Interview by Nicole Melanson ~
Cath Ferla is a Melbourne-based writer with a background in screenwriting, script editing, educational publishing and arts writing. Also a trained teacher, Cath has taught English as an Acquired Language (EAL) in Melbourne, Sydney and Beijing. She has a keen interest in regional Chinese food and once took a solo food pilgrimage to China’s Sichuan province. Cath’s debut novel is Ghost Girls, a crime novel set in Sydney’s Chinatown and featuring all the scents, tastes and textures of that place. Ginger, chilli and garlic are Cath’s favourite flavours.
HOW DID YOU GET STARTED?
I’ve always been attracted to words on the page. As a young child I wrote tales when other children drew pictures and, as a teenager, I spent countless school holidays working on writing projects. I loved the process of turning the ideas in my head into sentences and paragraphs, and then massaging and shaping a story. Later, after an Arts (Hons) degree and some time overseas, I worked and took some post-grad study in journalism (although I didn’t complete it) and networked my way into a series of jobs: media monitor; journalist; journal editor; educational writer and author; TV script coordinator; TV script editor; TV screenwriter… and then author. I used my teaching qualifications (a Dip Ed earned in 2005) to soften the fall between gigs.
WHAT IS YOUR LATEST BOOK OR CURRENT PROJECT?
My latest book is my debut novel, Ghost Girls (Echo Publishing, March 2016). It’s a crime novel set in Sydney’s Chinatown and also in Beijing. The story follows protagonist Sophie Sandilands, the daughter of a deceased Irish-Australian private detective and a Hong Kong-born Chinese mother. Sophie is working as an English language teacher among Sydney’s international student community and she notices a number of female students going missing. She begins to investigate but, as she does, it becomes apparent that someone is also tracking her and has knowledge of the ghosts in her own past. Will Sophie find out what happened to the missing students or will she also become one of the disappeared?
Ghost Girls contains dark subject matter, but this is lightened by a strong focus on Chinese cuisine and tea culture. The book has been well reviewed by the major press (see my website for reviews) and also optioned by independent film company FilmCamp. Be warned, my book may make you hungry: more than one reviewer has advised not reading Ghost Girls on an empty stomach!
WHAT IS YOUR WORK ENVIRONMENT LIKE?
I have a desk covered in paper, journals, books-to-be-read, newspaper clippings, odd bits of stationary and odder bits of kid-matter: clips, crafts, beads, sticks…. I therefore prefer to write from my dining table, which is generally clear. While I do sometimes enjoy writing from certain cafes, I find this can get expensive (and cause me to drink way too much coffee).
WHEN DO YOU WORK? WHAT DOES A TYPICAL DAY LOOK LIKE?
My typical day is flexible! My children are now aged 5 and 3 and it is a busy household. In addition to fiction writing, I also write (and sometimes teach) for a living. I perform contract writing two days per week and make up any excess in the evenings. My fiction writing is restricted to mornings between 5.30-7am and late evenings (any time after 10pm).
WHAT IS YOUR WRITING PROCESS?
I find a kernel that resonates – from the news or from a life experience – and then I plot out a very rough story skeleton. I gravitate to female protagonists, but I don’t necessarily know my characters at this stage; this is a bare outline that serves mostly to give me a momentum, a sense that there is an ‘end’ even if I am not sure exactly how I will get there. In terms of finding my characters and the voice of a story, I turn to atmosphere or tone. I am quite a sensory person and I notice the feel of my environment and the texture of the weather and scents and sounds and small moments and how all of these impact on mood and connection and action. I will often find my characters by placing them into a scene that is quite heavily laden with sensory elements – the rain, the darkness, the hustle of a marketplace – and then seeing how they react. It is only later that I build character profiles. I let my characters teach me who they are and then I go in and refine them.
WHY DO YOU DO WHAT YOU DO?
I write because it’s in my bones. It’s just that thing that makes me feel whole. This is why I decided to make a living out of writing. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this – writing for cash is a hard gig and the financial rewards are often meager – but I would highly recommend writing for the passion of it, maybe alongside other work, if that is what you love. Rise early or go to bed late; if writing is your art then doing it will always be positive.
WHO OR WHAT INSPIRES YOU?
People, culture, food, cityscapes, suburbs, the everyday and the dark side. I am fascinated with everyday interactions, the things that are left unsaid or that are not talked about and the small details of life that are universally shared. I am also interested in the macabre: in what makes good people do bad things and what makes some people ‘bad’.
WHAT IS THE HARDEST PART OF WHAT YOU DO?
The hardest part for me as a writer is never knowing what will come next. On a contract level this means always sourcing the next job; on a creative level this means always looking for the next big idea and then hoping it can be made real. The only way to conquer the worry and fear that can come from this situation is to put one word in front of the other – keep writing.
WHAT DO YOU WISH YOU HAD KNOWN WHEN YOU STARTED?
I think it is beneficial for new fiction writers to understand the need for patience. Ghost Girls took two years to write and two years to get published. This is actually quite quick but for me it was excruciatingly slow. Believe in yourself and believe in your work and be patient.
WHAT IS YOUR ARTISTIC OR PROFESSIONAL VISION?
I would like to keep writing fiction and to also dip back into screenwriting. I would like to see more books by female authors reviewed in Australia’s national papers and I would like to see Australian content protected.
WHO ARE YOUR FAVORITE FEMALE AUTHORS?
Many… my grounding points are: Frances Hodgson Burnett, Judy Blume, Jeanette Winterson, Helen Garner, Jan Wong, Dorothy Porter…
WHICH FEMALE AUTHORS WOULD YOU LIKE TO SEE INTERVIEWED ON WORDMOTHERS NEXT?
Thank you, Cath Ferla!
— Nicole Melanson
* Author photo by Elizabeth Schiavello Photography
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