, who lives in Newport, writes both poems and YA fantasy novels. In poetry, she has won the Cardiff International Poetry Prize, while with her novels she has been shortlisted for many awards including the Smarties Books Prize and the Whitbread Prize for Children's Fiction. Her futuristic novel Incarceron
was published to widespread praise in 2007, winning the Mythopoeic Society of America's Children's Fiction Award and selected by The Times as its Children's Book of the Year.SHEENAGH:
I think you've said before that you, like me, are one of those who can't write poetry and prose at the same time because the rhythms are so different; the poems just come out prosy. Do you consciously think yourself into a poetry or prose mood? When something starts to germinate in your mind, how soon do you know which form it's going to take? And what would you do if, say, you're in the middle of a novel and you suddenly get a really good impetus for something that just has to be a poem?CATHERINE:
It's hard to write both at once; sometimes it works. I don't really do anything consciously with writing- it's all just spur of the moment. If a line comes to mind which is quite obviously a line of verse- or even an image or idea, I try to jot it down and keep it to work on. Whether a vaguer idea will turn out prose or poetry sort of depends on the size of the thing- having written many novels I know now when it's going to be a big story, with lots of complications, rather than a more stripped-down subject for a poem or a series of poems.
If I'm in the middle of a novel and I get an idea for a poem I usually just do it, or at least make notes about it. A novel takes about a year to write so if you wait you'll have lost it... which happens sometimes.SHEENAGH:
Your poetry is basically aimed at adults while your novels have been marketed to children and young adults. Granted, the divide between YA and "adult" books is a bit artificial, I read your YA fantasy novels with pleasure and I'm sure an intelligent child would like your poems, But have you ever been tempted to write "adult" novels, or poems specifically aimed at children?CATHERINE:
I think I just write the books for me now- I don't really think about the YA or adult thing, and as you say, the adult readership for YA is huge. The only thing that makes the books YA really is that the protagonists tend to be young people- having said that, most of the other characters are adults and they are just as important. In the current set, The Chronoptika books, Jake and Sarah are the nominal heroes, but then there's Venn, Wharton, David, Maskelyne, a whole host of adults who are almost equally important.
Having said that, publishers have rather different ideas and don't like too many adult characters. They seem to feel that teens only like to read about other teens, which I think is untrue. After all, this is the time in life when the adult world is impinging, and teens want to learn about it. When I was that age there were no YA books really, so I went from Enid Blyton etc straight to Sherlock Holmes and plenty of sf. And that was good.
So if I wrote an adult book it wouldn't be that different. Though of course there is the bitter truth that so called adult fiction is taken more seriously by critics and pays better. But also it is true that the YA market seems to be prospering, even in these tough times.SHEENAGH:
"I think I just write the books for me now- I don't really think about the YA or adult thing" - That's always been my impression; your books certainly never talk down to young readers. But I know that some of your UK titles have been altered in US editions, because US publishers haven't trusted their readers to understand the British titles (though why Crown of Acorns
became Circle of Stones
still baffles me; have US children really never seen acorns?) Have you ever encountered any other sort of intervention like this? I'm thinking not only of how you always credit readers with the brains to know or look up what's new to them, but also of times when you've tackled emotionally difficult material - killed off parents, allowed siblings to admit to serious resentment of each other, or allowed your young 18th and 19th-century girl protagonists to be at fairly explicit risk from men, though luckily they're pretty good at taking care of themselves. Has a publisher or editor ever tried to get you to simplify or tone anything down? CATHERINE:
The Crown of Acorns
title change baffled me too. Circle of Stones
is so bland! I don't really understand some of these changes. The funniest one was the change of The Oracle
, a title which was considered too baffling for US kids and finally became The Oracle Prophecies
. Of course. So much simpler.
There are other interventions but they are fairly low-level- mostly questioning word usage, usually because a word can be unfamiliar or idiomatic or mean something else there. I don't think I've ever been asked to tone down content, or had complaints about what goes on in the books- at least not from publishers. Some US librarians have lists which rate you for content.. how much swearing, how much violence etc.
But I think my books are fairly innocuous compared to the more realistic YA book. At least fantasy distances violence and danger. The stuff that happens in your own street is probably far more frightening, in real terms.SHEENAGH:
"As for poetry, I hope anyone can read it. " - we both know they can't, though. Or at least, they tell themselves they can't. Many adults, certainly, seem to have a mental block as soon as they see what someone described to me as "those little short lines" and to assume it won't be for them. I would hope that doesn't apply so much to children, but I haven't your experience with them. Do you see any way to overcome this reaction of fear, antipathy, whatever one calls it? Particularly if, as I suspect, it isn't natural to children but develops as they grow older.CATHERINE:
I don't think young children have learned an antipathy to poetry. On the contrary they love it, but for them it is an oral art, like singing or stories. Joining in, chanting along, having fun with words.
I think maybe children learn to fear poetry because somehow they pick up this idea that it is 'difficult', not straightforward, that it doesn't tell a story and hides its meaning in metaphors. So it becomes a puzzle to be solved.
Having said that, of course poetry is difficult, because it's dense, compacted, packed tight. It's taken neat. Or, in another image which I'm playing with at the moment, a poem is like one of those pellets that owls regurgitate. You have to break it open and pick out all the bones and fur to find out what the poet has been digesting.
Good teachers can make it loved, but many teachers find it difficult too, I suspect.
I think the only way to keep that fresh response of the young is to read the stuff aloud, which transforms it. As a kid I chanted reams of poetry to myself because I loved the sounds, the rhythms, the rhyme. As well as the sharp, brilliant visual flashes you get.
Teaching is hard and in these days there is little room for fun. But the child who 'gets' poetry will never lose their hunger for it.. SHEENAGH:
Like many YA writers, you are deeply rooted in mythology: Welsh, Egyptian, Norse, among others. And this often goes hand in hand with the futuristic element: ancient archetypes and themes play out in a new guise for a new age. I've noticed that your dystopian futures, as in the Chronoptika books, tend to be materialistic, practical, cleansed of myth, which fortunately reasserts itself like Nature resisting the pitchfork. Again, is that conscious or just the way you naturally see the world? And do you think it would actually happen? (I'm recalling Terry Nation saying gloomily that he couldn't imagine a future that wasn't basically dystopian.)CATHERINE:
Myth is fascinating and eternal. One reason I enjoy it and use it a lot is that these are well tried and tested stories; there is something in them that goes deep, however often they are re-interpreted. And they do go well with the futuristic.
I have done a few dystopias and yes they tend to be materialistic places, and the reason for that, I suppose is that it's my worst nightmare- places where stories and the past have been obliterated. But the stories always come back. In Incarceron
, for example, the prisoners have a whole secret mythology of a prisoner called Sapphique, who once escaped, and will one day return. The really fun part for me is creating this backstory and playing with mythic tropes, writing whole sections of scripture and poetry about him or by him, while keeping the reader wondering if in fact he ever really existed. SHEENAGH:
Following on from that, one mythology I haven't particularly noticed surfacing in your work is Irish, and I know you have Irish ancestry. Any plans in that direction?CATHERINE:
Ah. I love the Irish stuff. It has a peculiar, raw savage feel. It's different to the Welsh stories which are softer - the myths of Cuchulain etc seem primal and unrefined. To start using them would be a challenge- and somehow dangerous, as if I would be handling powerful, unstable dynamite..
So I have no plans just yet in fiction, but certain poems may happen, as a way into it.
I don't think humanity will ever lose stories. At the moment we seem to have more of them than ever, and everything is always being reworked. Sometimes I don't like the results, but I like the obsessive need for it.SHEENAGH:
Your little poem pamphlet Folklore
(Smith/Doorstop Books 2003) was very much about that, how folk motifs survive by being reworked in each generation. When you say "sometimes I don't like the results", are you thinking of anything in particular?CATHERINE:
Well, I'm being purist here. I love the idea that stories are being constantly reworked. But that means writers can- and do- take liberties with the characters and re-arrange them in new scenarios and different adventures. Which is fine, as long as there is some integrity with the originals. I suppose I'm thinking mostly of TV and film adaptions- things like the recent Jason, and Merlin, which I don't tend to watch because the modern idiom and 21st century responses of the characters irritate me. But then it's always been like that. I bet there was some crusty old scribe back in the 1100s complaining that Chretien de Troyes' new version of the grail story totally wrecked the original, and that things didn't really happen like that.
The great thing about myths is there is no original and there is no really.
This impinges a bit on fan fiction, but of course with that there is an original.SHEENAGH:
Talking of which, I know you've encouraged children in the past to write fan fiction based on your books, particularly when they wanted the story to continue and you wanted to go off and write something else! Did you ever read any of it, and if so, how did you react? I know there was a fair bit, and I'm guessing a lot of it revolved round Getting People Together who didn't explicitly come together in the books - young readers don't half want true love to triumph, whatever else happens...CATHERINE:
I gather there is quite a bit of fan fiction around, especially about the worlds of Incarceron
but I have never gone looking for it and haven't read much. I have no objection to people writing it as long as it's clear it has nothing to do with me. As you say, I imagine it's mostly people playing with the characters' relationships and re-arranging them to their own liking, or inventing new adventures for them. I understand the desire to do that, if you are so in love with that world or those characters that you just want more and more of them, and the author is too busy (or disinclined) to provide it. Also it can be a way into writing, as copying paintings is for artists.
But I think in the long run it leads to sterility, and writers have to be brave and take the step away and invent their own stories.
By the way, earlier I said that with fan fiction there is an original, and that's true, in that say, the book of Incarceron exists. But looking at it in more detail, even that book is actually an assemblage, an artwork created out of thousands of bits of things- paintings, poems, books I've read, films, places I know, and many more tinier, intangible things. Only the way it's put together and expressed is truly mine.
So maybe, even with fiction, there is no ultimate original.
Which doesn't stop me feeling possessive about the work and uneasy about what happens to it out there..SHEENAGH:
Talking of originals, both your poems and your novels sometimes use historical characters, but very differently. When, in your poems, you get into a past voice, like James Hartshill in The Unexplored Ocean
, or the two adversaries in "Incident at Conwy", it seems you're trying to get as close as possible to the reality of being them. But with the historical characters in your novels, like John Dee, Maskelyne, John Wood of Bath, it seems the first thing you do is work free of the reality, changing names and at least lightly fictionalising the character. Why might that be?CATHERINE:
Actually these two examples are quite similar. James Hartshill, for instance, is invented. I wanted to write a set of poems about Cook's voyages and initially tried to use Cook's voice, but that method was full of potential pitfalls. His diaries exist, he was a real person. So I could easily be seen to get things wrong, be inaccurate, and would be constrained by his responses and the things he really did. It was easier to comment on Cook through Hartshill, who can be or say anything I want him to be. He starts off as very young and naive and grows disillusioned.
So that is very similar to the way I use Jonathon Forest as a fictionalised version of John Wood. Wood was a wonderful man and full of crazy theories, but the demands of fiction meant that his life had to be re-arranged into the pattern I needed. So Forrest is Wood, but not quite.
For example, Wood actually met a young woman called Sylvia and took her into his household, but she later committed suicide. In my story Crown of Acorns
she does not do that.
It's as if one is writing an alternative form of what happened, or trying to impose pattern, because real lives are so chaotic and random. I think that this is the need underlying most fiction. SHEENAGH:
Many of your YA protagonists, especially the girls, are quite spiky, combative characters. Is that a reaction against the sort of "heroines" you and I mostly had to put up with in the books of our childhood?CATHERINE:
Oh well, we've all cringed at the stereotypes. It is a reaction against them, but in fact I think YA readers- who tend to be mostly girls- now simply expect them. In my teen reading I had no trouble being the boy hero in my mind, but now readers don't have to do that. Things have changed, and that's good... SHEENAGH:
For some reason I've never quite figured out, I found the tree buried upside down in Darkhenge
hugely sinister and unsettling! Where did you get the idea for that?CATHERINE:
It is immensely sinister, which is why I love it. It comes from Sea Henge, the neolithic timber circle found on a beach in Norfolk, I think, and which was the subject of a huge row between neopagans and archaeologists. In the centre of the circle was what turned out to be the remains of an upturned tree-trunk. Enigmatic. Unexplained. Just there.
There is just something so intriguing about that. Such a sense of lost stories and rituals.
Hence the book's themes of the Unworld, and the shamanic ladder into other dimensions. Incidentally if you are ever in the Fwrrwm in Caerleon they have a modern sculpture there of an upturned tree which is truly tremendous, and maybe a bit like how the original might have looked.SHEENAGH:
A huge row between neopagans and archaeologists sounds such a wonderful scenario, I want to read the book about it! I know you've been very involved with archaeology; its influence is obvious in many of your books. Is there anything else from that arena that you're thinking of writing about? (I bet we could show you some inspirational stuff in Shetland if you ever come up so far!)CATHERINE:
I did try to convey both sides of that argument- whether to leave the remains in situ and let the sea destroy them, or take up the timbers and preserve them, even though it's the place they surround that's important. By the way, Seahenge
by Francis Pryor is probably the book.)
I love archaeology and especially the Neolithic, which has such fascinating mysteries. What we lack, of course are the stories those people told. And without them we will never understand them, however familiar we become with their material circumstances.
Imagine trying to understand Christianity without knowing the story of Christ, or Norse myth without Odin, Thor and co...You'd have a vague idea, that's all. Not even any names.
I'm not planning anything from that far back in the past at the moment though, as my next book is a contemporary one. But that's all top secret yetSHEENAGH:
We'll be waiting with interest…Catherine's website is here Poems
More poems here
The White Ship
The white ship sails all night out of his dreams,
her fierce figurehead drinking the cold sea.
He leans and fingers her smooth, open lips.
Spindles of ice her frosted spars,
sails crumpling, sloughing and filling
with the salt breathing of the wind.
All day he sits, talks, works, and he forgets her,
till in a window or in someone's words
comes sea-glitter, a gull's rebuke,
and in the turning of his head he's back
among creaks and whispers, the rotating wheel
that no-one grasps, the cabin with its lamp
swinging on the outspread charts.
It's those charts he never can remember;
always as he gropes for them they've gone,
leaving a sense of infinite distance;
islands marked with strange calligraphy;
and names, names he almost knows,
that tantalise but just won't come,
so that in songs or a poem's skirl
he tries their echoes over on his tongue.
Each night he journeys on the winter ship,
hands on the ropes, feeling the spray,
living in the cracks between his days.
And where he's sailing to he doesn't know,,
except that it's too late to turn back now;
that here are all the spaces of his art,
the craft he once thought he was master of,
driving him out across an endless sea,
alone under the stars; far from home.
(From Altered States, Seren 1999
Incident at Conwy
During the Wars of the Roses a Lancastrian officer was shot by a marksman stationed on the battlements of Conwy Castle. The river between them was at least half a mile wide. The feat was recorded by several chroniclers.
1. Llewelyn of Nannau
Oh man, you are foolish to wear that surcoat.
the gold and the blue outrage the dull afternoon.
You are a heraldic flicker among the leaves
tempting my pride.
I have not killed men in the stench and fury
of battle only, that I would baulk at this.
I am an archer. I send death winging,
sudden and cold over parapet and fosse;
the lightning that strikes nowhere twice.
I'm too far away to see your pain,
the blood that will sully that bright coat;
too far for the shriek from your lady's arbour.
Nor will imagination spoil my aim.
The taut string creaks against my fingers,
brushes my cheek softly, as I draw back.
My eye is steady down the shaven shaft.
You're a roebuck, a proud stag, a target.
Your words do not goad me, I can't hear what you say.
Your death will be skilfully given, and without rancour.
At least I am not too far from you for that.
2. Rhys ap Gruffudd Coch
The river is wide, and the leaves cover us.
we are safe enough, but they are certainly ready
- each tower and arrowslit is crowded with faces,
and notice the fool on the battlements with his bow.
This castle will drink an oblation of blood
before we break its stone teeth.
That archer has seen me; he lifts his bow.
Well the river will not bleed from his arrow.
Doubtless he would kill me if he could
and boast about it over the spilled wine;
a distant, stout, nameless man
who would never have seen my face.
Then he would thresh about in the straw at night,
seek solace from priests, drink away memory,
but the line would have been thrown between us,
the bright gift passed, that he could not take back.
Look, he draws. If he should strike me down
I will never be so far from him again.
And here's an extract from Catherine's ongoing Chronoptika Quartet. This is from the first book in the quartet, The Obsidian Mirror
. Gideon is a human boy who was stolen years ago by Summer, the queen of the Shee who live in the wood where "all times are now", and he longs to escape.
The Shee knelt and touched the footprints, sniffed them. Then it raised its hands to its ears. "What is that terrible whining cry?"
Gideon was wondering that too. "Is it the world freezing up?"
He had been with them so long, they had taught him to hear as they did. He could hear the cold night coming down, puddles on the gravelled track hardening infinitely slowly, the icy crystals lengthening and creaking to a pitted surface. He could hear the birds edging on their frozen roosts, the blown barbs of their feathers, the blinks of their beady black eyes. He could hear the frost crisp over the windowpanes of Wintercombe.
But this whine was worse than all of that.
"Sounds like a human machine," The Shee rose, disgusted.
Gideon nodded. The creatures' aversion to metal still pleased him, even after all this time. It was their one weakness. The Shee listened, snow dusting its thin shoulders, its moonpale hair glimmering.
"Summer will want us to investigate." Gideon turned.
The Shee's eyes went sly. "Enter the Dwelling? Many have tried. Venn is too careful."
"For you, he is. But I might be able to…"
"Summer forbids it."
It was a risk. They were treacherous beings – this one would betray him in an instant. So he said heavily, "You're right. And after all, tonight there's the Feast."
The creature grinned, as he had known it would. "The Midwinter Feast! I'd forgotten. We must get back."
Its quicksilver mind would be full instantly of the promise of the music, the terrible, tormenting, fascinating music of the Shee. The music that devoured lives and time and his own humanity, the music that enslaved him and haunted him and that he hungered for like a drug.
"You go," he said. "I'll come later."
"I have to bring you. She'll be furious." Its bird-eyes flickered. He saw the small pointed teeth behind its smile.
"I'll follow you. I just want to see where these prints go."
It hesitated, tormented. Then nodded. "Very well. But be quick!" It turned, and its patchwork of clothes ebbed colour, a magical camouflage, so that now it wore a suit of ermine and white velvet, the buttons on its coat silver crystals of ice. it stepped sideways, and was gone.