Book Review: ‘The Faerie Thorn and other stories’
Author: Jane Talbot
Publishers: The Blackstaff Press
For some reason, there seems to be a general view that fairy tales are light joyful yarns, perhaps because they are aimed frequently at children with a lesson at the end and have been material for Mr Disney and pantomime. Jane Talbot’s first book, The Faerie Thorn and other stories is for grown-ups, but also it sticks more to the actual style of fairy tales – it is often brutal, dark and bewitching, but there are some happy endings, especially if you like the ‘baddies’ getting their comeuppance.
Talbot is a lover of storytelling and her intricate imagination and well woven words took me on journey throughout the seven stories. The worlds she magically creates with their grotesque characters, thick forested textures and unlikely heroes manage to speak to the challenges of our non-fairy tale world. Jane Talbot infuses her stories with messages of the importance of doing good; she does not preach but like any good fairy tale provides a moral the story. These are stories to read and think about and then tell someone, pretending you just made them up.
Interview with ‘The Faerie Thorn’ Author: Jane Talbot
Apart from Antrim, Scotland and Wiltshire, have you lived in any or many other places and if so have they influenced your story-telling?
My parents used to be school teachers and they moved a lot with work. I’ve lived in Canada and in the English counties of Berkshire, Kent, Cambridgeshire, Warwickshire and the West Midlands.
When I was 18, I moved to Manchester to study French, German and Old Norse. One of the benefits of studying languages is the requirement to spend time abroad – and while I was a student I lived in Germany for a year and Belgium for several months. In the holidays I took unusual summer jobs in unusual places, taking my guitar and my (rather dodgy) folk song repertoire with me. Singing is a great way of connecting with people and, thanks to my travels, I improved my folk repertoire (considerably) in places like Poland, Brittany and on the Danish island of Samsø.
By the age of 23, I think I had my ‘storytelling voice’ and, for me, music is just as much a part of that voice as words– and 12 years in Scotland added grit to that voice, along with some brilliant Scots words!
I definitely don’t think I’d have the same storytelling voice if I hadn’t moved around so much. When I read my stories, I can hear all the places I’ve been to, the songs I’ve sung, the languages I’ve learned and the people I’ve met along the way.
You’ll notice the influence of the oral storytelling tradition in my writing, along with Old Norse myths, and I’ve borrowed from the English and Scottish folk traditions too. Most people are curious about the compound forms I use – I think that’s the impact of speaking German and also an echo of Old Norse kennings.
My sense is that moving around a lot means that you have to become good at integrating yourself into new environments. I think it also means that you become less aware of borders. My stories seem to reflect this integration and notion of a ‘borderless territory’ too: there are local myths, legends and folklore in the mix, and all the stories are rooted in local places but the weave of the stories include plenty of ‘foreign’ threads!
What do you think of the oral story-telling tradition in N. Ireland – is it healthy?
My current involvement in the storytelling scene is as a trainer, coach and therapist: I teach people the fundamentals of oral storytelling and I specialise in the therapeutic applications of the craft. I certainly think that the value of storytelling has been recognised by a range of organisations focused on building a respect for, and an understanding of, individual and community narratives.
I think traditional storytelling in Northern Ireland is being kept alive and kicking by wonderful people like Liz Weir, Steve Lally and Colum Sands, to name but a few. There are also active ‘Yarnspinner’ groups across the country. Oral storytelling is a powerful way of creating connections between people, and between places and people, and so I think supporting (and continuing to develop) the storytelling scene is important – not just in Northern Ireland but everywhere. Social media usage shows us that we have a need to connect with each other, and I think it would be lovely if more people were able to build connections in the real world through vehicles such as storytelling.
I know some people aren’t confident in their own storytelling skills, and that’s where books come in. Reading to children when they are young is really important – and, I think, it’s just as important to read to adults too. Reading aloud is a good way to get started with oral storytelling. (My stories follow many of the conventions of the oral storytelling tradition and are made for reading aloud, by the way!)
Did you set out to write fairy tales or did you want to use fairy tales to communicate and express yourself and certain ideas or emotions?
I’ve been telling stories aloud for many years and my ‘voice’ seems to have settled into a distinct shape that fits well with faerie tales. I use my telling voice as my writing voice – and that makes my stories good for reading aloud. I’ve also been a fan of fairy tales since I was a small child, and I know the stories so well that they’ve probably become a part of me, a part of my creative reservoir.
I like the conventions of the oral form, and you see these conventions reflected in the written forms of traditional fairy tales: rhythm, rhyme, repetition, the use of number rules (three and seven), the pared back language (that can pack an emotional punch) and the theme of justice. (It’s very satisfying when justice is done!). I’ve followed these conventions because it feels natural to me and I think readers settle in to the stories more easily because, even if it’s at an unconscious level, the conventions offer a kind of familiarity (even though most of the stories are new and often a little uncomfortable).
So, I didn’t set out to write fairy tales – it’s just how they came out. These are the stories that my ‘voice’ wanted to tell and my ‘voice’ wanted to tell them in this particular way – and I didn’t resist the ‘voice’! And I certainly didn’t set out with a particular message or idea that I wanted to convey. But when I finished the last story, I realised that I was saying something – even if it was only to myself. The message was something along the lines of ‘Life can be grim and life can be beautiful, and mainly it’s both. And experiencing both can grow your heart bigger and softer … and make you more human.’
Do you ever draw any of your characters or do you just develop them in your writing?
Before I start writing, I usually have the whole story in my head – and I know all the characters pretty much inside out. In fact, I would say that I don’t develop the characters at all: I let them show me who they are, and how they speak and act, by spending lots of time with them (in my head) well before I start writing.
To explain my process, it might be helpful for me to give a specific example. One of my favourite characters is the baddie Fillan McQuillan. He arrived, rather noisily, ‘voice first’ and then the image of him followed. (He made a rather theatrical entry, by the way, and was definitely playing to the crowd!) Once he was on the scene, I started to work with him like a director would work with an actor. I talked him through the plot and he gave me some really good suggestions about how he would like to ‘play the part’. Once we both agreed that we were good to go, I started to write.
Once I started to write, I remained in constant dialogue with Fillan McQuillan. He was so real to me that it felt like he was sitting at my writing desk with me. I would be writing and he would stand up and raise his arms and put on a big preacher voice and say things like ‘I can do much worse than that, you know. How about…?’ And then he would make a suggestion and I would write it down. (He certainly knew how to talk up his part!)
So, the key for me is being in a relationship with all my characters. When we know each other, and the trust between us is there, I start to write and they act and give continuous feedback. I pay attention to the feedback and make adjustments accordingly.
When I finished my collection, the whole cast hung around in my head until the book was printed. The moment I touched a copy of the physical book, the cast disappeared. I felt a kind of grief, I suppose – a great sense of loss because they had been such good company for such a long time. But in the moment they disappeared, I heard the undeniable sound of a new group of characters for a new collection of stories moving in to ‘the theatre’ of my head!
Charles Brockden Brown is considered America’s first novelist and one of his books is called Jane Talbot – are you familiar with it?
I am familiar with it but I haven’t read it. I like the idea of the epistolary novel, though – it offers a great deal of creative scope to the writer and creates (almost effortless) intimacy with the reader. I think some critics say that ‘Jane Talbot’ is quite conventional when compared with his earlier gothic novels, all of which sound rather exciting (and, at times, ground-breaking).
Out of Curiosity did you use any stories from your grandparents?
Every Sunday afternoon, my grandparents used to tell me and my brothers stories from the Second World War. The curious thing was, they always told us the same two stories. My grandmother’s story was about how she had to jump out of the window of a burning munitions factory, and how she was caught in a kind of sheet but broke her back. My grandfather’s story was about how he had been a despatch rider.
Whilst their stories don’t feature in the collection, I think the collection exists because of what my grandmother used to say at the end of the two stories : ‘The world is your oyster. You can do anything you want!’