INTERVIEWS & ARTICLES
from Online magazine, Hoopla April 4th by Meredith Jaffe see full interview HERE
MEET THE AUTHOR JOSEPHINE PENNICOTT
It may seem odd to describe a murder mystery as a love letter but that is exactly how fifth-generation Tasmanian Josephine Pennicott felt when she finished writing Poet’s Cottage.
The novel pays homage to the traditions of English murder stories but Pennicott breathes freshness into this compelling tale and the inspiration of Tasmania’s gothic beauty permeates every line and page.
She spoke with The Hoopla’s Meredith Jaffé.
Tell me what Poet’s Cottage is about.
I would describe Poet’s Cottage as a murder mystery. It’s set in Tasmania between the 1930s and the present day and it’s the story of a little girl who witnesses the brutal murder of her mother and doesn’t really understand what she’s seen.
Then in the present day thread, her granddaughter goes to Pencubbit to try to uncover the mystery of what really happened in the cellar and who her grandmother really was. It details the ripple effects of murder on different generations, the past and the present trying to exist next to each other and this uneasy shadow between them.
What is it about writing crime/mysteries and fantasy that appeals to you?
There’s three writers who I think of as my holy trinity. There’s Enid Blyton at the beginning, then there’s Agatha Christie, and Daphne Du Maurier. I just love a good cosy mystery. I’ve written a lot of crime short stories that tend to be darker but I love a nice cosy domestic English mystery as well. I think it’s something people enjoy and I love the fact that a mystery nearly always gets to a resolution.
Well that’s also part of your contract with the reader, isn’t it? That if they keep turning the pages, you’ll provide the answer.
I think so. With Poet’s Cottage I always had a bit of a concern about one of the characters, I can’t really say too much because it gives it away, but afterwards I thought, oh maybe it wasn’t like that, maybe it was this other person.
It twisted my mind for a little while because I have a basic plot and I’ve worked out the chapters in a very basic loose form and then I let the story and the characters evolve and freefall through the book a little bit then, but I don’t really know who the murderer is. When I found out who it was it was quite a shock for me but looking back I could see that all the threads had lead to that particular point.
It’s interesting to think that you wouldn’t plot it out to make sure you had all the twists and the turns and planted the red herrings, which is typical of say a Christie.
Agatha Christie was very well plotted but there are crime writers – I think Minette Walters doesn’t plot so much – she allows the book to unfold and follows it there. Every book is a different journey. I like to write like that because to me it’s exciting that I don’t really know what’s happening.
You have said that you deliberately set out to write an English-style murder mystery story but set in Tasmania. What particular elements did you feel that you had to include to give it that Englishness.
The landscape of where we were at the time leant itself to that beautifully. Stanley in the northwest coast of Tasmania is this little sea fishing village and it just looks like you’re in Cornwall. It also has these very Enid Blyton shops with the striped awnings. But then it has another side to it, which is incredibly gothic, this Australian wild sea coast which is really rugged and beautiful.
So you’ve got this weird juxtapositioning of different elements of the landscape that reminded me of Midsomer Murders where you have these really surreal pretty English villages but gruesome murders. It also reminded me of Agatha Christie and Daphne Du Maurier, being set a sea fishing village.
When I went there on holidays in 2007, it all came back to me as I was walking around the town when I was already very obsessed with Enid Blyton and really interested in the story of her relationship with her two daughters.
Tell me about that.
There is a fairly recent movie, Enid, with Helena Bonham Carter. Now that movie was only made after the eldest daughter Gillian had died and they went with the younger daughter, Imogen’s, version of her mother. Both daughters had totally different accounts of growing up with Enid Blyton. Gillian was a lot more loving in her account of Enid; that she was a wonderful and devoted mother and that she was very caring towards her daughters.
Imogen’s point of view was that Enid was very distant and unapproachable, a cold and very strange woman and she cared more for children that weren’t her own and she was very self absorbed in her own writing.
What interested me about that was not so much Enid Blyton and her own daughters but how, in my own family and in other people’s families, how family members who had the same upbringing, were at the same school, all the things were the same but they had different accounts of their upbringing and everyone believed their own story. How do you know who is correct when they say something about someone and how do you sort it all out? So that’s what Sadie in the book in the present day tense is trying to sort it all out with Birdie Pinkerton’s account of what was going on with Pearl.
You’ve said that Poet’s Cottage is a love letter to family and Tasmania. What do you mean by that?
I realized when I reached the end of the book how much it meant to me. I read an interview on the weekend with Essie Davies, the lady that’s playing Phryne Fisher, and they said to her where’s home and she said Tasmania without a second thought. I’m exactly the same way. Even though I don’t live there, when I go there I get such a reaction to the landscape. In 2011, we went back to Stanley and I was doing final edits for Poet’s Cottage. When I got out of the car and my feet touched the ground I almost burst into tears, it was this really physical reaction to the landscape.
Tasmania is such a wonderful place for writers. The climate and the landscape lend themselves beautifully and just the spectacular gothic nature of it. Being the small island there’s just something about having that spectacular scenery around you that you feel like you can create there. When Daphne Du Maurier was writing Rebecca, she wasn’t in England at the time, she was homesick for England. She was in Alexandria, her husband was stationed there with the war, and that’s when she wrote Rebecca. In a way, I think that if I was in Tasmania I wouldn’t have been able to write Poet’s Cottage in exactly the same way. There was a yearning sense to me that made it such a joy to go into the shed and go to Tasmania every day. I really experienced being back there.
And now you’re working on a new book , is that anything like Poet’s Cottage?
Only in that it’s a mystery and there is a house and it is the ripple effect of a murder but it’s very different at the same time. It has a great cast of characters as well and I’m loving working with it. I know every writer says that but I wanted really strong book to come back with after Poet’s Cottage.
22nd March, 2012
Ten terrifying questions with Booktopia. See link to full interview HERE
. To begin with why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself – where were you born? Raised? Schooled?
Born in Tasmania. Raised in Lae, Papua New Guinea, then back to Tasmania for my high school years in Oatlands, a beautiful historic village in the midlands. There’s a population of about 500 people so it was a very small community.
2. What did you want to be when you were twelve, eighteen and thirty? And why?
Twelve – a writer. I not only wanted to be a writer but I wanted to also be a character in a book (Ben Mears from Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot). Slightly odd as we’re not the same sex – but I wanted to wear a leather jacket, write books and stake vampires. And he came from a small town like myself. When everyone else was off making mayhem in school holidays I was at home typing stories on the old manual typewriter. My teachers said they should call the yearbook the Josephine Pennicott Annual because I contributed so much to it. My English teacher even sent a story of mine to a woman’s magazine. All my fantasies involved being a writer. I was in love not only with King’s Mears, but also Allison MacKenzie, the writer character in Peyton Place (a book about another writer in a small town). All these years later with Poet’s Cottage, I wrote a book about a small town…
Eighteen – A Nurse. I didn’t believe it was possible for somebody with my educational and working class background (I left school at sixteen) could be a writer. I had been to several writing courses and they all seemed to consist of very rarefied, gentrified folk who wore tweed jackets with leather patches and I didn’t fit into that world. I remember my English teacher’s reaction when I ran into him in the street and told him I was nursing: ‘I thought you would have done something with your writing,’ he said with a disappointed tone.
Thirty – Art School at the College of Fine Arts in Sydney. I was studying painting as my major but I had no idea of what I wanted to be. I was getting over a decade of nursing and was very burnt out from the wards. All I knew was that I was burning to do something creative.
3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?
That it wasn’t possible for somebody from my background to become a writer. I now know that you can come at writing from different apprenticeships and avenues. My academic qualifications ended up being a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the University of Sydney. I didn’t do a Masters in Creative Writing, which seems to be the normal route, but I did attain a lot of life experience over the years in a wide variety of jobs.
4. What were three works of art – book, painting, piece of music, etc – you can now say, had a great effect on you and influenced your own development as a writer?
Remedios Varo’s Creation of the Birds, which is enigmatic and has always represented the soul and creativity to me. I love all Varo’s paintings. They are strange and beautiful dreams inside miniature canvases. Like myself, Varo was drawn to the magical and mystical. I’m slightly obsessed by both her and Leonora Carrington.
Picnic at Hanging Rock, the book and the movie. For the eeriness and unsettling portrayal of the Australian landscape. I was simultaneously terrified and entranced by that film as a child. Victorian beauty’s juxtaposed against spectacular scenery. I never tire of Joan Lindsay’s haunting mystery and take my hat off to her.
Agatha Christie’s Murder is Easy. A most sinister and gripping book. I often found Agatha’s books to be much darker than they are normally thought of. The line from Murder is Easy, ‘Oh why do you walk through the field in gloves?’ still gives me the horrors.
5. Considering the innumerable artistic avenues open to you, why did you choose to write a novel?
In my final year of art school I had a car accident and almost severed the radial nerve in my right arm. I lost the use of my arm for over a year as I had several operations and a pin and plate inserted. I wasn’t capable of doing the physical work involved with painting. I had to release all the images I was playing with over the several years I was at the College of Fine Arts in Paddington and that’s when I began painting with words – which became my first trilogy, The Circle of Nine series.
6. Please tell us about your latest novel…
Poet’s Cottage is a murder mystery set in an imaginary sea-fishing village of Pencubitt in Tasmania. On a foggy day in July, 1936, a little girl, Thomasina, witnesses the violent murder of her mother in the cellar of Poet’s Cottage. Supposedly, she says by the Tasmanian devil Mummy kept in the cellar to keep us quiet when she’s trying to write. But was the beautiful, flamboyant children’s writer; Pearl Tatlow, murdered by a Tasmanian devil – or did something more sinister cross the threshold of Poet’s Cottage?
In the present day thread of the book, Pearl’s granddaughter, Sadie, inherits Poet’s Cottage and with her daughter, Betty tries to uncover the mystery behind what really happened to her grandmother on that foggy day. And who Pearl Tatlow really was. Not an easy task as there were plenty of people in Pencubitt with reason to discredit Pearl; including her own biographer and friend, Birdie Pinkerton, who wrote Webweaver, Pearl’s biography .
Poet’s Cottage is a mystery with a dark edge and should appeal to fans of Midsomer Murders, Agatha Christie or Australian Women’s Fiction. It was inspired by a house I fell in love with on a Tasmanian holiday with my family combined with the real-life scenario of Enid Blyton’s two daughters giving different accounts of their mother, Midsomer Murders and the cosy English-style, domestic mystery.
Click here to order Poet’s Cottage from Booktopia, Australia’s No.1 Online Book Shop
7. What do you hope people take away with them after reading your work?
I hope their initial reaction is, ‘No way! I could never have picked that!’ Which is what all mystery writers hope to achieve. Followed by a sense of desolation because they enjoyed the characters so much and don’t want to let go of them. I would also hope to make them view something normal in a slightly different way. Or make them consider the ripple effects of murder. And if I get told that they couldn’t sleep because it was too creepy in a certain place – or kept them up all night reading – I’ve achieved my aim as a writer.
8. Whom do you most admire in the realm of writing and why?
My Holy Trinity of writers are all British and all women. Enid Blyton, Agatha Christie and Daphne du Maurier. They knew how to spin a story that kept you bolted to the book turning pages. All were dazzlingly inventive in their different fields. They were also very prolific and fascinating women personally.
9. Many artists set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?
To be sold internationally. Poet’s Cottage was sold in a bidding war in Germany and I’d like to see it go onto other countries. I’d also love to see Poet’s Cottage be picked up for a movie and it to be filmed in Stanley as I think the North-West town where it was partly based, would lend itself beautifully to cinema. Johnny Depp is welcome to audition for me to play anything or everything really.
To continue to write in my garden writing shed and with each book improve – and like the great Beatrice Wood, ‘Mama of Dada’ die at 105, still creating until the end. To use my tale peddling gifts to be of service to this amazing universe in some shape or form.
10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?
To read a lot and across genres.
Write a lot – every day if possible even if it’s only for a short period of time.
Believe in yourself – even when the rest of the world doesn’t. Stay open to the thought that there is perfect timing in your writing career even when it doesn’t feel like it. Don’t compare your career to others – stay true to your own rhythm.
Don’t over-analyse first drafts. You have to turn off the analytical brain to enable the creative brain to come through.
Support the industry you want to be a part of. Buy books. Buy authors you may not have heard of.
Always treat the people who are above and below you in the world of publishing equally – they can change places quickly.
Write the book you would love to read.
Build a garden writing shed or create a space where there’s no computer access to write.
Pleasure the Muses by devouring works of visual art, poetry. Record your dreams and think outside the box.
Believe in a luck but use whatever spiritual means it takes to get you there. I’m a big believer in the power of visualisation and affirmations.
If one book doesn’t get picked up; dry your eyes, get off the floor and put on your big girl (or boy) pants and start again. Start again straight away. Fortune rewards the fearless. You’re allowed to keep the handkerchief by the computer as you write (I did) but just start again.
Never give in. Never give in. Never give in. And if possible, have a day job that isn’t too demanding on your energies so you can make time to write before and after work.
Josephine, thank you for playing.
With HorrorScope, the Australian weblog for dark fiction views, news and reviews: 18 January 2006
Magic, Sorcery, Witchcraft and the Spirit World
presented by Josephine at Magic Casements, the Festival of Speculative Fiction Writing, Sydney 13 September 2003
I didn’t enter the arena of writing magical fiction as so many authors have done through the influence of Tolkien. Instead I sort of snuck over the back fence as a result of my early love of Hans Christian Andersen, Enid Blyton and my later years at art school when I was doing my Bachelor of Fine Arts. When I first wrote Circle of Nine It was at art school, that my characters first introduced themselves to me. I became interested in the work of the Surrealists, and the art of magical painters like Remedios Varo, Leonora Carrington, the French master Jean Cocteau, and an American filmaker called Maya Deren. And the Pre-Raephalites.
I also attended an elective classes on the Greek Gods, and it was a revelation to see how the students attending the classes became so caught up in these timeless stories. Because of my art school experiences I used the mural that my witches create in the Blue Mountains, to provide the means for them to enter the world of Eronth. I wanted to consciously use art as being the means for transformation, the catalyst for change. I did start with the Greek gods as a springboard for ideas for my book but I also touched on Nordic, Egyptian, Japanese and shamanic practices. But Persephone, Adphrodite and Hecate were the three strongest influences for each separate book and I used them to work through my themes.
When I finally sat down to write my book, I wasn’t consciously thinking of writing a “fantasy” book. I was just combing themes and elements that I was interested in personally. I thought of all the elements I was interested in and my list went something like faery tales, horror and supernatural elements,witchcraft and witch hunters, set in this world and an alternative world, art, mythology, poetry, surreal dream like elements. From the moment I was born I think I was obsessed with death. I look at life in the “old way” I have always felt that everything around us, whether it be a rock or a tree has life and consciousness. I’m not a person who loves technology, I don’t own a mobile and I’m not rapt in computers. I can relate very much to Edward Burne Jones the Pre-Raphaelite painter who said, “For every locomotive they build. I shall paint another angel.” I love combining characters from myth, faery tales and folkore and placing them within fantasy worlds and the world of Earth. It enables me to deal with questions that obsess me such as religion and spirituality, sex, alienation and death. I do see my work as not being traditional sword and sworcery fantasy – I see it being more as a strange dream.
I spent my early childhood in Papua New Guinea, this was just prior to the country getting its independence, and I still retain very vivid memories of this exotic country and culture. As is still happening in New Guinea, there was a lot of magic being practised by the natives when we lived there.
My father can relate a story about a European friend of his being raised from the dead. There were also headhunters still living in the jungle areas, and in the highlands it would be possible to see the thin plumes of smoke rising from their campfires. It’s probably no great surprise that with these early influences, there are so many references to people losing their heads in my books. Even down to my Wezom faery tribe being headhunters. Like a sponge I absorbed all the mysticism, power and mystery of this country, and I believe it formed my lifelong interest in magic.
Most fantasy generally contains a quest – at the quests completion a transformation has taken place as the hero and heroines undergo their initiations. Often their journeys are arduous, the characters are taken to the limits. One of the more dramatic quests of my life happened when I was
doing an incredible amount of meditating and spiritual work and I went through some very intense spiritual/psychic experiences. A couple of which involved materialisation.
This was when I travelled to India to get some answers about what was happening to me. As I travelled around India I had many intense experiences, but one was a real baptism of fire when a young man drowned in my arms on an Indian beach. I had been used to death after ten years of nursing geriatrics, but I had never had a young person die on me before, and he actually died with his mouth on mine as I attempted to resuscitate him. When you feel somebody’s last breath go into your mouth, it has a profound impact on you. A lot of old patterns I had been following shattered. I went to an ashram in Southern India where a guru advised me to stop doing the healing work I had been doing with nursing and to start to use the creative gifts I had been given, as it was an insult to God not to do so. In my second book, Bride of the Stone, the first part is set in India where Larry my protagonist has an experience with a guru, and I have to add his experience was definitely not mine, although many similar experiences have happened to people in India when they blindly follow gurus.
After India I flew to the Philippines to the faith healers as I felt that they were the only people in the world who could help me with my questions about materialisation as they sometimes use the power of their own thoughts in their bare handed surgeries. Now, I know there are a lot of fakes amongst the healers, but there are also genuine healers. I had a friend who spent many years training with them, and he has witnessed eyeballs being taken out without anesthetic, teeth being extracted, and once even a heart being removed. I was fortunate enough to connect on my first day in Manila with one of the worlds most respected faith healers, Reverend Alex Orbito. I spent a few weeks in his clinic, helping to assist him in the bare handed surgery. I used my experiences with materialisation to form my invented world of Eronth which consists of thought patterns that they have taken from our earth so that we are not smothered too much in our own thought patterns.
I use many traditional characters in my work such as giants, the Wild Hunt, mermain, wizards, dark angels. Talking cats, men who have been turned to stone and a brief appearance by a dragon. I developed my tree people the Webx, after reading about the tree alphabet in Robert Graves bool. I also like to use beings such as the semnotatoi (castarated priests and priestesses who worshiped Hecate) who may not be so well known. I was also interested in sexual themes in my books. This was one aspect I also loved about the Greek myths, where the gods would become passionately infatuated with each other and mortals and have all sorts of jealousies.
I also did a lot of research on old folk practices as clooty wells. People tying their problems up in small rags and tying them to trees. This still continues today in Ireland, Scotland and Cornwall. And by sympathetic magic healing methods such as healing arthritis in an afflicted person by making 3 knots in a branch of a tree saying “Good morning old one, I give thee the cold.” Recently I was fortunate enough to visit the Museum of Witchcraft in Cornwall which houses the world’s largest collection of witchcraft items – they have wonderful displays there of kitchen witchery, poppets and magical paraphernalia by the old cunning men and women of Cornwall and England.
I was fascinated by stories of people who become trapped in the Underworld and also who are lured to faerieland. Persephone was the first goddess I used in my book Circle of Nine and she of course become stuck in the underworld when Hades abducted her.
The faeries in my books are not based on Walt Disney glittery, sweet little beings. My faeries are more dangerous, temperamental, sexual. I based them on faeries from oral folk traditions.
My faeries the Imomm, like the dark legends have to pay Hades King of the Underworld a tithe of blood every seven years and they need a constant supply of children for this purpose. They also like to capture mortals to act as wet nurses and as slave labour in the Hollow Hills. However my faery tribes, the Imomm and Wezom (the Wezom faeries are head hunters.) are having difficulty being able to capture mortals as belief in faeries is waning on Earth. Only in countries such as Ireland are they still strong enough for their deadly hunt.
I also played around with the idea of birds in my books. In all myths around the world birds are messengers of the gods. I had mess anger birds who spread news around Eronth, the soul of human beings was represented as a bird. Sati my villainess can shapeshift into a bird.
I hadn’t consciously planned on the owl in my book becoming so evil. Owls have a reputation for wisdom that goes back to ancient myth. In Greece the owl was both sacred to Athena and Demeter was both revered and feared because the owl could foretell death. Adam’s first wife Lilith was associated with owl and in the middle east evil spirits came in the form of owls to steal children. In celtic tradition the owl is sacred but also considered an ill omen.
One of the main characters in all three of my series is the stag man who was quite a powerful image for me. He was based on the antlered king Cernunnos. The stag appears in ancient Greek myths, Irish myths. In fact the stag cult goes right back to paleolithic paintings on cave walls. According to Robert Graves ancient fragments connected to Dionysus shows mummers dressed as a stag who are chased and eaten.
However, although I have a lot of elements from traditional fantasy in my books I also wanted to play around with a few things. For example, I have prophecies, but they don’t always come true and everybody in Eronth gets them wrong. My villain angel Ishran really isn’t interested in being too evil as he likes to lounge around and drink most of the time. And using death as a major theme really interested me. Death and resurrection themes don’t seem to be a popular subject with a lot of fantasy writers but I was really influenced by the old fertility rituals.
For as long as I can remember witchcraft fascinated me. The witches that are in my book are influenced by witches such as the famous Kings Cross witch in the ’70’s Rosaleen Norton – they are not Wiccans in the sense that we know them today. My witches do cross into some dark territory to obtain more power. As my coven of witches discovered when you are writing or practising magic that magic has consequences. It is a demanding mistress. I was also fascinated by witch hunters and with the prickers who used to torture the witches in the burning times with their long pin which they would prick over the witches body looking for insensitive spots to determine their guilt, I formed the character of the Lightcaster. One of the more interesting things to me was how a mob could be whipped into a frenzy to commit the atrocities that they did against the witches.The most recent research that is coming out about the burning times is that often the witches that were tortured and put to death were not by lone witchfinders like Mathew Hopkins in England, but by their neighbours or their rivals in healing or business. This fitted in with my character of the Lightcaster who really just acts as a metaphor for the innate cruelty that he unleashes amongst the women of Eronth. There are still women and men around the world who are being killed for being witches. Just recently, government ministers in Papua New Guinea have appealed for foreign aid to help fund research into sorcery . Women there are still being burned alive at the stake, stoned, raped, axed forced to drink petrol and buried alive. The sorcery interrogations are usually carried out by younger men against older women. and involve barbaric practices such as cutting body parts off slowly. The sorcery accusations are increasing. Women are six times more likely to be accused than men and they are often older, unprotected women who are viewed as being an economic burden on the tribe.
It was also important to me that the females in my books be strong, without being quite as feisty as some of the current fantasy heroines appear to be. I wanted heroines who were sexually active, Some of them use their sexuality to manipulate people around them. They do terrible things to each other, but there are reasons why they do these things. My characters aren’t perfect people basically. I’m always more interested in flawed people or the outsider of groups. My characters are emotionally scarred people. I wanted my heroine to be an old woman. Khartyn the Crone is probably the feistiest one of all the series.
It’s my belief that in a world that is disturbingly out of balance, magical fiction provides hope. It is in fantasy, that anything is possible. We all look for meaning in our lives. In the old tales, it is the most humble and insignificant amongst us who can win the prince, and the ugly duckling is revealed to be a beautiful swan. Little lives count. In a frenetic, world that increasingly seems to put value on celebrities, sport stars and supermodels, it’s reassuring to me to see a resurgence of the old fireside tales where heroes can come in different forms. In my books, some of the most unexpected characters become heroes, and the characters you thought might be the heroes turn out to have darker sides. . However my books do contain characters that have classic feelings of alienation, rejection, loneliness, vulnerability and powerlessness. They struggle against incredible odds.
Throughout time we have shared the same hopes, fears, and terrors. Fantasy that contains these emotions obviously still continue to touch us today – the recent Angus & Robertson survey where Australia’s top five books were all fantasy books is an indication of how popular this genre is. I don’t believe fantasy is just “escapist”. I think these stories contain magic, symbol, and metaphors that help us to face the hardships in our own life. These stories speak to us in the whispers of the unconscious language. They give us hope that our lives, no matter how insignificant they may seem and how powerless we feel – that our lives count. Just recently in a Time magazine they had an incredibly poignant story of a young girl named Catie Hoch who had terminal cancer. She also happened to be a huge Harry Potter fan and would even wear the Harry Potter cape, wand and big glasses to her cancer treatments. She struck up an email correspondence with J.K Rowling who would give her sneak previews of her book until Catie died on her 9th birthday. And Sara Douglass has also said in interviews that she has lost count of the number of times young boys have said to her that they were going to kill themselves before they read her books. Jack Zipes says that “All good literature provides hope, but the best of fantasy literature provides extraordinary hope.”
However, I hope my books do provide escapism. It means everything to me as a writer if people contact me to tell me they became so absorbed in my books that they lost themselves to the real world. That it took their mind of their problems. Earth seems precariously out of balance at times. And as Buffy said to her sister Dawn in series 6 (5!) just before she killed herself. “Sometimes the hardest thing in this world is to live in it.”
This is a hard world to live in – but reading fantasy helps us to look at the world in another way. Jane Yolen in her book Touch Magic says “Fantasy uses words that were forged in the earth, air, fire and water of human existence. And these words are: Good. Evil. Courage. Honour. Truth: Hate: Love They are a litany, a charm so filled with power we hardly dare say them. Yet with those magical word, anything is possible.”
Interview by The Eternal Night (UK), July 2003
Q1 Who (Fact or Fiction) would you most like to meet, and what would you ask them?
Just recently I met two of my favourite authors, Storm Constantine and Barbara Erskine. Storm was great and very generous with her time. I met Barbara at her book signing and was quite shy when I introduced myself. I would like to have asked about her haunted house and her writing methods. I’m always fascinated by other writers’ methods. There’s a whole bunch of writers I would like to meet – Freda Warrington, Tanith Lee. I would like to spend an afternoon chatting to Anne Rice about her Catholic faith and viewing her doll collection. If I’m allowed to meet a dead person it would be Gabriel Rossetti. I would ask him a million questions about his relationships, which of his models did he prefer, and why he dug up the poems buried with Elizabeth Siddal. I would snoop about his studio and watch him at work. That would be a perfect afternoon. I would like to sit in Greyfriars Kirkyard with Robert Louis Stevenson and chat about Edinburgh’s sinister side. I’m sure he would have many fascinating stories that never made it into print. Spending an afternoon on the moors with the Brontes would be wonderful also.
Q2 Is there a book or a story you wish you had written?
Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte. I love the intensity of the book. Heathcliff may be a bastard, but I can understand the demons that drove him. Moby Dick by Herman Melville, I think it’s fascinating how such an emotive poetic book is written about a whale. I’ve just started to read Moby Dick recently and wish I had read it years ago. Story? The Body Snatcher by Robert Louis Stevenson or anything by Angela Carter.
Q3 If you could give one piece of advice to a would-be author, what would it be?
Develop an incredibly thick skin because you’re going to need it. You have to believe in yourself when nobody else does. The publishing world can be a treacherous jungle filled with all manner of snakes, leeches and quicksands. For every success there will be a hundred disappointments and rejections. Believe in yourself. Even if the sky turns black with your burnt hopes and dreams and when every friend you had knifes you in the back. Be noble and honourable. Tread lightly. Respect the gift you have been given. I’m with Jean Cocteau when he said that ‘Art is not a pastime. It is a priesthood.’
Never give up. Never give up.
On a practical level: when your book is published, get business cards with the image of your book on the front. Until I woke up to using cards I was always scribbling down my name and book titles for people on scraps of paper. You can place them in your books as bookmarks in stores and at signings; you can leave them in shops for customers to pick up, pass them out to your dentist, your aunt, your aunt’s neighbour. They are a cheap form of advertising.
Q4 Are you for or against e-books?
I’m not a fan. You’re talking to someone here who also hates mobile phones. I don’t care how easy e-books are to store. They can’t replace the tactile, sensual experience of a book. I can still recall my excitement when I smelt my first Dick and Jane reader. Who is going to get excited over the smell of an e-book? Who wants to browse for hours in a store of e-books? I’m on bilberry overload as it is with computer strain from writing. I raise my fist and I scream ‘As God is my witness I will never buy an e-book!’ Perhaps it would be different if my books were published in e-book form (heh, heh) but I would always prefer the paper version of them. I will continue to live in my cramped terrace house with paper books surrounding me. I’ll admit here I also don’t like computers very much.
Q5 Are you a music fan? If so, what?
I love music! I write my books to different CDs, depending mood. Circle of Nine was set to the music of Melbourne witch Wendy Rule. I wrote Bride of the Stone and A Fire in the Shell to the Medieval Babes, Requiem music, Beethoven, Bach, The Wicker Man soundtrack, The Gladiator soundtrack.
I also like the Waterboys, Altan. Loreena McKennitt, any witch chanting CD, Gregorian chants, Piaf, Serge Gainsbourg, The Kinks, Elvis, Nick Cave, Abba, early choral music, medieval, renaissance.
Q6 Do you have a favourite place to write?
My definite favourite place would be at home in my bed writing in longhand, cup of tea beside me and pouring with rain outside. Mmm, bliss… I remember when I was on f the Eiffel Tower in Paris and St Paul’s Cathedral in London I was so overcome that I wrote a poem on f each place. They were special moments. Because I have to work to support my writing, quite a lot of my writing is done in less than ideal places, crowded noisy food halls, buses etc.
I like Dark Fantasy because of its unlimited vision. I came from an art school background and was always drawn to the surrealists and the way they looked at life, their strangeness, their poetic knowing. ‘Beautiful as the unexpected meeting on a dissection table of a sewing machine and an umbrella.’ I aim to make my writing as unique as that meeting. I’m not a fan of Cowboys & Indians in space or Dungeons & Dragons type fantasy.
Q8 Do you use myths and ancient religions for inspiration?
Yes definitely! That is where my passions lie, so that is what I am interested in writing about. I do massive amounts of research for all of my books and then from the researched material I get my plot ideas. I like to go back to the original source rather than work purely from my imagination because I think it gives the books more depth. It’s also incredibly fascinating. I think a lot of the ancient goddesses have been really sanitised by New Age/Wiccan thought. They are a lot more complex and dark than the hallmark card goddesses I seem to read in a lot of new age fluffy bunny type books. For example Aphrodite, who makes a few appearances in my second book Bride of the Stone, is not called the Man Slayer for nothing. We’re talking about a goddess who was born of severed genitals and foam. Can you imagine the intensity that accompanies such a violent act as severing genitals? I see her as a far more complex goddess than somebody you light a candle to for a love spell. With all the goddesses and gods there is far more diversity with their roles and personalities than is generally allowed for. Even in their own time they were perceived in a myriad of ways depending upon the region their worshippers came from. Some of the rituals, poetry and characters in my books come from ancient practices. I’ve had whole characters evolve as a result or research that I’ve done, e.g. Simeon, my hermaphrodite in Bride of the Stone. From the source material I then like to work from my own imagination. Joseph Campbell said we are all living a myth and that we must figure out what it is, so that it does not live us.
Q9 What books are you reading at the moment?
I’m reading a heap of books at once. I do a lot of research reading for my books which means I always have a huge pile of fiction books waiting to be read. At the moment I’m working through White Oleander by Janet Fitch; The Vanishing by Celia Rees; Goblet of Fire by J.K Rowling; Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion by Jack Zipes; Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft by Sir Walter Scott; Princesses Ladies and Salonnieres of the Reign of Louis XV; English Homes and Housekeeping 1700-1960.
Q10 Do you enjoy collaborating?
At the moment I do because I’m working on a Young Adult book with my boyfriend. We’ve worked together on a screenplay as well so we’re quite used to each other. He is a writer as well and we spend all our time bouncing ideas off each other and editing each other’s writing so a collaboration with David is no stretch. I would find it pretty difficult to work with anybody else I would imagine, I think it would depend upon how we structured it.
Q11 Who or what has been a major influence on your writing and why?
Growing up in Papua New Guinea was a major influence in my writing. It was such a colourful exotic country and a very exciting time to be living there just prior to independence. I think my lifelong interest in myth and magic really formed in New Guinea. There was a lot of magic happening there and you would have to be careful where you left your nail clippings and hair strands. We even heard about Europeans being raised from the dead. It also formed my love of fantasy where alternate worlds can coexist side by side. Even I was surprised by how strongly headhunting came out in the Circle of Nine series.
Apart from New Guinea, travel always influences and inspires my writing. I think travel is great because you break so many patterns which helps creativity to flow. Some of my favourite places are England, Scotland, France, Venice and Sweden. I love to set scenes from places where I’ve been in my journeys around the world. Bride of the Stone has scenes set in India where I did a solo pilgrimage and parts of A Fire in the Shell are set in France.
Art has always been a major influence on my writing. I originally trained as a painter and I do tend to work visually still. I just paint with words now. I defy anyone not to be influenced, transformed even unconsciously by great art. I really love artists such as Remedios Varo, Leonora Carrington, Mimmo Paladino, the Pre-Raphaelites. When I was last in England I discovered a children’s book illustrator called Angela Barrett who is marvellous. I’ve been collecting her books. She does very elegant, haunting, fairy tale sinister illustrations.
Q12 What’s the most memorable thing said in a review of your work?
Witchcraft Magazine (Australia) said I had ‘an incredible capacity for story-telling, first-hand knowledge of Wicca, and an in-depth familiarity with mythology; a sure-fire combination which makes for compelling reading.’ First up, it was just great to get a review as speculative fiction writers in Australia are generally ignored. It meant a lot to me that Witchcraft was complimentary because I had been buying their magazine since the first issue. It’s always nice when I get a letter from a member of the pagan community telling me I got things right. I did have one letter from a reader who said she had read my first book five times which really uplifted me. Any person taking the time to write and say they enjoyed your book is always lovely.
Q13 Have you won any awards for your writing?
In 2001 I won the Scarlet Stiletto, a major award in Australia for female crime writers. I won it for a short story called Birthing the Demons. The year before I had been runner up and it had long been a dream to win the award. The trophy is a sinister red stiletto shoe balanced on a dagger. I had to fly back after receiving the award from Melbourne to Sydney, just after September 11. I’ll never forget the look on the security guards’ faces at the airport when I came towards them with the dagger. ‘Here comes trouble,’ they said. They let me through amazingly and I spent the flight with it balanced on my knee and the man next to me eyeing it uneasily the entire time.
Dreams do come true.
Q14 Plug away – what do you have coming out?
In March 2004 the third book in my series will be released – A Fire in the Shell. I loved writing this concluding book of the Circle of Nine trilogy as its themes are death and transformation. As a Scorpio these are two of my obsessions. The featured goddess is Hecate, one of my favourite goddesses, so powerful and mysterious. The Mother of Monsters, the Queen of Witches. I’m working on a few different projects simultaneously. The YA book which is horror/comedy, a screenplay and a historical supernatural book set in 17th Century Paris and Scotland. I update my website regularly with details of what is happening in my world. Thanks for reading.
Bright Blessings – Josephine
Magic the Secret for Quiet Witch – The Examiner (Tasmania) 17 May 2003
Author Josephine Pennicott finds an easy escape, discovers ALYSSA CURTAYNE.
Tasmanian-born author Josephine Pennicott draws her inspiration from the esoteric, the mystical and everyday life. As a student at Oatlands District High School, she remembers writing a dark, supernatural story about a coven of witches, while her friends wrote about teenage issues.
‘I’ve always loved magic, the supernatural, mythology and fairy tales, and the fantasy genre means I can combine them with my love of writing,’ she said.
Pennicott said she disliked labels when it comes to spiritual beliefs and would label herself a ‘solitary Catholic witch’.
‘Witchcraft appeals to me because of the importance of ritual, herbal healing and acknowledgement of female energy,’she said. ‘For me witchcraft is profound and holy.’
Using her first-hand knowledge of witchcraft, Pennicott has just released the second book in the Circle of Nine trilogy. Bride of the Stone switches between the magical goddess-worshipping world of Eronth, where dark angels scheme for power, and Earth, where a New Age cult leader find he has taken on more than he bargains for after being drawn to a sinister house in the Blue Mountains near Sydney.The trilogy has been described as a blend of classical mythology and contemporary gothic fantasy.
‘Fantasy is hugely popular at the moment. With the world seeming more dangerous than ever at the moment, who could blame people for wanting to escape for a few hours into other worlds?’ she said.
Pennicott draws on her experiences travelling to base the stories in Sydney, Tasmania, India, Scotland and France. ‘I like to write about places I’ve been. I can’t help it – your thoughts do turn to home and place you’ve been,’ she said.
Pennicott was born in Hobart and moved to Papua New Guinea when she was five, and remembers wandering around the native villages after spending time in the European community. She recalls the profound differences in the communities and how they were able to co-exist. After moving back to Tasmania, Pennicott finished school and moved to Hobart, where she worked in odd jobs.
‘My hands were cooking fish, but my mind was cooking up stories the whole time,’ she said of her time at Mures Restaurant in Sullivans Cove.
Pennicott worked as a nurse in Hobart and Queenstown, then went overseas. She now lives in Sydney with her partner David, who she said had encouraged her to prepare the manuscript for publishing.
Work started on the Circle of Nine series while she was studying for a Bachelor of Fine Arts in painting. She said the characters in the books had ‘introduced themselves’ to her through her sketches and paintings. After finishing her studies, she wrote the book, but it stayed in a box while she pursued crime writing.
A short story won her a Scarlet Stiletto Award for female crime writing and introduced her to an agent and a publisher. The Circle of Nine series had one rejection before it was signed to a three-book deal with Simon & Schuster in 2000.
‘I’m just grateful to be in print,’ she said.
Pennicott now has plans for a young adult book series based in Tasmania and a stand-alone 17th Century historical fiction based in France and Scotland. ‘I’d love to move back (to Tasmania) one day and find a quiet spot where I can write with no distractions,’ she says. ‘Tasmania’s a great place for writers. The landscape is so mysterious and inspirational.’
The final book is due for release next year.
Andromeda No 1 June/July 2002
Q1 How do you spend your time when you’re not writing?
When I’m not writing, I’m either reading, exercising, or watching television or movies. I also like surfing the Internet. Exercises such as yoga or aerobics are great for stretching out muscles after hunching over a computer all day. My favourite television shows are Angel, Buffy, Charmed. I love the History channel on Foxtel. I just returned from seeing Amelie at the cinema today which was fabulous. I really enjoy movies with a touch of the fantastical about them. Jean Cocteau, the French writer-artist-director was one of my favourite filmmakers. He didn’t have to rely on huge budgets with computer generated images to creates films that were profound and stunning in imagery.
Q2 Who is your favourite author, and why?
I have many favourite authors! I would find it impossible to list just one! Patricia A. Mckillip, Tanith Lee, Storm Constantine, Angela Carter, Elizabeth Hand, Kate Forsyth, Kim Wilkins, Anne Rice, Kathy Reichs, Barbara Vine, Stephen King, Mo Hayder and Patricia Cornwall are some of the fiction ones. In non-fiction I like Marina Warner, Joseph Campbell, and anything about folk & faerytale or myths.
Q3 What is your favourite speculative fiction novel? What about other genres?
My favourite speculative fiction novel… again it’s hard to pin it down to one! If I HAD to pick one, I really love Elizabeth Hand’s Waking the Moon. In other genres, I have just read The Treatment by Mo Hayder which was incredibly dark but fantastic.
Q4 Have you a favourite quote you can share with us?
I am the Queen of quotes! I just love quotes and part of the joy of my trilogy is that I can make up Eronthite quotes. Perhaps I’ll let Emma have her say here. “The birth and death of thoughts are my responsibility. There are no excuses. It is dangerous to bring them into being.”
Q5 Where do you see yourself in ten years time?
In ten years time I would love to be supporting myself totally from my writing. I want to continue writing speculative fiction, but I would also like to write for young adults and children and branch off also into crime.
Q6 What made you decide to write?
I have always loved writing, which came I think from my love of reading. I was an incredible bookworm as a child. (Well, I still am.) I would read until my eyes ached. I always had a book in one hand. My mother tried to ban me from reading at the table, but it didn’t work as I just sat and read the label on the sauce bottle. I adored words and saw words as an entrance into magical kingdoms. Pure alchemy for my soul. All my fantasies and daydreams were connected with being a writer. I ended up nursing for ten years after leaving school, an unexpected twist of events, but now I think it’s fortunate my life took that trail because of all the different life experiences that have enriched my writing. I first contemplated the idea of writing seriously after leaving art school when I was very unsatisfied with my nine to five job. I needed a break from painting and a car accident had left me physically unable to perform some of the more strenuous tasks associated with painting. In my art studio I had come up with so many bizarre images. I thought it would be fun to try to paint them in words. These word paintings became Circle of Nine.
I was frustrated because there didn’t seem to be a lot of fantasy around that I actually wanted to read. I enjoy dark fantasy that is based in myths and faery tales. I’m not a great fan of sword and sorcery stuff or rehashes of Tolkien.
Q8 Do you have an interest in/projects forthcoming in other genres?
Yes. Crime writing fascinates me because it is such a different discipline to fantasy. In my fantasy writing I can be as surreal and inventive as I like. When writing crime I have to purify the words, trim all the excess and razzle-dazzle and I enjoy the contrast. As I have said earlier I am also keen to do young adult and children’s books as well. I have so many ideas in my head that it doesn’t seem fair to have only one lifetime!
Q9 What gave you the impetus to persevere to the publishing stage?
David my partner was very encouraging. When there were times that I would feel like shoving the manuscript in the drawer and forgetting about it, he always believed in Circle. I really had this inner conviction that I would be published, and no matter how many rejections I got I would not give up! If I had to write fifty books before it happened, then so be it.
Q10 Does getting published become any easier after the first one?
In my case, I was lucky enough to have a great agent in the form of Selwa Anthony who negotiated a three book contract for me, and so I was able to relax a bit knowing that I had three years of solid work ahead of me.
I’m inspired by many things. Great art – Surrealism, works by Remedios Varo and Leonora Carrington. Music – I’m currently working to the soundtrack of Gladiator. Circle of Nine was written almost exclusively to the music of Melbourne witch Wendy Rule. Poetry inspires me. Stephen King’s book On Writing always inspires me. So do Pre-Raphaelite paintings, Faery tales, the Bible, children’s nursery rhymes. Unexpected things in the daily grind of life, a scrap of conversation overhead in the street as I pass by. I’m constantly inspired by everything around me.
Q12 Describe for us your typical writing session?
I tend to work better in the early morning. I have done the all night shifts, but I think my energy level tends to be higher in the morning and I get more work done. When I am writing I aim to be as disciplined as possible and I start work at 5am. I work for a few hours before starting my day job. On my days off I write all day. I don’t really have a social life and I am the despair of my friends, but I find I have to be incredibly focused to get the books written. This is why I admire writers. Even the crappiest books take incredible discipline to finish.
Q13 What distractions do you have to cope with and how do you deal with them?
My major distraction to my work is my day job. There are some days it is incredibly difficult to tear myself away from the computer and go to work. Especially if it’s windy and raining, my ideal writing conditions. I turn the phone off when I’m writing and I hate interruptions!
Q14 I’m a big fan of well written characters in stories. How do you create your characters? Where do they come from?
A lot of the characters in Circle of Nine – Khartyn, the Stag Man, the Headhunters, for e.g. – began as paintings. Some are on my website. My main character in Circle, Emma Develle, gradually evolved. She began as a woozy sort of blonde who was a bit of a nothing really. It was only when she had a name change to Emma that she became clearer to me, and this little brunette who was more street smart and feisty introduced herself. Nearly all my characters contain elements of not only myself, but a lot of people that I know. Because they are so jumbled together, I am probably safe from people recognising themselves! Jig-Boy the Winski scribe is a character I am enormously fond of. He more or less tumbled onto the page and introduced himself, as did Rudmay and Horus who feature more in Book 2, Bride of the Stone.
Q15 In Circle of Nine, you used a contemporary setting. How difficult is it to use a familiar scene in a fantasy novel?
I actually find it easy to use a familiar scene in a fantasy setting. I suspect my mind is bent anyway, but a lot of mundane everyday objects around me assume fantastical elements in my mind. I used the Blue Mountains as a location for all three books because I lived there for a year and I always thought it was a mystical, beautiful area. In Bride of the Stone the story partially takes place in India and the South of France – also areas that I have been to and felt a connection with. To me there is magic and mystery in a K-Mart if you know how to look for it. Fantasy doesn’t have to be set on strange planets with unpronounceable names. As Dorothy would say, it is right here, Toto!
Q16 Your main character in Circle of Nine escapes from reality into another dimension. Is this a reflection of your own daydreams?
Yes, and no. Quite often I can see the magical in the mundane. I have had quite a few supernatural experiences that revealed to me the illusion of what we would term reality. I don’t really view fantasy as an escape from the boredom and monotony of life, but rather as more a metaphor for the eldritch, the unexplained.
Q17 What is your favourite moment in your writing career to date?
One of my favourite moments was winning the 2001 Scarlet Stiletto trophy for my short crime story Birthing the Demons. That was a real honour for me and topped off an incredible year which began with the publication of my first book. Another special moment was when I had the phone call from my agent telling me she had made the three book deal for the Circle of Nine. I literally leapt into the air with excitement and could feel all my characters jumping up and down with me. After quite a few rejections it was indescribable to have dreams coming true.
Q18 Any truly spectacularly miserable moments you’d like to share with us?
The only miserable moment was having to deal with jealousy from unexpected sources when my book hit the shelf.
Q19 What projects are you working on that we can look forward to?
I’ve just completed Bride of the Stone, book 2 of the Circle of Nine trilogy. The manuscript is now with my agent and I’m researching for the third book, A Fire in the Shell. Bride of the Stone should be out at the end of 2002, with Fire coming out the following year.