Brewing Up Tasmanian Fiction: Karen Brooks Shares Secret Ingredients
Karen Brooks has written many historical novels, including The Brewer’s Tale / The Lady Brewer of London (MIRA Australia, 2014; William Morrow, 2020), set in 15th-century London; The Chocolate Maker’s Wife (William Morrow, 2019); The Locksmith’s Daughter (William Morrow, 2018); The Darkest Shore (HarperCollins Australia, 2020) based in 18th-Scotland; and now also The Good Wife of Bath (forthcoming July 2021). All share one main ingredient, and that is the role of women in history.
Her experience as an academic, actress, army officer and a “checkout-chick” have undoubtedly all helped to add flavour and depth to her novels. She explains, “It’s important to reflect the social and political issues of the period the novel is set in, and that includes the popular culture of the time – the music, theatre (if any), books and stories circulating. It gives the novel authenticity – providing these aren’t overplayed to the detriment of the story. It can be a bit of a risk raising issues that are contemporary in historical fiction just to highlight them, but the interesting thing is what disturbed and challenged people in the past, sometimes making them advocate for change, are not that dissimilar to what we deal with in the present day. For example, gender issues, bigotry, intolerance of difference, and politics. And, of late, because I’ve been writing about the impact of plague on my characters (and the plague rears its head in The Lady Brewer), there’s a real frisson with contemporary events and how we cope with isolation, mass sickness, fear, recovery, and a desire to help. Like the past, these enormous events bring out the best and worst in human I think nature. As the saying goes – plus ça change – the more things change, the more they stay the same.”
Her female protagonists are all in some way specialists in their own fields. Brooks clearly immerses herself in the trades they work in, but why was she fascinated by the art of brewing and the role of women in the history of ale-making? For Brooks it is “everything,” and she adds, “This from someone who doesn’t really like beer/ale! The first thing that fascinated me about women’s roles was that they were the primary brewers. Brewing was a domestic industry, and ale was made in local houses and shared (for coin or exchange) among neighbours. Made from the basic same ingredients as it is today, water, grain and yeast (wild in medieval times), the brew would sour fairly quickly, so couldn’t travel far.”
As she discovered, “It wasn’t until hops was introduced around the 15th century in England (it was being used long before that in Europe), and was found to preserve the ale/beer, that it was able to travel distances and even be exported. It then became a very profitable business.”
It was at that point that, she says, “Men began to take it over and push women out. As historian Judith Bennett politely notes: ‘When a venture prospers, women fade from the scene.’ I wanted to examine what it would have been like, as a medieval woman, to enter a trade that men were governing closely, and which was on the brink of dramatic change. It was absolutely enthralling – as was the brewing process! There’s something a little magic about the transformation that occurs with such basic ingredients – it’s no wonder many connotations of witchcraft and devilment hounded female brewers.”
Learning to brew beer didn’t inspire The Lady Brewer. Instead, says Brooks, “It was the other way around. I found the story, wrote the novel, and then business blossomed (my husband and I now own a brewstillery – a brewery and distillery – Captain Bligh’s in Hobart, Australia. My husband is the brewer, our son our distiller. I am the not-so-silent partner). It’s hard work but, when it’s going well (i.e. no Covid) very rewarding.”
Perhaps the most important part of brewing and writing novels is the fermentation process. For the novelist this may take the form of sleepless nights and dreams. Brooks dreams about her novels as she writes them. “Oh yes! I really do. So much so, when I was writing The Chocolate Maker’s Wife, I didn’t have a name for the leading man. I knew what he looked like – he was very clear to me. But he came to me in a dream and introduced himself, saying, ‘Hello, my name is Matthew.’ I have also been dreaming of the characters in the one I am currently writing. It’s wonderful and a little uncanny.”
All the elements that season any novel are its subject, place, setting and characters, but which is the most important for Brooks? She states: “They’re a package deal. I love writing about historical women in trade, but unless you have appealing characters and an authentic setting and time period, then no-one would really care about them or the subject matter. With The Lady Brewer, the setting and place came with her tale – though the first half of the book is set in a fictitious coastal town with a small port on the east coast – which fitted Anneke’s father’s work, etc.
“The Chocolate Maker’s Wife, because it explores the introduction of chocolate as a drink, came with a time and place as well – including the plague, Great Fire and the birth of modern journalism – the characters, well, they burst into life. Likewise, with The Locksmith’s Daughter which is set in Elizabethan times and the birth of modern espionage – where locks and keys were paramount. So, for me, they all come together – thank goodness!”
Each brewer, chocolate maker, locksmith and writer develops their skills and explores new avenues for their creativity. For Brooks it was switching from writing young adult fantasy fiction to historical fiction for adults. Her YA fiction was “fundamentally, historical as well – and fantasy.” Her agent suggested she “move into pure historical fiction.” Then, she relates, “I came up with the idea for a female brewer, well, moving into the adult market followed. I didn’t decide so much as the stories I wanted to tell decided for me.”
See https://karenrbrooks.com for more information about Karen Brooks.
ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR: Myfanwy Cook is the editor of HNR‘s New Voices column; visit www.myfanwycook.com.
Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 96 (May 2021)