'Skin' by Ilka Tampke is going down as one of my favourite books of 2015 – a gripping historical fantasy novel set in Iron Age Britain, when the people of Caer Cad find themselves on the cusp of invasion by Emperor Claudius’ Roman army – and one woman called Ailia finds herself torn between two men, and setting out on a journey she never thought she could travel.
Luckily Ilka is in my writer’s group, and was kind enough to let me pick her brain...
Q: How were you first published – agent or slush pile?
Actually neither. I submitted a few pages of my early manuscript as part of an application for a Glenfern Fellowship in Melbourne. One of the judges was an editor at Text Publishing, and she followed up with a request to see a bit more. It was a great lesson to me to go for as many competitions and residencies I can, because it gets your work under editors’ noses.
Q: Are you a ‘plotter’ or a ‘pantser’ - that is, do you meticulously plot your novel before writing, or do you ‘fly by the seat of your pants’ and let the story evolve naturally?
For the writing of Skin I was an unmitigated ‘pantser’; I wrote all kinds of different scenes, characters and events, then I had to wrangle it all into a cohesive whole. I am currently trying to plot my second novel in advance of writing it, so I’ll let you know how that goes. I suspect, in my heart, I will always be a ‘pantser.’
Q: How long did it take you to write ‘Skin', from first idea to final manuscript?
Almost exactly 5 years. But there were big gaps where I did other work.
Q: 'Skin' is set during Iron-Age Britain and you really transport readers there. Exactly how much research did you do for this setting - and was a trip to England part of it?
It began with a trip I took to the southwest of England several years ago, where I fell in love with the mystical world of ancient Britain. Once the novel was underway, I read extensively among the work of archaeologists, historians and scholars of druidism and paganism. In the book’s final stages I went back to England, to walk the site of the township in which ‘Skin’ is set, and see the recreated Iron Age villages that are peppered throughout the UK. It was so wonderful to walk into the actual environments, and breath the atmosphere of the world I had been imagining for so long.
Q: Where do story ideas generally start for you? Do you first think of the character, theme, ending? Or is it just a free-fall?Mostly they start as fragments of dialogue or interactions between characters that flash through my mind. I’ve learned to trust these intuitive impulses, as my subconscious imagination is far smarter than my conscious mind. I also find the historical research very fruitful and generative of ideas. I might read about an excavation of an Iron Age burial pit and imagine my character being part of that ritual, placing those grave objects in beside her loved one.
Q: What are you working on right now, and when can we expect it to his bookshelves?
The sequel to Skin. It will take the reader more deeply into the fight for Britain to hold onto what is most precious in its culture, and delves into the fascinating stories of the real life British freedom-fighters.
Q: Favourite author(s) of all time?
Eva Hornung, Dorothy Porter, James Cowan, Margo Lanagan, Ursula Le Guin, Helen Garner, Jeanette Winterson, Truman Capote.
Q: Favourite book(s)?Monkey Grip by Helen Garner. The Daylight Gate by Jeanette Winterson.
Tombs of Atuan by Ursula Le Guin.
Q: Do you have any advice for budding young writers?
Two things. Firstly: apply for everything that you can: competitions, residencies, fellowships, grants. I think it’s the best way to start building a profile and make people aware of your work. Be part of the writers’ community and opportunities will present themselves.
Secondly: finish your work. The very best writers I know are not published because they won’t finish their novels. Or even a short story! Your finished novel may get published. Your unfinished one never will.