And please welcome Catherine Johnson author and screenwriter.
She has written the brilliant “The Curious Tale of Lady Caraboo” amongst other titles and has kindly accepted to be interviewed on Chouett.
Feel free to also read my review of right here.
1. As my experience with words is from a reader’s perspective, I have always wondered, what it feels like to pass by a bookshop and see your work in print right there, displayed on bookshelves for potential readers. Can you tell us?
It’s lovely. I can remember my Uncle who wrote books in Welsh had his first book out – I must have been about 9 – walking past a bookshop in a Welsh town and seeing it his name right there! And that feeling doesn’t fade, even when you are old and cynical like me and pretend you don’t care (oh I do! It’s really sad making!) if a shop doesn’t have any of your books. In fact it’s so awful knowing no one’s stocking your books that I do try and avoid shops just after I have a book out in case they’re not there!
2. Out of all your published work, do you have a favourite and if so, can you tell us why it is so?
I do love Caraboo because it took years. I wrote it a million different ways and still couldn’t get it right. First person, multiple viewpoint – I tried every way!
But in general my favourite book is the book I haven’t finished; it could be brilliant, if only I get it right…
3. Which one do you prefer? Writing a novel or being a screenwriter? And how does the process defer?
Being a novelist is far less stressy! But I don’t sell enough books not to have another income stream. With a novel of course I rely on loads of input first from my daughter who is 28 and a talented writer herself – she lives in Canada but we have Skype! She reads everything and I trust her completely. Then of course editors who are wonderful. I am nothing without one. I love all my editors.
Screenwriting is different. It’s an utterly collaborative process. There’s not just you and your editor, there’s producers and directors who want input, and then after you’ve let the screenplay go it can change enormously, actors, editing…it’s a massively complicated process and I am always surprised that anything ever gets made at all!
4. When you were younger, you mentioned that secondary school was not a pleasant experience. So was there a time in your life which triggered your decision to write? And how did you nurture your gift?
Oh it’s a long story! I worked making films and pop videos after film school in the 80s, then I had children in my 20s and ended up in the office. That was when I got bored and started pitching ideas for films – and had a little success. It was one of these pitches – sent to a TV company – that became my first book. I would never have thought I could write a book as I was rubbish at school. But someone in that TV office knew someone who was setting up a small publisher who was looking for YA fiction they nurtured me, They sent me on a course at Ty Newydd (like the Welsh Arvon) with the brilliant Jan Mark and Catherine Fisher. I wrote a book and loved it so much I knew I’d found something I could do. They held my hand through my first two books and basically trained me up. I owe such a lot to my first editor Mairwen Prys Jones.
5. Can you share with us a moment that stayed with you and that you will always remember, while you were hosting a creative workshop either while visiting a school or a juvenile facility?
Gosh this is hard. I have been doing writing workshops in schools for a very long time. And what’s lovely is when a young person feels they can actually write. And yes I’ve worked in some difficult places either doing research – in a safe house for sexually exploited under 16s, in a homeless hostel for young people, in prisons, but actually what made me think most recently was in a library in Kilburn, London, about a month ago. I was working with youngsters from a private school, an Islamic school, and they were writing stories, and even though their names were Iqbal and and Mina and Faizal, all the children they wrote about in their stories were called Steve and Jeff and Lauren, because ‘children like us don’t have adventures in books….
6. Have you ever felt like Mary Wilcox from “The Curious Tale of Lady Caraboo”? And if you wanted to become a fictional character for a time, who would it be and why?
Oh of course! But that’s why being a writer is so great you can be a million different people living in a million different lives. And when I was very young 16 and 17 I used to blag loads of free ticvkets for concerts by pretending to take photographs for music papers.
Who would I like to be? That’s hard, I am a big chicken and not at all brave but of course I suppose if I could choose anyone maybe Snufkin from The Moomins.
7. How do you feel about the inclusion of diversity and feminism in writing today compared to what it was like when you were growing up? Can I ask your perspective as both a reader and an author?
Oh I never saw any children like me in books or on telly when I was growing up. Just like most girls can easily imagine themselves as the protagonist – even when that protagonist is male, so non white folk are used to pretending to be (in my case) Taran in the Magic Cauldron or Katherine in Magic By the Lake (both novels I loved at primary School). But
You also understand pretty quick that the world of books is not for people like you when you aren’t allowed to play those characters at school in the playground because they don’t look like you. I think the book world needs to be inclusive in every way. I see nothing wrong in young readers wanting to see themselves in stories, not simply as sidekicks or the ones who die first. Can you imagine how women would feel if there were no books about women? Wouldn’t we think it was a little odd?
I have always been a feminist! How can you be female and not? Who wouldn’t want the same wages as men? That would be like being a Turkey and voting for Christmas! I was at an event today with Holly Bourne and I think my generation had it easier in some ways. Although we had Jackie magazine telling us how to look perfect to ‘snag’ a guy, we also had Spare Rib and were allowed to have hairy legs and armpits.
8. What was the best advice you received from your parents?
My parents were very good at sayings. Here are two;
What is for you will not pass you by.
What is to is will is.
My family is fairly fatalist!
9. Can you tell us “10 things” we don’t know about Catherine Johnson? (I always ask that question :)).
• Freddos? Yes! Freddo Faces NO
• I once got my skirt stuck in the down escalator at Holborn tube station. For a long ten seconds as I tried to pull it out I imagined I would have to go home in my knickers.
• Do not ask me to throw or catch anything.
• I split tea over an Oscar winning actress.
• When I was pregnant, instead of eating pickles, I read everything I could get my hands on about Antarctic Exploration in the early 20th century.
• I wish I had my own pony – but I think everyone knows this.
• I was taught to drive a horse and cart by a brewery drayman on Saturday mornings down the Bethnal Green Road.
• Until I moved out of London two years ago I wrote all my books in my bedroom.
• I wish I could sing. I really really can’t.
• When I was a teenager and the Old eastern part of Highgate Cemetery was closed to the public and derelict, we used to climb over the wall and explore. It was terrifying. But my husband and his mates, when they were young would climb into London Zoo at night – the Mappin terraces, from the Regents Canal, luckily there were only goats in residence, rather than bears….
10.What brings you joy?
Walking by the sea – honestly I have lived by the seaside for two years now and I am embarrassed at how much I love to look at it.
My family, especially when my children – they are grown up – are happy.
Thank you Catherine!