7 Questions With Author Catherine McCarthy
Catherine McCarthy grew up in the valleys of South Wales where she went on to teach for almost three decades. She was inspired to write from a young age, having fallen in love with story-telling after being ‘shown the light’ by her mother who had the tradition of oral story-telling down to a fine art!
She is the author of Hope Cottage, a dark and mysterious family saga of triumph over adversity, reconciliation and, well…hope! Penned as a cathartic means of coming to terms with the loss of her own mother it is her second novel, the first being The Gatekeeper’s Apprentice, a fantasy adventure for older children.
Her most recent publication is a collection of short stories for adults entitled Door and Other Twisted Tales which explores the darker side of magical realism. An absolute joy to write, the collection visits a variety of locations and incidents throughout history and imagines them affected by unexplained forces or creatures of myth.
Although all three books cross different genres there are subtle links between them all, not least of which is the potential power of the human mind as a force of positivity as well as self-destruction.
Her current work in progress is a magical realism novel called The Lane in which the main character is a young girl with Down’s syndrome and big ambitions.
She now lives with her husband (who is also her illustrator, ideas stimulator and best friend) in an inspirational old Welsh cottage in West Wales where she writes, reads, sews and bakes in that order of priority.
Catherine McCarthy believes that story telling is probably the oldest and wisest art form known to man, though to make it compelling, it needs to be crafted with a bit of magic.
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Are you a plotter or a pantser?
This is an interesting question. The strange thing is that in normal, everyday life I am a complete and utter plotter. I make lists for just about everything and enjoy seeing tasks either highlighted or crossed off. I’m the sort of person who buys birthday cards the month before.
However, within my writing life I behave very differently. Once an initial idea takes hold I jot it down and make lots of notes about setting, characters, plot twists etc. but nothing is ever formulated into a proper chart. Having taught primary children for twenty nine years I saw through my teaching how over-planning can destroy creativity.
The children would meticulously fill in planning frames and diagrams then once immersed in the writing would inevitably come to me and say, ‘Miss? Can I change my mind?’
It’s my personal opinion that as writing fiction is creative it should be more free-flowing. Having said that, I would advise keeping notes as you write and even having a little note-book in your bedside drawer as often the best ideas pop into your head at night.
What’s your definition of the first draft?
Personally, I begin a new writing session by reading aloud whatever I wrote during the previous one. That way I find I have a better ‘feeling’ for the flow and voice of where I’m at as well as where I am with plot.
Fortunately my husband is a huge support. He is an illustrator and animator and is hugely involved in my writing. On Saturday mornings we have ‘story-time’ during which I read aloud to him whatever I have written that week. We discuss what works and what could be improved. He is, in a way, my first beta-reader.
When my first draft is complete, I then go through rounds and rounds of revision and editing and am always reluctant to take the final step and put my book ‘out there.’ It feels like handing over a young child to strangers!
What should readers expect from your next novel?
My ‘soon to publish’ is a collection of short stories in the dark/speculative genre called Door and Other twisted Tales. It has been my favourite to write so far. I’ve absolutely loved it and feel it is my strongest work to date. Door and Other Twisted Tales is a collection of ten, dark stories in the low fantasy/speculative fiction genre.
Some feature mythical creatures such as Goorialla the Rainbow Serpent of the Australian Dreamtime and Namazu, the giant catfish of Japanese legend, whilst others are purely imagined. Each tale is set in a different time, a different place, and yet each is interconnected by the idea of a supernatural force having visited our world, resulting in the death, destruction or disappearance of humans. Each tale whispers an immutable, moral message of warning as recompense for man’s actions throughout history.
From Plague – the embodiment of the 14th Century Black Death, to Shams – a contemporary tale of the connection between the mystics of quantum physics and the mind, Door accompanies the reader on a journey through time and place as the consequences of greed, impulse, loneliness and fear are exposed.
Reader beware! If you are of a nervous disposition you may want to choose something a little lighter!
How do you imagine your target reader?
Definitely somebody who enjoys something out of the ordinary, someone with slightly quirky taste in literature.
Having said that, my first book, The Gatekeeper’s Apprentice, is a children’s fantasy for age 8+ (middle grade). I wrote this whilst still teaching and my children loved it. Children who enjoy discovering new worlds and uncovering secrets will definitely enjoy this book. My husband has created lots of images, animations and has even made artifacts to accompany the story, all of which can be viewed on my facebook page. Children who love playing fantasy world gaming will love this book too.
I wrote my second book, Hope Cottage, as a means of coming to terms with the death of my mother. It is fiction but it does include thoughts and dreams that were very real at the time. Readers have really enjoyed it and have been able to connect with the characters and situations easily. All the proceeds from sales of Hope Cottage are donated to thebraintumourcharity.org in my mother’s memory.
Door and Other Twisted Tales is by far the darkest so far. However, it also contains moments of black comedy.
So, all in all, a mixed audience I suppose. There’s something for everyone.
How do you deal with negative feedback or negative reviews?
I think what I find most difficult is people’s general apathy towards books and writing these days. It’s such a shame! Reading opens up so many worlds and writing can be a very cathartic process – even if you show your work to no-one.
As for reviews, it depends on who is advising. A fellow author told me that the middle section of my first novel needed ‘filling out’ and I agreed with her.
On the other hand, one negative review for The Gatekeeper’s Apprentice didn’t even make sense in the reading which is a little more difficult to swallow.
I’m fortunate though in that when I get rejected or fail at something my first reaction is to bounce straight back up and try again – only harder!
Does the genre you normally read have a direct influence on your writing?
It does, for example I recently read Jess Kidd’s Himself and was blown away by the very first few paragraphs. Similarly with the way Joanne Harris manages to create an atmosphere of gentle magic and mysticism without being overt is incredible.
Even authors from the past such as H.P. Lovecraft influence the ‘voice’ within my stories, particularly in my collection, Door and Other Twisted Tales. I also have to mention the great Neil Gaiman – what a wordsmith! Now that I’m a writer I read differently as I find I’m constantly analysing the way the author has made something successful or otherwise so reading is not as relaxing as it used to be.
I also like to read widely in order to develop my skills so will read outside my comfort zone and try new genres too. I think that’s the best way to develop your own skills.
Just how much research is there behind a novel? Tell us how it looks behind the scenes.
The amount of research depends on what you’re writing. For example, in fantasy I find I do less research. However, some stories, in an unfamiliar context, definitely require more!
One of the short stories in my collection is called Shams and is a contemporary tale of the mystics of quantum physics and its potential influence on the mind. My husband loves philosophy, particularly quantum mechanics and I wrote this story especially for him.
I knew absolutely nothing about quantum mechanics! That was the most difficult research I ever had to do I can tell you! In the end though it has become one of my favourite stories. I am particularly proud of it and have entered it into several competitions – results pending!
I have an idea for the future to set a novel in the old Edinburgh closes – a creepy tale of an old apothecary shop. I plan on visiting the location soon in order to stimulate more ideas so research can take all forms and even incite a little holiday!
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