Lottie Biggs

Young Persons’ Special: In Conversation with Catherine Fisher

Catherine Fisher

Conducted and transcribed by Michael Allen, William Binning, Ben Cooksey, Elliot Counsell and Ellie-May Griffiths, Year 6, Glan Usk Primary School

EC: Thank you Ms Fisher for taking the time to allow us to interview you. My name is Elliot.

MA: My name is Michael Allen.

EMG: My name is Ellie-May.

WB: I’m Will.

BC: I’m Ben.

Catherine Fisher: Hi everyone; it’s a pleasure to meet you.

MA: I’d like to start with asking about the influences on you which initially inspired you to write.

Mostly other writers. I used to read a lot when I was younger – people like Alan Garner; he was an author in the 1960s. He wrote a book called The Owl Service which was very interesting because he took an old Welsh legend and set it in a modern day situation with modern kids. I thought it was a very interesting idea. I also liked the way he used language and I wanted to do what he was doing. There were others like Robert Louis Stevenson who wrote action-packed stories like Kidnapped and Treasure Island, where boys and girls get kidnapped and taken away to islands. I really liked the way those were so exciting and I couldn’t put them down.

MA: Are your reasons for writing then the same as your reasons for writing now?

They are different now because I’m a different writer now than I was when I started out. One of the things when you start out is to be successful and get published. Obviously I’ve done that lots of times now so I don’t want just that anymore. What I want now is to write a really good book. Every book you write you want to be better than the last. You don’t want to write the same stories again; you want something new to stretch yourself, challenge yourself. So I think my desires now are different. Like what I’m working on now, The Obsidian Mirror Set: I’ve decided to mix time travel and fairies. I don’t think anyone else has done that… It’s difficult because time travel is one thing and fairies another. Also I’m going to make each one of the books based on a Shakespearian play. The reader may not even notice, but I’ll notice it… a secret challenge to myself. I’m doing things now that I wouldn’t have done before. Also I’m reading different books, including lots of science fiction, and it makes me want to write things set on other planets; adventure, dark matter, that sort of thing. The things I read change what I want to do.

WB: In The Obsidian Mirror you said there are lots of different elements. What’s the hardest about that?

The hardest is to keep it all together to try and make one story. In The Obsidian Mirror I’ve put about ten characters in the plot and that’s hard because each character has to have a purpose. They can’t just be there to look pretty. The more people, the more characters, you have the harder that is. It’s like when you see these people who spin plates on poles – I feel as if I have ten plates and have got to keep going to keep them all up.

BC: What was your first published book and how do you feel about it now?

My first published book was The Conjuror’s Game. It is a book about a magical board game. I’m quite proud of it because it took me a lot to sort of get to it. I wrote three books before it that did not turn out very well and are still in a drawer at home. If I wrote it now I’d rewrite it completely differently. But I like it because it has a simplicity and freshness. Have you read it?

All: Not yet…

MA: So is the book like Jumanji then?

(laughs) No. To be honest I’ve never watched it the whole way through so I can’t really tell you. But in my book, there’s a boy called Alek who lives with his dad above a bookshop, in a little forest village, and it’s Christmas. Alek meets a man called Luke. Luke is the local sorcerer who has six fingers on each hand and a little white animal that keeps changing shapes, sometimes a bird, sometimes a cat. Alek follows Luke into the forest and goes into this strange cave and in the cave is a table and on the table is board game and the boy, Alek, accidentally takes a piece of the table. There are two sets of figures on different sides of the board and in the middle is a little tree. He removes the tree and that is what starts the game: the pieces come to life and ride into the wood, causing havoc, and it’s all his fault. So he has to get this tree back on the board. Now I don’t know if that’s like Jumanji or not. It’s probably the same basic idea.

BC: So with the animal he had, was it sort of a shape shifter?

WB: Like Pullman’s creatures?

Yes, sort of.…

WB: We’ve been studying The Candle Man in Year 6. I am wondering where the idea for it originated?

From various things: the place, the river. I wanted the river to be a character: this woman, Hafren, is not solely a woman, a spirit, goddess, a river, but she is all those things. I wanted her to be very slithery and wet so I knew I would have fun writing about her.

The idea of a soul in an object came from many different stories and I’ve also used it elsewhere. The idea you can put what keeps for alive in an object, for example a plastic cup, interested me a lot. The funny thing is when you start writing a book you don’t know how you’re going to put the different ideas together. I just started with a boy on a bus at night, put him down there near the river and just saw what happened.

EMG: Why did you make Meurig’s life depend on a candle specifically, not anything else?

The idea was that it had to be something the characters could carry and take into dangerous situations. I wanted it to be gradually destructible. So I tried apples, eggs, clocks, watches, lots of ideas but they all had flaws. For example an egg; an egg you destroy but can’t put it back together again. The candle just seemed to be perfect –  when it’s not lit it’s just a little blob of wax, you can carry it in your pocket, but a lit candle is a totally different thing:  it gives light, heat… and then shrivels away to nothing.

WB: Also there was a story about a man on the river…?

Yes, the ghost, the ferry man. I watched a tv program with an old man who had worked on the river all his life and, at the end of the program, in the credits, it said he’d died, been drowned in the river. I thought this fascinating and needed to put him in my book, as a ghost or some sort of spirit. The idea of the ferryman is a concept from the Greeks where, when you died, the ferryman would take the across the River Lethe for the price of a coin to the otherworld. Of course, they go across to ‘Hafren’s island’. I wanted Hafren to have a place. You will probably know there are lots of islands out there but the ones I used were Flatholm, Steepholm and Lundy. I once spent a weekend on Flatholm, this was after I’ve written the book, and it was very creepy.

I wanted a guardian as well, which is where the cat came into it. In a way it’s a bit like Meurig’s character – mysterious. The cat too came from a couple of sources; there’s an old poem called ‘The Voyage Of Muldoon’ about a team of men who set out on a boat, get lost and go to all these really strange islands. On one of the islands they come to a room full of treasure, and one of Muldoon’s men wants to steal from this room. Muldoon warns against this, saying the place has a guardian. The man doesn’t listen and steals a bracelet and as soon as he does this, a silent cat that had sat licking itself all along, turns itself into this arrow of fire and goes through him, burning him up. Then, it carries on licking itself. I loved that!

BC: What is the significance of the river to you and your family?

Big significance. In the 1840s there was a big famine in Ireland – many people died, starved to death when the crops failed. So people left Ireland to move to America or even here, Newport, which was just starting up as a town. I know that my family came from Ireland and I know they came up the river in boats and I know they had to be put ashore because they weren’t supposed to be here, so they had to climb over the mud and sneak their way into the city. I also like the way the river is so huge and the way the River Severn is the point of mixture of sea water and fresh water, a sort of pulsing back and forth. I wrote some poems about the river too so, yes, it’s a big symbol for me.

BC: So you could sort of say the river is part of your family?

Yes, in a way. It’s definitely the way (my family) came, the way they travelled, and that is important.

EMG: Is that why you give most of your books a Welsh setting and your characters Welsh names?

Well actually if you look at all my books most of them are not set in Wales.  There are some – The Candle Man obviously. I do that because first of all it’s a place I know and live in. Also I use Welsh myths and legends. I like using Welsh names because I’m quite proud to be Welsh and I like to sort of put Welsh culture out there for everyone else in the world to find out about, because if we don’t, nobody else will. We need to be proud about our culture and tell everyone about it. Recently I did a little book called The Magic Thief. It’s the story of Taliesin, an old Welsh folk tale, and that’s gone to places like Sweden. I’m really interested in Swedish kids reading Welsh stories because we’ve got some good ones to share.

EC: How does your relationship with Wales translate with your American readers and how do you feel about your success in America?

Oh that’s like two questions really.  I’m just trying to think if any of my Welsh books have gone to America… I don’t think they have, The Candle Man has not been out in America. Most of the ones that go to America tend to be ones set in imaginary worlds so that they’re just as strange to the American kids as to us. Sometimes people who are not from Wales find Welsh things difficult but interesting at the same time. They think of Wales as a magical place, because of Wales’s reputation of Merlin, King Arthur and they imagine a strange and mysterious place full of mountains and all sorts of magic things. And they’re right, it is.

How I feel about my success in America is, yes, great, let’s have a bit more of it! Because America is so huge the numbers of books you sell there can be massive! In this country if you sold about ten thousand copies of a book that would be good. In America you can sell one hundred thousand plus; ten, fifteen times the amount here, so in terms of making money and being successful it’s great.

WB: Also don’t you have a movie in the pipeline?

Yes, twice Incarceron has been optioned. That means twice movie producers have said they were going to do it, but twice it hasn’t happened. At this very moment we’ve got two new studios looking at the book, but we haven’t decided who to go with yet… so there’s still hope.

EC: You were the first Young People’s Laureate for Wales. Can you explain your time in this role?

Yes, Literature Wales, which is the group that runs literature in Wales, rang me up and said we want to have a Children’s Laureate in the English language. There is already a Welsh one, a Bardd Plant Cymru. I explained that I’d do it but I don’t really write for young children, but teenagers. So they said they’d change the name – make it the Young People’s Laureate. The idea was that it wouldn’t be about school so much… we wanted to get away from the idea that books are all about school and classrooms and all that. To get people who maybe don’t read that much – young dance groups, young carers – I went to this dance performance by teenagers based on Incarceron – they’d written their own music to it – it was fantastic! They’d even made DVDs with it and I was wowed! Beyond schoolwork, more fun. I did it for two years and it was fun. There’s a new guy doing it now, called Martin Daws. I hope he’s enjoying it

EMG: If like Meurig’s candle in The Candle Man, your writing skills were snatched away from you, what would you do?

(laughs) Ha, I’d starve to death! What would I do? I’d have to get a job! I’d probably try art – drawing and painting. I still would starve to death but it would be fun. I might go back to archaeology, I used be an archaeologist, but there’s not much money in that. I used to be a teacher so I might even have to go back to being a teacher… that would be really bad! I just hope my skills would never be snatched away from me because it is a really good way to make a living, and such fun.

EC: What do you consider your biggest career milestone to date?

Hmm, interesting. Being the teenage laureate was certainly been one of them. In Wales it gave me a lot of exposure – television and radio – lots of people heard about the books. I even got to meet the Queen which was pretty impressive! In terms of my writing, the success of Incarceron has been my biggest thing. It was a Times Book of the Year, it was on the New York Bestseller list – if it hadn’t been for The Hunger Games it might have even made it to Number 1. Also, the fact that it might be made into a film…

WB: What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

I always mean to write out ten points for aspiring writers; I must do it some day.

The first thing is you’ve got to read; read as much as you can. That doesn’t just mean fiction – it means anything you’re interested in. If I am writing about time travel, I need to know about the past – so if I have read about the French Revolution or the Blitz in London, I can set my story in those places. Just cram your mind with stuff. Also, by reading you get to understand how language works, how sentences work, how the author makes you feel and see things. You get to understand what bores you, what excites you. You don’t have to learn that in a boring way; you just absorb it like a sponge from reading.

The second thing is to write about somewhere you know. Then put something really weird in a really ordinary place.  Have a street that you know and have all the cars turn into elephants and just see where it goes. Have a play, because all writing is just play. Writers are just big kids who love to play, with ideas, with language. And if it doesn’t work, what have you lost? Just a piece of paper and a bit of time.

In terms of technique, start with something exciting: someone talking or in the middle of something. The Box of Red Brocade begins with a boy running down the road in a middle of an air raid – there are bombs falling all around, ‘bang, bang, bang’! You know who he is, you don’t know why he’s there, but instantly you want him to be safe. That’s the thing. Explain later.

Don’t have too much description (a thing I tend to do!). You need description but it needs to be good and short.

Have characters talking and explaining things to each other.

Don’t explain to the reader; pretend the reader’s not there.
Interesting characters. Give each character a problem. Once they’ve got a problem, you’ve got a story.

And then bung something really magical in. Something really strange.

And if you get stuck, have something happen. The writer Dashiell Hammett used to say, ‘When I get stuck, I have a man come in through the door with a gun!’

Those are my tips.

WB: That’s really, really helpful! Thank you for talking to us.

Thank you for your questions.

WB: Do you have any questions for your readers?

(laughs) Oh, no I don’t think I do. The readers ask me questions, and then I think about them afterwards. I think if I was to ask my readers questions like ‘what do you like?’ and ‘what do you want?’ I would be too influenced by the answers, and then I would start writing for them instead of writing for me. So I try not to ask, but guess instead. I think really that to write for others is a mistake; you really write for yourself. And hope that other people like it.

ALL: Thank you very much!

Thank you.

Banner illustration by Dean Lewis