I am so excited to be sharing my interview with Lauren Brandenburg. I'd really enjoyed her first novel for adults, The Death of Mungo Blackwell, (so much so that if you look up the endorsements in that book, you'll find one from me!) and it's just been awarded an ACFW Carol Award for contemporary fiction. Her new release The Marriage of Innis Wilkinson (coming out very soon on 23rd October) is set in the same location, with the same quirky charm and eccentric characters.
I'm not going to give away any spoilers, of course, but to give you an idea of what you can expect from this book, The Marriage of Innis Wilkinson weaves together stories from the residents of Coraloo, past and present. In the present day, Margarette Toft and Roy Blackwell are planning their wedding, despite the interference of their feuding families. Decades previously, a young seamstress called Innis Wilkinson has a run in with a troupe of actors, not all of whom are quite what they seem.
Lauren Brandenburg kindly agreed to let me ask her about her books, her writing process, and her advice to fellow writers, all from the far side of the Atlantic! So without further ado, here's our interview.
1. Where did you look for ideas when creating Coraloo? Did any real or fictional places inspire you?
I’m originally from Kentucky, so I tapped into a lot of childhood memories, family superstitions (most came from my mother’s side of the family) and traditions (which came from my father’s side of the family). And the foods, many of which are connected with the state… except for the macarons. That was a whole other level of research. But… I absolutely love all the little English villages. They are truly idyllic. So I spent a lot of time Googling images of quaint towns, pubs, and bookshops. This past December my family traveled to England to do a bit of book publicity for The Death of Mungo Blackwell. It was there I really felt like I was able to capture the essence of the Coraloo at the bottom of the hill – even the shallow river that runs through the center of town (totally inspired by Bourton-on-the-Water). I reference the river in the first book but describe it a bit more in depth in the second.
2. Did you always know you wanted to write more than one story in the world of Coraloo?
Actually, no. I kind of thought The Death of Mungo Blackwell would stand alone, but the more I wrote inside the village of Coraloo, the more questions I had about the people that lived there. Now I have stories for days – so many characters, so many traditions and backstories. There’s histories of the buildings, elections, sorrows, and love. It’s definitely one of my happy places.
3. Has anything surprised you about the way your fictional world and characters have developed over the course of two novels?
Definitely! I am not very good at plotting the details, so I’m usually very surprised at what I type. It’s funny because The Death of Mungo Blackwell primarily takes place at the top of the hill in the flea market, whereas I really developed life at the bottom of the hill in the second book. In The Marriage of Innis Wilkinson I added a new pub, a bakery, a hardware store, a salon, and a funeral parlor. And the festival! And the feud! The development of the Tofts came as a real surprise. I knew I was going to have to do it, but I really didn’t see the loftiness of the Tofts coming – this funny manner they put on even though their superstitions are a bit ridiculous. It really gives readers (and me!) another perspective on the Blackwells as well.
4. There's a big cast of characters in Coraloo, and it was fun to see so many familiar faces reappear in this novel. Do you have any tricks for keeping track of them all? (I'm picturing an organized notebook like Margarette Toft's, full of character profiles!)
I wish I could be as organized as Margarette! I actually have a stack of notecards that I keep on my desk. Each character – no matter how minor – has a card, because you never know when it will be time to tell their tale. I also have cards for the names of places, traditions, foods, and the tales that the Blackwell children act out at the market – I’m thinking those might make some fun short stories one day. I do have a notebook with genealogy’s. The ancestry of the Blackwells and Tofts can be a bit to keep up with.
5. You write about your characters with a lot of warmth. Is there one particular side-character you're particularly fond of?
I really think Bert Thompson is a lovely person. He’s recently widowed and agoraphobic, but seems to be drawn to the kindness and consistency of Roy Blackwell. I love the role he plays and really hate to say too much as I just didn’t expect his character to develop in the way it did. It was a surprise to me too! I’d love to write his story one day.
6. Which authors and books have inspired you on your writing journey?
I actually read a lot of Roald Dahl – he was an amazing storyteller! Reading children’s books, especially Dahl, seems to keep me in my voice. Strange to read children’s books when you write for grown ups, but it works. I actually read a bit of everything from classics to space opera. (That’s kind of a new one for me, but I’m fascinated by its complexity.) Dickens is my favorite of the classic authors – he has such a way with quirky characters that I couldn’t help but read him along the way. I’m a person of faith, so I keep a Bible study going almost all the time. Philippians 4:8 is sort of my verse for my books set in Coraloo, reminding me to write a lovely place for readers to dwell. 7. What fictional location would you most like to visit?
It’s a toss-up between Joanne Harris’s La Céleste Praline – the chocolaterie in Chocolat or Wonka’s Factory! I adore chocolate, so the idea of a chocolate river is quite tempting, but I think the quaint little shop in the village of Lansquenet-sous-Tannes would be absolutely lovely. But if I have to decide… I’m tapping into my inner child, grabbing my golden ticket and headed to the factory. I just think it would be a magical place, even for grown ups.
8. If you had to choose to live with one of your two feuding families - the Blackwells or the Tofts - which would you pick and why?
This question made me laugh – I guess because I’ve never really thought about it before. But I would choose the Blackwells without question. Camper vans would be a bit of tight quarters, but the Blackwells are so free spirited and completely unbound by the opinions of Coraloo, and I’m pretty sure I would have no trouble spending my days at the Coraloo Flea Market.
9. Can you tell us if you're writing anything new, or have plans for a return to Coraloo in the future?
In addition to The Death of Mungo Blackwell and The Marriage of Innis Wilkinson, I have a series for children, so I’ve been ticking away at the next one for some time. But I do have plans to return to Coraloo. I currently have two books outlined and ready write – one about Pastor Donaldson, he’s not exactly what he seems. And the other about a character my readers have yet to meet. The town knows her as Widow Melviney; I did drop a tiny hint as to where she lives in The Marriage of Innis Wilkinson.
10. Finally, in 2020 a lot of people have seized the opportunity to get creative and write. What advice would you give to a budding writer working on their first novel this year?
Take your time. There is no need to rush. Just get the words on paper. Your first draft or even your second won’t be your best work. But if you don’t get the words on paper, you won’t have anything to work with. Then you can go back and mold it, shape it, rewrite it, enjoying the editing process as you find your voice as an author. And read. Read everything in your genre and outside your genre. Study the classics (old and new) and figure out what makes them stand out from the rest. Remember that there is nothing new under the sun, so don’t be afraid you’ll accidentally borrow another author’s idea. And if you do, just figure out how to uniquely make it your own.
Huge thanks to Lauren for taking part in this interview. It's been fun getting to know some of the background thought and detail that goes into creating an imaginary town from scratch!
The Marriage of Innis Wilkinson comes out on 23rd October and is published by Lion Hudson. You can get all the latest updates from Lauren Brandenburg via her website, or on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.