspires you and why?

KB: My amazing husband (one in a million) and my wonderful adult children. They have always inspired me and will continue to, and not just because I should include my family, but because they are my rocks, terrific, grounded people in their own right, and my loves. My fantastic friends – they inspire me. They’re all honest, good, hard-working, talented and kind people. My grandmother inspired me because of her strength and resilience – despite being such a pragmatic woman, she also had a vivid imagination. I’m also inspired by my beloved friends, Dr Kiarna Brown (obstetrician and gynecologist in Darwin) and Kerry Doyle (CEO of NSW Heart Foundation) who are both incredibly smart, witty, kind, compassionate women who give so much to those around them. Also, my beloved friend Sara Douglass who, even though she died in 2011, still continues to inspire me for all the same reasons. People like Quentin Bryce, our former Governor General, who has always conducted herself with such dignity, intelligence, and grace. Writer Shirley Hazard for the same reason (I had the great privilege of meeting and interviewing her back in 1994). Margaret Atwood – for her powerful writing and politics. My incredible friend Stephen Bender for his integrity, kindness, insight and ethics. And my former colleague and dear pal, Professor Jim McKay for his endless support, wisdom, compassion and generous heart and mind. They’re all sensational people for so many reasons, and I’m so fortunate they’re part of my lives – whether it be in the flesh or from a huge distance or through words. I could list so many more… Makes me realise how lucky I am to have such good people in my life.

K:  Tolkien or Austen?

KB: Ha! Can I say both? It’s the brain switch thing… 😉 I still reread them.

K:  What advice would you give your 25 year old self if you could meet?

KB: Be kinder to yourself. Life isn’t a competition no matter how many people try and convince you to enter into it or race you to the finish. You will find great love if you open your heart and give it (I did, but it would have been nice to know back then when I was on the cusp of a horrible divorce); as much as it’s a cliche, really do stop and smell the roses.

Leaderboard Ponderings 2K: France or London and why?

KB: London – I am an Anglophile – the history, the messiness, the imperfections, the incredible resilience of the people, it’s amazing.

K: What music are you listening to?

KB: Albums of Restoration music – I always listen to music from the period my novels are set in as I write them.

K:  What do you like about the Australian art space?

KB: A great deal. We have such variety and talent – across all genres and spectrums. My daughter, Caragh Brooks, is an artist in Melbourne and I love her work (illustration, painting, and sculpture) and the generosity of the art scene and other artists towards her and each other. I also adore the work of Andrew Taylor in QLD. I have the work of Ken Johnston hanging in my home, some of Shaun Tan’s marvellous book covers as well as an Indigenous artist named Muly’s work. Oh, and my daughter’s work – that is proudly displayed everywhere in the home and always attracts great comments. I also like the work of Tom Roberts, Fredrick Drysdale and Jeffrey Smart. Now, I took that literally to mean “art” but if you broaden it to include other aspects, such as writing, music, theatre, film, etc. Then, I like that artists keep giving so much to culture that (and this is what I don’t like)  sometimes doesn’t seem to appreciate the enormous contribution they make. Economics may be the bones of a society, infrastructure the flesh, politics etc the mind, but art is the beating heart.

K: If you could have one minute on National TV Prime Time to give a message what would you say?

KB: Please, be more generous in your heart towards others.

K:  When is the next book coming out?

KB: In the USA, next year (The Locksmith’s Daughter – which is out here already) and in Australia, October 2018 – The Chocolate Maker’s Wife.


For more information about Karen:

Dr. Karen Brooks
Twitter: KarenBrooksAU
Associate Professor and Honorary Senior Research Fellow IASH, Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities, University of Queensland.
Columnist for the Courier Mail.
Join Karen for great conversations and sharing on FaceBook: Karen Brooks‘ Official Fan Page – love to have you!
Author of: The Locksmith’s Daughter ,The Brewer’s Tale, Tallow, Votive and Illumination in The Curse of the Bond Riders series.
Consuming Innocence, Rifts Through Quentaris and the Cassandra Klein Quartet
Director: Sara Douglass Enterprises

Treehouses, Hogwarts and the Home for the Perpetually Bewildered

Treehouses, Hogwarts and the Home for the Perpetually Bewildered

When I was 12 years old my mother bought me a book. It was So Much to Tell You by John Marsden. It is the story of a young girl disfigured from an acid attack, trying to find her place and her voice. As a young girl also with a facial deformity (I was born without an eyelid- yup true story) her character struck a chord in my heart that ran very deep. The binge reading of my early teens started a journey into the works of John Marsden lasting 20+ years- this uncanny ability he has to connect with our inner teenager in a narrative that is relatable and real is extraordinary. His non-fiction work is equally as impressive, although I won’t rave TOO much as it makes him incredibly embarrassed. I have been most fortunate as a writer to have attended a number of John’s writing camps and retreats back when Tye Estate was in full gear.  It was on one of these retreats that I decided to take this writing gig seriously as it was the one perplexing, driving, creative and urgent force in my life. The condition of Not-Writing to me is like not drinking water, or eating food. So not giving it the attention and dedication it required seemed somewhat silly. It was also here that it dawned on me that one does not need to be a literary genius to be an author, but what is absolutely necessary is an authentic voice. It is John I have to thank for this realisation and discovery. I was super excited when the Candlebark principal and best-selling author agreed to be featured in our launch edition of Ponderings. I am going to admit to you now- I may have clapped my hands in excitement when he said I could ask anything and to keep it quirky. What came next was LOTS of fun.

K : So John, you have two doors in front of you, one door is blue, and it opens up to the Hogwarts Dining Hall, the other is green, and it opens to Arthur’s Round Table- both are in full swing of a dinner party. Which door? Blue or green and why?

JM: Always nice to start with an easy question! Obviously, Hogwarts! Arthur’s roundtable is so… so yesterday. I’m a great admirer of JK Rowling, and the world she created. For one thing, you could have a lot of fun at Hogwarts. There are no jokes in the King Arthur story…

K:  Cubby house or treehouse?

JM: This one’s tougher. Cubby houses have a bit of a “back to the womb” feeling, which is attractive, but I think I prefer the treehouse, for the view of the future.

K:  Who is your favourite Simpson’s character and why?

JM: Sigh. Harder and harder. I like Ned Flanders because I can laugh at him without feelings of guilt, and that’s a rare privilege in our society. (Suddenly Donald Trump comes to mind; can’t think why.) I like Bart because he’s the kind of kid I was. Maggie is awesome. Barney is a legend, and so is Mo…

K: What makes you belly laugh, the type where you almost snort and can’t stop?

JM: The Simpsons, definitely. My wife, who’s incredibly funny. Kitty Flanagan. Mick Molloy. What doesn’t make me laugh are practical jokes. In 68 years of life, I’ve never seen one that’s funny, because they always involve making someone else feel uncomfortable.

K: What is the best comeback line you have used and thought- “Wow, that was actually a good one.”

JM: I was supervising an all boys’ class who were meant to be working in silence. One boy had a Chupachup in his mouth (which, perhaps surprisingly, was allowed). But he kept talking to his neighbour. Finally, I said: “If you talk again I’ll shove that Chupachup so far down your throat you’ll end up with a third testicle”. The whole group collapsed in hysterical laughter, and I admit I had to struggle to keep the smirk off my face.

K: Have you ever had a moment where you thought you were going to quit but kept going? If so, what was the grit that got you to keep going?

JM: Oh God, every day. A strong sense of duty, instilled by my parents, keeps me going, as well as the strength I gained from many years of psychoanalysis with a great therapist.

K: Does country living inspire you to be creative? What draws you to it?

JM: I love country life, but I don’t think it inspires me to be creative. I’m at my most creative in a motel room where there is nothing to do but stare at the wall or watch TV. In other words, there are no distractions. I love the country because of the space, the greenery, the vast sky, the wonderful variety of natural smells.

Ponderings Leaderboard

K: I will never forget the first time I met you, I was expecting this sort of professor type with polished shoes and a sniff, dripping with literary devices and a rounded vowel accent and instead the most normal and down to earth bloke pulled up on a four-wheel motorbike, with mud on his workbooks and a dog riding shotgun. You were a revelation of grounded No BS genius and friendliness. Given the industry you are in, how on earth do you deal with pretentiousness or literary snobbiness that can be found in the Arts space? Because sometimes intelligencia is used as a show car, and you aren’t a show car kind of man- what advice do you give young writers stepping into that space?

JM: Oh dear, how embarrassing! I suppose I’d say to them that the love of strangers is meaningless. People might love your books, which is nice, but they can’t say they love you because they don’t know you. The only people whose opinions matter are people who know you really well: your partner, your children, your parents, your siblings. And if a significant number of them don’t have a good opinion of you, then something may be wrong… You may need to “take a good hard look at yourself”, as the Coodabeen Champions would say.

K: What perplexes you the most and why?

JM: Life. People – all of them, including myself. Edna Everage sometimes mentioned that her mother was in a Home for the Perpetually Bewildered. That’s where I belong.

K: Who is someone you admire a lot and why?

JM: I admire the work of Bob Dylan. I don’t know a lot about him as a person, but what I do know, I like. I admire great educational leaders, like Winifred West, Dorothy Ross, Betty Archdale, Sir James Darling, Peter Gebhardt — all of them now dead, but they had the courage to blaze trails instead of following meekly behind society, like today’s school principals. I admire Jane Austen for her wit, perspicacity, and command of the English language.

K: Paul McCartney or Rod Stewart?

JM: Paul McCartney, definitely. When I was a teenager, the Beatles, Bob Dylan and JD Salinger changed the way I understood the world, and made me realise that people could strike out in new directions, could do things differently. I don’t think Rod Stewart has ever changed the way anyone understands the world.

Leaderboard Ponderings 2

K: Do you have a recent song that gets stuck in your head?

JM: Apart from “Sons of the West”? Somewhat bizarrely, I’ve gone back to Gilbert and Sullivan, the forerunners of Monty Python and John Clarke. I keep playing their operas, especially Patience, Iolanthe, Trial by Jury, and HMS Pinafore.

K: What book are reading right now? How do you rate it?

JM: I’ve just finished two novellas by Nathanael West, an American writer killed in a car crash in 1940. They were good: clever and funny and stylish, especially A Cool Million, but I wouldn’t strongly recommend them. There are better books around!

K: When we both get a break, can I come over and make you and Kris a cup of tea and bring cakes with me?

JM: lol thanks, what a great offer!

K: Did you get to watch the explosion scenes in Tomorrow When the War Began movie and was it awesome?

JM: No, I didn’t. They used a model, which cost $60,000 to make, so when they filmed it they had to hope it worked perfectly, and that the cameras were all rolling from start to finish!

Time for this Ponderer to get baking…


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