Sunday, 16 May 2021

An Writer in her Landscape. My Interview with Catherine Fisher by Steve Gladwin

I'm really delighted to be interviewing Catherine this month. She's a hugely successful writer for Middle-Grade and YA. Based in Newport, Gwent, she won the Tir Na n-Og prize for ‘Candle Man’ in 1996, the first of her dystopic series, ‘Incarceron’ was TheTimes Children’s Book of the Year and New York Times bestseller. Winner of the Cardiff International Poetry Prize, Catherine has published four collections of poetry and one pamphlet called 'Folklore.' Her work has been labelled fantasy, but in truth is not at all easy to describe. It has a huge range of scope and takes the reader all over the world and backwards and foreword in time, into the Norse sagas and to the Celtic otherworld, between faerie and Ancient Egypt and many other places besides. I attended two of the courses on writing from Myth and folk-tale which Catherine co-tutored at Ty Newydd with Kevin Crossley-Holland. It was there that I first became aware of her love of landscape.


Catherine, thank you so much for agreeing to talk to us. Can I start by asking you to describe just how different the landscape surrounding you now is from the landscape in which you were born?


 It’s actually pretty much the same. I was born in Newport in Gwent and that’s where I still live. Obviously there are more roads and houses than there used to be, but the underlying landscape of the rivers Usk and Ebbw and the levels with the hills behind doesn’t change. I live near the Usk and the river and its tides are very important; I always like to know what the tide is doing.


 What are the most vivid of your childhood memories?


 The earliest thing I can remember is playing on the floor while my mother was ironing. She told me I would have to go to school soon. I told her I wasn’t going, but she explained you had to. I was appalled, and hated the whole idea. I was probably 4 years old, or even 5, because at that time that was the age school education began- we had no nursery or kindergarten. I could already read and when I got to school it was just as bad as I had expected. In fact I never got to grips with it, and only when I got to A Levels was it at all bearable. It’s a characteristic memory really, and shows I was suspicious of authority even then.


 And what about books? Were there ones which inspired you more than others, or made you want to be a writer?


I was lucky in that there was a small public library round the corner and I went there every week for books. All the usual children’s books of course, but Stevenson stands out, especially Kidnapped, Treasure Island and Dr Jekyll. It was there I read a whole shelf of myths and legends and fairytales. Also about that time I found a battered paperback of the Casebook of Sherlock Holmes in a junk sale and thus entered the magic world of Baker Street. Later I read Alan Garner- a revelation!-, Tolkien, Holdstock,David Jones, Keats, Yeats. And then Arthur Machen.


 As a writer is landscape and the ability to write about it something that’s important to you?

To take just two of your books, Corbenic and Dark Henge, the landscapes alternate between the mundane and the otherworldly – in each case with the one leading to the other. I notice that it’s been a theme all the way since your first book, ‘The Conjurer’s Game’.



 The way the land is formed, its woods and rivers and valleys, are a sort of entry into the imagination. Land and Mind are so similar. I have often set books in real landscapes and then travelled through them, or used real landscapes in Otherworlds. There are certainly plenty of portals in the books! Maybe I learned that from Alice in Wonderland, but also a book like Elidor, where the streets are very grim and real, but lead to astonishing things. If fantasy is grounded in the mundane, it adds to the power, somehow. Gondor would not be so high and perilous without the Shire.


Have you ever had a wish list of plots and themes. Welsh myth is clearly particularly important to you, but you have travelled much farther afield. Can you give us an idea of your range?


I wish I had a wish list. I usually just start with some tiny idea or image or place and then see where it goes. I am very unwilling to plot in advance or even think about the book too much when it is being written. I avoid thinking about it or talking about it. I have used a lot of Welsh themes but also Eqyptian and Greek motifs in The Oracle series, and more sf ideas in The Obsidian Mirror set, where I wanted to mix fairies and time travel..I enjoy historic fiction, and of course time travel is ideal for setting stories in other periods. Books like Incarceron are usually called distopias, certainly alternative futures. 



Having seen you confidently striding off on our courses at Ty Newydd, I’ve imagined that walking and getting out into landscape is especially important to you. What are the places that call to you and why?


I walk a lot in the woods around Tintern, and the Wye valley. Then there are places on the Gwent Levels- wet, marshy, wide-skied places that I like. I walk on the Marlborough Downs a lot, usually in summer- thoise open chalky landscapes with their ancient architectures are magnetic places. But I also like walking around unfamiliar streets in old cities, where the buildings hint at undiscovered stories. The very act of walking helps with getting your mind to that liminal place where stories are formed.


Is there a right and wrong way of writing about landscape, or is that a bit too black and white a way of looking at it?


 I don’t think there are right and wrong ways of writing about anything. It’s just the way it happens.


 What about your own personal landscape – the place where you live. How well does it reflect you the writer?




 The Gwent Levels are a strange in-between sort of place, between sea and land. Like all estuaries, there are big skies and wet underfoot and flat roads. We also have words like reen and gout which are local. And the Severn is a huge presence. I have set stories here- The Candleman in particular. But I do like to vary settings, so not often.


 You’re labelled a fantasy writer. Are there any tricks of the trade you might offer to any aspiring writer of fantasy?


 Only to find what fascinates you and write about that. Keep it inventive, play tricks on the reader, keep them guessing. Above all think about language and how you use it because that is the only tool you have.




OK, Catherine, we have come out of lockdown and we can have people round to dinner again. If you had three great fantasy writers, living or dead at your table, who would it be and why?




I would invite Arthur Machen, Dafydd ap Gwilym and David Jones, and then just sit back and listen. What a conversation that would be! Welsh myth, local places, strange tales. And I’m sure ap Gwilym would know a lot of stories we have lost.


Do you think there have been phases in your writing? Where do you think you are at -the-moment, and what are you working on?


 Yes, there are phases. I began with shorter books for 9-12s, then the books got more complex and longer and older, for young adults. Suddenly I wanted to go back to a younger audience, with the Clockwork Crow trilogy. My next book is a collected short stories, gathering old and new short pieces together. It’s called THE RED GLOVES AND OTHER STORIES and will be published by Firefly in September.


Finally, how well have you been able to work and cope with lockdown? What are the most important lessons we need to learn for the future?


 I have worked as normal through lockdown, on the short stories and some other projects. What has been difficult, of course, is not receiving as many stimulating experiences as usual- theatre, opera, ballet, sport, museums, galleries, trains and travel- which is where I spend a lot of time. I think we will learn to appreciate these far more than before.


Thank you, Catherine, for sharing all your thoughts with us.


Thank you, Steve.

And Catherine's new collection of short stories, 'The Red Gloves' and other stories will be published on September 16th 2021.

The photos of the woods around the Wye Valley were taken by Catherine.

If you want to find out more about Catherine and her work, her website will tell you all you need to know.


Sue Purkiss said...

A very interesting interview, as ever!

Penny Dolan said...

Thnaks once again, Steve - and Catherine, of course!

Steve Gladwin said...

Thank you both of you. Glad you liked it. She's an amazing writer.