Yvonne Marjot, the name rings a bell, doesn’t it? Right, over the past months, she contributed greatly to my little PublicTransport PoeTry project. Today, her book The Calgary Chessman was published. I’ll admit, I haven’t yet finished reading it, but I’ve read the first few chapters when it was still on authonomy, liked it a lot and thus was delighted when she asked me whether I’d be willing to bang a few drums for her.
So let’s move straight on to what she has to say.
Who are you?
My name is Yvonne Marjot, and that’s also the name under which I’m published. I did think about having a pseudonym, but my surname’s pretty unusual and I hope that means I stand out. Don’t worry if you’re not sure how to pronounce it – even my family aren’t entirely sure!
Until now, I thought it’d be with a j as in jungle. Now I’m not so sure anymore 🙂 However, where are you?
I live on the Isle of Mull in western Scotland. I was born in England but grew up and lived most of my life in New Zealand, and I consider myself to be a kiwi. I’ve lived on Mull for fourteen years and it has become a second home to me. I’m part of a small but highly creative community, and regularly rub shoulders with other writers and poets. Something about island life seems to benefit the creative powers.
Envy rears its ugly head…stomp, stomp…How are you?
Very well, thank you. I’ve reached the point in my life where my children are nearly grown. I’ve never achieved the kind of income I wanted, to give them the upbringing I dreamed for them, but the need to do so is becoming steadily less important as they begin to earn their own money. This has given me the freedom to think not how can I earn more money? But rather, what do I want to do with my time? Of course, what I want to do more than anything is to write, and I can at last begin to devote some time to it. Like most writers, I’m not making any money so far, but it has proved to be an addictive pastime – I can’t imagine ever wanting to stop.
Now tell us briefly what your book is about.
My first novel is The Calgary Chessman, published by Crooked Cat Publishers, Edinburgh, on 16 August 2014. It’s both a complete archaeological mystery and also the ongoing story of my main character and the people she meets. It’s set partly on the Isle of Mill, and partly in New Zealand.
Why did you write it?
About ten years ago I watched a TV program about the British Museum’s greatest treasures, one of which is the Lewis Chessmen. In bed that night, I had a nightmare about being chased by a faceless monster on the beach at Calgary Bay, one of my favourite places. When I woke up, I had the germ of an idea in my head, and over the next few years I played around with it, writing various parts of the book without having a complete story in my head. Then I had an idea for a sequel. I realised that I’d never be able to write the sequel if I didn’t first conquer the mountain – so I sat down and wrote The Calgary Chessman. It has been rewritten four times (including a change from third person to first person) to bring it to the point where it is now being published, and has changed a lot along the way, but my main character and her discovery remain the heart of the story.
Tell us about your main character.
Cassandra Longmore, known as Cas, is a lonely woman living far from home. She has recently separated from her husband of seventeen years and is living in the family’s old holiday home on the Isle of Mull, while she tries to put her life back together. She has to cope with being along, without a proper job, far away from her family, and also with the problems of her 13-year-old son, who struggles to cope with the new family situation. While walking alone at Calgary Bay she discoveres a mysterious object in the sand. This turns out to be a chess piece resembling one of the Lewis Chessmen, and her search for more information about her find brings her new friends and gives her a purpose. Cas’s marriage was miserable and abusive, and she finds it difficult to trust anyone. She also feels responsible for her son’s problems, and wishes she could do more to help her grandparents back in New Zealand. The events of The Calgary Chessman help her to realise that she does have friends, and that she cannot make herself responsible for other people’s lives.
If you could make up your own genre for this book, what would it be?
I have real problems with the genre issue. TCC isn’t literary fiction – too much plot, and a bit too lightweight. However, it isn’t light enough for chick lit. There’s not enough love for romance, and not enough sex for erotica (although there is some). It’s not really a mystery – the story of the chess piece unfolds, but there aren’t enough clues for the reader to work it out before the end. The end is not happy, but I hope it is satisfying. There’s also a gay subplot, which is slight in this book but will become more central in the sequels. Genre? What genre would you like it to be?
How about mysterious chick literary romance? I could think of a few other books that might fit into this genre 🙂 Now, is there a message in your book? Do you want your readers to take something home?
TCC isn’t preachy – I’m not in the market for telling other people how to think. But I do believe my books should be true to what I believe. So there are characters of many races, beliefs and sexual orientations. Although you may not necessarily learn all these things about every character, I still know they are there. And every now and then that comes to the surface. My books reflect the global reality, as I see it.
What are you currently working on?
I’m about to send the sequel, The Book of Lismore, off to my publisher, to see if they like it. I’m also working on a novel sequence set in a dystopian future New Zealand. It’s at a very early stage, but one of the protagonists is based on a girl whose story I started to write when I was 15. I found my old typewritten notes the other day, and decided that the story is still worth telling. The working title for this sequence is Fire Under the Skin, which is a quote from Sappho.
Why are you a writer? Were you born to be one, did it just happen, was there some moment of epiphany…?
I can’t remember a time when I didn’t make up poems or write stories. I was definitely doing it before I could write, and I have always loved learning and performing songs, verse and drama. If I wasn’t singing then I had my head buried in a book. I think I was always meant to be a writer.
Where do you get your ideas? What inspires you?
Anything can be inspiring. Recently I was working (with little success) on part of a novel that I was planning to write. It tells the interlinking stories of three characters (Fire Under the Skin), but one of the characters (an older man) was quite two-dimensional. I didn’t know his story, and I really had no idea where to start. Then one of my friends blogged a jokey imaginary book title – and instantly I had my idea. Within days, the whole pattern of my character’s life had made itself clear to me and I was able to begin to write about him.
Plot or characters? Which is more important and why?
Characters, absolutely. I do believe that a plot is necessary – a book needs to have a shape, and to be going somewhere, otherwise you’d get bored reading it (and I’d tire of writing it, too). It’s the characters that dicate what sort of plot is going to happen, though, and I often find that my characters change the story as they go along – they tell me I wouldn’t behave that way, or this is what needs to happen…
I can so relate to that. I recently had to rewrite part of a story because one of my favorite characters informed me she had no intention of standing idly by…Speaking of characters, do parts of you shine through? Are some characters like you, or friends, or family?
None of my characters are autobiographical, although there are some superficial similarities between Cas’s life and my own (I’m a kiwi who lives on a Scottish island, I’m a divorced long-parent, I have had past experience of domestic abuse) but her life is very different to my own. I have noticed that all my characters are a bit odd – no-one is ordinary – and that probably reflects my life experience too.
How does a typical day for you look like? What do you do when you’re not writing?
I have a day job (in the office of the local school) and teenage children, so there is very little time for writing. Generally I choose to write instead of doing housework. After all, when I die no-one’s going to remember me for having a clean kitchen. Two or three times a year I get a whole week without my children, and in those weeks I live, sleep and breathe writing.
Who is your favorite author?
Ursula Le Guin, without a doubt. But a recent discovery is Neal Stephenson, and he’s following close on her heels.
Is there an author you’d love to be compared to?
I would die and go to heaven if someone told my that my books were in any way like Le Guin’s, or like the books of Barbara Kingsolver. Her book, Prodigal Summer, is beautifully written. I especially admire the way in which the science in her books is based on sound research and understanding.
Who is your biggest supporter?
I’m lucky to have a team of wonderfully supportive friends and family. I couldn’t do what I do without them. But my number one fan is fellow author Tabatha Stirling, who is no mean writer in her own right. I consider her support to be a privilege and a delight, and I would sink into a deep depression if she told me one of my books was no good.
Sweet, wonderful Tabby. I understand. What’s your favorite book of all time and why?
The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien. I’m a third generation Tolkienophile, and I’ve made sure my children have also grown up with Middle Earth. It isn’t just dense, intensely readable fantasy – there’s plenty in there to inform life in the real world. As when Frodo complains that he wishes the Ring had never come to him. Gandalf responds, So do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us. And the moment when the children of Helm’s Deep are armed to defend their home still brings tears to my eyes – the issue of child warriors plagues humanity today. With living authors, I have a top ten of absolute favourites, but one of the best is Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon. Stupendously well-written, faultlessly researched, and both thrilling and very funny. As a member of a family of computer geeks and nerds, its subject matter fascinates me, and I learn something new every time I read it.
If you could have a superpower, which one would you choose?
There are certainly times when I wish I had the power to cause a minor accident (e.g. tyre blowout) to another driver, especially people who drive through pedestrian crossing while children are crossing, or truck drivers who pull out dangerously on the motorway (Grr…). Most of the time, though, I think superpowers are like the three wishes of genies – they’d cause more problems than they would solve.
What are you addicted to or can’t live without?
The internet. Every now and again I make myself go cold turkey, and go climb a moutain or take the kids to the beach. But I get twitchy if I don’t get on at least once in every 24 hours.
Places where you can buy The Calgary Chessman:
Yvonne Marjot was born in England, grew up in New Zealand, and now lives on an island off the West Coast of Scotland. She has a Masters in Botany from Victoria University of Wellington, and a keen interest in the interface between the natural and human worlds. She has always made up stories and poems, and once won a crate of port in a poetry competition (New Zealand Listener, May 1996). In 2012 she won the Britwriters Award for poetry, and her first volume of poetry, The Knitted Curiosity Cabinet, was published in 2014 by Indigo Dreams Publishing.
She has worked in schools, libraries and university labs, has been a pre-school crèche worker and a farm labourer, cleaned penthouse apartments and worked as amanuensis to an eminent Botanist. She currently has a day job (in the local school) and teenage children, and would continue to write even if no-one read her work, because it’s the only thing that keeps her sane. In her spare time she climbs hills, looks for rare moths and promises herself to do more in the garden.