Isobel Blackthorn is an award-winning author of unique and engaging fiction. She writes dark psychological thrillers, mysteries, and contemporary and literary fiction. On the dark side are Twerk, The Cabin Sessions and The Legacy of Old Gran Parks. Her Canary Islands collection begins with The Drago Tree and includes A Matter of Latitude, Clarissa’s Warning, and A Prison in the Sun. Isobel’s interest in the occult is explored in The Unlikely Occultist: A biographical novel of Alice A. Bailey and the dark mystery A Perfect Square. Even her first novel, Nine Months of Summer, contains a touch of the magical. Isobel is at work on her fifth Canary Islands’ novel, and has just published Voltaire’s Garden, which is both a tribute to and memoir of Cobargo, a small town in New South Wales recently devastated by the Australian New Year Bushfires.
Welcome, Isobel. What an impressive list of publications, which I am reading my way through (as you know, I love Clarissa’s Warning). It looks like you write in more than one genre?
I write mysteries, psychological thrillers, historical fiction, contemporary fiction and biographical fiction.
So impressive. Do you write full time?
I do. Short answer! Writing full time involves all the associated admin and promo of course. There is an awful lot of that. It is a very solitary existence, very absorbing. I am happiest when I am immersed in composing fiction with characters I am fond of, characters who make me laugh.
Yes, I think the admin takes longer than the writing – well, almost! You’re writing as a professional, then. Do you think that creative writing courses are valuable?
This is a difficult question. Initially, I was warned away. But then again, said gainsayer mentored me for six months and showed me numerous tricks of the trade. So I did receive ample training. Also, I am a natural self-learner. I enjoy distance education. After the mentoring, I taught myself to be the writer I am by studying the works of contemporary literary fiction giants, particularly the Europeans. I chose these works as I didn’t want to risk picking up bad habits and back then, I really had no idea who I could trust, other than my beloved Iain Banks, who I also learned a lot from. Also, I love literary fiction. It has become undervalued as elitist when really, the genre that is not a genre is simply different and requires a different attitude, a different state of mind.
In my quest to turn myself into the best writer I could possibly be I regarded my selection of fictional works as text books. I filled a notebook with turns of phrase, examples of syntax, that sort of thing. I studied the architecture of a novel. I studied opening paragraphs. I pored over descriptions of characters. I worked out how to write effective dialogue.
Years later I enrolled in a free, ten-week online writing course offered by the Open University, UK. I wanted to see how they approached the delivery in terms of content and style in preparation for a ten-week writing class I was giving. The OU course was great fun and well thought through and I got to see how things were done. I still think my self-learning method is best but only because it worked for me.
You’ve devoted yourself to your craft. Why is writing important to you?
Writing is my life, both fiction and non-fiction. I communicate. I suppose I also teach. My mind bursts with thoughts, runaway ideas. I get hot under the collar about a lot of issues and writing gives me a means of expression and a platform. For me, writing, including creative writing, serves a higher purpose, at least it does when we produce works of some depth and substance, works of moral value, and not simply writing for entertainment and wish-fulfilment alone. Writing encourages reading, we hope, and reading expands the mind, we hope. Writing is for me an occupation, a distraction, a partial escape, a way of steadying my mind and forging through hard times. We live in hard times, don’t we. Anyone with any sensitivity can see that.
The first book I wrote was a memoir. Back in 2007, I started writing the story of my sustainable lifestyle project involving the building of a house with B&B and the creation of a large garden on a fifteen-acre cattle paddock on the edge of Cobargo in one of the prettiest places on earth, a place safe from the ravages of climate change, or so I thought.
The memoir was almost published and then I shelved it when my marriage failed and I moved to Melbourne.
Then, last New Year’s Eve, the unthinkable happened and I was thrust back into my old home town through the devastating bushfire. My emotions were ragged. My family had lived in the community for over forty years. We knew all the people who died. I used to sort mail at the post office and so I knew everyone by name. It was trauma at a distance and I was ragged.
In the end, it occurred to me that the best thing I could do with how I felt was to resurrect that old memoir. It would be a tribute to a very special location. Finding the manuscript in pretty good shape, I polished it up and wrote an epilogue which gave the memoir the meaning I knew it needed. It is called Voltaire’s Garden, and is in many ways an homage to philosopher Voltaire, who established his own sustainable lifestyle in exile in the late 1700s.
That one’s a very personal story. How much research is involved in your writing?
Research forms a large component of any story. From fleshing out original ideas to embellishing the details and informing plots and characters, research is key. I research setting – environment, history, culture, society – key events and histories. I research geography, climate, weather, food, customs, all kinds of things. I am forever looking something up. Thank goodness for the Internet. I think in the past I would have needed to pitch a tent in a large reference library as I doubt I would ever have left the building.
Book 4 in my Canary Islands collection, A Prison in the Sun, had me researching newspaper reports, blog posts and a couple of doctoral theses all in Spanish. The novel concerns a little-known concentration camp for gay men that ran for twelve years in the 1950s and 60s under General Franco. I had known of the camp since the late 1980s when I lived on the islands. Back then, the story was repressed. An academic broke the story in the noughties, but only in Spanish.
Rather than set an entire novel in a labour camp, I embedded the story in a mystery featuring a millennial ghost writer grappling with his sexuality, setting up an important juxtaposition between then and now, and throwing in some mystery elements – a rucksack full of cash, a dead body – for intrigue.
I love the way you layer your stories. What’s your writing goal for the next twelve months?
I have Book 5 of my Canary Islands collection to write. I’m currently at the research stage, and actually on the islands! And I hope to finish my family history novel this year. The project stalled two-thirds in due to frustrations with the genealogy. I decided to press pause while I paid a tidy sum to a professional genealogist to see what else could be discovered. I’m still waiting for the results.
Can we get your books as audio books?
You most certainly can. The Cabin Sessions, A Matter of Latitude and Clarissa’s Warning are all available in audiobook format. A Prison in the Sun will be in audio soon too.
Where do you get inspiration or ideas from?
Ideas come to me. They land in my mind like pebbles plopping in a pond. If I don’t have the inspiration, there is no book project. Sometimes I brainstorm ideas, and to do that I need a sounding board, someone to listen as I talk things through, pacing the floor. I came up with my latest book project this way. The ideas arose little by little, like lots of small pebbles rather than one big splash. I needed to brainstorm as I felt I needed a Book 5 for my Canary Islands collection.
Is it easy for readers to find your books?
Readers need to find my books online. I am published overseas by a terrific independent publisher with a strong online focus.
Do you send out newsletters to readers?
I do. I have a pop-up sign-up form on my website and most subscribers find me that way.
That’s great. Thanks so much for speaking with me today, Isobel. Keep those stories coming!