The Inspiration behind The Brewer’s Tale: or What Was I Drinking?

Authors often get asked where their inspiration for writing a particular story came from. Some people have been very curious as to what motivated me to write a tale about a medieval brewer and all things brewing – particularly when they discover I don’t drink beer. The simple answer as to what inspired me is, curiously, a glass of whisky; one I tossed back in a wonderful bar in Hobart during a very dark period in my life.

Only days before, my beloved friend, the writer Sara Douglass, the person my husband, Stephen, and I had moved to Tasmania nine and a half months earlier to care for, had died. On top of her loss, I was also coming to terms with the changes my own cancer diagnosis had wrought upon my life, the numerous operations I’d had and the ones still facing me. Then, there was survivor guilt. I was still here; Sara was not. I was empty and felt terribly alone and sad.

In the weeks leading up to Sara’s death, I’d been unable to conjure a word or creative thought. It appeared I was losing not only my closest friend but my creative heart as well. Determined to continue after she died, I took my sister and her friend (another Karen) from the USA (both of whom had come south to console me) to the famous whisky distillery and bar, Lark, on the Hobart waterfront for a drink. A visit to Tasmania is not complete without a trip to Lark. But I had an ulterior motive as well.

This place, like so many others around Hobart, had become a special part of my husband’s and my shared life with Sara. Not long after arriving in Tasmania, Stephen and I introduced Sara to the joys of a locally made Whisky liqueur – Slainte. Made by Lyn Lark, Bill Lark’s (the then owner of Lark and man known as the “godfather of whisky”), wife, it’s like nothing I’ve ever tasted. It’s pure golden sweetness followed by a warm caramel heat that coats your throat before delivering a small kick below the heart. It’s magic. The first time Stephen and I tried it, we knew Sara would love it, and bought her some. We were right. Thereafter, Sara and I referred to Lyn as a “goddess” and swore what she made was ambrosia. Stephen would ensure there was always some for Sara and, Bill, in a spirit of generosity, not only discounted what we bought, but gave Sara a bottle for free with every order as well. She’d have a dram or three every night with all those toxic medications she took. That a simple drink could bring so much pleasure amidst so much pain….

It seems fitting somehow that the first time I returned to this place after Sara died, a place that though Sara never graced its cosy rooms nonetheless brought her so much comfort and joy, I found a story – the basis for The Brewer’s Tale. It was there, waiting for me, and I accepted the gift of its presence gratefully.

Listening to the husky-voiced barmaid, Becs, explain the origins of whisky to my sister and her friend, I asked her to pour them some Slainte. Finishing my drink and enjoying the sensations that raced through my body, I started to think about women producers of alcohol in what is a male-dominated field. I vaguely recalled knowing (but I don’t know how I knew) that what Lyn was doing shouldn’t be seen as a rarity, but a harkening back to historic practices, a reclaiming of old and familiar territory if you like. Sort of a recovery of women’s space and talents.

Then, it hit me. Right in my very core, a tale took root and before I’d left Lark it had blossomed.

Instead of being a story about a whisky brewer, I knew (and my research confirmed) it would have to be about a female ale brewer – but no ordinary one, this would be about a woman at the vanguard of beer production in the United Kingdom, someone who had the sass and flair to succeed in what was a man’s world.

So, the medieval brewer, Anneke de Winter, was born: smart, kind, beautiful, she’s overcome some terrible obstacles, but when the book starts, little does she know her real trials – trials of the heart, head, body and of being a businesswoman – are only just beginning.

Doing the research and starting the writing process brought a healing I never expected. It’s wasn’t quick and nor would I want it to be, but it was a sweet and tender ache that brought with it unexpected bouts of sadness followed by moments of sheer joy – joy in the power of words and imagined characters to transport you beyond your own life and propel you into times and places otherwise denied. This is something Sara knew as well and used after her initial diagnosis and towards the end. It might be escapism, but it’s also a blessing. I like to believe, perhaps indulgently, that Sara made sure that my muse, my mojo, returned that day and gave me a wonderful tale to tell – Sara and Lyn Lark’s marvellous drink, Slainte.

So whisky was the inspiration for my ale tale and in a weird and wonderful way, it seems appropriate. After all, it started with a drink and, as the adage goes, no great story starts with someone eating a salad.

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