While unable to meet in person with fellow-author-friends, I have been making acquaintance with a few new online-writing-friends, including the generous Gemma L. Brook. As she was kind enough to interview me earlier, I decided I should interview her in turn. And here we are:
VT: Hi Gemma! Thanks for agreeing to this interview. When I read your fishing tale “The One That Got Away” in Running Wild Anthology of Stories – Volume 3, I had to consult the internet for the name of the Scottish beast I believe your story’s fisherman almost caught. (I believe it starts with a k…)
Gemma: If I’m thinking what you’re thinking, that’s an excellent guess! You might very well be right.
VT: I’m not very “good” at folklore, but I understand that you’re quite interested in mythic tales, fairy tales and legends, and that you studied mythical literature at college and are writing a novel inspired by a story from Irish mythology. What do you think it is about fairy tales that appeals to so many people?
Gemma: That’s a very good question, and I’m sure scholars have studied this, but I’m not sure I have a good answer.
Fairy tales and folk tales have a lot of universal qualities. I think one appealing aspect of them is that evil is most often punished, and goodness most often prevails. The kind, the clever, and the unfavored – like the youngest son, the ash-smeared girl – often win the day. And as someone said (I believe it was Neil Gaiman), “Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.” That’s something I think we all need to hear in one way or another.
I also feel that fairy tales reveal wonders that are hidden in the world around us – magic and beauty and marvels right beside the turnips and the braying donkeys.
VT: Which fairy tale or legend would you recommend to someone who perhaps hasn’t had a lot of exposure to the world of fairy tale? Which is your favourite?
Gemma: That’s another hard question. I’m sure my answer to the first part is heavily influenced by my answer to the second. For youngsters, I might recommend “The Three Billy Goats Gruff.” It’s short, and the repetition (trip-trap, trip-trap, over the bridge) is fun. And the youngest goat is rescued by being clever, and by his older brothers. It was one of my favorites my mom told me before I could read.
Another was “The Bremen Town Musicians,” where a bunch of aging animals who’ve been rejected by their owners band together as friends and win the day – and they make a home together. A fairy tale I love even more is “The Wild Swans,” where a young girl is the heroine; she saves her seven brothers from a curse by her steadfast love and determination.
VT: What is your favourite film version of a fairy, folk tale, myth or legend?
Gemma: Perhaps the 1974 “Little Mermaid” narrated by Richard Chamberlain. I think it was very true to the original by Hans Christian Anderson – I believe Richard Chamberlain simply narrated the story. It was very soulful and bittersweet, with beautiful animation and music. I only saw it once, and it’s stayed with me all these years. Or possibly the 1976 “Beauty and the Beast” with George C. Scott and Trish Van Devere. I loved seeing a live-action fairy tale treated with gravitas, portrayed by adults, and that Beauty actually saved her two sisters from their own greed at least once.
VT: Do you find that there are any themes that repeat themselves in your work?
Gemma: Do mountains and forests count as themes? They’re often central in my stories.
Perhaps something close to a repeating theme, which occurs subconsciously, is the unlooked-at or unexpected perspective. For instance, I was intrigued to find out that while grown women were forbidden from attending the ancient Olympic Games, virgin girls were allowed to observe the athletes in all their naked glory. And when I found out that girls actually had their own Games in Olympia, I was fascinated, and knew I wanted to tell a story about that.
VT: What do you feel is your greatest strength as a writer?
Gemma: Well, it might be writing about those unexpected perspectives. Or perhaps description is – but it’s also a weakness of mine. When I read a novel, I love to immerse in a setting and be able to picture it completely in my mind, so I aim for that in my writing. And I try to portray the atmosphere with multiple senses and make it vivid. But my writing can easily become over-detailed, especially in rough drafts.
VT: What is it that keeps you writing?
Gemma: I think what keeps me going is having a story in my head that longs to be told – and the urge to have the story reveal itself on the page the way I see it in my mind. But when what I see in my mind doesn’t match what’s on the page, that can be daunting. So I need to continually polish my skills, and grow some of them outright.
VT: Would you share a little about the novel you are writing?
Gemma: The spark behind it was reading the story of Deirdre of the Sorrows – I wanted to write not a retelling, but a response. My story is about a girl who, like Deirdre and Helen of Troy, is fated to be so beautiful men will fight to possess her and bloodshed and battle will result. When she learns this as a teen, she’s horrified, and vows that she’ll do everything in her power to prevent that, to protect her people, and never to be a helpless pawn. To become strong enough to keep that vow, she has to learn and train to become a warrior.
VT: Do you have any particular treat or beverage that accompanies you to your writing desk?
Gemma: Wow, you sound like you know me! In cold weather, it’s tea (Earl Grey, Hot, with a nod to Star Trek). In hot weather it’s iced coffee, or home-made seltzer. And oh yes, chocolate, year-round. A bit of dark chocolate helps keep me inspired.
VT: What are the two books you’ve read (or listened to) in the past year, that you would most recommend?
Gemma: The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas – it was powerful and eye-opening and timely, so much so it moved me to review it on my blog, something new for me.
Another I whole-heartedly recommend is the Great Library series by Rachel Caine – it’s about what happens when all knowledge is controlled by one great library and it’s a crime to own a book; the main character is a book-smuggler. It has intrigue and adventure, and it’s full of great diverse characters. I finished the last book in the past year, and it brought the series to a gripping, satisfying conclusion.
VT: If you could only give one sentence-full’s advice to someone just starting out on their writing journey, what would it be?
Gemma: Tell the stories inside you that long to be told, write them down as truly as you can, and finish them – you can refine and polish them once they’re done.
VT: What is the best thing about where you live?
Gemma: I love the lush woods, the rolling hills, and the history that pokes through the landscape in the form of old stone buildings and ruins that always pique my imagination.
VT: What have you found most helpful during this time of widespread disruption and uncertainty?
Gemma: Sometimes writing has helped – submerging myself in another world, where I can control things. But writing has been very difficult sometimes – I know a lot of other writers have been struggling with that, too. Activities that get me out of myself help – going for a walk, getting out into nature, and learning something new. I’ve been visiting Atlas Obscura and the Penn Museum’s Daily Digital Digs nearly every day.
VT: Thanks again for letting me interview you, and thanks for your thoughtful answers.