Ilka Tampke is one of Australia's finest writers of historical fiction. Her first novel, Skin, was nominated for the Voss Literary Prize and the Aurealis Awards in 2016, and went on to be published in eight countries. The follow up, Songwoman, received the Most Underrated Book Award in 2019, and there is a third novel on the way. Ilka teaches fiction at RMIT University.
ASTRID: Ilka Tampke's first novel, the historical fiction fantasy Skin, was nominated for the Voss Literary prize and the Aurealis Award, and was then published internationally. Her second novel, Songwoman, continues the story. Ilka teaches writing at RMIT University, and full disclosure, lka is a colleague of mine.
Welcome to The Garret, Ilka.
ILKA: Thank you Astrid.
ASTRID: Skin crosses genres. It is both historical fiction and a fantasy novel. So let's start with the historical fiction element. How do you define that genre?
ILKA: There's a genre of historical fiction. Look I haven't been asked to define it before.
ASTRID: Oh good, I started with a new question!
ILKA: It's fiction that takes place in the past. I've heard someone define it as fiction that happens before your lifetime. So, not in your... not in the memory of your lifetime. But because this is set in AD 43, I think it's well and truly... I mean, this ancient world fiction actually sort of pushes out the other side of historical fiction and into another kind of genre, which you've quite rightly identified as fantasy, which I never intended to write. And I think that comes out of the fact that we know less and less and less and less the further back in time we go. So we have to we have to make up more and more and more.
ASTRID: Your task as a writer is to stay within the bounds of history but also to flesh it out, to give people stories and feelings and motivations. It is really quite intriguing. For those listening who haven't read Skin and Songwoman, give us the 30 second intro.
ILKA: Okay, well they're both set in Iron Age Britain. Skin is set on the very cusp of Roman invasion, so it's just before the first ships arrive on the east coast of Ancient Britain. And its protagonist is a young woman called Alia. And the interesting thing about Alia is that she does not have 'skin', and 'skin' in the world of my novel is a sort of totemic identity. And you know, you need 'skin' to learn and to marry and to participate in ritual. And it's handed down from mother to child, and because she doesn't know who her mother is she doesn't have it, so she's culturally limited. And that's the overview.
ASTRID: And that's obviously why it's historical fiction. You are setting it in a real time and place, albeit, you know approximately 2,000 years ago. The fantasy element - you know, as much as I love the genre of fantasy and I read it a great deal and have judged the Aurealis Awards before - it's not swords and dragons. This is you know exploring Druidic lore, the Mother Goddess, animistic and pagan religions of the time, and giving life and belief to those, which must be really fun to write.
ILKA: That's exactly what it is, what you described is exactly what what it is. So, I'm actually... I'm not a huge reader of fantasy, and so there was this really interesting kind of juxtaposition that happened when I wrote the book and I realised that of course, it would be taken as fantasy or received as fantasy, and perhaps it would be something of interest to fantasy readers. But yes, for me it was really about imagining my way into a culture who saw some of these animistic ideas about the natural world as real and true, and also had a very genuine belief in an other world, you know, that wasn't a fantastical notion or in any way deranged or ridiculous. It was absolutely the bedrock of their belief that there was a sort of deeper layer of reality to which you passed in death. And also some of the literature, you know, is as I understand some of the literature to represent that you move back and forth through different states of consciousness as well. So hence, the fantasy.
ASTRID: So you know, you just said that you don't read widely in the genre of fantasy. Do you read a lot of historical fiction?
ILKA: I do read a lot of historical fiction, and I do read a little bit of fantasy. There was an author who I read when I was writing Skin, it's Margot Lanagan, and her work is sort of that intersection between the physical and the sensual and the natural and mythology and the bizarre and fantasy. And so she was... and I love her work, so that was something that made me realise there's something in this genre that I can really connect to.
ASTRID: Now, you know, we both mentioned the word genre a few times, and we both teach it RMIT, and I'm aware that in the student body but also in the wider community sometimes people have opinions about genre or particular genres. And I would just like to state for the record that both of your works, Skin and Songwoman, are also literary fiction. So whilst they do fit into genre, they're literary fiction. Have you found pushback or misunderstanding in that area before?
ILKA: Yes, I think I have. I think it's really... I think... Look, I've published two books so my experience of publishing is these two books.
ASTRID: Ilka, two books is more than a lot of people. [Laughter]
ILKA: I think it's harder when your work bridges, you know bridges over genres. I think it's harder for the reading public to understand, 'this work is for me'. I think that there are so many books on offer, it's such a crowded space. When you walk into a book shop you're so overwhelmed with colour and beauty and all those gorgeous covers competing for your attention and the blurbs that sounds so exciting. Readers really want that genre shorthand. I think it's really hard to tell a reader, you know, that a book with gold swirls on the cover
ASTRID: It's a gorgeous cover. [Laughter]
ILKA: Or particularly, as in the case of the second one, a woman in a long flowing red cloak that that is also a literary work, and a metaphorical work and hopefully a poetic work.
ASTRID: So, both books heavily depend on the story of Alia. She's young, a teenager, and then a very early adult I guess by the end of the second one to use modern terminology. I don't feel we can discuss either one of these books without getting to know her a little bit better. So, you've already mentioned she had no 'skin', she had no family and therefore was an outcast, for want of a shorthand, but these are character driven works, and neither story could be told without her. Did she come first?
ILKA: I think to be truthful the world came first, the sense of fascination with this ancient world. So, I mean... the seeds of Skin were sown when I was much younger and I went to England. I lived in England as a young just out of uni woman, and I was working in bars and living in squalid share houses and all...
ASTRID: Rites of passage.
ILKA: Yeah. And I went on a weekend away with a girlfriend to the Somerset area of the UK, the south west. And this is a long, long, long winding story that will lead back to your question of that character. And we went to a little town called Glastonbury, and that's a sort of alternative town, there's lots of neo pagans and modern druids there. But it also has some very significant sites in it and around it, one of which is the Glastonbury Tor. And it was the middle of winter and I climbed that Tor. And I was with my friend and we were on our own. So, I was quite young, I was only 21 or 22, and I really had a very strong sensation of connection to place there. It led me to really read a lot about the ancient history of Britain, and that mythology and that Celtic ancient culture.
So, I loved that world and I mean what I reflect on now having worked in this for a number of years is I think it was just so nice to have a sense of my own cultural ancestry. I think that's what was so blissful about that moment, because - I hadn't really thought about this when I was 21 - living in Australia growing up in Australia, you just don't as a non-Indigenous person, you don't have those roots going back into time, into place, and suddenly when I was there I thought, 'Oh of course, I have those roots I just don't know what they are'. But the feeling that you might be rooted in the world in that way was just quite a beautiful feeling.
So, that that was what came first, this idea of a world and wanting to enter into the world. So Alia is really my eyes and ears in that world. She's very naive character. She didn't have everything she needed to function in that world. So, I guess she's like me in more ways than I have realised up until now. [Laughter] And you know... but she's very curious. I mean, she's defined by her curiosity and hopefully she's quite sharp. So, she gets on by the energy of her personality.
ASTRID: She does. I don't know if anyone has said this to you before, Ilka. When I was a very young teenager I was very influenced by Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Mists of Avalon, ridiculously influenced, read it repeatedly. And there are many scenes on the Glastonbury Tor, otherwise often known as Avalon in The Mists of Avalon, and I was thrilled that as an adult I could pick up your work, an Australian writer, and kind of be taken back to that world. Different story, different time historically, you know, four or five hundred years apart, but was quite a thrill.
ILKA: I'm really glad to hear you say that, because that is a touchstone book for me as well. I actually read that book on that trip.
ASTRID: Oh did you!
ILKA: Yes. My girlfriend kind of pushed it into my hands and that book had a horrible cheesy cover...
ASTRID: It had the worst cover ever. [Laughter]
ILKA: It just had a... you know, kind of daggy horse and a lady riding on the horse...
ASTRID: Carrying a sword of all things.
ILKA: It was... but, that book, that was a that's a beautiful book. And it's amazing how widely that book has reached, how many women and men I'm sure, have been really touched by that story, because it was actually a story about... a very spiritual story, a story and a very subversive story. And the cat, and the cat, I mean, I won't keep raving...
ASTRID: But yes, subversive because she reclaimed Camelot, she reclaimed the Arthurian legend, told it from the female point of view. The females were getting the sex, the females were making the decisions. You know, Arthur and Lancelot got left out of most of it.
ILKA: Oh yes.
ASTRID: You know, as a 13 year old, God was good.
ILKA: Yeah. And because it actually was the first time I'd read a text that turned, you know, Christianity on its head for me, and made me think about Christianity in a whole new way. You know, a much more critical way. And it was exciting, and it offered a way of thinking about spirituality that I could be interested in or connect to. So yes, I love that there was that evocation in your mind.
ASTRID: So, Mists of Avalon has, since we read it when we were much younger, has been discredited and has become controversial in a whole bunch of different ways.
ASTRID: Which is not a discussion for here, but I do want to point that out. I don't know, I mean... I don't have a question to phrase here, but does that make you uncomfortable?
ILKA: Yeah, it does. Look... I don't know whether you want me to.
ASTRID: I don't know, I don't think... I just think we should ask.
ILKA: Look, I won't I won't go into it either, but there has been you know there was some information about the the author that was horrifying and upsetting, and when I heard about it it actually threw my whole relationship to that text into chaos really.
ASTRID: Me too.
ILKA: And I felt that I couldn't... Not only could I not read it anymore, but I couldn't love it any more. And I haven't really worked out how I feel about that, particularly because the transgressions that Marion Zimmer Bradley was accused of go to the core really of the sacredness of motherhood. And so all of that was very hard to process, and I haven't read the book since then. But my heart can't help but keep loving the book. So, I guess that that's the question about do we judge the artist or their art? And, you know, I really I don't have an answer for that.
ASTRID: I don't have an answer too. And of course, some of those transgressions of Zimmer Bradley, you know, Mists of Avalon becomes painful to remember because she writes about them in various scenes, the Beltane rituals et cetera.
So, separate to Mists of Avalon and separate to Marion Zimmer Bradley, in your works, because you are looking at pagan religion and Mother Law you know, you also go into the Beltane ritual, and they are beautiful scenes. And one area of Alia's growth as a representative of her community is when she's asked to participate in human sacrifice. And as a reader it was, you know, it's beautifully written, but I want to ask you how you used the craft of writing to keep the reader with you when your protagonist is kind of scary.
ILKA: So, you're referring to the scene in the second book there, yes. I think... I think it's about staying very close to the point of view. But more deeply than the craft of it, I think it's about the fact that I saw there was something of interest, some ambivalence in that sacrificial ritual. So, that the ancient tribes of Britain and their Druidic priests performed ritual sacrifice is quite well established by archaeology. It wasn't hugely commonplace, but it did occur, more with animals than with people. And I've read a lot about that, I read a lot of analysis of the role of human sacrifice in this period and in other contexts as well. And it actually... you know, it's a complex thing. But it actually seemed to me, whereas initially it seems to us culturally to be abhorrent, which of course it is, you know, and absolutely unacceptable and so contemptuous of life. Actually for them I think it was very much about honouring the absolute sacredness of life, it being so precious that you would offer the ultimate sacrifice to it. And it was done very very reverently, very carefully, with incredible mindful detail. You know, I don't advocate a return to it, but I do have a better understanding of its role than perhaps I did before I started researching.
ASTRID: I enjoyed it. Again, I want to reiterate as a reader, but also looking at how you structured it and how you took your character there and your reader there. It was an exceptional example of why fiction is so powerful and important, because we can explore things that don't happen or shouldn't happen in our world but have happened in our past. That is a power of fiction.
ILKA: Yes. And I also think... I mean one thing I always encourage my students to do, is if you think the reader is going to be asking a question, have your protagonist, have the character ask the question. So, I have her absolutely terrified of performing this act, totally doubtful about it. Really, you know, every concern that one may voice about that, she's voicing in her head. So, I hope that also contributes to that sort of having a sense of flow in the narrative. And also of course she gives him some pain relief, and I felt that I needed to do that too.
ASTRID: She is compassionate. So, moving from Alia who is not an historical figure but she represents... She is your vehicle, as you said before, your eyes into the world and the time. You do have historical figures in there. And I'm mainly thinking of Caradog.
ASTRID: Apologies for my terrible Welsh accent.
ILKA: Caradog, Caradog is what I say. right
ASTRID: Great. Now, he is a historical figure. There are records of him. He had interactions with a bunch of Roman generals and the Emperor Claudius himself. We know what happened to him. He was not a huge historical figure, so many readers wouldn't know what his end will be at the end of the novel, but some will. So again, going back to your craft, how do you work within someone's history? You know you know where he has to go.
ASTRID: How do you make it interesting
ILKA: [Laughter] Well, with him there's so much you don't know. So, we have scant but intriguing detail. So, briefly, he was a British prince in the eastern tribes, and when the Romans came in AD 43 he was part of the first force to meet them and fight them, where his brother, whose name I will not attempt, Togodumnus, I think is my best recollection of it, was killed. And at that point I think 11 chiefs capitulated, 11 chiefs signed treaties and just said, okay we're not going to put up a fight you know to this incredible military force that has come. But he didn't. He withdrew to the forest, to the wild parts of the middle of the country, where he set about establishing a resistance army and finding sympathisers all through the country, which really, I mean we think about Britain, the UK, as one whole, but of course it was a nation of, a group of very separate tribes. He moved through, ultimately he established himself in the mountains of South Wales, and led a guerrilla campaign, a very effective guerrilla campaign. So, really that's that's all we know. And the Roman historians talk about the final battle, the climactic battle, and then what happens to him afterwards. But the intriguing question for a novelist there is what kind of man is so determined that he will go against the tide? What all the other political leaders are doing, all the other chieftains around him, that he will go, 'No, I'm going to try and fight this', and this is against all odds, because...
ASTRID: The Roman Empire, not many people one.
ILKA: Yeah, exactly. And I thought, well what what motivated him? Was it, you know, bloody minded arrogance? Was it such a deep sense of connection to his own country that he couldn't compromise on that? That's what became intriguing to me.
ASTRID: So, tell me about your process? There is the research process, but also your drafting and editing process, how you create.
ILKA: So for me those things are pretty fluid and intertwined. So, I did certainly with the first book much more feeling my way in, with the second book much more structure. So, I'll talk more about the second book I think, because it was written in more of a contained period of time. I researched for a little while, maybe three months full time, that kind of amount of time. And then I started drafting because really... but I absolutely don't stop researching, because it's very fluid. I'm writing and all kinds of questions come out of the writing. And so I read and then the reading gives me ideas for all kinds of scenes. So I'm definitely not a person, a writer, who stops researching and then writes.
I do have a slightly interesting process I write the first draft longhand and I don't write it... it's not coherent. Like I might write the same idea sentence idea three or four times, just drafting different shapes of the sentence, you know. So, I'll finish a first draft longhand, but it will be virtually unreadable. You know, it's not really a first draft. I couldn't show it to my publisher. Then I put that onto the computer and start to give it a readable shape. And that takes ever so much longer. And that's when someone can have a look at it. And then I start the editing process.
ASTRID: I would imagine you're also editing as you go from your physical writing to the computer.
ASTRID: That is a process of editing and shaping there as well.
ASTRID: Or do you literally transcribe it?
ILKA: Actually I transcribe the first, I dump the first handwritten draft into the computer. Yeah, I do that. I just get that in. And then, so when I'm actually writing that first sort of proper draft, that actually takes me so long. Astrid I'm doing that at the moment for my third book, and I can't... like the other day because it has been school holidays, I've had three hours a day is what I've allowed myself to write in school holidays, because I've got kids. The other day I wrote 200 words in three hours. That is so few... Anyway... I've just disclosed my...
ASTRID: We are going to come back to your third book, but keep telling us about your process so we get that.
ILKA: Yes. So, I think... because I'm very very interested in the poetry in the work - I love poetry, I love poetic novels and I love verse novels. The third book I'm writing is actually much more versey in its structure. So I take a long time with the sentences.
ASTRID: You worked with Text Publishing for your two published books, Skin and Songwoman. What did you learn for the second book? Now, that's a broad question, whether it was how you approached the writing or how you approached the editing or the marketing... your second book is so different than the first in terms of the skills that you had.
ILKA: Yes. The main thing is I was very interested in the history. I wanted to go much more deeply into real history. I wanted to be more in that historical novel space.
Skin kind of carried me away, I just sort of hung on to the tail of it and went where it went. And in the end, honestly I went, 'Oh god what have I done?' And it was a bit of a revelation to me. And there's some scenes in there even now some of the more abstract sort of hallucinatory scenes where I really don't know... they certainly didn't come from any place of intent. I was a little bit more intentional here, because I had a more sort of driving historic interest. So, there was more control over the process.
But having said that, what I'm finding with the third one and what I found with the second one prior to that is you set the bar higher, and it's just as difficult and you flounder just as much because of that. So, you don't feel any sense of accomplishment, you know, of being more accomplished, because you're in a deeper pool or a longer pool and you don't know if you can make that distance.
ASTRID: So, is this third novel that you're referring to is this in the same world?
ILKA: It is in the same world, but it's substantially different. Look, this is the novel that will shake the British Iron Age out of my system...
ASTRID: Which he'd been trying to do for the previous two.
ILKA: ...Once and for all. Do you want me to speak a little bit about it too?
ASTRID: Yes, if you'd like to.
ILKS: So, it's not... It no longer takes Alia as its protagonist. Instead it takes as its protagonist the historical figure of Boudica, known also as Boadicea. So, she is a real life queen who mounts a rebellion against the Roman invaders, I think about 20 years after their arrival. So she is living in as colonised world and her tribe, the Iceni, was one of the first to sign a treaty. So, they have been, you know, she's been grappling with living in colonised Britain for most of her adult life. And history tells us that she experiences a violation against both herself and her two daughters. And in response to that, and in response to other political tensions and economic tensions, rises up and comes closer than any other figure to re-establishing independence and sovereignty in her territory. Most people will know how that goes, but nevertheless I won't spoil it now.
ASTRID: You just gave me chills. I love the idea that you are bringing the story over to Boudica, Boadicea, to literature once again. I think every time we we tell these stories we retell them... But as a reader I'm looking to come back to these stories over and over again because they teach us something about the now, even though, you know, we're drawing from history and it happened before. But the current state of the world is not all rainbows and butterflies, and remembering that people have always tried to change it, often for the better, often against ridiculous odds, I find very heartening. Particularly stories of women.
ILKA: Yeah, I think that I mean that's a lovely way of thinking about it and I haven't quite thought about it in exactly that way before. But what I'm really thinking a lot about as I write about this character - and she's a mother of teenage daughters and I'm a mother of a teenage son and daughter - and she's bringing her children into a world in chaos and a world disrupted and a world, you know, she sees as a doomed world, or a world where innocence has been lost. And I have a very similar feeling, to be honest, bringing my children into a world in climate emergency and an incredible ambivalence around that. So, yeah, I'm drawing a lot on that as I as I write her story.
ASTRID: Do you think there might be more of you in the third book, given that that's where you're coming from?
ILKA: I really do think that, yeah, because what's actually... I mean with a figure like Boudica... With Caradog, I wanted to I wanted to try and think about who he might have been, who he might have been. Of course, we don't have any idea who he might have been, but I had a stab at it. With with a figure like Boudica, she's she's a mythic figure, you know, a warrior queen. I think all the iterations of her story are really about what she symbolises in the now. And what I'm really tapping into in her story is what it is to see your children harmed, and what that can give rise to, and t that can release in a woman's psyche. So, those very domestic scenes are the scenes that are really coming alive for me in this draft.
ASTRID: This is obviously going to be... I guess it's a loose trilogy, even though...
ILKA: It's a loose trilogy.
ASTRID: Are you going back to Text?
ILKA: I mean I have not shown any of this to my editor at Text yet. I'm really waiting to feel that I have it in hand before I do that. So, I love working with Text, I really do. So, if they want to journey with me to the end of the trilogy that would be wonderful.
ASTRID: Now, if I understand correctly Ilka you're also writing a PhD.
ILKA: Yes, I hope. [Laughter]
ASTRID: Your whole physical demeanour has now changed. You look way less happy with me. Can I ask about your PhD?
ILKA: You can ask. I was... I thought on the on the drive down I thought oh she'll probably ask me about my PhD. Look, I'm at that point in the PhD where it's about to get real. But it's been a bit exploratory up until now, which is why it is difficult to talk about. But, it is...
So, the third book forms that the bulk of PhD, but it is my research is going to be, or it has been and is around, around connection to place, connection to ancestral place, and how that is constituted by story and narrative. And in addition to that, I'm very interested in the morality of the natural world. The moral authority of the landscape within Indigenous Australia that you know, the natural world is the source of law. And I'm also just... what's popping into my mind is Mary Oliver., the beautiful poet and essayist who tragically died last year or the year before, who said you know, who had a very very difficult childhood and who found comfort and salvation in the natural world. And she said nature can be cruel, nature can be difficult, but nothing is ever misused in nature, there is never misuse. And that was kind of the spark, I think. I really wanted to think about how the natural world exerts a moral force on people and culture.
ASTRID: I am once again looking forward to reading your third book. I want to interrogate the idea of doing a PhD. I speak to a lot of writers. Many have done or are doing creative writing PhD and producing a major work from that that is unpublished. Many also have not studied at all or have not studied writing.
Where do you place - not your personal choice to do a PhD - but where do you place... what does a PhD give to a writer? I mean, is it the structure to sit down and write the damn thing?
ILKA: No, I don't think it's that because I think novelists know how to write a book. You know, they know how to to get themselves to do that. It's not easy but they know how to do it. I mean, maybe for some writers the PhD provides that structure, but that wasn't it for me. Look, I think it's just the hunger of the mind. I really... It's just the hunger of the mind to bite into something a bit more deeply. For me it was the challenge of taking these ideas which I sort of flow in and out of and drift around and sort of... It's very kind of loose and nebulous, and actually go, 'What have other people said about this and what do I..?' Actually pushing myself pushing, myself to go, you know, to say, What new thinking can I bring to this topic?' Yeah. So, it's just about wanting to fuel the mind, I think. Yeah.
ASTRID: It's a beautiful goal. Do you know when you'll finish it?
ILKA: Well, not for a bit.
ASTRID: Sorry, that was probably a hard question.
ILKA: Yeah. I've only just started, I've only just started. So, I'm just at the beginning of it, and I'm doing a part time so hopefully not too long.
ILKA: Okay. Thank you so much for your time today.
ILKA: Astrid, I have really loved our chat.