Catriona Ward was born in Washington DC and grew up in the US, Kenya, Madagascar, Yemen and Morocco. She studied English at St Edmund Hall, Oxford followed by the UEA Masters in Creative Writing. After living in New York for 4 years where she trained as an actor, she lives in London and Devon.
I caught up with Catriona as she rose for air from her Devon writing space to take a break from working on her third novel.
GJ: Many thanks for letting me take a few moments out of your writing time. I won’t ask how the novel’s going, it sounds a bit intrusive! When I was researching in preparation for talking with you, I read the blurb for your first novel, Rawblood and ended up buying it for my wife for Christmas. It sounds right up her street and luckily I don’t think she reads my blog. Can you tell me about your journey to getting it published?
CW: It was a long one! Rawblood took about seven years to write (I was working full time for some of that, which may have slowed the process.) So much of one’s first novel is teaching yourself how to write and making a lot of mistakes, falling down the wrong rabbit holes! At a certain point I kept running aground and couldn’t seem to move on – so I applied for the Creative Writing MA at the University of East Anglia. I think I was very lucky to get in and have that year of focusing on my writing. It clarified my process for me, helped me begin to take myself seriously as a writer, and more than anything, gave me time to work on the book.
Rawblood is a family saga mostly set at a lonely house on Dartmoor, the eponymous Rawblood, told in interconnecting narratives between 1890 and 1919. Each of the voices is steeped in its period, and meticulously sticks to the style – from an opium addled 19th century doctor to a traumatised soldier returning home after the first world war – so there was a lot of research to do. I became quite obsessive.
When it came to getting an agent I did all the wrong things – which luckily turned out well! – I only queried three agents who I’d met an event at UEA, met with them, and then picked the one who was most enthusiastic, and really seemed to get what I was trying to do with Rawblood. After that we worked on the novel for a month or two – and that month was critical in transforming it into something polished, that could sell. And then there was an auction for the book, which was so exciting, but surreal, after all that solitary work. I found it almost impossible, at first, to believe that anyone else would read the novel. It seemed so intimately mine. But I got over that!
GJ: I can see from your bio that your upbringing took around the world. Do you think your exposure to so many different cultures affected your writing or the content of your novels?
CW: I think both Rawblood and Little Eve have an affinity for the outsider, the marginalised. And landscape and place have totemic importance in both, too. They’re anchors for the narrative. I do think these qualities are a result of my having moved around a lot. They’re very British stories, too, which is strange – I really didn’t spend much time in the UK growing up. Maybe I’m enacting my childhood longing for a mythical, folkloric Britain…
GJ: Rawblood was shortlisted for the Author’s Club Debut Novel of the Year and won Best Horror Novel at the British Fantasy Awards. Did you find writing Little Eve a daunting task after finding so much success with your debut?
CW: I found it terrifying! I’d spent so long writing Rawblood that I wasn’t entirely sure I could write anything else. And in fact for the first few months all I wrote was… more Rawblood, in a different setting. There’s no doubt that writing to deadline with someone waiting for the manuscript is a different dynamic to finding your way on your own, with no time pressure. I’m really glad I had both experiences. I think, at least I hope that I’m a better writer now. Little Eve just got picked by the Guardian as one of the best books of 2018, so something must have gone right. But of course now I have to start all over again with book three. I think that’s the best lesson I’ve taken away from the process so far – each book has its own challenges, and they’re different each time. I don’t think you ever stop learning – or failing. Writing is the constant surmounting of failure!
GJ: I saw your amazing picture of the Dartmoor rainbow on Twitter. I have a great affinity with the place myself having spent many a weekend hiking over hugely varying terrain. What draws you to write there?
CW: I spent summers on Dartmoor as a child, in a 17th century stone cottage tucked into a valley beneath the swooping heights of Hamel Down. The house was surrounded by the little old oak woodlands, heather, hills. After the tropics, Dartmoor was exotic, with its mists and bogs; a bleak, grand landscape. It made its way into my subconscious, as it has done with many other writers. All my dreams are set there, somehow. And that house was the inspiration for Rawblood.
The cottage was built on the foundations of an older Devon longhouse and on some even older foundations. There is a dwelling marked on that site in the Doomsday Book. The walls were solid granite, seven feet thick. The hearths were large and echoing.
While we lived in there, I rarely lasted the night in my own bedroom. Most mornings my sister found me curled up on her floor. Each night I woke to feel a firm hand in the small of my back, which would then shove me out of bed onto the floor. I felt an overwhelming intent, the dark was alive with some kind of will, a vast sense of purpose. It was terrifying.
This lasted for six summers. I never grew accustomed. Each night the fear was as paralysing as the first time. Others who slept in the room disliked the atmosphere, and complained of cold and discomfort. When I was fifteen we sold the house. The presence did not follow us. But when I sat down years later to write a novel, what emerged was that fear I had felt in the dark.
My parents still live there, though in a different house, and I visit often to write. It’s easy to get in touch with ideas and stories on Dartmoor.
GJ: You’ve been through the publication process now with two novels. Particularly with your debut novel, was there anything that surprised you or made you wish you’d known a little more about the process before you had to make key decisions? Or were you more like a passenger led through by your agent and publisher?
CW: It’s definitely important to have good people around you – your agent, your editor, your publicist. But you’re the one who has to write the books! I think when you’re starting out you spend all your time and energy concentrating on getting your novel right, then getting an agent, then getting published… Publication feels so momentous, it can seem like the end goal, when it’s really the beginning of the journey. A lot of your self worth is tied up in your first novel, and having it out in the world is an exhilarating experience – but it can also be an anxious time. There were points at which I forgot to enjoy the fact that Rawblood was published – I was just worrying about it all the time, to the extent that I couldn’t write or get on with my second novel. So I took myself off to Devon, had some time on the moor in the sunshine and concentrated on the really important part, which is writing. So my best advice is, every now and again make sure to stop, take a deep breath, go outside and look at the sky.
GJ: That’s really good advice which really resonates with me, even though my novel is only self-published. Can you tell me anything about the novel you’re working on now?
CW: Well, however it’s published, it’s a big deal. Good luck, and importantly, congratulations. It’s such an achievement. As for my next book, yes! It’s narrated by a serial killer’s cat. I always think about Dennis Nilsen’s dog. He loved his dog, and the dog, knowing no better, loved him unconditionally back. When he was arrested, really the only thing he was concerned about was what was going to happen to the dog. That someone who has no recognisable humanity can still form such a strong bond with an animal. It’s fascinating. Narratively a cat is better than a dog, because a cat can go places and see things, whereas dogs are more restricted.
GJ: Wow that’s a fascinating idea. I need to stop interviewing people and make some progress on my TBR pile so I can be ready to read it. Has book three got a title yet and when is it slated for release?
CW: Thank you, it’s definitely a challenge, and a wonderful voice to try to capture! It’s tentatively titled ‘House Cat,’ and I’m hoping to be finished writing it by the end of April. After that it’s in the lap of the gods (by which I mean my publisher).
GJ: I’m a big audiobook fan. It’s my main way of ‘reading’ books, so with the release of my novel last week I’ve already commissioned the production of an audiobook version. When I heard the fourth audition I knew straight away they were the perfect voice. I see that both of your novels are available as audiobooks. How involved were you in the process of selecting the voice actor and what was it like hearing the words you’d toiled over for so long coming out of someone else’s mouth?
CW: That’s very exciting! I love audiobooks too. They remind me of long car journeys, as a child… I didn’t have any input at all into casting the audiobooks, but luckily W&N found amazing people to narrate. Hearing Rawblood aloud was almost a bigger moment than holding the book in my hands. It brought it so vividly to life. And the US audiobook is very different to the UK version, it’s amazing – it almost seems like a different novel.
GJ: Thank you Catriona for taking time out to speak with me today. It just leaves me to wish you all the best with your third novel, I will definitely be checking it.
CW: Thanks so much, Gareth, it’s been a pleasure! Very best of luck with your novel and I hope you have a lovely Christmas.
If you enjoyed this interview then why not follow my blog where I’ll be posting more interviews and conversations soon. I regularly provide an insight into my own experiences as I publish and promote my debut novel, In The End, an apocalyptic thriller that will leave you breathless and is available to buy now.
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