My name is Catherine Czerkawska, I was born in Leeds, Yorkshire, of mixed Polish, English and Irish parentage, but I’ve lived in a small village in rural Ayrshire for many years.
Who is your favourite author of all time and which book do you wish you had written?
If I had to pick just one, it would have to be Emily Bronte, and the book would be Wuthering Heights. I go back to it again and again.
Have you a writing routine? Do you write a la Cartland, dictating to a minion whilst lying on a chaise longe sipping champagne? Or, is the reality a garden shed or a corner of the living room?
I think I could manage the champagne. I write straight onto a PC at high speed and wear out keyboards. I try to write every day but it varies. I can’t start work without a hit of strong coffee. (I buy Sicilian coffee beans on eBay.) I work on novels, plays and research in the afternoons and evenings. Mornings will be reserved for answering emails, blog posts, article and reviews for various magazines. If I’m completing a novel and working to a deadline – usually self imposed these days – I can write for twelve hours at a stretch. But normally I would work on fiction or drama for four or five hours at a time. We live in a 200 year old cottage, and I‘m very lucky to have an upstairs study with a view of the garden and the woods beyond.
When were you first gripped by the writing bug – was it a gradual realisation or always a burning ambition? Which authors, if any, were influential in fuelling this desire?
I can’t remember wanting to do anything else. I was very ill as a child with severe asthma and spent a lot of time at home, alternately fighting for breath and feeling exhausted. Reading was my salvation. We were a working class household in which books were prized and reading was encouraged. My parents read to me all the time. I had a pile of beautifully illustrated ‘wonder books’ which had belonged to a much older aunt when she was a girl. I read them avidly: extracts from the classics, fairy and folk tales. I don’t know when I first thought ‘Maybe I could do that,’ but I was quite young.
When did you make your first serious foray into writing? What did you write? Has your style of writing changed significantly since then? If you could go back, would you do anything differently?
There were several forays and they all happened at about the same time. While I was at Edinburgh University, reading Mediaeval Studies, I had poems published in a couple of collections: a ‘new voices’ anthology and a collection called White Boats, with Andrew Greig. And I was writing short stories. One of my first payments was for a short story called Catch Two, in She Magazine. I always knew I wanted to write novels but I kept being distracted by drama: radio drama, (which I no longer write, although I had more than 100 hours produced), and stage plays. These used to earn me a good living. I still enjoy working in theatre – I love collaboration – but I wish I had focused on novels earlier.
We all know the world of traditional publishing can be brutal in its rejection and fragile egos are routinely shattered. Have you ever experienced this? How did it make you feel? How did you cope with it?
Playwrights tend to have robust egos. You rely on so many other people to make a production work. I have had several publishing let-downs, but one example affected me for years. I was lucky enough to be represented by the late, great Pat Kavanagh for fiction. She sold my novel, The Golden Apple, to The Bodley Head, an old fashioned publishing house of great distinction. I was a natural mid-list author. Still am. My novels, historical and contemporary, are well crafted (I hope) and readable, but hard to categorise by genre. In mid publication, The Bodley Head was swallowed whole by a big corporate fish. The Golden Apple was edited and published as a glossy beach bonkbuster. Many years later, my editor told me that she thought they had published it in quite the wrong way. The novel was given virtually no promotion and sank without trace. This was at a time when authors weren’t encouraged to arrange their own promotion as they would now. I had been writing a historical novel based on my own weird and wonderful family history but the new publishers turned it down and Pat couldn’t sell it. We collected a string of rave rejections from editors saying things like ‘I loved this. Stayed up all night reading it.’ But nobody would buy it. They cited the Polish setting and the general unpopularity of historical fiction at that time. Pat was possibly even more frustrated and angry about it than I was. After that, I went back to plays but carried on writing novels. I just didn’t make many attempts to sell them.
Ebook platforms such as Kindle and Smashwords are playing a major role in changing the face of publishing. Is this a good thing and do you feel that traditional publishers and agents have had it their own way for far too long?
Absolutely. I’ve seen changes in publishing which I don’t think younger writers are fully aware of. When my first novels were published, my agent didn’t see it as her job to act as editor. She might ask questions and make suggestions, but editing was done by a publisher’s editor. If the editor supported a book it would be acquired, and she would then expect to nurture a writer through several published novels before – just possibly – there might be a ‘breakthrough’ book. Successful writers who benefited from this (excellent) system still think it’s like that. Publishers still behave as though this is what they do. But on the whole, it isn’t and they don’t. A few years ago, my then agent said, ‘publishers are looking for an oven-ready product these days.’ She would always be looking for the immediate breakthrough. I still remember the sinking feeling of hearing her tell me that if she submitted two books which were turned down (and this wasn’t on quality – it was on instant marketability) they wouldn’t even look at a third from me. I spent years trying to second guess the market, jumping through hoops. It became untenable. The one good thing about it is that I now have lots of pre-written material.
Do you feel ebooks will continue to escalate in popularity?
I hope so!
Why did you choose to go down the route of independent publishing?
I had been wishing that I could self publish for a long time. I knew I had a good enough product. I had validation from agents, editors, readers and even critics. I just wasn’t enough of a money spinner for them. But I had run other businesses to buy the time to write, and learned a lot along the way. In no other area of my professional life was I treated like the humble supplicant I was expected to become with regard to my writing. I wasn’t asking for special treatment, just a courteous and professional relationship. Becoming an independent writer-as-publisher has given me the autonomy I sought. I love the idea that I can be in charge of my own business, and can buy in the services and expertise I need on a one-off basis just as I would with any other business.
I have heard some authors say that they won’t feel ‘properly published’ unless via a traditional publisher. How do you feel about this statement?
I would advise those authors to seek a traditional publisher. You need to wear two hats to self publish: a business hat and a writer’s hat. If they don’t feel they want to do that (and I can fully accept that some writers may not want to) then it may not be for them. They may well be lucky enough to find the right agent and publisher. But I would also remind them that most readers don’t really care who publishes a book, so long as they enjoy the end product.
Have you ever been traditionally published and, if so, why have you made the cross over to independent publishing? As a platform, is it working for you? What are the pros and cons?
I have been – and still am to some extent – traditionally published. And I would do it again in certain circumstances. But it would have to be on the right terms. In many ways, Amazon has been the answer to a prayer. The main benefit to me (other than a certain amount of good financial remuneration) has been a sense of creative freedom. I recently did a big audit of my work, and found perfectly good manuscripts which hadn’t even been read by my agents, or seen by any publisher, because they didn’t fit the requirements of the time. The big publishers are always trying to predicate next year’s bestseller on last year’s unexpected success. There was a time when you couldn’t sell a historical novel for love nor money. Supernatural? You must be joking! Vampires? No way! It has all made me a mite cynical. It’s no coincidence that so many writers who are embracing the eBook revolution are older mid-list writers like myself. We have confidence in our work, we have business experience, and we have readers who like what we write. The only cons I can see are time constraints, but then those were always an issue. People will say ‘I prefer to spend my time writing!’ but the reality is that very few traditionally published writers are ever paid enough to be able to write full time.
What books have you written? Have you a particular favourite? What/who inspired it?
I have three traditionally published novels:
Shadow of the Stone
The Golden Apple
The Curiosity Cabinet
God’s Islanders (A big hardback history of the small Scottish island of Gigha.)
Two previously produced plays, Wormwood and The Price of a Fish Supper are both still in print in anthologies, Scotland Plays and Scottish Shorts. Nick Hern is a saint among small publishers; he keeps books in print.
After a rights reversion, I published The Curiosity Cabinet as an eBook, followed by Bird of Passage and then The Amber Heart, which was a version of the epic Polish historical novel rejected all those years ago .
My favourite of these is probably Bird of Passage. It is in some ways a homage to Wuthering Heights. It’s about the effects of traumatic childhood experiences, and it’s also a story about obsessive – and destructive – passion, mostly set on a Scottish island, with forays to Edinburgh, Glasgow and Dublin. It allowed me to explore my Irish background. I think it’s probably one of the best things I’ve written, but maybe not to everyone’s taste. It’s quite harrowing. And very sensual.
Do you feel the best is yet to come? What inspires your writing in general?
Oh yes – I have so much still to write. But I also have manuscripts which need extensive revision (and a few which should definitely stay in the drawer!) There’s also lots of new work in note form, and many produced plays which I would consider writing as novels or novellas. I hope I can work away for some years yet and establish a real body of longer fiction.
What is your latest book?
Ice Dancing, probably the closest I’ve come to a genuine romance. It’s a love story about a younger man and an older woman and it’s about my favourite game, ice hockey, as well. But it does have a darker side. It was published in October 2012.
What are you working on right now?
I’m doing final revisions of a Scottish historical novel called The Physic Garden, set in and around the old college of Glasgow University in the very early 1800s. It’s due for publication in mid February – in the first instance to Kindle, but I’ll definitely be doing Print On Demand with this one as well. It’s narrated by an old man remembering events in his youth which have coloured his whole life, a story of friendship and appalling betrayal. I felt as if I was channelling my narrator, not making him up. I’m very, very fond of him. He has a strong voice – and he makes me cry. The few people who have already read the book tell me that they have found it to be genuinely and unexpectedly shocking – but they couldn’t put it down. I don’t think it will appeal to everyone, but I hope people will give it a try.
I’m also making notes for a piece of biographical writing about my Yorkshire childhood. I’ve been thinking about writing this for years, but never felt ready. It seems to be a project whose time has come.
What do you like/dislike most about writing?
I like everything about writing. But if pushed I’d say I love researching and revising more than writing the first draft.
Anything you would like to crow about?
I don’t do a lot of crowing but some of my recent reviews have been worth crowing about. It’s lovely when somebody takes the time and trouble to analyse what you have written. The other thing I love is when young people tell me that they have successfully used extracts from some of my plays for auditions.
When I was an aspiring author, I longed to know ‘the secrets’ of other authors. What advice would you give to an aspiring author? Did anyone ever share a particularly valuable insight or piece of advice with you and, if so, can you share it with us?
Years ago, somebody wrote to me that ‘the only way to learn how to write is to write’ which may seem obvious, but I meet a lot of people who seem to think that they can write one novel, rest on their laurels and make a fortune. It could happen. And you could win the lottery, too. But most writers have drawers full of stuff. Pat Kavanagh used to say – in her usual forthright way – that if you couldn’t bear not to write, you shouldn’t bother.
The best book on the subject I have ever read is Stephen King’s ‘On Writing.’ He suggests reading and writing a lot and he doesn’t favour critique groups. I personally think that reading doesn’t necessarily have to be fiction. But you do have to read extensively and mindfully. You’ll learn more from reading (good and bad) than from any amount of feedback. If the feedback is from somebody you respect, somebody whose work you admire, it’s a different matter. And if you can find a small, supportive group that’s fine. But the more prescriptive and forceful the criticism, the less helpful it tends to be in your search for your own unique voice.
Thank you, Catherine, for a wonderful, insightful and very enjoyable interview.
You can find out more about Catherine and her books on:
AMAZON AUTHOR PAGE:
GOODREADS AUTHOR PAGE:
And you can buy her books here!
THE CURIOSITY CABINET: http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Curiosity-Cabinet-ebook/dp/B005GEYW4A
BIRD OF PASSAGE: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Bird-of-Passage-ebook/dp/B006RB2H3Y
THE AMBER HEART: http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Amber-Heart-ebook/dp/B007PV35G8/
A QUIET AFTERNOON IN THE MUSEUM OF TORTURE: