For my first author interview of 2012, I'm thrilled to welcome H M Castor! I first met Harriet on Twitter and have since been lucky enough to meet her in person, as well as read her fabulous YA novel VIII, which is out in paperback this Sunday.
Hi, Harriet. Thank you for agreeing to be on the blog! Tell us a bit about yourself.
Thank you, Emma, for having me here. I love this blog, & feel very honoured to be your guest.
I’m a writer, and though I’ve done other jobs along the way, I’ve been writing, sometimes part-time, sometimes full-time, sometimes spare-time, for my entire adult life. I’ve had 40-something books published, both fiction and non-fiction, and (apart from one adult novel a long time ago) they’ve all been children’s books. Now, for the first time, I’ve written a YA novel. It’s called VIII, & was published in hardback last autumn. It’s coming out in paperback on April 1st (whoop!).
I grew up in Warwickshire, used to live in London, & now live in Bristol with my husband & two young daughters. History was my degree & is my passion. Dance has been another life-long love & one of my ‘other’ jobs was as a dance notator at The Royal Ballet. Which was extraordinary & fascinating.
When did you start writing, and why?
Well, I guess I’ve been writing stories for as long as I can remember. As a child, I used to fold pieces of paper to make my own books, and then fill in the pages, as so many kids do. I would produce whole series and try to sell them to my parents for 2p a throw! I loved books and loved reading, but one thing I do remember clearly is that, when I read a book I loved – when a book grabbed me in a certain way – I wanted to be able to produce that effect myself… Right from early on I wanted to participate rather than be a member of the audience, as it were. And I guess that was a way of beginning to think about how to write – asking: how did the author do that? For example, when I was probably about 9, I read ‘The Homeward Bounders’ by Diana Wynne Jones. I don’t know if you’ve read it, but it has a twist at the end that I didn’t see coming. That twist hit me smack between the eyes and made me want to turn straight back to the beginning and reread the whole thing knowing what I now knew. I loved that effect, not just in a sit-back-and-enjoy-it way, but in terms of what DWJ had done & how she’d done it. It was, perhaps, the moment I fell in love with story structure. And I still adore that side of writing! (And, incidentally, I wrote to DWJ back then about how much I loved the book & she wrote me a wonderful letter in reply, for which I shall be forever grateful. Her books, more than any others, made me want to be a writer.)
In terms of why I started writing, that’s only a part of it, though. On some mysterious gut level I knew that I wanted to write (though somehow that didn’t preclude wanting to be a ballet dancer too!). What I wanted to write and how I could do it, I didn’t know. It’s taken me many, many years to find that out. And if I’m strictly honest with myself it’s only now, with VIII and the follow-up that I’m currently working on, that I feel I’m finally writing what I always wanted & needed to.
What made you decide to write for younger readers?
Curiously – and by a stroke of immense good fortune – I was first published at a very young age. So of course I was writing children’s books, as I was still a child myself. After that, I simply carried on, broadening my experience within the same field. VIII, as I mentioned, is my first YA book, and it’s arguable that it could have been a novel for adults. But it didn’t feel that way when the idea arrived, and – perhaps crucially – in my view there is absolutely no value difference between YA and adult fiction, so I have no problem in seeing the boundary between the two as pretty fluid. As Patrick Ness said in a recent interview, “the book told me what it needed to be”. (And if you’re interested, the interview is here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6n89WeRz3es)
How long did it take you to get published?
The jammy thing is, I was published before I’d had time to think about how difficult it might be. It’s only as an adult that I’ve truly realised what an immense piece of good fortune that was.
It happened in a rather wonderful way. One day, in the summer holidays when I was twelve, I was bored & decided to write a story. Then, on a whim, I decided to send the story to a publisher – just as something to do, really. I imagined it was a picture book text, but as it happened the publisher I sent it to (Liz Attenborough at Penguin) was looking for texts for short chapter-books for new readers – a fresh idea at the time, though of course one that took off in a big way subsequently. She thought my story would fit the format if I could add several more about the same character, to make one story per chapter. So, during the autumn term I wrote a few more stories, and at the end of the Christmas holidays Liz invited me to bring them to Penguin’s London office in person. I arrived, clutching my pages nervously, with my parents and sister. I was impressed beyond measure by the whole experience – seeing the office, meeting Liz and her colleagues, the fact that there was carpet on the walls in the lift! Then Liz asked my parents to come back later, and she and one of her colleagues took me out to lunch on my own. To be treated as a grown-up was the best thing of all! I remember where we went and what I ate (Pizza Express, American pizza). At last, part way through the meal, I plucked up the courage to ask Liz whether she would publish my stories. She said yes. Few experiences since have matched up to that!
(The book became ‘Fat Puss and Friends’ and was in print for about 15 years. Blimey, I’ve just this minute realised that the events described above happened 30 years ago this year… gulp!)
VIII was published by Templar in hardback last year, and now it’s about to come out in paperback. For anyone who’s not read this wonderful book yet, what’s it about, and what was the inspiration behind it?
VIII is novel about the life of Henry VIII – told through his own eyes. It’s a dark, psychologically intense tale of a boy who grows up in a violent world with a huge sense of his own destiny, and yet also, beneath that, with a terrible fear of being inadequate.
I’ve been obsessed with the Tudors since primary school, I did a history degree specializing in the 16th century and have been reading Tudor history books for pleasure ever since. As much as anyone, then, I know the sheer number of books that have been written about Henry VIII (not to mention the films & TV series!). So I was pretty gobsmacked when I was seized by an idea for a book about Henry and was, moreover, convinced that I had something new to say about him. It was the most exciting, keep-me-awake-at-night experience!
The thing was, despite all the books I’d read about Henry, despite all the explanations of what he did and the speculations as to why – he needed a son, he was tired of his wife, etc. – no one had ever made me identify with him. No one had ever shown me what it might have felt like to be him – inside his head – and I knew that looking at the world through his eyes was going to change the story pretty radically. Henry came to the throne at 17, was hailed for his virtue, talents & intelligence, married his first wife within weeks & stayed married to her for 20 years… so, what went wrong? Other kings of the time failed to have sons, yet didn’t react so devastatingly. Why did he? That’s what I wanted to know, and what grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and wouldn’t let go was the feeling that I might have worked it out!
One of the most intriguing aspects of writing the book was to realize that Henry’s story is a fallen-angel story – it has a mythic shape: he’s a hero who turns into a monster. He’s like a 16th century version of Anakin Skywalker – the Jedi knight who turns to the dark side and becomes Darth Vader in Star Wars. Funnily enough, when I mention that on school visits, it tends to go down rather well!
What is your favourite book?
Argh, I can’t choose just one! Two is the absolute minimum I can get down to: ‘Wolf Hall’ by Hilary Mantel & ‘The Thirteen Clocks’ by James Thurber. Oh, & ‘The Owl Service’ by Alan Garner & ‘The Time of the Ghost’ by Diana Wynne Jones. Whoops!
Your favourite film?
Possibly ‘Dangerous Liaisons’ with Glenn Close and John Malkovich. And possibly ‘Withnail and I’ with Paul McGann & Richard E. Grant.
Your favourite music?
‘Romeo and Juliet’ by Prokofiev, preferably listened to live in the theatre while watching Kenneth Macmillan’s version of the ballet. You’re experiencing two works of genius simultaneously. It is extraordinary.
Your favourite joke?
My favourite joke has to be heard, not read! It’s the joke at the centre of a brilliant sketch done by Rowan Atkinson on his ‘Live in Belfast’ album (1980), with Richard Curtis. You can hear it here:
(By the way, the whole album is brilliant. My older brother had it when I was a child, & I love it just as much now as I did then. Vintage early Atkinson, before ‘Blackadder’ or Mr Bean!)
Describe your perfect writing day…
Because I live in the noisy chaos of a house with two young children, my dream is to have time completely on my own (well, with the cats for company). I savour a quiet house, and no prospect of being disturbed, more than I can express. My ideal is having no need to go out, even. Nice food in the cupboard, & a glass of wine chilling ready for the end of the day. It happens very rarely!
…and your actual writing day.
Usually my girls are awake by 6.30. Despite this, it is always somehow a struggle to get them ready for school (they will do anything but get dressed!). Then we walk to school. By about 9.20 I’m home and have made a thermos of strong coffee to take to my desk. I work straight through until 3pm, which is when I need to go and pick them up. Often I will try to do a bit of work-related reading once they’re home, but it’s usually pretty impossible. I’ll hope to read again (I permanently have piles of research books on the go) once they’re in bed, but it’s very rare that I can write then – usually I’m too exhausted!
If you could tell your teenage self one thing, what would it be?
To pay more serious attention to who I am rather than who I think I ought to be, and to value my instincts. It’s the only way to make life liveable, & it’s certainly the only way to write. Trying to be someone else doesn’t work. But it’s taken me an awfully long time to work that out.
And finally, what’s next?
Exciting stuff! I’m working on two closely related novels about two half-sisters, the daughters of Henry VIII: Mary I and Elizabeth I. The first book focuses primarily on Mary. It’s a dark, psychologically intriguing tale – Tudor history meets ‘Black Swan’ I would say! – and I’m finding it both hugely enjoyable & immensely challenging. Which, to me, is the perfect combination.
Thank you, Emma, for having me here and for your fantastic questions!
Thank you, Harriet, for your fantastic answers!