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Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Catherine Chisnall, Author Interview

Like many authors, Catherine Chisnall has been writing for as long as she can remember. She started with flowery romances, but realised these weren't very original. So she went into magazine articles, which she intends to continue. Sometimes, however, she’s inspired to write fiction. Born in the Midlands, England, Catherine now lives with her husband and daughter in the South. She has had a varied career working in banks, libraries and charities, and, for the last 10 years, secondary and further education.

SA: Tell us about ‘Descending’ in a few sentences.
CC: Emily is a lonely, disillusioned, teaching assistant at a college of Further Education. Jamie is a neglected, unpredictable student. Trapped together in a falling lift, wherever will this lead?
Told from Emily's point of view, this story explores the ambiguity of relationships between staff and students, and reflects on who is actually in control.

SA: What qualities do you need to be a successful writer?
CC: Imagination, empathy, the ability to do hours of research just to make a small part of your story sound authentic, not to mind ruthlessly cutting and editing your precious story to make it better.

SA: What is your working method?
CC: I get an idea, then make notes either on computer, or talk into my Dictaphone. My husband and daughter think the Dictaphone is so funny and shout in the background to distract me!  If I’m out somewhere I make notes on a pad. When I used to go out to work I’d always get ideas while driving, then when I got there I’d write the notes down on a pad I kept in the car!
Depending on if my family are out, or at home, I get different amounts of time to write. I usually do two hours at a time, but only once a day due to distractions.

SA: What is the single biggest mistake made by beginners to writing?
CC:  Using too many adverbs!
‘He sat down heavily and glared at his wife crossly, as she carefully prepared the dinner. ‘Why are you cooking chicken?’ he asked irritably. ‘Because we need to cut down on red meat,’ she replied patiently.’ It all starts sounding too silly.

SA: How did you come to write this particular book?
CC: Having worked for ten years in secondary and further education, I have seen stories on the news and heard gossip about staff/ student relationships. I wondered what sort of person would get involved with a student- someone lonely, vulnerable, misguided? What sort of student would get involved with a member of staff and why?
I wanted to write about a female member of staff and a male student so it wouldn’t be so ‘cut and dried’. If it was the other way round, it would more obviously be abuse. I also wanted to make the staff member not a teacher, because learning support assistants’ job is to form supportive relationships with the students and work closely with them, often finding themselves siding with the students if the teacher is being unfair. The teacher is removed, in control at the front of the class. If anyone is going to get involved with a student, I think it would be a support assistant.

SA: How can people buy your book?
CC:  In paperback at  and as an e-book at
The links are here:
It will be available from Amazon UK and other countries in due course.

SA: How much revision of your MS do you do before you send it off?
CC: I don’t do too much, due to lack of time. So it is definitely not perfect when I send it off. Luckily, my publisher (Night Publishing) has this opinion:
‘I think we judge books entirely differently from other publishers. We latch onto the tone of voice on the basis that if somebody can clearly write, everything else is fixable.’
I liked their approach, and they liked my book.

SA:  To what extent do you think genre is useful in the publishing world?
CC: I’m not sure these days. If you write what you want to write (as I did) and it doesn’t fit into a genre, what do you do? And there are loads of stories which don’t fit into a genre.
I am lucky that my publisher likes books which don’t fit neatly and precisely into a genre. What is the genre of Descending? A romance? Hardly! A thriller? No. A Young Adult? Not sure if they would be interested in the subject. It’s more of a cautionary tale, but I don’t know if that is a recognised genre.

SA: How do you know where to begin any given story?
CC: That is the difficult bit. A great criticism I got once said something like ‘you need to write something which grabs the reader’s attention.’ So I decided to start each book with a dramatic incident, whether a physical situation such as a lift breaking down, or an emotional one such as a character suddenly finding out a long hidden secret.
Another writer said they had read that it was better to write your story, then ruthlessly cut the first one and a half pages out and start it there.

SA: What sort of displacement activities keep you from actually writing?
CC: I have the opposite problem: keeping people out of the way so I can get to my story and write it. I feel awful sometimes when my family are calling me and I’m saying ‘I’ll just finish this bit, hang on…’

SA:  Do you have support, either from family and friends or a writing group?
CC: My husband is very supportive and proud of me, even my four year old is proud that mummy has written a book. My mum is proud too.
I’m not in a writing group, I have never been brave enough to share my writing with people in front of me. It’s easier over the internet!  So therefore I am a member of Night Reading (Night Publishing’s site where you post your work for them to read); Authonomy, Slush Pile Reader, Struggling Authors. These are all internet writing groups and all excellent for advice, criticism, support etc.

SA: How long does it normally take you to write a novel?
CC:  I can’t really say, because Descending is my first published novel. I used to write long flowery romance novels which took months, but I wrote the short, not so sweet Descending in less than one month, it flowed out. I would write all day, every day if I could. But real life gets in the way, so another novel would take longer, I expect.

SA:  What are your inspirations?
CC:  Real life. ‘What if’ situations. What if something happened to me and I was a different sort of person? How would I have reacted to it? I’ve had a few things happen to me in my life, so I tend to write about them. 

SA:  If there’s a single aspect to writing that really frustrates you, what is it?
CC: Not being able to write all the time, or as much as I want to! Having to deal with housework, cooking, baths, toileting, laundry etc. I’m feeling that after ten years of learning support and five years of full time motherhood, it’s time for me to do something for myself. I’m pretty worn out with caring for children/ teenagers, I want to do something creative now.

SA: Do you think writing is a natural gift or an acquired skill?
CC: I think writing fiction is a natural gift, but you can acquire the skill of writing non-fiction/ factual pieces. If you are a born writer, you HAVE to write, it’s not just a hobby you can do once a week at 1.30 on Thursdays, or whatever. Your writing calls to you and you have to obey.

SA: What are you writing now?
CC: I’ve started another novel, it is also based on a ‘what if’ situation which happened to me. I don’t want to say anymore, I’ll wait and see if it comes to fruition, it might not.

SA:  Is there any aspect of writing that you really enjoy?
CC: Being seized with an idea and writing it down exactly as I wanted to, so it looks just right. I actually like planning the story, although Descending wasn’t incredibly planned, it just happened the way it did.  I just started writing the first scene in the lift, then wondered what would realistically happen next. It wouldn’t be all hearts and flowers, or instantly forgotten, but it would have consequences. I could imagine so well what those consequences would be, it was satisfying writing them down realistically.

SA: Do you have a website or a blog that readers can visit?
CC: Its got links which give useful advice on writing, and ‘how I got published’ type stuff.

SA:  Given unlimited resources, what would be your ideal writing environment?
CC: A nice quiet ‘office’ but comfortable, not plasticky. With a soothing view over… a harbour? Hills? Something like that. And plants in it to purify the air. And a comfy chair to relax in when I get achy from hunching over the computer. And a sign on the door saying ‘I’m not wife, mummy, daughter right now. I’m writing, so leave me alone’ (haha!)

SA: Where do you actually write?
CC: At the kitchen table, or in my bedroom, on my laptop. It’s a new one, hurrah!

The sequel to 'Descending' is 'Surfacing'. Both books have received considerable acclaim for the social realism and the sparse elegance of Catherine Chisnall's writing.

Word of the Day is divorced from the post that precedes it and produced in response to a request from a follower to provide just such a service.

Word of the Day; hero – a man (and, nowadays, a woman) admired, lauded, considered great by his contemporaries. A courageous and generous person. A person with superhuman attributes. The positive male character in fiction. ‘Sharon wondered how she could turn her weedy, slightly dense and positively spotty young protagonist into a hero, so she invested him with a remarkable singing voice, the charisma of JFK and the strength of Sampson with his hair intact, but, somehow, it just wasn’t enough.’

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