Catherine’s first novel, Mirror Dreams, was completed when she was just 14 years old. The book was published in 2002 and garnered comparisons with Terry Pratchett and Philip Pullman.
Webb went on to publish a further seven young adult novels under her own name, earning her extensive critical acclaim and two Carnegie nominations for her novels Timekeepers and The Extraordinary and Unusual Adventures of Horatio Lyle.
Under the open pseudonym Kate Griffin, Webb has also since published a further six fantasy novels for adults. Dubbed the Matthew Swift and Magicals Anonymous novels, these books are set in an alternate modern-day London saturated with magic. They revolve around the concept that the pulse, the rhythm and the heartbeat of the city and the millions of people living within it becomes a palpable form of magic itself.
In 2014, Catherine released The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August under the pseudonym Claire North. It is the extraordinary journey of one unforgettable character who lives his life over and over again. It became a paperback bestseller and was selected for the Richard and Judy Book Club, the Waterstones Book Club and the Radio 2 Book Club.
A lifelong Londoner, Webb describes herself as a fan of big cities, urban magic, Thai food and graffiti-spotting, and she is endlessly fascinated by such questions as who leaves copies of the yellow pages on top of bus shelters, how the hidden tunnels beneath the sorting office were built, and why anyone would ever dispose of perfectly good pairs of shoes by throwing them over the nearest telephone line.
Hi Catherine, thanks for agreeing to this interview. Can you tell us a little about yourself and your background?
I’m a scribbler from London, who started writing at a fairly early age and got lucky. I was raised in a house full of books, and spent most of my childhood in the local library. I studied History at the London School of Economics, before following that path to its logical conclusion and studying Technical Theatre at RADA. I’ve been writing SF/Fantasy for about 15 years now, and divide my time pretty evenly between writing and working as a freelance theatre lighting designer.
You’ve written a number of books on a wide range of topics. Where does your inspiration come from?
Um… this is one of those questions that writers can spend large parts of their careers dodging, I think…
Simple answer is: everywhere. Writers are renowned for being jammy gits who’ll steal (sorry – I mean research) anything from anywhere. Friends, family, people who’ve pissed you off, they all appear in your books whether you mean them to or not. Walking through unknown streets, reading books, listening to the news, hearing stories from around the world, learning about science and ancient history, the world is full of big and shiny ideas just waiting to be abused in the name of fiction. In as much as everyone in the whole world, not just scribblers, are shaped by their experiences, so a writer’s books are generally speaking an unintentional reflection on themselves and the world they live in. (Or sometimes an intentional one; it depends.) I don’t go out of my way to look for any particular source of stuff; I just do what most writers do and try and keep my eyes and ears open and every now and then sit up and go ‘that was interesting… say it again…?’
How much research do you do for your books?
Depends on the book. Some books – like Harry August – require a bit, but it’s not as gruelling as you might expect. I am sat on this very rusty History degree which means, if nothing else, I sorta already know where to look for things and perhaps more importantly, what to reject as nonsense. (The internet absolutely makes researching things like places and dates etc. much, much easier, but it’s also soggy in lies so having some distant recollection of the value of footnotes is very helpful indeed.)
It also helps that a lot of the research you could do for a book isn’t necessarily designed to go into it. For example, if you have two scientists arguing about wave-particle duality, it’d be a chapter that your editor would rightly cull if you spent all of it discussing the effect of ultraviolet light on positively charged gold film, with graphs, rather than advancing the story. Or if you wanted to set the scene for a character in 1938 Poland, you’d be much more likely to open with a riff about the latest radio music and what the commute to work is like than to begin with ‘it was 1938 and Maria was worried about the Nazis’. I mean, sure, she probably would be; but not as a daily grind. Human life is about human needs, even in the past, even in great minds. If you and I both get stomach viruses and spend all day in the bathroom lamenting the futility of the human experience, odds are Einstein did too.
Research that dominates a book is research that should be in an actual non-fiction book. If you ever watched House on the TV, it was a glowing example of how techno-talk is usually a tool to convey something else, through all the unintelligible noise. “Doctor, this patient needs a CT scan, an MRI, a bloods work up, warfarin (and I still love you) stat!” Details, drips and drops thrown in as if it was an everyday nothing, another piece of human life, matter more than sweeping explanations of how society worked in 1845 Edinburgh.
As a result, sure, I do research… but mostly on details, rather than big stuff, unless the big stuff is hugely relevant, in which case odds are I’d already stumbled on the big stuff beforehand, otherwise I might not have attempted to put it in the book.
What is the structure of your writing day?
What is this ‘structure’ of which you speak?
My alarm goes off somewhere between 7.30 – 8 a.m.. Except after gig nights, when it’ll go off at 8.30 a.m.. These are kinda the only things I can really guarantee, and even that’s subject to change.
Sometimes the day will be be 10 hours of non-stop writing. Sometimes it’ll be 13 hours of theatre work. Sometimes it’ll be 6 hours of writing followed by 8 hours of lighting a music gig; sometimes it’ll be 4 hours of writing and then 4 hours of seeing friends who I haven’t seen because of all the work and there is really far too much work, I suspect. Sometimes I’ll go swimming in the morning; sometimes there’s a martial arts class in the evening. Sometimes it’s pizza night, sometimes it’s work-night in the theatre, sometimes you lose a whole day to answering email or attending meetings or working out your tax return or sorting paperwork or there’s a chapter you’re working on that’s really good and you forget to eat or there’s proofs that have to be done now or copy editors or you’re waiting for the plumber or you’re in another part of the country for work or….
There kinda isn’t one.
But I’m also sorta groovy with that! Having other obligations in my life apart from writing means that when I finally get to write, I’m very ready to write indeed. It also means I get out of the house, see new things, meet new people, and every day is always different. I think this is perhaps a good thing – certainly for me, I think I need that more than any ordered rhythm to the day. I muddle by.
How long does it typically take you to write a book?
Depends on how much time I’ve had to think about it beforehand. Usually a couple of months; can take a lot longer, though, if there’s a lot of lighting in the middle or if I haven’t spent as much time mulling it over as usual. Harry August, for example, took about six weeks, preceded by nearly a year and a half of doodling notes down while on followspot duty at the National Theatre and while finishing up a series of Kate Griffin books for a different contract. Touch, which followed, took longer, partly because there wasn’t as much planning time, and partly because I had an endless succession of shows to light in between chapters, in my lighting designer guise.
How do you get past writer’s block and distractions such as the internet and social media?
Luckily, I’ve never yet experienced writers block. I suspect, however, this is because I only really bother to write when I want to write, and just always kinda look forward to it and enjoy it, no matter what I’m working on.
As for social media… meh… I’m not too fussed by it, to be honest. Publishers tell their writers that it’s crucially important to have a social media presence, but I’m not too convinced. I suspect that social media is important once you’ve already achieved a certain success already, or if you’ve got something else going on in your life to make it worthwhile. I check twitter once a day because I think it’s important as a decent human to engage with readers who’ve been generous and kind enough to engage with me, and I scribble a bit for the blog, but mostly on stuff that concerns me such as environmentalism, feminism and theatre, rather than about much writery stuff. It’s not a big distraction. I suspect that the fact there are two jobs, and both are quite time consuming, also means I’m fairly focused on what needs to be done, simply because if most of what I have to do isn’t done now, then tomorrow will be too late.
What is the best thing about being a published author?
I get paid to sit down and write stories for my living. Without wanting to over-simplify this one: IT’S THE BEST THING EVER.
… and the worst thing?
Sometimes you have to do things other than just sit around writing stories. While my love is pretty much all about the scribbling part, I’m aware that I am also part of a commercial industry and it’d be damn stupid of me to ignore this fact. Also, let’s not kid ourselves – there’s no job security, fluctuating and frequently poor pay, no pension, no sick leave, no work colleagues or reliable community except the voices in your head (although I do love my editor and agent) and a perpetual sense, once the manuscript is with your publisher, that its future is now out of your hands. You have to be willing to accept that some books will fly and some will not and sometimes there’ll be a bad day and sometimes a good and that all you can really do is sit back and keep on scribbling to the best of your ability, hoping one day for a bestseller to sneak up on you despite yourself. It’s a strange powerlessness which I think a lot of writers struggle with but which over the last decade or so I hope I’ve achieved a kinda zen with? Because did I mention – for all of that, I still get paid to write stories all day!!
Would you like to be a Kalachakra like Harry August? What do you think would be the best and worst bits about living the same life over and over again?
Nah. I think it’d probably be a bit pants. Puberty – god, let’s not go through puberty again. I think there are better mechanisms in the universe for trying to undo the cock-ups of your own existence. I mean, don’t get me wrong – it’d be great to have more time to see things, to learn things, to be all the things and see all the things that I want to do. The world is a vast and wonderful place and I’d love to know more of it, far too much to see than I can ever see, far too much to ever know and that’s a shame – but I think I get by ok despite this, and there are better mechanisms for self and global exploration than constantly dying a lot.
Who would you like to play the lead characters in “The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August” if it were made into a film?
No idea. Sorry. Someone has optioned it, which is awesome, but as a writer it’s my job, I feel, to keep my head down and muddle on. The idea of a film being made is always exciting, but for sanity’s sake probably best not considered too deeply.
Also: as a lighting designer I spend a huge amount of time around actors, and have seen famous bods perform terribly and actors whose name will never be spoken of in the history books create the most stunning, moving characters you’ll ever see. As a result I’m pretty jaded when it comes to thinking about ‘what if’ questions of casting, and my lighting designer soul trumps the writer to ask only this: will whoever you cast stand in their light, please?
Which other authors do you admire, and which book do you wish you had written? Are there any new up-and-coming authors who have caught your eye?
I love Roger Zelazny and all his works. Also on the list should be Terry Pratchett, Ursula le Guin, Anne McCaffrey (up to All The Weyrs of Pern, and including the Ship Who Sang – after that my feelings are more complicated), Ruth Ozeki, Robert Louis Stephenson and Raymond Chandler (so good). The complete Garfield got me through most of my childhood, and I’ve recently also finally invested in the travelogue/comics of Guy Delisle and the complete Sandman.
As for up-and-coming writers…. I don’t really know, to be honest. I pick up new books and read them without really paying much attention to who the writer is, I don’t usually regard it as relevant so long as the words catch and carry me. I recently read The Three by Sarah Lotz, which was both terrifying and spectacular, and I always look out for books by James Smythe and Nick Harkaway. Thinking about it – Viper Wine by Hermoine Eyre was also a stunningly good book, as was The Girl in the Road by Monica Byrne.
I also sorta have a clone who I think is kinda wonderful – Helena Coggan, who’s first book, The Catalyst, was published early 2015. I say she’s my clone in the sense that she’s currently 16 years old, wrote her first book when she was 14, and goes to my old school. However, and I hate to say this, having read The Catalyst I have a sneaky feeling that it’s a more skilled, intelligent and mature book than anything I wrote at that age, and having met Helena I have a suspicion that she is going to surpass me in every possible way, including morally, and eat my brains.
What are you currently working on?
Currently writing a book about Death’s PA.
There’s a bit more to it than that, but without wanting to spoil too much too soon…
… basically that.
What are you currently reading?
Poor Economics by Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo. I don’t usually read books of that ilk, honest, but what with all the recent political stuff going down in this country (cutting of the welfare state, cutting of doctor pay, freezing of public sector pay, reduction in environmental subsidies, Corbyn getting leader of Labour, cutting of arts funding etc.) I figured that I should learn a bit more about economics in general. ‘Cos my ignorance is really quite impressive. I have the Rough Guide to Economics sitting on my bedside table at home, but this book was recommended to me by a friend who does Environmental Economics with the WWF, and her recommendations are always good. However I’m a little worried as I’ve got a long train ride tonight, and only a few dozen pages to go, and it’s the only book in my bag….
What’s currently on your desk?
Honest to god – my laptop, phone, a water bottle, half a melon, a bottle of hot sauce, some carrots, a Tupperware box and a USB stick. You catch me answering these questions while waiting for the dress rehearsal of the pantomime I’ve been working on all week, and as a result I’m far from home and in the upstairs bar of the theatre. It’s a lovely place to sit in at the moment – since we’re still working on the show, there’s no audience members, so I’ve got the entire place to myself. There’s fairy lights woven through the ceiling overhead, then covered with translucent red drapes. There’s a little stage area for storytelling, there’s comfy sofas, and there’s me, rucksack at my feet, waiting for the DSM to call me downstairs to have another look at the end of Act 1.
If I’d answered this question three hours ago, however, there would have been a lighting plan, a script, two satsumas and a control desk (for controlling and programming lights) on my desk as well as all of this. It would have been far more interesting. But perhaps lacking for elbow room.
I guess the only other thing I should explain: the theatre has a café nearby that does boxes of take-away macaroni cheese for £1.50. It’s been all I’ve been living off all week, basically. The hot sauce on my desk was a present from the assistant designer, one of the loveliest, gentlest women you’ll ever meet, after she heard me complaining that the green room needed some Tabasco. I say this so you don’t just assume I randomly carry a bottle of hot sauce around with me… although… hum… maybe I should….
How can readers find out more about you?
I’ve got a website for writing – www.kategriffin.net
And a website for lighting! – www.catwebblighting.co.uk
And finally I’m on twitter @clairenorth42
Come say hi!
Catherine also has a great FAQs section on her website which covers off a lot more questions including the often asked … “What’s with all the pseudonyms”!