Interview: Zoë Kirk-Robinson

I love an interviewee who just jumps to life off the page (or in this case, the screen.) That’s exactly what you’ll get with Zoë Kirk-Robinson. She’s a creative, smart gal with a lot to say, and I know you’re going to love this interview.

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Tell us a bit about yourself. Where are you from and how long have you been writing?

I’m a twenty-nine year old writer/artist from Durham, England and now living in Manchester, England. I moved here almost three years ago now, because Durham is such a sleepy little town and even though I spend most of my time at the keyboard, I like to know there’s something going on around me whenever I need a break.

I’ve been writing since I was around eight years old, although initially, I wrote as a necessity because I wanted to edit magazines but had no content for them. When I was twelve, I created a fanzine called ‘Block Nine’, which had a circulation of about eight at its peak. It was great fun to design the magazine but I found the writing aspect (mainly reviews of 8-bit computer games) was actually a lot of fun, too.

After ‘Block Nine’, I started working on short stories and produced two novellas the same year. I’ve never stopped since.

Like many Suite101 writers, you’ve got quite a diverse background. I love the collection of articles you have, everything from writing comics for newspapers to creating a favicon to elements of the law. Is there an area you enjoy writing more than others?

Thanks! I like to vary my output so that I don’t get bored and lose my passion for writing. Although I love to write, there have been times in the past where I’ve found myself not wanting to turn on the computer and start typing because I was just so tired of the subject; so now I vary what I write in order to not have a recurrence of that dreaded fatigue.

I suppose my main area of enjoyment right now would be the law. I’m a firm believer in the idea that if the law was taught in schools, we would have a lot less con artists doing the rounds; and fewer businesses, both big and small, trying to get away with illegal activities. Right now their victims are victims because they don’t know what their rights are. It’s time we taught people their rights, and that’s part of the driving force behind my basic guides to the law.

You’re not only a writer but an artist as well, and have drawn a variety of comics. Is there anything cooler than that? Tell us about The Life of Nob T. Mouse and All Over the House.

To be honest, there’s no better feeling than the one you get when you can stand back and take in a finished product, be it an article; a comic; or a house you’ve just built. I think the satisfaction of doing a job well is what keeps people going in whatever profession they choose, and it’s certainly true of why I do comics; because let’s face it: if you didn’t get a feeling of satisfaction at the end of it, spending eight hours drawing a picture would seem like madness!

There’s a funny story behind ‘The Life of Nob T. Mouse’. As a child, I used to collect the little sticky-feet bugs that companies and other organisations would give away as promotional items for sticking on computers, noteboards and so forth. They would come with a slogan on a piece of ribbon; which I would invariably cut off and throw away so I could play with the bug itself. I used to make up adventures for these little guys, and then when I got older I started to draw them. Nob Mouse and friends developed from there.

The comic has had a bumpy ride getting to where it is now. It started off as just something to do as a way of letting off steam while I was revising for exams, which probably accounts for the fact that the first few stories have no actual plot. After the exams, I showed the comics to friends and they loved their quirkiness, so I put them online. At the time, I had a lot of family living overseas so making a website to show my comics as I produced them was the simplest way of letting everyone see them. This would have been in December of 1996, making ‘The Life of Nob T. Mouse’ one of the earliest web comics; although at the time I had no idea what a web comic was.

‘All over the house’ is a very different kettle of fish. It was designed from the ground up to be a web comic but my partner and co-writer, Jennifer Kirk, and I decided to go an entirely different route to the one I’d taken for ‘The Life of Nob T. Mouse’. ‘All over the house’ is modeled after the traditional newspaper style of comic writing but its artwork is more heavily influenced by ‘Penny Arcade’ than anything in newspapers.

We started work on ‘All over the house’ about eight months before it went online; designing characters & locations and putting together enough jokes to fill a notebook all on their own. Although the characters came together very quickly, we wanted them to be distinct and recognisable in their own rights. To this end, we took the basic ‘odd couple’ premise and twisted it, creating a level-headed journalist who hates the world and a lawyer who lives in cloud cuckoo land and practices demonology as a hobby because “someone’s got to do it”.

The strip has been running twice-weekly for eleven months now and it already gets four times as many readers each week than ‘The Life of Nob T. Mouse’, which is about twelve years older than it. It just goes to show that forward planning helps a lot.

Share some of your writing goals. What’s next for you?

My mid-term goal is to reach a point where I can live off my writing and comics alone. Right now, the bulk of the rent is being paid by my partner and although feeling like I’m being carried is a great motivating factor that is really helping me to push on with article writing well into the night, it’s not the best feeling in the world. I want to be able to support us both so we can share a sense of achievement with the comics and take a bit of the pressure off her.

To this end, I have several plans for the next few months. First of all, I’m going to be working flat out over the next few weeks on getting at least two new articles written every day, then spending the rest of the day working on our comics.

Right now the comics are sharing a single storyline: as a result of a freak accident with a spellbook, Emily and Tesrin from ‘All over the house’ have ended up in the world of ‘The Life of Nob T. Mouse’, so there will be hijinks aplenty as they try to get home. It’s a fun storyline but trying to do four full-page comics a week is draining! I’ll be glad to getting back to doing the three-panel newspaper style once the story is done.

What’s the most interesting book you’ve ever read?

It would have to be a toss-up between Stephen Fry’s Making History and Greg Egan’s Diaspora. They are wildly different books at different ends of the “hardness scale” of science-fiction. Fry’s novel, an alternate history story about what might have happened if someone stopped Hitler being born, is incredibly witty and moving. I read it in about two days because he writes so fluidly and I just could not stop.

Egan, on the other hand, is always a challenging author – not because he writes badly (he doesn’t, he’s very fluid and each of his books is a huge improvement over the style of the last) but because he pushes the envelope every time he puts finger to keyboard. Diaspora is no exception to this. Egan creates a world where humanity has split into three distinct types: biological humans, who have genetically engineered themselves so there are several different species of human; Gleisner Robots, which are digital human minds in robotic bodies; and Citizens, which are digital human minds living in vast, self-sufficient virtual realities. He starts the novel describing how a Citizen is created and their consciousness forms, then takes us on a billion-year journey to save all the different versions of mankind from extinction. The book is amazing, in the truest sense of the word.

There are two styles of sci-fi writing: hard and soft. Egan wanders up to the ‘hard’ end of the spectrum and then pushes on past it, even inventing new theories of physics if he has to. If you don’t believe me, look up ‘Greg Egan’s Dust Theory’ on Wikipedia and be amazed.

Favorite authors?

You can’t go far wrong with Greg Egan and Stephen Fry but they’re not the only authors whose work I’ll buy just because their name is on the cover. I’m very partial to the wit of Terry Pratchett, although I wish he’d not release his new novels in late September because my family always want to buy them as a Christmas present for me; so I end up having to wait three months to read them. If he’d publish in early September I’d be a lot happier, since then I’d probably get the book for my birthday and only have to wait a week or two!

I’m also a big fan of the works of H.P. Lovecraft, whose work inspired a lot of my earlier horror writing. He’s a major influence on the ideas behind the novel I’m currently writing for this year’s NaNoWriMo, too. I can’t agree with his politics or his abhorrently racist views, but his stories are like taking a safari through a thesaurus from hell. They’re simply amazing.

Book you’re currently reading?

I’m a firm believer in the idea that a good writer is a prolific reader, so I’ve always got at least one book on the go at any time. Right now it’s The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand (whose name I recently Googled because I had no idea how to pronounce it. Turns out it sounds a little like the German word ‘Ein’ and not ‘Ann’, as I had thought.) and Teach Yourself Linguistics, because I adore languages. To me, art and literature are two sides of the same coin: a well-crafted poem or piece of prose can stir the same feelings as an oil painting by one of the great old masters.

My Aunt raved about ‘The Fountainhead‘ and so many people regard it as a classic of American literature, but I’m having a little trouble with it. The characters are all self-serving or self-aggrandising, which would only be true to life if America was full of psychopathic sociophobes. I’ll finish it because I want to see where the story is going, but I have I say I prefer books where there’s at least someone in them that I can relate to.

Any type of writing ritual you have?

Routines, like repetition, drive me up the wall so I try to avoid them whenever possible. Aside from needing a mug of tea when I first wake up and then spending at least an hour in a hot bath with a good book, I have no real ritual. The hot bath is a necessity however, since I’m riddled with arthritis and drawing or typing would be next to impossible if I didn’t warm up the old joints before starting.

Having said that, a typical day usually involves me settling into a comfy chair in my lounge and using my little Macbook to browse the Internet for interesting news stories that inspire me to write an article or two. It can take anything from half an hour to two hours before I’m ready to write, depending on whether I have to look up legal cases and theory before I start. However, once I start I tend to work until the article is done, because I know that if I don’t I’ll lose focus and the article will never get finished.

Where can we learn more about you?

I get around a lot on the Internet so I had to develop a ‘hub’ of sorts to keep track of what I do. For the last few years this has been hosted at www.zoerobinson.com. If you go there, you’ll find links to everything I’m involved in right now, including my blog; the blog I post all my stories on; both ofmy comics and even my YouTube channel. Going through all that should give you more information than you’d ever have thought you’d need (or want!).

Anything else you’d like to add?

In the web comic community, there’s an idea that the web comic scene has become too crowded, so no newcomers will ever have the chance to get noticed and make their mark. It’s a topic I’ve seen come up time and time again since the ‘Big Three’ achieved dominance, but it’s as untrue now as it was the first time someone who was tired of their hard work going unacknowledged started spouting it.

The Internet is a great leveler and anyone who has ambition and the drive to work hard to see that ambition achieved can make it right now just as well as they could ten or fifteen years ago. If you’re good at what you do, and you’re prepared to put in the time to learn how to market yourself so you can reach the people who will become your fans, readers or whatever, you will make it. It just takes time, effort and a lot of patience.

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