I read Beastkeeper by Cat Hellisen earlier this year and gushed ad nauseam about it here, which is why I’m not sure how it took me so long to ask Cat for an interview. I sent her a barrage of questions that she was kind enough to answer. I love her candid, non-pretentious way of answering these questions. She gives us no pretense that authoring is some incredible magic and inspires you to just get on with it. Enjoy!
- Beastkeeper is your first foray into the world of middle-grade/children’s fiction but it has been well received with as many adults as children thanks to its cross-over potential. While writing it, did you have a particular audience in mind?
Yes. Me. All my books are written for me. That might sound awfully egotistical but if I’m not interested in the story, if I, the very first audience to what unfolds, am bored before I even begin, then what’s the point?
- What sparked the idea for this book?
Hmm, I really can’t remember. I vaguely remember being cold. All my books are seasonal.
- You now have two beautiful covers – one for the hardcover and one for the softcover. Did you have any input into them? Do you have a favourite? Do you have any thoughts on cover design and whether they are at all important to sales?
I get no input whatsoever. The publishers do show me the covers and ask me what I think, then pat me on the head and go ‘that’s nice dear.’ *grins* Covers are something that very few authors (unless self-published or who have Very Big Names) have much of a say in. You can make suggestions, but just understand that it’s unlikely that anyone will listen to you.
- As a writer, what is the one thing you hope your fiction will do for people when they read it?
That it will captivate them, make them daydream, make them go write a book, or fanfiction, or create art. That it will in some way inspire them to create something.
- Your main character, Sarah, has to be very brave and strong in a world of adults making one terrible choice after another. Why do you think children will relate so well to that?
Children feel things very strongly. They haven’t yet been jaded by experience. They dream bigger, they feel everything for the first time, with that depth of emotion that hasn’t yet been made shallow by repetition. Plus there’s a wonder to exploring the terrifying from the relative safety of a book. You can feel all the pain, the fear, the loneliness, and even if it reflects some of your life, you can still close the book and walk away. Hmm, actually that part probably goes for all humans, young and old.
6. Beastkeeper is fairytale in both tone and plot but tips the story slightly on its head. Do you have an affinity for fairytales? Other than the obvious origins of the story, why did you feel a fairytale style was perfect for this story?
I ADORE fairy tales and folk tales. Just…nnnghhhhh. I love their darkness, their stark metaphors, their sheer evil hidden in plain sight. A beheaded horse that talks to a goose girl who was once a princess? A brother left with a swan-wing for an arm because his sister could only knit nettles mutely for so long? A son chopped up and buried under a tree talking to his sister? Breadcrumbs and gingerbread houses, cannibalism and broken promises? What’s not to love?
And I love retellings that pick them apart and restitch them – read stuff by Kelly Link or Angela Carter for an idea of the kind of things good writers can do with fairy tales.
7. I love how the reader is drawn into the magical world very gently by subtle moments until Sarah is thrown head-first into a world she never knew existed. Was it difficult to write with so delicately in the beginning? Was the magic desperate to leak out or was it happy to be temporarily restrained?
Oh, I have no idea. I just sit there and make words and see what happens. That answer sounds facile but I really work very organically. I just trust that my head has some idea of what it’s doing.
8. Your style in this book is beautifully lyrical. Do you read a lot of poetry? (If so, what is your favourite poem?)
Not a lot of poetry. I really should read more. I like to read the dictionary though, there’s a certain poetry to my Chamber’s – ordonnance, Ordovician, ordure, ore, oread, oreography, orexis, orfe….. How can you not be inspired by that?
9. What is your philosophy on the writing process, if you have one? Are you architect or gardener? Or are such terms ridiculous?
Not ridiculous, no, but limiting. I think most writers are not strictly one or the other but use elements from each “school” to suit their style and their work. Generally I just sit down and start writing and see what happens, then after a while, my brain starts throwing these unformed clay lumps at me and I play with them and primordial things start emerging from the ooze and I do a little research and that throws me more lumps and after a while I have this…mess of a story. And then I can go back and work on it.
And work on it.
And work on it.
I also find it helps if I start to get directionless, to sit down and ask a bunch of What If questions. Eventually one of them will hit on an interesting idea, and I’ll add that to the clay.
The rest is just glazing.
10. How does your family feel about your writerly inclinations? Are they bookish sorts who applaud your every move or do they roll their eyes at you more often than you’d like? Do you have any advice for writers balancing family life and writing?
My immediate family is very supportive. My partner is convinced that one day people will recognise my genius and give me lots of money so he can get a glider (I love this boy, his wide-eyed belief in me is sometimes all that keeps me writing) and my spawn have all decided they’re going to write books too. Yeah, I definitely have a supportive family. Which really helps. They might not all understand what I do, but they respect that this is my art.
My advice for writers balancing life and writing is that a) writing and no life, no reading, no having fun, no spending time with friends and family invariably leads to shit writing and b) get an egg timer.
There’s something about sitting down for exactly 15 minutes that can really force you work. It’s a manageable chunk of time in anyone’s life, and that tick tick tick makes you feel like you can’t waste the time you’ve given yourself. Also. Square Brackets of Absolution. Open Bracket, start writing, don’t worry how bad it is because as long as it’s in the brackets you can pretend that it’s not WRITING-WRITING so you don’t have to judge yourself while working. Close Bracket.
11. What fills your artistic well?
Reading, watching TV shows/movies, hiking, meditating, arting, having lots of hobbies, hanging out with people. Everything is a spring to fill the well.
12. Beastkeeper was published by an American publisher. Was it difficult to break into that international market? Were there any surprising challenges having your agent in another country?
All my books so far have been published through American publishers. It is weird because on the one hand I am completely separated from the USA scene (online only goes so far) and on the other, I’m not considered part of the local scene.
I’m not really sure how to answer the question about difficulty. It was as difficult as it would be for any writer, local or overseas. It took a lot of writing, and a lot of rejection, and a lot of perseverance. Because I write fantasy, and South African publishers are rather adamant that it’s not Their Thing (presumably too low-brow…;)) I had no choice but to focus overseas, so when I was learning about the trade I was learning it from International sources – from places like Absolute Write, or from the Live Journals of authors I admired (LJ…see how long I’ve been doing this? HAHAHA).
Not sure I’ve had any surprising challenges, just the annoyance of not being able to partake in the big fantasy cons and so on, and not being able to make face-to-face connections with editors and agents.
13. Can you talk a little bit about the relationship between a writer and their editor? Do you have any advice for writers who are about to embark on that kind of relationship?
I am possibly the worst person to give advice about that relationship. Just know that neither the writer, not the editor, is The Voice of God. Both have to make concessions to get the story to work.
14. I know that asking this question may be like asking you to choose a favourite child but… what was your favourite book growing up?
I’m still growing up….but if you meant as a child, I really liked books that were tremendously sad but with a little bit of hope – The Velveteen rabbit, Goodnight, Mister Tom, Dogsbody….
15. During your writing career, has there ever been a piece of music, art, theatre or film that has lit a fuse under your sleeping muse?
Oh always, they come in all kinds of interesting variations. I’m especially partial to traditional folk music because you do not get a genre more obsessed with death. Even the goths wish they were this into death.
16. You’re a full time writer. Few people realise how unglamorous that is. Tell us one thing you hate about being a full timer and one thing you love.
I like that reading is part of my job, I like that I can go to work in my pyjamas. I don’t like the fluctuating funds, and worrying about how to do taxes.
17. Now for the thing that every beginner writer wants from a successful writer: sage advice. Do you have any?
Oh lordy, no. Everything I know now I learned from other writers. Very, very good writers who are way better at this than me. Some excellent stuff to be found in Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic, Jeff Vandermeer’s Wonderbook and Donald Maass’s Writing the Breakout novel Workbook. These are good places to start for sage advice.
You can buy Beastkeeper here.
Read more about Cat here.