Interview by Nicole Melanson ~
Katherine Catmull is a writer and actor in Austin, Texas. Her YA fantasy The Radiant Road (Dutton Young Readers/Penguin) just came out on January 19. Her first book, the late middle-grade fantasy Summer and Bird (also Dutton Young Readers), was named one of Booklist’s 2012 Top Ten First Novels for Youth and was both an IndieBound New Voices Pick and an Amazon Editors’ Pick for fall 2012. She is also one of four co-authors of The Cabinet of Curiosities (Greenwillow/HarperCollins), a collection of scary stories which was one of the New York Public Library’s Best Books of 2014.
Katherine also acts on stage in various Austin venues and does voice work for games like DC Universe Online and Wizard 101.
HOW DID YOU GET STARTED?
I got started late! I loved writing as a child, but in my late teens I got too self-conscious to continue. Studying English Literature in college and grad school just made it worse: if you weren’t Emily Dickinson, you ought not to write, period. But in my early 40s I decided—as one does about so many things in middle age—to shake off what I ought to do, and I began writing plays and stories. My first book took almost five years to finish; it’s hard to shake off those oughts.
WHAT IS YOUR LATEST BOOK OR CURRENT PROJECT?
The Radiant Road just came out January 19. It’s a YA fantasy set in present-day Ireland—a girl raised mostly in the US returns there with her father to the house she was born in, a house under a hill, with a tree growing inside it. She finds a crack in the tree she can slip inside, and memories—and more than memories—come flooding back. The tree is a sort of gate between two worlds: our world and a Timeless world of art and dreams that has sometimes been called fairy. There’s a boy from Timeless; there’s a horrible person trying to sever the two worlds forever; there’s a lot of adventure.
The book is actually in some ways about making: writing, painting, inventing, dancing—all those forms of creation that flow so easily when we’re small, and so often get clogged and fearful when we’re teenagers (or they did for me—see question above). It’s a book about being brave, and not trying to stay safe.
It’s already gotten a couple of lovely starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and School Library Journal. So that’s an exciting start.
WHAT IS YOUR WORK ENVIRONMENT LIKE?
I have a writing room: water-blue walls, terra-cotta tiles, a zillion books, some musical instruments and art supplies, a window with a bird feeder, and hot and cold running cats. Everything you could need.
WHEN DO YOU WORK? WHAT DOES A TYPICAL DAY LOOK LIKE?
I’m trying to make myself write in the mornings—that sounds so good!—but writing in the evening seems more natural to me, say from 6pm-10pm. But when my husband’s not working nights (which he often does—he runs a small theater), I aim for mornings. In the afternoons I try to move around a little, do housework and errands, and focus on my editing clients.
I also often sketch out drafts with pen and notebook before I start the day’s typing. Writing by hand frees my brain up a lot.
WHAT IS YOUR WRITING PROCESS?
Anguished, uncertain, and slow? I actually find drafting quite hard, so I spend a lot of time psyching myself into it. Revision is easier, which tempts me into futzing with already-written chapters when I should be pressing forward. But then maybe I shouldn’t be pressing forward. Voice is really important to me, and it takes a lot of futzing to find the right voice.
WHY DO YOU DO WHAT YOU DO?
I guess I write, in general, because I love to name something satisfactorily to myself. It’s like solving one puzzle by building another one. Whether I’m naming a color or an emotion or the arc of a relationship between two sisters, whatever it is, I like the naming.
And I think I write for younger readers because it feels very freeing. Young people are still happy to think metaphorically, in magic realism and myths and fairy tales.
WHO OR WHAT INSPIRES YOU?
I seem to do best out in the natural world. Feathers and stones and trees and so forth seem to fill me up with ideas.
WHAT IS THE HARDEST PART OF WHAT YOU DO?
Just staying calm about it. I’m a pretty anxious person, so I go through a wearying amount of emotional up, down, and sidewaysness at every step in the process: from first pen to paper to having it out in the world.
WHAT DO YOU WISH YOU HAD KNOWN WHEN YOU STARTED?
How long everything takes. Just every single step in publishing, there’s no step that doesn’t take ten times longer than seems possible from the outside.
WHAT IS YOUR ARTISTIC OR PROFESSIONAL VISION?
Personally, I’d just like to be able to keep writing and being published. For the literary world at large, I hope for us to grow more inclusive, more daring, more irresistible. (Ha: I guess I hope those latter things for myself as a writer as well.)
WHO ARE YOUR FAVORITE FEMALE AUTHORS?
In my genres, middle-grade and YA, I love Tove Jansson (not so much her Moomin stuff, though that’s great, but for example The Summer Book). Among current kidlit writers, I love Anne Ursu, Rebecca Stead—and of course my two Cabinet co-writers, Claire Legrand and Emma Trevayne. In adult writing, there are too many greats, but among women writing now, I am a great fan of Clare Messud, Elizabeth McCracken, Hilary Mantel—well I’ll stop myself, or I’d just go on and on.
WHICH FEMALE AUTHORS WOULD YOU LIKE TO SEE INTERVIEWED ON WORDMOTHERS NEXT?
Claire Legrand! Lovely writer of moving, unsettling middle grade and thrilling, sexy YA.
Thank you, Katherine Catmull!
— Nicole Melanson
And thank you, Cynthia Leitich Smith, for recommending Katherine! Read Cynthia’s WordMothers interview here
* Author photo by Ken Webster
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