Zoe Gilbert – Author and Resident
Zoe Gilbert is an author. She moved to Folkestone in 2018, not long after her first book, Folk, was published. She also teaches creative writing at London Lit Lab, Arvon Foundation, the British Library and Writers & Artists. Her inspirations are the fantastical, the folkloric, the wild and the strange. She spoke to Folkelife about what attracted her to our town:
“I grew up inland, and like most people, I thought of the English coast as the place of holidays: a salty, windswept spring-clean of the soul if you were lucky, soggy sandwiches and a leaky tent if you were not. I never dreamed I would live near the sea.
“So, when I first visited, Folkestone seemed almost too good to be true! I even asked my friends who lived here: tell me everything that is rubbish about living in Folkestone. They tried, they really did, but there were too many things to love, and they told me about those instead.
“When I finally got here, it was the dwindling end of 2018’s long heatwave. I had been warned: my brain would tell me I was on holiday, but my inbox would tell me I had work to do. This clash still delights me. Leaving my desk to arrive at the coastal park 15 minutes later feels like time-travelling, or teleporting. I can’t quite believe I can go from screen-fatigue to gulping sea winds and back again in a day.”
“Where I used to live, there was a small wood across the road from my block of flats. It was the only thing about my old life that I was worried about leaving. An hour tramping round and round its muddy paths could, more or less, sort me out. The trees made me feel enclosed, and hidden from the world of emails, redrafts, deadlines and the general grind. I still think about that wood – I have to, the book I’m writing is set there. But living in Folkestone is like having a superpower when it comes to shaking off that general grind. As soon as I see the sea, I can think about things that matter.
“For me, the thing that matters is often what I’m trying to create. I don’t know whether artists of all kinds have this experience, but for me, I need to inhabit the story I am writing, and I can only do that if I have managed to stave off all the stuff of everyday life. I also need to wander about and encounter things that contain mystery, and therefore, possibly, meaning. So, walking out through the Warren, to stare at low-tide rock pools, barnacled uprights and the green-slimed giant steps along the beach, fills my head with possibilities. At Mermaid beach and Sandgate, all my to-do lists are washed away by the pebbles grazing back and forth. It is then that whatever I am supposed to be writing pings into my head and starts to come to life.”
“Not surprisingly, Folkestone and its particular stretch of channel coast has also been influencing my writing more directly. Everywhere I look, there are old tales of smuggling. There is something awesome (in both the old and new senses of the word!) about the wide-open view from here, the way France only shows its cliffs on certain days, and sometimes we could be looking out at anything at all. But that view is also terrifying when we imagine what it is like to cross that open water at night, with no guarantee of rescue if things get rough. I suspect that if I do write a book inspired by smuggling in Kent, I will have to start by talking to the local coastguards. I find their presence, waving from the window of their dugout by the Martello tower, such a reassuring thing.
“So, my selfish view of Folkestone, as a writer, is of a place that frees up my mind, but also gives it plenty to ponder. What I haven’t included so far is all the people I’ve met here, who love their town and create such an infectious atmosphere that I am glad every day that I have managed to join them. My greatest hope has been to contribute something creative to Folkestone, and I’ll be running a creative writing workshop here for the first time this June. It’s been exciting coming up with a course specifically inspired by the area and the sea beyond it, and finding out about Folkestone lore. If you’d like to try writing inspired by folk tales of the sea, I’d love to see you there!”