The Interview: Bookbag Talks To Joanne Owen

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The Interview: Bookbag Talks To Joanne Owen

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Summary: Bookbag was really intrigued by The Alchemist and the Angel by Joanne Owen. It's a rather unique historical fantasy, well-researched and bursting with fascinating detail. Those with a taste for colourful and slightly gothic folklore will love it, and Bookbag was delighted to ask Joanne Owen some questions.
Date: 1 June 2010
Interviewer: Stefan Bachmann
Reviewed by Stefan Bachmann

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Bookbag was really intrigued by The Alchemist and the Angel by Joanne Owen. It's a rather unique historical fantasy, well-researched and bursting with fascinating detail. Those with a taste for colourful and slightly gothic folklore will love it, and Bookbag was delighted to ask Joanne Owen some questions.

  • Bookbag: When you close your eyes who do you imagine reading The Alchemist and the Angel?

Joanne Owen: Hmm, that's tricky! I just hope it will find its way to a broad spectrum of age groups, and have some longevity. I'd love to see it translated and reach lots of non English-speaking readers too.

  • BB: I enjoyed Alchemist quite a lot, and thought it improved on many aspects of the first book. How was writing this book different from writing your first one?

JO: It was a very different experience. While Puppet Master was written on and off over maybe three or four years, The Alchemist & the Angel took just over a year. I'd already researched some aspects of Rudolfine Prague, Cabinets of Curiosity and alchemy while working on Puppet Master which gave me a head start and the writing came quicker too, largely due to having done more detailed plotting.

  • BB: Both books are set in Prague. What intrigues you about the city?

JO: I'd always planned to write a novel, but it wasn't until my first visit to Prague in 2000 that I discovered the story and inspiration I'd been looking for. Kafka said of the city's magnetism: Prague doesn't let go. This little mother has sharp claws and this immediately rang true. During that first trip I fell in love with the cobbled lanes and red-roofed houses of Malá Strana (the Lesser Quarter), the tiny cottages and palaces of Hradčany, the view from Petřín Hill and the area around Vyšehrad. I read all I could about Pragues origins and history, and learned Czech for a few years. I felt an affinity with some of its literary and artistic traditions, in which the commonplace is often coupled with the magical and absurd.

I came across the myths embedded in Puppet Master in Alois Jirásek's Old Bohemian Legends in which he retells the tale of King Krok, first King of Bohemia, and his youngest daughter, Libuse, prophetess and mythical mother of Prague. From there I discovered other legends - macabre tales of blinded clockmakers, unscrupulous alchemists, powerful golem creatures fashioned from clay - and Czech fairytales, populated by trickster devils, princesses aided by magical hazelnuts and tree stumps that transform into greedy children. Exactly the kind of stories I love! It's very a special place.

  • BB: You intersperse a lot of folklore with your plot. I only recognised one single fairy tale out of all the ones in your books, so I'm wondering: how do you find these stories? What do you look for in a tale in order to include it?

JO: I've amassed several anthologies of Czech and Slovak folktales over the years, some children's collections found in Prague, others academic texts. Puppet Master was initially built around a series of legends so, to some extent, most were already chosen for me. With Alchemist I kept an eye out for tales with relevant themes e.g. peahen/vanity stories for Greta, a story about graveyards to frame Jan’s visit to the Chapel of Bones in Sedlec.

  • BB: Tell us a bit about the process you went through to get your first book published.

JO: Fiona Kennedy, Publisher for Orion Children's Books and now my editor, was interested in Puppet Master at a very early stage, which was incredibly exciting and encouraging. I'd long admired authors on her list e.g. Marcus Sedgwick and Cliff McNish. While I was beginning to develop my idea, the literary agent Catherine Clarke also got in touch and I've had the privilege of working with both ever since.

  • BB: Some authors never read other books from the genre they write in. Do you read historical fantasy?

JO: No, but that's not a deliberate choice. I have quite eclectic reading habits, largely dictated by what I need to read for work and research purposes. I work full-time so my writing time is pretty limited. I'm a big admirer of lots of nineteenth and early twentieth century writers from central Europe, many of whom have a fantastical edge e.g. Gustav Meyrink. The contemporary writer I most admire and eagerly await new work by is Sylvie Germain.

  • BB: What do you enjoy most about writing? What would you rather not do at all?

JO: The moment of realising the seed of an idea might become a book is very special. I had a real eureka moment for The Alchemist & the Angel while attending a talk about Jan Švankmajer's interest in Cabinets of Curiosity and Emperor Rudolf II. There and then I realised that the figure of Rudolf held the key to how I could bring together various ideas I'd been having for what became Alchemist.

I also love those moments when plot strands fall into place like a puzzle, or when a new twist comes to mind, and I find getting stuck into rewrites after reading my editor's thoughts on a draft hugely satisfying. The hardest part about the process is making early plot decisions and not having enough time.

  • BB: Do you listen to music while you write? If so, what were you listening to during the writing of Alchemist?

JO: I find it difficult to write in complete silence. I need some background noise. Parts of Puppet Master were written to albums like The Black Rider and Alice by Tom Waits but lyrics can be distracting. Soundtracks work well or even films; a lot of Alchemist was written with favourite German and Czech films playing in the background, especially fairytales from the 60s and 70s – I have quite a collection! - and the work of Czech surrealist filmmaker Jan Švankmajer.

  • BB: I'm actually going to Prague this summer! Any super secret tips on places to see?

JO: Lucky you! All the main tourist sights - the Astronomical Clock on Old Town Square, Prague Castle, the Old Jewish Cemetery and Charles Bridge - are well worth seeing but I'd also recommend spending time exploring Malá Strana and rounding off the day with a meal in U Maltezskych rytiru/At the Knights of Malta. In Alchemist Jan goes there for a bowl of soup (page 120)! If you're in this area on a sunny day, take the funicular railway up Petřín Hill.

Vyšehrad to the south of the centre is another favourite place of mine. According to legend this is where Libuse had her vision of Prague's future as a city of gold. Vyšehrad cemetery is the resting place of many prominent Czech artists and writers, the church is stunning, as are the views of the Vltava River and city from near Libuse's Bath.

Lastly (I could go on!), if you have a spare day, take a trip to Sedlec Ossuary. This was the inspiration for the Chapel of Bones featured in Alchemist. It's a amazing place, about two hours by train from Prague.

  • BB: What's next for Joanne Owen?

JO: I'm currently planning my third novel which will also have strong folkloric elements, but will be less explicitly historical. It's too early to say more, but I'm very excited about getting stuck into it. It's also likely I'll write a children's travel guide to Wales in the coming months – I'm from Pembrokeshire – and I hope to develop ideas for younger fiction sometime soon, time permitting.

  • BB: Ooh, excellent! Thanks very much, Joanne, and in particular for the Prague tips!

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