It’s not everyday you nab an exclusive interview with an amazing novelist but today we got to interview not one, not two, but three novelists. The fact that they are all the same person who writes under three names should in no way diminish the epicness of this feat.
I recently had the great fortune to read Ms. Webb/Griffin/North’s book The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August. Upon completion I realized I did not like this book, I loved this book and I used the social medias to thank the author for giving us such a great work. After a few exchanges I asked if she’d do an interview for this site and she graciously agreed. Find out what she had to say about writing, the book itself, and whether she thinks Clue is quotable after the break.
Catherine Webb completed her first book at the age of 14. She went on to publish that book and seven more in the young adult genre. She then switched her writing name to Kate Griffin and published another six urban fantasy books. And then, just to keep things interesting, she changed her author
Now that we’re past the break…hey, I’m talking in bold. That can mean only one thing: Interview time! First, thank you so much for taking the time to respond to some silly questions from an American geek website.
A pleasure! Go geeks!
I connected with you after reading your second latest book, The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August. It’s the story of Harry August, one of the kalachakra: people who live their lives and are then reborn back at the start of their life but with their memories intact. Since you’ve been writing for over 15 years, was this an idea that you’d been considering for a while or once you had it you immediately set to writing?
I had the idea in 2010, when on secondment with the Royal Shakespeare Company’s lighting department. It was quite a tricky time… I’d just graduated from college, where I’d had a bit of a rollercoaster ride, and I was in Stratford-Upon-Avon, which is in the middle of no where, and I knew no one and was really struggling to work out what my future would be.
Now… the way theatre works at the RSC is that it’s in rep. At 9 a.m. you’re called in to set up the lighting for, say, King Lear, and at 2 p.m. you go on break so that the show-crew can come in to run the actual show for an audience. Then at 5 p.m. you come back in and turn the entire theatre around again for, say, the Winter’s Tale. At 7.30 that show opens on the same stage (but with a different set and lighting) to an audience, and the next day you repeat. And repeat. And repeat.
I was there as a work experience technician, but even though I was trained in lighting, no one wanted to trust me with doing anything, and so for weeks I would stand at the bottom of ladders and watch people work. And parts were still somehow exhausting – the hours you worked during fit-up (that’s putting in a show from scratch) and in rehearsals were intense, and the pattern of hours means that there’s no real time to do anything in between shifts. I was frustrated and isolated and exhilarated and scared and bored and… well, everything all at once, really… and with all this going on there was a moment, without any real warning, on a hot day when I was walking down the high street, that I had the idea to write about Harry August. Can’t really tell you why, other than to give all the context above! And so I went to a safe and got out the laptop and started to write, mostly to alleviate my stress, and it was designed to be a short story…
… and thirty thousand words in I realised it probably wasn’t…
… and two days after that I was offered a three-book contract to write more Kate Griffin books…
… and three weeks after that I joined the National Theatre in London where I had a wonderful time as a proper lighting technician…
… and so basically the entire thing got put on hold until 2011. I played around with it a lot while on followspot duty at the National Theatre – there’s a lot of dead time in between cues on some shows – but the priority needed to be writing The Minority Council and the other Kate Griffin books. When I actually sat down to write Harry August in late 2011, it came very fast indeed thanks to all the mulling, and I ended up sending it to my agent in early 2012 with an apology note, as I was meant to be doing Kate Griffin editorials instead.
Sorry – that was a massive answer to a short question, but it’s the only way I can explain the otherwise slightly wacky chronology of all this….
You’ve published 16 novels in 15 years. Do you ever feel guilty for absorbing all that raw talent from the Creativity Dimension leaving the rest of the mortals to fight for the crumbs? Do you even have time to pursue other interests/hobbies/studies beyond writing?
Um…. guilt… not so much. I figure there’s a lot of creativity out there, and I’m just kinda… you know… bumbling along with my own thing. Thankfully my own thing is wonderfully different from, say, Ruth Ozeki’s thing, or James Smythe’s thing, or Ann Leckie’s thing, or all the things of things that seem to continue to make stuff… so it’s probably okay. Not so big on the guilt. I’m more up on the collective-joy-love for the impressive infinity of human imagination, in fact….
I do have a few other hobbies. For a start, I work full-time as a freelance theatre lighting designer. (Hire me, world!) I design lights for plays across Britain, and also light a few music gigs occasionally, and that seems to work out alright as frankly, writers who just write run the risk of going a little insane, and the same might well be true for lighting designers. The two lifestyles balance out well, I think.
I’m also trying to learn Chinese. I’m very bad at Chinese, but I still kinda love it. I can sorta read books for six year olds now, and I’m very proud of that, but my speaking skills are pretty poor, and my head bobs up and down like a madwoman whenever I struggle to find the right tone to pronounce words with.
… so I also learn a violent martial art. I’ve been learning escrima for about three years with a club down in London Fields, and I love it. I think however that it’s not so much a hobby, as it is a psychological crutch. Many is a day when I’ve sat in meetings for theatre shows, to have a director turn round and say something along the lines of ‘Cat, you know this red… is there a red you can find that’s sort of, less red, but also more red than this, you know what I mean?’ And call me weak and needy, but I find attacking things with weapons of an evening leaves me in a far better state of mind to smile cordially at such things. I’m also getting more involved in teaching women’s self-defence, which I really enjoy.
One day, when I’m older, I’d also really like to do a History PhD. But not for decades. Not least as, while I really enjoyed studying early modern history back in the day, my tutor flatly informed me that to be an early modernist you need to speak French, German, Latin, Persian, Turkish, Italian and Spanish, and that’s just to read a letter to the Vatican. So yes, some catching-up to do there…
You published eight young adult books under your own name, then six urban fantasy novels under Kate Griffin, then switched to a third name, Claire North, to write science fiction. And your first science fiction novel is about a man who lives multiple lifetimes. How much do you feel your open pseudonym history reflects Harry August’s history?
Honestly: hadn’t even crossed my mind. I was infinitely more worried about the affect of having multiple pseudonyms back when I was writing Kate Griffin books, and the main character had some personality issues. This was a protagonist called Matthew Swift, whose sentences could often go like this:
‘Though I go to certain lengths to maintain distance from the characters I write, we know that you can never know yourself truly so we don’t even care but I care, I really do, because I am frightened of being too closely exposed on the page we aren’t but I am, and also I’m interested in the idea that if you write further away from who you are, you can find more interesting things to say which is why we keep having new pseudonyms….’
Don’t get me wrong – there’s a clear and obvious evolution from the Catherine Webb books to the Claire North books both in terms of the characters and in terms of me. I Mirror Dreams I was 14; Harry Augustwhen I was 25, it’d be disgraceful if there wasn’t some sort of change that reflected back on me. I’ve just… never really thought about it… consciously or otherwise, I’m afraid… um… sorry….
In Harry August, your main character has an amazing ability and gradually connects with others who share this world and those abilities. That seems to be the case with other books and series you’ve written—would you ever write a book where someone had an extraordinary ability and yet they were unique? Why/why not?
MWHAHAHAHA JUST YOU WAIT UNTIL YOU READ….
… well, no technically in Claire North no.3 the main protagonist does meet someone who’s maybe like her, but she can’t remember him so actually it barely counts…
Yeah. Basically. Wait for book three.
But also on a more helpful literary note…
… one of the huge merits of connecting people with interesting abilities with others who share it, is you diversify the options available. If Harry August knew nothing about others of his kind, would he be pushed to behave in the way he does? Would we worry about the decisions he makes, ignorant of the options available to him? Alone, these characters have the potential to be alien or god-like; raised above society by their uniqueness, and that’s interesting, absolutely, but it’s also potentially de-humanising. As part of a society, surrounded by those who may also be god-like, but equally god-like together, you can strip away the alien and restore the basic drivers of human action – love, hate, greed, revenge etc. – even amongst immortals. The choice on whether to write a uniqueness or a one-of-many narrative therefore comes down to whether you’re interested in stories of isolated godhood (potentially very interesting) or god-like humanity.
Or to put it another way: would we be looking forward to the film of Avengers Civil War, if we couldn’t perceive and understand why superheroes – all correct and righteous in their different ways – could be as correct and righteous as each other and all wrong together?
Harry August sets up a society of kalachakra with two dominant camps—the Cronus Club that exists to live comfortably, making sure no significant damage is done to the timeline; and certain rogue elements that seek to modify the timeline for their own purposes. While your novel focuses on the tension between them there is also at least one member of a third group, Fidel Gussman, who lives to fight in the various wars and conflicts during his time. My question to you: do you have plans for any Fidel-or-similar focused books about an actual war among the kalachakra fought throughout time and if not how much would I have to pay you to write it?
I did consider a book revolving around multiple kalachakra protagonists scattered throughout history, all attempting to communicate with each other across vast stretches of time and solve an increasingly dangerous problem together….
… but other stuff got in the way first.
If, however, the chance comes up to write it, and there seems to be a suitable moment and ways to make it work as a satisfactory story, don’t worry – I’ll probably do it for kicks!
If someone were to offer you a serum that would make you a kalachakra would you take the potion or run as far away from the bearer as possible?
Hum… I think it would depend on whether the serum would make it impossible for me to forget, or indeed have myself killed at some point. I wouldn’t mind living a while and learning some stuff, though obviously childhood would suck over and over again, but it would be really handy to have an option on it just all stopping one day….
Put it like this: I’m in no hurry to be immortal, I think immortality sounds kinda horrendous. But there’s also loads of books I haven’t read yet.
What is the one book that you read where, upon completion, you thought “I wish I’d had that idea.”
Chronicles of Amber, by Roger Zelazny. Also: Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny. Possibly that one first, in fact, even more than Amber. Sorry, that’s two books, but one author, so it counts as one, right?
Also anything by Philip K. Dick. And the entire Discworld concept. Um, and it’s not a book, but if I’d been Raymond Chandler, and I’d accidentally invented the genre of wisecracking detective noir, I’d be quite pleased with myself, just saying….
Have you seen the movie Clue and, if so, what is your favorite line?
I have seen Clue, but not for ages! I mean, I could go and look up quotes now and sorta do a refresher course on the awesome that is Clue, but that feels like cheating. Can I quote something else? Spot the reference:
‘I have just met you, and I love you!’
There is no better way to end than with a quote from Up. Thank you for your time!
The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August is available on Amazon and in bookstores everywhere. Go read it immediately.