Zoe Gilbert won the Costa Short Story Prize in 2014 and this year published her debut novel, Folk. She talks about the darkness at the heart of her work and the magical possibilities in her ‘modern-day fairy tales’
The protagonists in Folk are otherworldly: dreamlike, with dark passions and impulses. Where did the inspiration for those characters come from?
The characters in traditional folk tales tend to be archetypes, ciphers we don’t get to know. I wanted to write real-feeling people in a folk-tale world, to see if it’s possible to do psychological depth within those constraints. The world of Folk (Neverness) is dark, elemental and sometimes dreamlike, so I would guess that my characters respond to that. I really can’t say where they sprang from.
In the magical world you’ve created in Neverness, nothing is as it seems. It can be strange and savage. Would you want to live in that world? You’ve said that setting was inspired by the Isle of Man. What was it about that location that first captured your imagination?
I love to escape to Neverness in my mind; I’m not sure how well I’d get on without the modern comforts of duvets, coffee and feminism though. The Isle of Man thankfully has all three, but it is the landscape there – both gorgeous and unforgiving – that really imprinted itself into my mind: the astonishing colours of gorse and heather, the glens dripping with ivy, strange and perilous rock formations along the shore. Manx folklore has its own twist, and reading about Manx tales and customs inspired many of my stories.
Your novel is made up of a series of interconnected stories, which can be read independently or as a whole. Did you feel it would work better as a novel rather than a short story collection?
The lives of the characters, in their small island community, became so enmeshed that the segue from a set of stories to something that coheres as a whole happened quite naturally. The stories now make the most sense when read in order as parts of a whole. I found myself watching friendships, relationships and rivalries emerge as I wrote, so I wanted the reader to have that experience, too.
As the book’s title implies, the intertwined stories draw heavily on folklore, myth and the supernatural. Would you describe them as modern-day fairy tales?
Maybe one or two of them. There aren’t many happy endings… perhaps they are modern-day fairy tales in the sense they contain magical possibilities, actual supernatural events and transformations, and the feeling (hopefully) that we are somewhere familiar but it is not quite our world: other forces are at work. Some of the folklore I completely invented (for example, the Gorse Mother in the opening chapter), so there are new fairy tales in there even if the stories do not take that form.
What propels you to write? And who have been the biggest influences on your writing?
I’m propelled by ideas that fascinate me, and by the miserable grouch I turn into if I don’t write. I want to see if I can make something out of words, which communicates some idea or question or truth, though I am rarely sure what that is. Reading folk tales and absorbing folklore so often provides the inspiration, but this can be a scrap from the internet as much as a well-known tale. Carter has influenced me to try, but I can’t claim to infuse my work with the same genius herbs that she used. Other authors I turn to for fire are Margo Lanagan, Kij Johnson, Steven Millhauser, Alice Oswald, Robin Robertson, among many others.
You won the Costa Short Story prize in 2014 for Fishskin, Hareskin, which appears in Folk. What prompted you to enter this story in the award and did you ever think you’d win?
I entered the competition because it was free, and chose that story because it was the one I had most recently finished. Being shortlisted was a bigger gift than I ever expected. Being announced the winner was such a shock – it took a lot of champagne before I stopped shaking and regained the power of speech. I still feel incredibly lucky to have won; the stars somehow aligned for me then.
You co-run the Word Factory short story club, where you discuss a short story each month. Is there an appetite for short stories today, do you think?
There is undoubtedly an appetite for stories, though I am sceptical of the claim – rolled out at least once a year by some new aficionado of the form – that we are seeing a short story renaissance. I think short stories are like wild mushrooms: they’re always there, waiting in the leaf litter. When you start to look you find them everywhere, and then you spot all the other foragers, furtively harvesting these small delicacies. If you only look up at the big, beautiful but obvious trees, you can live your whole life without noticing the fungi. But as you know, once you’ve tasted them, you’re hooked. It may be frustrating for those of us who write short stories, but I like the way our world is quite hidden; those who find it, love it, and you can trust a fellow short story fan.
Can you talk about your journey to publication – what have been the biggest challenges along the way? What have been the turning points in your writing life? Do you have any advice for others if they’re struggling with the writing process?
Whatever you are writing, I believe that feeling part of a group makes a huge difference to your motivation and progress. I urge writers to go on courses, attend events (like The Word Factory), join writing groups, or find themselves a mentor. We need the encouragement, the feedback, the comradeship, and most of all, the deadlines. Even if it’s only one other person waiting to read your work, that keeps you going. I’ve done all of the above for many years, and also kept submitting stories for publication in journals or anthologies. This gave me a sense of progress, as the list of published stories gradually grew, with the odd prize or shortlisting giving me a huge boost. With that list in one hand and your manuscript in the other, you’re more likely to be taken seriously by an agent or publisher.
For the last two years, I’ve been trying to pass on what I’ve learned by teaching and mentoring writers at London Lit Lab. I find helping writers deeply satisfying, whether it’s leading them to those early penny-dropping moments, or polishing up a short story collection or novel until in gleams. Teaching is another way I get to have a writing community, too. Personally, I still find the exposure of publication a strange challenge – I strive for this and yet it frightens me a little. Having said that, signing the contract with Bloomsbury for Folk was a big moment in my life and a huge thrill.
Folk by Zoe Gilbert (Bloomsbury £14.99) is out now; www.thewordfactory.tv; londonlitlab.co.uk
Interview by Sophie Haydock