Author Q&A: Zoe Gilbert

Folk (Bloomsbury, £8.99) 

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A series of interconnected stories form Folk, the magical debut novel from Zoe Gilbert. Based in fictional Neverness, inspired heavily by the Isle of Man, the cast of characters in these captivating stories includes May, the young fiddler who seeks her musical spirit, Madden Lightfoot, who flies with red kites, and Verlyn Webbe, born with a wing for an arm.

The second chapter of Folk, Fishskin, Hareskin, began life as a short story. Did it demand to be fleshed out into a novel?
The first story I wrote for Folk was actually chapter three, The Neverness Ox-men, and it was this that led me to expand the world of Neverness and its denizens. I began to wonder what became of characters like Ervet, the reluctant mother in Fishskin, Hareskin, and so my timeline expanded. I wrote a story from her daughter’s point of view that lets the reader look in on Ervet a few years later. It was the broader cast of characters that soon felt like they could fill a whole book. They could probably fill another one – I might go back and see how they’re getting on in a few years’ time.

Neverness is a remote island facing the sea but with inhabitants who look perpetually inward. Can modern day Britain take lessons from this novel? 
A couple of reviewers have commented on this! I thought of my imaginative trips to Neverness as an escape from reality, and I had no deliberate political intentions as I wrote, but I suppose our subconscious follows us wherever we go. It’s true that the inhabitants of Neverness don’t think about the world beyond – they are preoccupied with their own lives. I wrote Folk in a pre-Brexit world, but if there’s a lesson in there, it might be that while custom and tradition are comforting and valuable, they can stop you seeing the bigger picture.

What’s your connection to the Isle of Man and how did it influence your writing?
I’ve been visiting the island regularly for over a decade as many of my relatives live there. Right from the start, the landscape of the island started appearing in my fiction, and this happened again as I wrote the first chapters of Folk. When I noticed what I was doing, I decided to look consciously for inspiration in the glens, headlands, rocky shorelines and dense woodlands while I was there. This led to stories, and even invented folklore, that for me sprang directly from specific Manx places – the forests of gorse gave me my opening chapter and the idea of the Gorse Mother haunting their pathways. The Isle of Man has its own folklore, of course, and I also looked to that for story ideas. My Water-Bull Bride chapter is a dark reimagining of a Manx fairy tale.

Are these tales rooted in history as well as fantasy? 
There is much real folklore in the book, gleaned from reading collections of lore and custom from around the British Isles. For example, a family in Skye really did take turns to lurk behind a waterfall in an ox hide and tell fortunes to passers-by! So, there’s history there in that sense. I also wanted Neverness to be the world inside a folk tale – and such a world is pre-industrial, with the kinds of crafts, jobs and social roles that have largely disappeared from our modern world. There’s no modern technology, and feminism has yet to reach the shores of Neverness – not that this stops the women in Folk from making their presence felt.

Tell us about your research into the influence of folk tales on contemporary short stories. What have you discovered? 
I’m fascinated by the way writers and artists continue to dig out folk tales and retell, or subvert, or borrow from them. Sara Maitland wrote that folk tales are “full of the reverberations of everyone’s dreams”, and that deep meaning, not always expressible on the surface, is part of their power, I think. Drawing on a folk tale in a new short story, even if the reader does not recognise it, can create a timbre or register that immediately enchants. As we read, we are led away from reality – perhaps just a few steps – into a realm where the fantastical becomes not only possible, but more meaningful than the everyday. It’s notable that more women than men use folk tales overtly in their writing, and I’ve yet to discover why. Whatever the reason, I am certain that fairy-tale princesses have nothing to do with it – women writers always find the dark, the dangerous and the subversive in folk tales. Favourites of mine include Claire Dean, Lucy Wood, Kirsty Logan and Sarah Shun-lien Bynum.

How do you think the digital age is affecting folk tales and oral traditions? 
If anything, I think it is making people turn to the old, the slow, the analogue more than ever. Digital overload is everywhere, and so the seeming simplicity and timeless feel of a folk tale can be more than just respite – it can lead us back to finding meaning in our world. Our ancient folk tales are not just entertaining – they leave out enough information that we can project ourselves into them, and find our own succour for the soul. When you read such a template-like tale, which doesn’t bother with fine details or psychological depth, you have to work hard as a reader; this means you engage imaginatively in a deeper way than if you are gazing glassy-eyed at a YouTube video. That said, the bonus of the digital age is that you can find so many tales and bits of folklore on the internet, and discover stories from all over the world that would have been impossible to track down previously.

Do you have plans for another book? 
I am working away on a new book, which is a fantastical dive into the history of the Great North Wood. There are only fragments of this wood left (around South London and Croydon), but over the years it has sheltered so many strange and wonderful characters, dramas and disasters. While human beings have passed through, working and living in the wood and eventually almost destroying it, the trees have been a constant. I imagine they are full of stories, so my book is an attempt to tell those tales.

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