And now for something completely different.
I hope you can excuse me after a week of romance to delve into the darker side. I recently reviewed Rawblood and now I’m delighted to welcome the author Catriona to the Hot seat!
Tell me a little about your book
Rawblood is a ghost story, told through the interconnecting narratives of the Villarca family, who live in a lonely house on Dartmoor, named Rawblood.
The Villarcas are cursed by a ghost, a white skeletal figure whom they call her. She comes in the night and kills them if they have children, marry or fall in love. So by the time the novel opens in 1910 there are only two Villarcas left: eleven-year-old Iris and her father. Iris swears to her father that she’ll remain alone all her life, but she breaks her promise. That choice has terrible consequences.
As Iris’s story unfolds, her narrative is interwoven with the stories of her family, who were taken by Her. Past and present converge as Iris discovers the horrific truth of who she is and what she wants.
Rawblood has classic elements of the gothic novel, and of the nineteenth century ghost story. But there’s a devilish twist.
Raw blood is available to pre order here
What inspired Rawblood?
My family moved from Kenya to Madagascar to Morocco, Yemen and the US while I was growing up. But we always came back to a cottage on Dartmoor for the summers. It was wonderful, a medieval stone Devon longhouse, with thick walls, little creaking stairs and huge hearths. There were old twisted apple trees in the garden and the back of the house sat flush against a great purple hill. At dusk the silhouettes of ponies could be seen, high against the evening sky. Raised in the tropics, to me this was an exotic place.
In that house I rarely lasted the night in my bedroom. My sister awoke, most mornings, to find me curled up on her floor.
I was continually troubled by something, or someone, in my room. A malign presence. It didn’t take any recognisable form, but was vaguely rhomboid and spun with colour. It would hover before my face, red and seething. An overwhelming intent emanated from it. The dark air was alive with its will, a vast sense of purpose; but no indication of what that purpose might be, or whether I myself was a part of it, or an obstacle to it, or irrelevant. Sometimes I would be awoken by a shove, pushed out of bed by a firm hand in the small of my back.
When I was fifteen we sold that house, and the nightly visitations stopped. I never made sense of the experience. I still haven’t. But the only other place I have encountered the feeling of abject terror which I felt in that room, in the dark, is in the literature of the uncanny – in ghost stories. I started writing Rawblood as an exploration of the questions raised by what I saw and felt.
Writing the novel was cathartic. The world and the characters quickly took on a life of their own. Though inspired by an experience of mine, Rawblood owes very little to that, in the end. The novel came from the other place, where stories come from.
How did you get into writing?
When I was young, I was always writing stories, songs and poems. Some of my childhood was quite isolated, and my sister and I were thrown on our own resources for much of the time. We were forced to rely on our imaginations.
Later my English degree gave me an understanding of how writing works in a technical sense. Perhaps it gave me a bit too much of an analytical perspective – I didn’t write much fiction during it, or in the years following. It seemed impossible to marry the instinctive and the critical. But in the long term the reading and thought that went into an English degree was invaluable. The more you’ve read, the better you’ll write.
I hadn’t thought of being a writer, at that stage. I had wanted to act since I was young, and after university I trained as an actor in New York. As for many people, it didn’t work out. I came back to London, disappointed, and drifted from job to job. After a time I found work with the Bianca Jagger Human Rights Foundation, where I started to write speeches and articles. Writing again, though in a very different discipline, opened a door. The ideas for Rawblood began to emerge. It was wonderful – like a fire being lit in your head.
I wrote Rawblood over the course of five years, much of it evenings and weekends. It’s told by several very different characters, in different eras and disciplines. A lot of research went into it. Also, I took many wrong turns. I must have rewritten each section seven or eight times. And some of that time was spent learning how to write, finding a voice, as well as moving the book forward.
When I had completed about a third of the novel I decided I had to work on it more consistently, if I was to finish. I applied for the Creative Writing Masters at the University of East Anglia. That was a critical year for me. To have the luxury of time to write, feedback from a panel of your peers, and guidance from tutors, was a turning point. A Creative Writing MA doesn’t suit everyone but it happened to be exactly what I needed at the time.
It was a long road and it took determination to stick with it, at times. I’m really glad I didn’t know, at the beginning, how long writing my first novel would take – I often wonder if I would have had the courage to start, if I had. It was an extraordinary feeling, to finally finish Rawblood and send it out to agents.
What made you seek publication with Weidenfeld and Nicolson and Orion?
I was lucky that a few wonderful publishers wanted to buy Rawblood. But I made my choice based on the letter the Weidenfeld and Nicolson editor sent me, saying how much she loved and believed in the book. I am new to the publishing process and I felt I’d be in good hands with Weidenfeld, which has proved to be the case.
Weidenfeld offered me a two book deal, which was something I had wanted. I’ve been told that two book deals can be less financially advantageous to the author, as the publisher gets the second book at an early bird rate, as it were. But the world of my second novel was already very alive to me; the characters, the atmosphere, the plot. I’d had years, while working on Rawblood, for the second one to take shape and simmer away in my head. I wanted the security of knowing that novel number two had a home, so I could write it in peace.
Is there any advice you’d like to offer new writers out there?
I still feel like a new writer. The best advice I can pass on is what I told myself on the road to publication. And still do, many mornings…
Write, write, write. Then rewrite. Over and over again. You almost never get it right the first time and novel writing takes infinite practice. No one has ever written anything as long as a novel, until they’ve written a novel. Text has its own life, its own internal rules and rhythms. And each novel will have different ones. Find them out.
Find readers who are useful to you, have them read your work and listen to what they say. Your best readers won’t necessarily be the people who unquestioningly adore your writing. A writing group or workshop is a great proving ground. You don’t have to take every piece of criticism or advice as gospel, everyone has different tastes and affinities. But if eleven people out of twelve don’t like something, or don’t understand it… well, that’s really useful information.
Get a fantastic agent who loves your book. They will be your best ally. Research and reach out to agents who represent authors you love, who write or speak eloquently about writing and who are accepting submissions. Make your work as perfect as you can before taking that step and sending to agents. You only get one first reading.
The wonderful things about writing are the solitude and the strangeness. You lose hours and days in imagined worlds, with imagined people. No one else shares that creative moment, it’s yours. But equally, no one shares your responsibility as the author. No one else can fix problems, or write your novel for you. No one, including agents and publishers – though they may care very much indeed – cares about your novel as deeply as you do.
Lastly, don’t forget to enjoy it! Writing is a great pleasure.
Wow Catriona, you had your very own ghost as inspiration. Thank you for sharing your writing journey with us. I’m sure you will inspire many with talk of your journey. Writing isn’t the easy career decision many people think.
Finally thanks for inviting me to your book launch, I’m only sorry I can’t make it. September 24th will be here soon enough!