Jane Talbot

Interview

James Meredith

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Jane Talbot was born in Wiltshire and has lived in County Antrim since 2011. She studied at Manchester University and Warwick University, and has worked as a teacher of Modern Languages, a community development practitioner, and a training and coaching specialist. She is a champion of the oral storytelling tradition and has an abiding interest in both fairy tales and medieval literature.

Her debut collection, The Faerie Thorn and other stories, contains seven bewitching tales set in county Antrim which draw you into a world of fairy tales and magick, a world of devilish debts, trysts and trades, of broken bargains and unjust trials, of quick-wittedness, of hoodwinking, of revenge.

It is a dark, tender, dazzling collection written in language which begs to be read aloud, and has been hailed by Irish writer Éilís Ní Dhuibhne as “a collection that delights with its sparkling style and rich imagination.”


JM: When did your interest in folk tales, fairy tales, myths and legends begin?

JT: Some of my earliest memories are of me listening to my mother read from Ladybird books. The Ladybird books were my first introduction to the fairy-tale classics. When the younger of my two brothers arrived, I was tasked with reading the Ladybird books to him. By this stage, I knew the stories backwards and I didn’t need to read them (and much to my brother’s annoyance, I told them backwards too). I’m not sure that I’d see this as the beginning of my interest, but it was definitely the start of my storytelling career!

I think I felt the first real pull of all things mythical when I was about five years old. I remember regular family walks on the White Horse Hill at Uffington, Oxfordshire. (At that time that you could still walk on the ancient chalk horse and sit on its eye for good luck.) Silbury Hill, West Kennet long barrow, Wayland’s Smithy and the standing stones at Avebury were all familiar to me – and yet, no matter how often I visited, those places always surprised me with their strangeness. My parents recounted the myths and legends of the area, but it wasn’t just the stories that interested me: it was the power of the place. Those family walks shaped a potent belief in me that places hold stories (maybe even better than books hold stories) – and if a place holds a lot of stories, especially old stories, it becomes a magical place.

I think that those early experiences of the power of place had a huge impact on me – they turned me into a story hunter. Now I look for magical places and go hunting for the stories that they hold.

JM: When did you become familiar with Irish folk tales, fairy tales, myths and legends?

JT: Whenever I visit a place, I get inspired to find out about the local mythology and folklore. I started visiting Ireland regularly in 2007 – and that’s when the magic of the land started to take a firm hold. It’s only recently that I’ve dipped into the likes of the Ulster Cycle (and you’ll see from my stories that I liked what I found!) Having said that, as a folk singer, I discovered Irish stories through songs in my early teens.

JM: Do you have particular favourite fairy tales?

JT: I think most of us have a favourite fairy tale and that’s because we can all find our own story in at least one fairy tale. Maybe the word isn’t favourite, though – I think it’s more about resonance. The Little Mermaid resonates with my own story – and you’ll see an echo of that story in ‘The Merrow of Murlough Bay,’ one of the stories in The Faerie Thorn and other stories. If you have a favourite fairy tale and you want to know why you’re so attached to it, some great questions to ask are “How is this my story?” or “Where am I in this story?”

JM: What prompted you to write The Faerie Thorn and other stories? What was the process of it being accepted for publication?

JT: My husband is a farmer and there is a lone hawthorn in a field on his farm. I didn’t understand the significance of the hawthorn until I developed an interest in tree lore and learned that a lone thorn is strongly associated with faeries. Keen to see a faerie, I went on a faerie-hunting expedition! Unfortunately, I didn’t see any faeries, but after my visit to the tree I fell asleep and woke up with the idea for a story.

I wrote the story down and afterwards realised that the process of writing it had helped me to me feel more at home in the area. I sent the story to Blackstaff Press in Belfast and then to four literary agents in London.

I didn’t really know a great deal about the publishing industry at that stage – you could even say I was a bit naïve. After all, I was submitting a story of 8000 words and that was the sum total of my work. The literary agents were very polite and positive, but they said ‘No thanks.’ In hindsight, I understand why that might have been: not only was my complete manuscript short by about 50 000 words, I had also sent it to agents specialising in children’s fiction (and my stories are a little too dark for young minds).

I’m actually really glad things worked out the way that they did. Blackstaff got back to me and said they enjoyed ‘The Faerie Thorn’ and asked me to write some more stories. After I submitted the second story, they said Yes.

After a further 6 months of daily writing, the collection of 7 stories was complete – and, by the end of the process, I felt totally connected to the places out of which the stories had grown.

JM: What work would you compare your stories to? What tradition are you working within?

JT: Some people have said that the collection reminds them of Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber. Other people mention the likes of Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and that when they read the stories they sense the ominous shadow of the film director Tim Burton (I’m definitely a fan of his). And some say the stories bring Beowulf to mind.

I’m still fairly close to the stories (I regularly dream of being trapped in a space between the paper and the words that sit on it), so it feels harder for me to place the collection in the grander scheme of things. It’s likely that my fondness for medieval epic poems and Arthurian romance is running the show from time to time, but I’m not doing it on purpose (well, okay, I am doing it on purpose in two of the stories.) Most of the time though, I’d say I’m working within the boundaries of a fairly clear-cut tradition: the tradition reflected in the first edition of the folk and fairy tales collected by the Brothers Grimm.

These first edition tales are not the sanitised versions of the later editions that most of us are familiar with. (Actually, they can be spine-chilling and some of the stories didn’t make it to the final edition!) More importantly, the style of ‘telling’ in this early edition is clearly rooted in the oral tradition – as is The Faerie Thorn and other Stories.

In keeping with the Irish tradition, you’ll find mention of merrows (merfolk), witches, faeries, pookas and banshees in the stories. I imported three trolls from the Scandinavian tradition, a washerwoman from the Scottish tradition and magicked up some bone ghosts just for good measure.

What’s crucial in traditional fairy tales is the idea of justice, and that’s certainly a strong theme that runs throughout the collection. And the nature of the justice that’s served brings the collection closer to Old Norse myths and sagas, stories which can be playful and witty but which contain an unstoppable drive for justice. And the happy ending is not really about a happy-ever-after, it’s more about justice being served in the right way.

JM: The stories in the collection are quite brutal and bloody at times. What response do you hope to elicit from the stories?

JT: I didn’t write to shock or surprise or endear – I just told each story as it came to me. I agree that they can be brutal and bloody at times, but I think each of them swells with tenderness and humanity too.

JM: Do the stories contain messages or morals?

JT: These weren’t intended as moralistic or didactic tales, but once I’d finished the collection I did get a sense of a message… something like “Life can be grim and life can be beautiful, and mainly it’s both. And experiencing both can grow your heart bigger and softer … and make you more human.” Of course, people are free to take their own meanings from the stories, but if they happened to grow bigger, softer hearts as a result of reading them, I’d love that!

JM: There is a powerful sense of wordplay and poetry in your prose, which leads to them being suited for reading aloud. Was this important to you?

JT: Actually, I wrote the stories with the intention of them being read out loud. When I write, I follow many of the conventions associated with the oral tradition and that’s what you may have picked up.

I think sharing stories with others helps to keep us connected to each other. (And I think that the words release more of their magic when they are spoken out loud.)

JM: You must be pleased with the response the stories have received from fellow Irish writers including Bernie McGill, Mia Gallagher and Éilís Ní Dhuibhne. Is it important to receive praise from your peers?

JT: It’s lovely to know that other writers have enjoyed reading my stories and it’s lovely to feel supported by the writing community. The responses from Bernie, Mia and Éilís are heart-warming and encouraging - and their words have definitely helped me to feel a sense of ‘belonging’. Being part of a community and contributing to a community … those are things which are really important to me.

JM: Tell us about the oral tradition of storytelling.

JT: Oh, I could talk for days about this, so I’ll try to be as concise as I can!

Humans have been telling stories to each other for much longer than they’ve been writing them down. What I like about the oral tradition is that it’s not a one-way process: the storyteller and the audience work together to create a kind of living art – and no two tellings of a story are ever the same.

Improvisation, repetition, rhythm, rhyme, the Rule of 3 (3 bears, 3 bowls of porridge, 3 chairs, 3 beds), the Rule of 7 (Snow White), fairy tales, myths, folk tales and legends– all these things are associated with the oral tradition. (You’ll notice that I pull on the oral tradition in my writing a lot.)

I think storytelling like this is not only important for keeping stories alive (stories that are often full of clever wisdom and enduring, deep truths), it’s also crucial for maintaining meaningful and respectful human connection. I’ll be bold now and say that oral storytelling reaches out in a way that many books can’t.

JM:What’s next for you? A novel, more stories?

JT: I’ll need to talk to the faeries about that, I think… there’s definitely an idea or two on the move, though.

JM: Where can people go to find out more about you and your book?

JT: My website is www.janetalbotwriter.com  


The Faerie Thorn and other stories by Jane Talbot is published by Blackstaff Press and is available to buy now.