I am very pleased to welcome Isobel Blackthorn on the blog today for a little Q&A.
Welcome, Isobel. Can you tell us where you were raised? Where do you live now?
I was born in London in 1962, and grew up in South Australia. I returned to London as a teenager and lived in the UK until I reached twenty-six and went on holiday to Lanzarote. It was 1988 and by the end of that year, me and my then partner had bought an old ruin in a gorgeous village in the north of the island, had it renovated and moved in. I was in paradise. Eighteen months later, after much drama and heartache, I left, abruptly. I hadn’t meant to stay away long. In fact, I fully planned to return a few months later. But I didn’t. I ended up in Australia. And to this day I mourn the loss of a place where I felt so connected, to the dramatic volcanic landscapes, and to the culture and history of its people.
Tell me about your writing. When did you begin and how do you compose?
I had harboured a secret passion for writing from when I was about eleven years old. In my early twenties I wrote maudlin song lyrics and scraps of poetry. Friends said I was quite good at it but I didn’t believe them. When one of my poems was published in a local newsletter, I didn’t follow up on a suggestion that I submit the work to a national publication. When I was twenty-five I had a go at writing a novel. I don’t think I made it past the first chapter. I had no idea what I was doing. I just felt this urge to fill paper with words. I adored Herman Hesse and found I wrote like him. I had no idea at the time that this was in fact an early indication that I had some ability. I was living in Oxford, with Iris Murdoch and Penelope Lively just up the road. If I’d pursued my passion then, who knows what might have happened.
I continued to carry around with me the wish, but it was dashed over and again by circumstances (not least the birth of twins) and by the cruel, dismissive comments of relatives of mine who told me I had to get serious and find a real job. Why I believed them, I’ll never know. So I worked, I studied, I became a high school teacher, I even went off and got myself a PhD, just to prove to myself that I could achieve it, although I sort of thought it might have been nice to work in the tertiary sector. It was not until I secured a job as PA to a literary agent in 2007 that my literary aspirations finally gained true support and validation. I was mentored intensively in 2009 by an award-winning author, and since then I’ve dedicated as much time as I can spare to writing fiction.
Who inspires you?
My simple answer is Iain Banks. I adore his storytelling, his imagination and his wit. I’ll never forget sitting on a mattress on the floor of my squat in south London back in the 80s, listening to Robert Fripp with my head buried in Walking on Glass.
I’m a big fan of Fay Weldon, Doris Lessing’s early works, Marge Piercy, Toni Morrison, Umberto Eco (really the list would fill a page), and Inez Baranay whose works are little known and breathtakingly good. Lately I’ve been reading new releases (to review), and have been inspired by Liam Brown’s Wild Life and by Jemma Wayne’s Chains of Sand. I like literary and contemporary fiction.
Tell me about your novel, The Drago Tree. Why, out of all your releases so far, is this one so special?
The Drago Tree is set on Lanzarote. I began writing the story at the end of 2012, to fulfil a deep yearning I had to go back there. I thought that if I set a story there I would at least get to explore the island vicariously, through my characters. The work took me eighteen months to complete. By the end of it I had clicked my way round the whole island on Google maps’ street view.
The story emerged out of a solitary sentence, which I wrote in 2009. That sentence was meant to be the beginning of a novel, but that was as far as I took it. At the time I had in mind a character, Ann, a geologist. Imagine my amazement when I composed a draft of a short story in November 2012, and discovered when trawling through my old journals that the character I had created was the same as the one I had conjured before: the geologist, Ann. From that point on the story had a meant-to-be quality about it. I decided to write a work of literary fiction and make it a love story. Really, I couldn’t have done anything else. The story grew from my own connection with the island, and my own lengthy absence. It could only have been a story about a tourist.
When Odyssey Books offered to publish in 2015, I could scarcely believe my luck. At the time it was the greatest validation I’d received for my work. The same publisher then went on to release two more works, with another novel, A Perfect Square, due out next month. Best of all, my publisher at Odyssey Books was so inspired by the story that she offered to travel with me to the island. Talk about cherries and cake icing! We went in March. It had been twenty-six years since I was last there. I won’t live it so long next time! I’m currently at work on another novel set on Lanzarote, not a sequel as such, but based on the same characters. It, too, is sure to take me back.