Name Yvonne Marjot
Where are you from? I was born in England but grew up in New Zealand. Now I live on the Isle of Mull, off the west coast of Scotland.
A little about your self `ie your education Family life etc
Yvonne Marjot was born in England, grew up in New Zealand, and now lives on an island off the West Coast of Scotland. She has a Masters in Botany from Victoria University of Wellington, and a keen interest in the interface between the natural and human worlds. She has always made up stories and poems, and once won a case of port in a poetry competition (New Zealand Listener, May 1996). In 2012 she won the Britwriters Award for poetry, and her first volume of poetry, The Knitted Curiosity Cabinet, was published in 2014 by Indigo Dreams Publishing.
She has worked in schools, libraries and university labs, has been a pre-school crèche worker and a farm labourer, cleaned penthouse apartments and worked as amanuensis to an eminent Botanist. She currently has a day job (in the local school) and teenage children, and would continue to write even if no-one read her work, because it’s the only thing that keeps her sane. In her spare time she climbs hills, looks for rare moths and promises herself to do more in the garden. The Calgary Chessman (published by Crooked Cat Publishing, Edinburgh) is her first novel.
Fiona: Tell us your latest news?
I’ve just sold a copy of The Calgary Chessman to a lady from Calgary, Canada, who promises to tell all her friends. Who knows – it could lead to great things! The sequel to The Calgary Chessman (The Book of Lismore) will be published in 2015.
Fiona: When and why did you begin writing?
I don’t remember a time when I didn’t write, or make up stories, songs and rhymes. My family was a musical one (my Mum taught Music and Movement) and we are all great readers, so it was just a natural progression to write down my own stories.
Fiona: When did you first consider yourself a writer?
I used to feel quite guilty about all the reading I did. I definitely used my books as safe places to hide away from the world. But all the time I was making up my own stories, trying to see behind the writer’s words to the imaginary worlds s/he was creating. I didn’t think of myself as a ‘proper’ writer until one of my poems was accepted for publication in 1996. That was when I first realized that something I did just for myself, might also be enjoyable for other people to read.
Fiona: What inspired you to write your first book?
The Calgary Chessman arose out of a dream – that’s a cliché, I know, but it’s true. I’d been watching a TV program about the ten greatest treasures of the British Museum, one of which was the Lewis Chessmen. That night I had a nightmare about being chased by a faceless monster along the beach at Calgary Bay, one of my favourite places on the Isle of Mull. When I woke up, I thought to myself… what if I was walking at Calgary Bay and discovered something amazing? From that thought, the book was born.
Fiona: Do you have a specific writing style?
I’ve been told my writing style is poetic. That’s a bit worrying, really – I don’t want my novels to read like very long poems. No-one would have the patience to read them! But I do think that my prose-writing style owes something to the discipline that comes with writing poetry, especially when it comes to taking stuff out. I like to pare my poems down to the minimum, and that helps me stop my novel style from becoming to long-winded.
Fiona: How did you come up with the title?
The Calgary Chessman was a working title. I always intended to come up with a better title if it ever went for publication. However, over the years it has grown on me. The chess piece of the title is a central theme in the book, so it seemed right to name the book after it. It fits well with the sequels, too – each of them is named for the archaeological discovery that is described in the novel.
Fiona: Is there a message in your novel that you want readers to grasp?
I don’t like books that are preachy – I’m not writing to prove a point, or to persuade my readers to think a certain way. However, I do require my books to reflect the world as I see it – so there are characters who are gay and straight, black and white, male and female, some are likeable, others are not – reflecting the enormous diversity of the world we live in. I feel passionately about the way in which writers can slant our readers’ feelings on a subject by how we write about it, and I believe I have a responsibility to stay true to my personal beliefs about the world. But my readers are free to continue in their own beliefs. It would be very arrogant of me to try to change that.
Fiona: How much of the book is realistic?
Are experiences based on someone you know, or events in your own life? The Calgary Chessman is a work of fiction. None of the characters are based on any real person, and the events that take place are all made up. That said, I have done a lot of research on the past history of the Isle of Mull, and of the Lewis Chessmen, to try and make my story as realistic as possible. The main character, Cas (Cassandra Longmore), has experienced a physically and emotionally abusive marriage, and my understanding of her journey stems in part from experiences I have had in my life. Also, she is a New Zealander who finds herself suddenly living along on a Scottish island, not quite sure how to move on in her life. That too is similar to my experience. In a way, though, all my characters arise from my own subconscious, so in some way I identify with all their experiences.
Fiona: What books have most influenced your life most?
That’s a very difficult question. It’s easy for me to name my ten (or twenty, or a hundred) favourite books, or writers. But the writers that have most influenced me have been those whose writing didn’t just summon up magical worlds, or marvelous adventures, but who also had something to say about how we choose to live our lives. Top of that list must be Ursula Le Guin, a writer of power and longevity, who has had profound things to say about how we view the world we live in, and how we behave towards other people. If I had to pick just one of her book that exemplifies this, I would choose The Telling. It seems at first like a story of an alien world, with strange folk and bizarre adventures, leading to enlightenment in a wonderful mountain stronghold. But at its heart it’s really a story about how people try to control others through fear and ignorance, and how a belief in the value of knowledge, and trust in the ability of ordinary people to make moral decisions for themselves, can produce a strong and cohesive society.
Fiona: If you had to choose, which writer would you consider a mentor?
Le Guin aside, the writer who has most influenced my style is Barbara Kingsolver. Her book Prodigal Summer exemplifies the kind of story I’m striving to produce – something beautiful and touching, profoundly rooted in good research and an understanding of the natural world. One day….
Fiona: What book are you reading now?
I’ve just finished Bram Stoker’s The Jewel of Seven Stars, a Victorian horror with an Ancient Egyptian theme. One of my teenage favourites, it’s been great to read it again after so many years. It gets a mention in The Book of Lismore. I’m waiting with bated breath for delivery of the next book in the Rivers of London sequence by Ben Aaranovitch. I have a family connection to London, and I love these clever but completely barmy fantasies.
Fiona: Are there any new authors that have grasped your interest?
I love the fantasy novels by Kristen Cashore (Graceling and its sequels). They are set in a marvelous new world that is quite original. I am also raving about The Country of Ice Cream Star by Sandra Newman (2014). It’s a dystopian novel set in a future America, narrated by fifteen-year-old Ice Cream Star in a language which mixes childspeak, urban slang and sophisticated reasoning. I think it’s great, and I’ve been nagging my family and friends to read it.
Fiona: What are your current projects?
My work-in-progress is the first book in a trilogy set in a future New Zealand. It’s called Fire Under the Skin, and it interweaves three narratives, from a thirty-year-old woman, a man in his fifties and a fourteen-year-old girl. The title comes from a poem by Sappho.
Fiona: Name one entity that you feel supported you outside of family members.
The Calgary Chessman wouldn’t have got to where it is now without the support and criticism of the writing community on http://www.authonomy.com. They read my work, critiqued it, and held me up to the standard they believed I was capable of reaching. It’s a much better book for it.
Fiona: Do you see writing as a career?
For me, writing is an obsession. I would continue to write, even if no-one read my work. It’s difficult, because I have to work full-time (so I can pay the rent) and, of course, I have to raise my kids. I won’t stop writing, so mostly I do it instead of the housework. After all, nobody’s going to remember me for having a clean kitchen! If I could make a living out of writing, that would be wonderful, but mostly I count myself lucky to live in the computer age, where I can write, print and publicise my books even if no publisher is interested. And even more lucky to have found a publisher for The Calgary Chessman. Crooked Cat really are the nicest publishers in the world!
Fiona: If you had to do it all over again, would you change anything in your latest book?
Every time I pick up the book I see something wrong with it. The truth is, I’ll never be satisfied with it. But there is a sense of relief now that it’s finally published. Now I can’t change my mind again!
Fiona: Do you recall how your interest in writing originated?
My parents used to read to us when we were very small, we were encouraged to pick up books, including the books on their bookshelves, most of which I didn’t yet understand. We were encouraged to believe that the way to understand the world was to read about it. Writing is a natural extension of that belief – especially if you think you’ve had an idea that hasn’t been written down yet!
Fiona: Can you share a little of your current work with us?
Here’s a taste of chapter 3 of Fire Under the Skin. This chapter is about Rona, a thirty-year-old woman who lives in a community of women – she has never met a man, and doesn’t really understand anything about them. Her sheltered existence is about to be shattered.
“The sisters of the Moon held the tables tonight. They were serving their speciality: Six Mushroom Pie. Their grey and blue robes swished as they moved between the trestles, laying out the full-moon shaped pies with their intricately pieced and woven pastry lids, the steam making its way out and wreathing itself about the cutlery and plates. The Moon sisters were a close lot: they rarely coupled outside their own ranks, and there were rumours of private rituals not shared by the rest of the community. They were the acknowledged experts on fungi, both the edible and medicinal kinds, with the exception of the micro-fungi, whose secrets were shared with the Brewsters’ and Bakers’ Guild which crossed sisterhood boundaries.
Food was too important a matter to restrict to one sisterhood alone.
Rona wondered if there really were six kinds of mushroom in the pie, and how one could tell the difference once they were all cooked together. Behind their backs, the Moon sisters were referred to as the Toadstool Tarts, and there were rumours about past feasts where mistakes had been made, and sisters had died from eating the wrong kind of mushrooms. Or perhaps they were not mistakes? The sisters of the Moon were proud of their knowledge, and slow to admit failings. Perhaps deaths occurred as a result of deliberate policy, but were passed off as mistakes? There had been no such deaths in Rona’s lifetime, so the rumours remained just that: no worse than those spread about other sororities, other times. No worse than had been said about Rona herself, in dark corners almost out of earshot. Almost, but not quite.”
Fiona: Is there anything you find particularly challenging in your writing?
I hate waffling, and I have to admit it’s a bad habit. Also, I really hate writing dialogue. It’s a vital skill, it keeps a novel flowing – but writing it is like squeezing blood out of a stone. It’s exhausting.
Fiona: Who is your favorite author and what is it that really strikes you about their work?
I really want to mention Le Guin again, but instead I’m going to enthuse about another living author, another writer I truly admire. Neal Stephenson writes spectacularly well – great tomes of modern literature full of his knowledge and enthusiasm, and boundless creativity. Cryptonomicon is the best book I’ve ever read about the way a computer geek’s mind works, and yet that is only a tiny part of a genuinely exciting thriller that spans decades and continents. His futuristic novel Anathem is vast, inventive and a true page-turner. Don’t be put off by the size of them (they are big!) – just give them a try. He’s a true genius.
Fiona: Do you have to travel much concerning your book(s)?
I can’t afford to travel much, so The Calgary Chessman is set partly on the island where I live, and partly in some places that I have lived in or visited in New Zealand. The Book of Lismore is set on an island I have never been to, even though I see it from the ferry every time I go to the mainland. I hope the residents will still recognize their island when it’s published.
Fiona: Who designed the covers?
The cover of The Calgary Chessman is a painting by Ukrainian artist Oksana Volkovska. This cover art goes to show how valuable the internet is to writers and artists these days. I found her picture on http://www.shutterstock.com and showed it to my publisher. They liked it, and bought the rights, and now it graces the cover of my book. I love it – and I’m so glad my publisher liked it too.
Fiona: What was the hardest part of writing your book?
The hardest part of any novel is the daily grind. Making myself sit down and actually write. My head might be full of ideas, but it’s amazing how quickly they slip away when I’m staring at a blank screen. Don’t even get me started on the distractions of social networking. It’s a wonder I get any writing done.
Fiona: Did you learn anything from writing your book and what was it?
The most important lesson I learned from writing The Calgary Chessman was that I was capable of writing a novel. So many of us think we are, but it takes sheer determination to climb the mountain and actually get it done. The second most valuable thing I learned was that it is possible to tear up your manuscript from scratch and start again. I did that – I completely rewrote the book from a third-person story to a first-person narrative, and in the process deleted around 10 000 words (then I had to write some new stuff, to bring it up to scratch again). It’s a much better book for it, but it took me a couple of years to accept that I needed to do it. It’s so hard to kill your darlings!
Fiona: Do you have any advice for other writers?
Write, write and keep on writing. Never tell yourself “I can’t”, or “I’m not good enough.” Write even if you throw away everything once it’s finished – everything you write will make you a better writer. And one day it will be good enough to keep. Most of all – keep reading. Other writers have things to say to you, and you’ll learn from them by reading as widely as possible.
Fiona: Do you have anything specific that you want to say to your readers?
Despite my grumbles (and all the strategies I use to avoid getting down to work) I love writing. If you get the same kind of satisfaction from writing, get stuck in – follow your dream. I also love reading, and readers are my very favourite people. Without you, I wouldn’t be here – I write this stuff for you, and I hope you enjoy it, because I want to keep on doing it for a very long time. If you love my book, or more importantly if you strongly dislike something about it, please do get in touch (links and contacts below). It’s my job to please my readers, and if I’m doing a bad job of it I need to know.
Fiona: Do you remember the first book you read?
That’s a very, very long time ago. I’m not sure I could even tell you the title of the first book I read. But the first book I remember devouring from start to finish, and sighing with disappointment when I finished it, was Tove Jansson’s “Comet in Moominland”. What a wonderful writer she was!
Fiona: Other than writing do you have any hobbies ?
I play the piano (not very well), look after my garden (not enough) and I like to climb mountains and look for rare moths.
Fiona: What TV shows/films do you enjoy watching?
I’ll give anything SciFi or Fantasy a try. It’s good if it has a bit of humour, too, and doesn’t take itself too seriously. The best SciFi film ever made, Blade Runner, has a first-person voiceover, Harrison Ford’s character. I’d like to think that it influenced my writing of Cassandra Longmore in a small way. I’m least likely to watch RomComs, or soap operas. I’m not looking forward to my boys growing up and leaving home, because then I won’t have a ready excuse to go and watch the kinds of films that supposedly appeal mostly to men.
Fiona: Favorite foods / Colors/ Music.
I’m a lover of savoury foods, although I admit to a weakness for chocolate. Favourite colours are purple and green. My taste in music is very broad: my favourite classical period is the Impressionists (Debussy, Ravel, Faure) but generally I describe myself as a Prog Rock chick. I confess to a shameful teenage crush on Rick Wakeman, though I swear that was because of his keyboard skills and not the hair.
Fiona: If you were not a writer what else would you like to have done?
As a child I adored ballet and playing the piano. If I could have been a prima ballerina or a concert pianist, I’d have been in heaven. I strongly suspect, though, that by this point in my life I’d still have found myself writing. It’s in the blood.
Fiona: Do you have a blog/website?
If so what is it? My blog is “The Knitted Curiosity Cabinet” on http://www.wordpress.com I also have a Facebook page and group (The Calgary Chessman)
https://www.facebook.com/TheCalgaryChessman (facebook page)
https://www.facebook.com/groups/613652062059888/ (facebook group)
and I often publish short poems and musings on Twitter @Alayanabeth.
Thank you for hosting me, Fiona. I’ve enjoyed answering your questions. I’d love it if readers took a look at The Calgary Chessman – you can read a sample on Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com.
On a windswept beach on the Isle of Mull, Cas Longmore is walking away loneliness when she unearths a mystery in the sand. To Cas, torn between Scotland and her New Zealand home, the object seems as odd and out-of-place as herself.
Intrigued, she begins to search for its origins, thinking it will bring a brief respite from isolation. Instead, the Calgary chess piece opens the door to friendships and new hope. Her son, meanwhile, brings home his own revelation to shake her world