Sunday, June 14, 2009

Author Interview: Zoe Marriott

About a month ago, I read and reviewed the fantastic YA fantasy Daughter of the Flames (you can see my review here) and knew that I just had to contact the marvelous woman behind this book, Zoe Marriott (also the author of The Swan Kingdom). I wanted to find out, among other things, the thought process that went behind her books, and Zoe was kind enough to answer my questions. Please welcome... Zoe Marriott!!!

1. Hello, Zoe! I'm so glad you agreed to answer my questions. You knew you wanted to be a writer at a young age. Can you tell us how that came about, and what you did in the teen years to reach your writing dream?

It all led from a love of reading. When I was little I had a mad scary imagination that wasn't helped by my sister telling me that wolves lived under my bed and would come out at night to get me. I was terrified of being in my bedroom on my own, even with the light on. My mum hit on the idea of giving me something interesting to read, which would take my mind of my fear. She picked 'The Magic Faraway Tree' by Enid Blyton, and, even though I wasn't that great a reader at that age, I just never looked back. I loved books and stories so much that it seemed natural to start making my own.

At first I would copy pictures from Roald Dahl and Beatrix Potter and make up my own stories to fit them, then I moved onto doing my own drawings and stories. Finally I just concentrated on the stories. I was helped by the fact that my father worked for an office supply firm as an engineer. He would makes deals with people in the supply section and bring me home boxes of paper and coloured pens, then as I got older I had a little blue typewriter on which I taught myself to touch-type, then an electric typewriter, and finally a 'StarWriter' which was a word processing machine. By the time the word processor had to go back to the company I had a job and was able to get a computer.

As a teenager I spent a lot of time on research! I figured that I had to know how publishing worked if I wanted to be published (I honestly don't know how I managed to be that sensible as a young person - I think I must have used all my common sense up by the time I was twenty). I borrowed all the books from the library that had titles like: 'How to Write a Novel and Get Published' or 'Publishing for Dummies' or 'The Writer's and Artist's Yearbook'. They gave me a basic knowledge of how you actually manage to find a publisher, how to write submission letters, how to format and submit manuscripts, and generally how to behave. This meant that although I got my fair share of rejections, I never made some of the silly mistakes that you'll often hear about novice writers making. Research is the key, people! Most of us aren't geniuses that can get published when we're thirteen, so spend your teenage years honing your craft and learning how the business works, if you want to get published.

2. Your books are always set in fascinating, otherworldly locales. What has influenced the settings of your books?

Well, I suppose different things for each one. The Swan Kingdom was mostly influenced by my love of the British countryside. Although Britain is a tiny country really, we have everything: lonely white beaches and clear seas, spectacular cliffscapes, rolling green hills, craggy black mountains, moorlands, forests. I've done my best to travel over as much of England, Scotland and Wales as I can and I really love my country, so when I wrote The Swan Kingdom I tried to pick out all the special things that make me feel that sense of love in my heart and put those into the Kingdom and Midland. I wanted the reader to get that sense of love, of the land being something sacred and beautiful to be protected, and the sense of having a history that stretches back for thousands of years.

With Daughter of the Flames, I wanted to go somewhere completely different - but somewhere that also had cultural richness and diversity. There was a series of documentaries on the BBC at the time about the different landscapes of Africa, and I felt like I wanted to make a fantasy version of that. I kind of got carried away with it, especially in the rainforest part. I had to cut out a lot of description later on, and then, after the book was finished, I saw another documentary about the Ganges region of India and realised that although my original inspiration had been from Africa, the country I had written was in many ways similar to India instead. I wish I had realised it at the time - it would have made research a lot easier.

My current book is set in a fantasy world that has a lot in common with Japan or China, and again I'm having to restrain myself with my world building, or else you'd get pages and pages of nothing but the heroine wandering around admiring the scenery (fun for me to write, but not for you to read).

The main thing about fantasy books is that no matter how fantastic the settings are, you have to feel that they're real, and deep, and alive. That's something I both struggle with and enjoy.

3. Can you describe your writing habits for us? Is there a particular routine you follow when writing?

I try to follow a routine but honestly, it hasn't worked yet! The creative part of the human brain is tricky. It's not like plumbing, where if you follow the steps and tighten the washers it always ends up the same. It feels sometimes like you're dealing with a beautiful but part-wild animal, and you're always either trying to coax it out to play or hanging on for deal life while it drags you around.

The main constant for me is my notebook. I have around thirty notebooks safely stowed in the secretaire in my study, and when I begin a new story I go and look at them all and choose the one that seems to fit. Then I write the working title and date on the front page and it becomes my constant companion for the duration of writing the book. I mean, seriously. It probably never gets more than a foot away from me. At the moment I am using a Paperblanks large notebook which has a vaguely Oriental pattern of blue flowers on the front. It has maps glued onto the inside of the covers, and long strips of paper on which I've written down all the events of the story in order so I can tick them off as I go. There's a little pocket in the back where all my scraps of paper with random bits of dialogue or description from when the ideas first started coming are scribbled. It has the typed synopsis that I wrote for my publisher in there too. It's filled with all the writing I do during the day while I'm sitting on the bus or having lunch at work, and it also has torn out pictures from magazines, sketches, and colour-coded graphs that show character or plot development or the seasons of the year as the story progresses (those last ones are from when I'm really blocked and desperate).

About four times a week I sit down with the notebook and my laptop and type up all the work I've done, revising and re-writing as I go. Sometimes whole scenes go in virtually unchanged, but most of the time what's in the notebook bears little resemblance to what ends up saved in the file.

When I finally type THE END for the story, I try to give myself a break for at least a couple of weeks, so I can get some distance from the book. However, this is hard, because as soon as I finish that first draft I am dying to go back and start fixing all the messes and problems which I just know are sitting in there, taunting me and pulling faces.

When I've gone as long as I can bear, I print the whole thing out (this is the first time I've seen any of it in print) and then the notebook goes in the drawer and the file with the manuscript in it becomes my constant companion instead. I read it every spare minute that I can, trying to plough through it as quickly as I can so that I get all the first impressions of things that seem wonky. I write all over it in red pen, marking everything from spelling mistakes to whole chapters that need to be removed. I am ruthless. By the time I'm finished, there's not a single page that doesn't have red scribbling all over it. This usually takes me about a week. Once it's done I sit down and transfer everything I've marked back into the computer file. Again, this takes about a week. As soon as I've finished this I send it to my agent, because otherwise I'd go back and start fiddling again and it wouldn't do anymore good at that point.

However, none of the above takes into account the periods when I'm so stumped that I don't write a single word for weeks at a time!

4. I was particularly impressed by the way the fight scenes in Daughter of the Flames played out so vividly in my head. How much research went into writing those scenes? Are you a visual writing, meaning you see your story played out like a movie in your head?

There's two answers to that. The first is that I did no research at all. The second is that I have been doing research all my life, because I am a huge fan of books and films about martial arts of all types. It's one of my major interests. I could probably make and string an English longbow, and fletch the arrows, if I had to. If you were defending a castle in a siege, you would so want me on your team. So while I didn't sit down and do specific research for the fight scenes, I had a lot of knowledge to draw on while writing Daughter of the Flames.

I don't think of myself as a visual writer so much as a sensual writer (no sniggering!) because I tend to write using all my senses if I can. The visual is a big part of that, but it tends to be other elements that really 'make' a scene for me. For instance, in the final fight of Daughter of the Flames (trying really hard not to give out spoilers, here) you might have noticed how the wind almost became a part of the fight as well, moving clouds across the sun that changed the light, blowing their hair into their faces and whistling through the rips in their clothes. The wind brought the senses of touch and sound into play in a different way. The very first time we see Zira as an adult, when she is sparring with her teacher Deo, her sight is taken from her, and she is forced to use all her senses to defend herself.

5. I did notice, and that was one of my favorite parts about the book. :) What are your favorite reading spots?

The number one would have to be the bath. I have, on many occasions, stayed in the bath until I was about five minutes from becoming a sponge, because I just had to read one page more, and then another, and another... But I also read while walking my dog (no, really - and I've never fallen over yet, either), on the bus, and just lying around. Reading is for all occasions and all places.

6. Love interests. They're an essential part of good books. What do you think about when writing love interests? Anyone in mind? What about a story's love interest is attractive to you? Are they dream partners or realistically lovable?

Wow, that's a biggie. Erm...while writing them I suppose I just think about why this person, in particular, is the perfect match for the heroine. I try to make the hero's personality like a puzzle piece that fits into the heroine's - not that they're opposites or that they're the same, but just that they fit. Gabriel and Alex fit because they are quite similar; although he's more talkative and playful, at the heart of it they're both people who take life seriously. Sorin and Zira fit because they balance each other out: he's more reckless where she's cautious, he's able to make her laugh when she's wanting to bang her head on the wall. Everyone else looks up to her, but he wants to take care of her - and vice versa. In my current book, my heroine is a person who is constantly in hiding, even from herself. Her hero works because he is the one person who isn't fooled, and sees her clearly - and loves her anyway. So, just like in real life, a dream partner is different for everyone. I suppose a common thing for all my heroes, both the ones I write myself and the ones I like in other people's work, is kindness. I think compassion is the most vital and under-rated virtue, so it's hard for me to fall in love unless that is present.

7. Favorite foods?

Ooh, a good one! I'm a major foodie. I love everything. I love pasta and pizza, I love Chinese and Indian, I love Middle Eastern. I love fish and chips. I love desserts, especially ones I make myself (I am a baking Goddess). The one thing I haven't had, but would love to try, is proper Japanese sashimi. The stuff available here tends to be cooked or smoked fish, but the Japanese just make sure their fish is completely fresh and eat it raw. My first editor said to me once that reading my books always made him hungry - I think you can probably see why! There are only two things that I will not eat: bananas and peppers (red, green, yellow, I don't care). They both make me ill. Other than that, I'm a food slut.

8. What are some books you've read recently that you would recommend to us?

Let's see...I'm doing a lot of re-reading at the moment, so 'The Curse of Chalion' by Lois McMaster Bujold and 'Hexwood' by Diana Wynne Jones. Completely different books, completely different authors, but both fantasy and both brilliant. I've just read 'Graceling' (hasn't everyone?) and loved that, although I wanted more fighting (there can never be enough fighting for me). I'm not reading as much as normal at the moment, because I'm writing and there isn't really time for both, but when I've finished this book I will dive into my Unread Pile and not emerge for ages.

9. What's next in store for you?

The book I'm working on now is another fairytale re-telling. This time I picked Cinderella because it's so well known that I knew I would be able to twist it and mess with it and turn it upside down and people would still know the original shape. The basic idea is to give Cinderella a strong motive for everything that happens: revenge. She's like the Count of Monte Cristo, hiding in the ashes and then rising from them transformed to take vengeance on those who wronged her. It's set in a world a little bit like Japan, just because I wanted a society that had a very formal structure and many intricate rituals, and because, let's face it, Japan is fascinating and cool and I've been wanting to set something here for years. It's not in any way historically accurate, though. The magic kind of messes everything up...

After this I'm going to do a sequel to Daughter of the Flames - an indirect one, where Sorin and Zira may make guest appearances. It will revisit the kingdom of Ruan about five years after the first book finishes. Some of the Sedorne Lords have holed up in the mountains and have gone back to their raiding ways, and the story will focus on the struggle to get them out and make the country safe, which is led by a group of mixed Ruan and Sedorne fighters, loyal to the Crown. There will be lots of battles and heroic fighting and my very first love triangle...

10. And finally, if you could ask yourself one interview question, what would it be and how would you answer?

Question: 'Would you like £100,000?' Answer: 'Yes, please.'

Any publishers or movie producers reading this, take note!


Thank you so much, Zoe, for that fascinating look into your life and writing style! I highly recommend you pick up her books for a good time. Looking forward to what you write in the future! :)


  1. WOW Steph! I'm hugely impressed! I still haven't written my DOF review but I loved it, too - I thought it showed so much development of Marriott as a writer from her debut Swan Kingdom. Thanks for pursuing Zoe and for sharing the interview!

  2. How exciting!! The Swan Kingdom was one of my favourite books the year I read it (erm.. 2007?) and I didn't want to put it down when it was done. I am so happy you did this interview!

    I still have to get and read DoF, I have been putting it off because I am not a huge fighting fan in the books I read. But at the same time I think the author is wonderful at creating enchanting stories, so I think I'll just get it when it's in paperback. ;)

  3. Great interview! I really enjoyed reading it :)

  4. Great interview! I am going to have to read her books, they sound awesome.

  5. Wow, this was so interesting! She's like a martial art expert. You wouldn't know that from reading The Swan Kingdom; I just thought she must have done loads of research for Daughter of Flames.

  6. Great interview!! Really good questions. :)


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