Undertaker Books News

An Interview with Elizabeth Broadbent

“I had a voice knocking at my door,” an Interview with Elizabeth Broadbent, Author of Ink Vine

Q: What was the inspiration for Ink Vine? What were the central pieces that you knew you wanted to include? Why were those so important?

A: I love the idea of a stranger coming into someone’s life and changing everything, and that was the kernel of Ink Vine. I knew I wanted that stranger to personify some natural force—an inhuman stranger—and I wanted that stranger to change someone’s life in very profound ways. It goes all the way back to reading Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell so many years ago and falling head over heels for the man with the thistledown hair, I think. That’s Zara. 

But Ink Vine’s a lot more than that. I wanted to talk about the difficulties of growing up different in a small town, growing up poor—I wasn’t as disadvantaged as Zara, but I had a lot less than the other kids I knew, some of whom were fabulously wealthy. Mostly, though, I had a voice knocking at my door, and I had to let it out. 

Q: Emerald’s voice is so addicting. She feels so real and unique. How did you establish such a captivating narrative voice? 

A: I really wish I had a good answer to this that didn’t sound like writer voodoo. But Emerald just happened. I tend to find voices very easily. I literally wrote the first paragraph and said, “Well, that’s her, that’s who she is and what she sounds like,” and I had her. 

But I have no idea where she came from. I have no idea where any of my characters come from. They just appear. Their details change, but oddly, their rhythms and cadences, word choices and quirks rarely do. 

Q: Your prose is lush and vibrant, especially when it comes to description of setting. What advice do you have for other writers who want to immerse their readers just as deeply?

A: Go there. Look around. Lay down on the grass and breathe. You can’t write about places you don’t know. I feel hamstrung by setting sometimes; I can’t conceive of writing about a place I haven’t been (i.e., I could do a sci-fi or fantasy setting far more easily than, say, Venice, where I’ve never been). If you don’t know what it smells like, why are you setting a story there? Faulkner talks about the mockingbirds and magnolias in Mississippi’s June. The magnolias, sure. But you wouldn’t know the mockingbirds unless you went there, and that’s why his books ring true—the smell of twice-bloomed wisteria, the clinging dust, etc. You have to immerse yourself in it. 

I recently went back to South Carolina and almost cried when I walked into the cypress swamp. I got the silence right. It smacks you in the face—you can’t imagine a silence like that. It’s those details. You need them. I spent a whole weekend thinking, “and that’s how the kudzu vines look in the winter, that’s how the light slants in February, that’s the sharp bitter edge of winter, right there.” You have to do that. If you’re not thinking of craft, you’re wasting time. 

Q: Ink Vine is many things, and one of them is a stark, reality-checking critique of capitalism, and what it does to people stuck in cycles of generational poverty. But it’s not preachy. Was that planned, or a part of Emmy’s character? And how do you add something so socially important with that light, natural touch?

A: It’s hard for me to write something that doesn’t have at least some critique of capitalism, honestly. How are you going to write about a person in economic deprivation without critiquing it? I’m mad, I guess, and I write about what makes me feel something—mad, in this case, or sad, or curious. 

I think it’s important that you don’t set out to write a “message book.” I mean, screw message. Write a story. If there’s a message, it’ll show up. I didn’t intend to write a scathing critique of capitalism and small-town provincialism, but here we are? I just followed where Emmy’s voice took me. 

Q: What else are you working on? What can readers expect from you in the future?

A: Currently finishing a Southern Gothic novel you can read about here. I have two novels on sub right now, a sci-fi and another Southern Gothic novel (it’s called The Swamp-Child, and if you tune in to readings, I read from it pretty regularly), and I’m about to start another as soon as I’m done with this one. 

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