Cathy Talks About Writing
What inspired you to write your books’?
I have always been a writer of sorts – from when I was at school, with poems in the school magazine. In my teens I progressed to short stories and articles etc. I find writing cathartic – as do many – so it was the medium I turned to when I was trying to come to terms with the dreadful experiences of some of the children I’d fostered. Also, I wanted to raise public awareness – that many children suffer and that sometimes they are let down by the system that should have protected them. Writing a gripping book – a real page-turner- achieves this and is an enjoyable experience for the reader.
How would you describe your style of writing?
I write in first person using a dramatic narrative style – as a thriller writer, where the plot unfolds. Readers tell me they feel very involved and ‘get carried along’. They say they feel as though they are there with me as the drama progresses and ‘can’t put the book down.’
When do you write your books?
Very early in the morning – sometimes I am up at 4.30am. When I write the first draft I have to have absolute quiet to be able to concentrate, and in my house very early in the morning is the only time quiet is guaranteed. When I am revising, editing, or proof-reading I tend to fit it in around the rest of the day – grabbing an hour here and there. I always write the first draft on paper with a pen, then edit and revise on screen.
Having fostered so many children how do you choose which of the children’s stories to tell?
Each child I foster arrives with his or her own very sad story, but many of the children have had similar experiences and conform to ‘a norm’. I therefore chose one child whose story is representative of a group; is of interest to readers; and whose story has something to say about our society and the way we protect (or fail to protect) our children. In Hidden, for example, I told the story of Tayo who had been smuggled into the country illegally, and had remained undetected by the authorities for 5 years. Dawn’s story in Cut explored the motives and issues surrounding self-harm, and Michael’s story in The Night The Angels Came was sadly about coming to terms with the death of a parent.
Your books have been continuously in the best seller charts. What response have you had from your readers?
I have been completely overwhelmed by the response, and very touched by the public’s empathy and support. Within a week of the publication of my first book – Damaged, letters and emails from all over the world began pouring in, and they have continued to do so, fifteen books later. Many of the emails are personal and for my eyes only – coming from readers who also suffered as children, but for those who want their views made public, the emails are posted on the Comments section of my website. I try to read all emails (and letters) personally, and I reply to as many as I can. People of all ages write – my youngest reader to date is 11 and my eldest is 87. My readers come from all walks of life and professions, but are united in their need to write and tell me how moved they were by the stories; that they greatly admire the children’s courage, and how incensed they were that these children were allowed to suffer in the first place.
What advice would you give to those wishing to write?
Begin – with what is in your head and simply write. You can worry about grammar and spelling later, when you edit. Get down that first draft, which will be immediate, passionate, but very very rough. Then polish and shine until you are convinced your work is word perfect. It won’t be; it never is, but don’t ever submit anything which is not your personal best. Listen carefully to advice but don’t feel obliged to always take it. If you have the courage of your convictions others will too.
What was the first piece you had published?
The very first was a poem in the school magazine at the age of 13. It was entitled ‘Autumn’ and, as I remember, it contained rather a lot of unnecessary alliteration. The next published piece was an article in a local newspaper when I was 15, and I was championing the case of a man who had been refused funding for a home dialysis machine. I still have both cuttings.
Did you have training to be a writer?
My training has been of my own making i.e. a love of reading and a compulsion to write, then years and years of practice. Now there are some very good MAs in creative writing that teach the tools, although I’m not sure the inspiration can be taught.
What other genres of publishing interest you?
Fiction: I always have a book on the go. The Girl in The Mirror, Run Mummy Run, and My Dad’s A Policeman are based on true stories. And self-help guides: Happy Kids; Happy Mealtimes; Happy Adults; About Writing And How To Publish.
Some of the stories you write are so poignant, what keeps you writing to the finish?
When I write the first draft of a book I am on a ‘high’. I write furiously – on a rollercoaster of emotion as I think back and relive what happened. Adrenaline keeps me writing to the end. I usually write the first draft within three months. Then I spend another three months re-writing and editing, at a slower pace. I can still cry over a scene regardless of how many times I have read it if the scene is particularly poignant; for example, when I receive the phone call about Tayo’s father (Hidden); or when Jodie tells me what her father did to her (Damaged), or when I find Donna scrubbing the kitchen floor (The Saddest Girl In The World).
How are you able to dedicate your time for these kids and still, have time to write?
The children I foster always come first. The children often have complex needs and can be demanding and challenging because of what they have suffered. Once the child is awake his or her needs take over, so I get up very early to write while the child is still sleeping. I can then write for 2-3 hours before the day starts.
These days, there are many writers who write real-life stories of being abused. How are your books different from the other titles of your genre on the shelves?
My books are written from a different perspective – I am the foster carer who looks after the child, not the child in the story. My books focus on the relationship the child has with my family and I rather than the horrendous abuse the child suffered, although that of course is mentioned. My books are positive – about hope and love and what children can achieve despite the most dreadful start in life. My style of writing is dramatic – more like a thriller. Many readers have emailed saying that once they start one of my books they can’t put it down – reading in the street, on the bus, during lunch-breaks, etc. They say they feel completely involved – as though they are there with me, feeling what I am feeling as the story unfolds.
What do you expect to gain from sharing with the mass these stories?
I hope I am raising public awareness which will eventually lead to improvements in ‘the system’ for protecting vulnerable children. Child abuse is global, no country is exempt. I also offer hope to those who are struggling in their own lives; many readers have emailed saying that having read my books their own problems have been put into a better perspective. I also share my stories as a mark of respect for the millions of children world-wide who struggle on a daily basis. They are the unsung heroes. They have my endless respect and admiration.
How, when and why did you first start writing?
I have always been ‘a scribbler’, for as long as I can remember, – poems and articles for the school magazine, then short stories and articles for newspapers, periodicals and magazines. For many years writing was a hobby, something I did almost furtively in my spare time. Now I am a full time writer and foster carer.
Which books did you enjoy growing up?
When I was very young I liked the Noddy books by Enid Blyton which were popular at the time. Later I enjoyed fantasy and adventure stories, for example, The Lion, The witch and The Wardrobe by C S Lewis and Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carol. I had a very good imagination and often scared myself by imagining I was there with the children on the adventure. As a young teenager I read magazines with articles about boys and makeup and then later I read the classics, for example, Charles Dickens and Jane Austen.
Who are your favourite writers/influences and why?
I have always read widely including the classics – Dickens, Austen, The Bronte’s, Wilkie Collins etc. I tend to go through phases in reading contemporary writers – Fay Weldon, Susan Hill, Nick Hornby, Mark Haddon. It is difficult to say which writers have influenced me, but I greatly admire any new and exciting voice, for example Zadie Smith and Donna Tart.
How did you get your first agent/ commission/publication?
For many years I didn’t need an agent as I wrote largely for magazines, periodicals and newspapers where one submits direct. However, I knew I would need an agent for Damaged and the second agent I approached accepted me. The first did too eventually but took so long in responding I had already signed up with the first to respond.
What’s the worst thing about writing?
Nothing for me. I love every stage of the writing process, from that furiously scribbled first draft, to the endless revision where the manuscript magically transforms before your very eyes, to the final proof reading. To create a piece of writing, whether it is a paragraph or full length manuscript, is sheer joy for me.
And the best?
Sending the manuscript to my agent and publisher knowing I have done my best.
What was your breakthrough moment?
When my agent auctioned my first memoir – Damaged, and the biggest publishing houses bid.
What inspires you to write?
Anything and everything, but particularly an injustice. If I see or hear something that affects me I have to put pen to paper. Even my two (as yet unpublished) novels were inspired by injustice, although one is quite light-hearted, and satirical in its narration. I think we have to be moved in order to write successfully and from the heart.
Do you have a writing routine? A place that’s special?
I always write (creatively) in the early morning. I need absolute quiet for that first (inspired) draft, and before dawn is usually the only quiet time. I can revise and edit any time of the day, but writing creatively requires solitude. I don’t have a set place to write, it can be anywhere, providing it is quiet and I am alone and uninterrupted. My first draft is always in long hand, then I take it to my computer which is on my desk in my study.
Do you address particular themes or issues in your writing?
Yes. Adults, young people, and children who have overcome adversity.
Where do you get your ideas from?
The ideas for my Inspirational Memoirs come from the children I foster. These children are so courageous and resourceful that they are an inspiration to us all. The ideas for articles come from anything that grabs my fancy, and my fiction is usually based on an incident that I have come across or heard about.
Any tips for new writers?- things you’ve learned and would like to pass on?
Be resolute, don’t give up, and make sure you present the manuscript in accordance with the agent’s or publisher’s guidelines. It is so important.