Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Interview with the Choosing One - Cathy Butler

Not Kismet House

Seen from the motorway, the headquarters of Kismet Enterprises appear almost deliberately anonymous. Situated outside Telford, just off the M54 and with a distant view of the Wrekin, it is a large building, with a pleasant fountain in front of the main entrance; but few of the travellers rushing between Birmingham and Shrewsbury are likely to give its nineteenth-century sandstone façade a second glance. And that seems appropriate, given the nature of the business conducted within. Many stories feature a Chosen One or an ancient prophecy, after all, but how often do readers stop to wonder who does the Choosing? Or where those ancient but invariably accurate prophetic verses actually come from? In most cases, the answer lies here in Kismet House.

Kismet’s operations are usually hidden from public view, but today I have been given exclusive access to one of their most senior employees. Mrs Lachesis Webster’s title is displayed in brass letters on her office door: Head of Choosing. 

Mrs Webster does not stand on ceremony. She opens the door to her office before I have a chance to knock, greeting me warmly. She is a small woman of indeterminate age, greying but smooth-skinned. The office is handsomely appointed, with luxurious armchairs and original oil paintings, but nothing here is new: the carpet shows signs of wear where she has made her way between door and desk, every day for the last twenty-five years. 

Mrs Webster gestures to me to sit, and lands rather heavily in her own chair. Although she smiles, behind her half-moon spectacles I sense a great weariness.

I take out my pen and notebook.

“Thank you for agreeing to talk with me. I’m sure our readers will be fascinated to hear about your work.”

She nods acknowledgement. “We don’t get many visitors in this part of the building. I’m happy to oblige.”

“It’s quite a warren! To be honest, I hadn’t realised how big a bureaucracy was involved in allotting fates.”

Mrs Webster looks a little surprised. “I think people underestimate the level of detail required. When I first came here I spent six months just working on umbrellas!” 

“Umbrellas! Really?”

“I was assigned to the Fortune Assessment section at the time, a rather technical department. Everyone knows that it’s unlucky to open umbrellas indoors, of course. But what about opening them on a covered porch? Under an awning? In a bus shelter? Is that bad luck too?”

“I couldn't say.”

“Is an overhead covering the crucial factor, or is it being open to the elements? And then of course there are verandahs! Gazebos! Pergolas!”

“Pergolas? Is he some relation to Legol—?” 

“It all has to be worked out and negotiated, painstakingly. Nothing is left to chance. Endless reports, meetings, protocols, guidelines…” Her eyes, briefly aflame, dim until they are but pilot lights. “It was all a bit much, to be honest. Not that I blame them for being careful. Of course it’s even worse in the Wishes Division.”

“But surely wishes are just—” My sentence stutters on the word “lovely”.

“Ah, you’re too young to remember the great Recursive Wish Crisis of 1962. A spike in people wishing for more wishes almost caused a chain reaction, a runaway escalation of contradictory magics that threatened to destroy – well, everything. Since then, all wishes have had to be signed off in triplicate. I’ve never met a more joyless, dour lot than the wish granters of today. The romance has gone out of it.”

“You never worked in that area yourself?”

“No, no. As soon as I’d served my probationary period I applied for a transfer out of Fortune Assessment. I spent a couple of years in the South Wing, first in Portents, and then next door in Prophecy and Augury.”

“That sounds fascinating! Tell me something about your work there.”

“Oh, well there’s always a demand for prophecies, isn’t there? You know, to underwrite events? Prophecies are such a convenient glue if you don’t have time to make dovetail joints. I wasn’t allowed to do the big, complex ones with multiple stanzas, of course. I specialized in couplets.”

“Might you share an example of your work?”

“Let me think… I believe the very first prophecy I came up with was this:

When Maxen wears the royal ring
It means that he is now the king.”

“That’s very… straightforward.”

She sighs. “I know – especially since Maxen was Crown Prince at the time. Prophesying what everyone expects to happen anyway was one of my weaknesses.” She laughs at my expression. “It’s all right, I know it’s awful, you needn’t be diplomatic. They weren’t diplomatic in Prophecy and Augury! I remember my boss at the time shouting: ‘Ambiguity, ambiguity, ambiguity!’ That was his constant watchword, you see. ‘Lachesis,’ he used to say, ‘We don’t make prophecies to tell people what the future’s going to be, we make them so they’ll recognize the future once they’ve arrived there!’ Wise words, you’ll agree. Oh, I learned a lot at P&A.”

“And yet you moved on?”

“I made some good friends – I’ve never known such a bunch for practical jokes! But I just didn’t have the flair, you see. I’m too straightforward. Of course, as the Choosing One I still work very closely with my colleagues in P&A. We have to coordinate.”

“So let’s talk about your current position. What are the principles on which you do your choosing? Are you a birther?”

“I don’t much care for that term, though I know it’s become entrenched. As a matter of fact, when I first started in the post I assumed that in this more democratic age Chosen Ones would normally be selected on worth rather than birth. I thought the ideal was to find an obscure young man or woman who was goodhearted, brave, and underappreciated – preferably located at several adventures' distance from the capital city. That was my idea of good Chosen One material. Birth wasn’t a consideration. In recent years, however, there’s been a renewed demand for heroes and heroines of exalted parentage. They can be brought up as obscurely as you like, but people want them to turn out to be the children of royalty or gods – or wizards at the very least. We’ve had to dust off whole shelves of superannuated material on birthmarks, lisps, scars, and suchlike methods of identifying Lost Heirs. (Oddly, the field seems oblivious to the science of DNA.) It’s a step backwards, really. I blame Disney.” Mrs Webster sighs deeply.

“You preferred the old times, then?”

Suddenly she looks her age. Gazing at her weary face I have the impression of a private school headmistress who’s just returned from a walking tour of Mordor and is about to write a stinging review on Tripadvisor.

“Old people do, don’t they?” she remarks. “It’s our defining folly. Besides, I still do things my way most of the time."

“So, what is the actual process? How do you find a name for your Chosen One?”

She looks at me steadily. “That would be telling, Ms Butler.”

Mrs Webster has another appointment looming, so I must take my leave. We shake hands, and I thank her for her time. The heavy door of her office closes behind me. 

But I am not an investigative reporter for nothing. Slipping to the back of the building, I count along the mullioned windows and find the one that opens onto Mrs Webster’s office. Peering in between the ivy trails, I see her hunched at her desk just a yard of two beyond the glass, a mighty ledger open before her. A telephone directory? No, this surely is the Book of Life, I tell myself. This is how the Chosen Ones are chosen! And I’m about to witness it at first hand.

Mrs Webster covers her eyes with one hand and riffles through the pages, apparently at random. Then, with the other hand she takes a large steel pin from the desk – and stabs it blindly into the paper.

Somewhere, a child is crying.

Somewhere, a Chosen One is born.


Nicky said...


Katherine Langrish said...

Oh wow, loved it! Made my day!

Elen C said...

Hurray! Lovely!

Catherine Butler said...

Thank you. I've been lobbying to get this interview for years, so it's quite a scoop!

Clémentine Beauvais said...

Brilliant job. We knew when we'd hired you to write for ABBA that we'd made the right decision. I still remember your very first interview, with that cartographer-explorer who maps all the magical kingdoms for the endpapers of fantasy novels.

Catherine Butler said...

Oh, I remember him. A great explorer, but his spelling was very idiosyncratic and the taste of those lembas bread sandwiches stayed with me for days.

Linda Strachan said...

Love it!

Savita Kalhan said...

Simply wonderful! Thank you!

C.J.Busby said...

I have wondered for years who was responsible for the prophecy I found scrawled in felt-tip at the bus-stop on Lordship Lane in 1985. "When you see the one six five, then the bus will straight arrive"... I think you'll agree it has a distinctive flavour that marks it out as Mrs Webster's own. Thanks for a fascinating insight into her later career...

Catherine Butler said...

Yes, C.J., there's a definite smack of Mrs Webster in that profound aphorism!

Joan Lennon said...


Anne E.G. Nydam said...

I always appreciate some behind-the-scenes knowledge. I had pictured the chosen ones being chosen by previous chosen ones, like picking out sides for kickball in fourth grade PE. It explained why I'm not chosen, anyway. But I feel much better having Ms Webster at the helm being sensible about things.