The Manuscript Agency is proud to present the first in a series of author interviews with our published authors (and anyone else who might enjoy sitting down for a yarn with us!). This one is with one of our recently published authors, Catherine Gillard.
We had a chat to Catherine about her second book The Romance Reader – the first book in the An Arresting Woman series. We wanted to know a little bit more about what drove her as a writer and how she came upon her stories. Here she shares a little of her writing journey with us…
To begin with, can you tell us a little bit more about yourself?
I live in Perth, Western Australia, with two rescue dogs, two rescue guinea pigs, a rescued galah and two children (not rescued). My day job is in a legal firm. I am doing Honours in Creative Writing, part-time, at The University of Western Australia (after a 25 year hiatus).
What did you want to do/be when you ‘grew up’?
I wanted to be a vet but I did my year 10 work experience in a vivisection unit at a hospital and decided I never wanted to be involved in animal surgery after watching an anaesthetised male monkey have its skull cap sawed open and its erections monitored.
I always loved reading, as a great escape. But I have found that writing can be an even greater escape.
What prompted you to start writing?
I started writing my first novel when I was living in France in 2003. At the time I was married to an Australian army officer. While I didn’t have a lot of time on my hands during the day with two small children to look after in a foreign country, I wrote at night. Originally I wanted to write about what a strange existence being an army wife was but then the novel morphed into something even more personal as my childhood and family clamoured to have their stories explored. I had no idea what I was doing, every sentence was a struggle not to write a cliché, but after many years and many redrafts I summonsed the courage to self-publish Spud (aka Who Dares Who Cares). This was the novel that we all have in us. That’s why I wanted to write historical fiction next, I thought if I can write someone else’s story, imagine someone else’s life, then I can begin to be a writer.
Can you describe your recent manuscript in 100 words (or there abouts)?
The Romance Reader, introduces Lillian Armfield, Australia’s first policewoman, appointed by the New South Wales Parliament in 1915 to focus on the welfare of Sydney’s women and children.
Against a backdrop of World War 1, Lillian’s probation brings her an unrelenting series of charlatans, runaway girls, and petty (and not so petty) criminals, from all strata of Sydney society.
When she is called upon to search for the missing daughter of a prominent Rose Bay family, her theory on why women are led astray is put to the test.
Can you tell us a little bit about what made you write
this particular story? Where did it come from?
I started thinking about the project of writing about Australia’s pioneer policewoman several years ago, after finishing the first draft of another historical fiction set in World War 2. I wanted to again write something based on real events and people because I enjoy the research, and I like having some parameters laid out, but at the same time I enjoy the freedom to use my imagination to fill in the gaps.
I visited the Police and Justice Museum in Sydney and saw an exhibit about the female criminals of Sydney. Larry Writer had already written (non-fiction) about the two most notorious female criminals of Sydney’s underworld at the turn of the 20th century, but I couldn’t find anything about the female law enforcers.
The first female police recruits weren’t employed until 1915.There is very little on the public record about Lillian Armfield and Maud Rhodes, the first two women employed as police officers (Special Probationary Constables). I found limited excerpts in newspapers and a non-fiction book by crime reporter Vince Kelly. Rugged Angel: the amazing career of policewoman Lillian Armfield, published in 1961, recording a few of Lillian Armfield’s more interesting cases.
I couldn’t believe that no one had written any fiction about the woman who was not only Australia’s first policewoman but who worked for the NSW Police Force for 34 years through to her retirement in 1949. I imagined she would have been a very courageous pioneer, entering the bastion of an all-male police force, with the eyes of the politicians, the public, and interested women’s groups all scrutinising the ‘experiment’ of women in the police force. Her employment attracted international attention (and scorn).
What genre would you say your writing would fit into? Is this the genre you usually write in? And have you ever been tempted to write in other genres?
The An Arresting Woman series fits into the historical fiction genre. As a concept historical fiction is a contradiction in terms. History is what happened, fiction is what did not happen.
I think it’s a difficult genre to write in because you are not completely free to use your imagination. There are facts (which can sometimes get in the way of a good story). Saying that, it’s a very popular genre. Hilary Mantel has twice won the Man Booker for Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, historical novels based on the rise and fall of Thomas Cromwell, the powerbroker in the court of King Henry VII. In Australia The Lieutenant and The Secret River and Peter Carey’s The True History of the Ned Kelly Gang are examples of compelling and successful historical fiction.
I think that Jane Austen’s character in Northanger Abbey sums it up well when she describes her disinterest in what she derisively refers to as “real solemn history”:
… it tells me nothing that does not either vex or weary me. The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars and pestilences, in every page, the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all – it is very tiresome: and yet I often think it odd that it should be so dull, for a great deal of it must be invention, … and invention is what delights me in books.
Why did you decide to pursue self-publishing?
My first novel was rejected by several traditional publishers and I must admit it was dispiriting. After these rejections, I used a mentor through the Manuscript Appraisal Agency and paid for a professional edit.
After years of working on it I could not just put it in a drawer and forget about it. Being unpublished also meant that I was tempted to keep fiddling around the edges of it. In the end, I think this tinkering becomes dangerous and you start making changes for the sake of it.
Self-publishing Spud was a way of sending it out to the world and saying goodbye; like a child growing up and leaving home. It’s still yours but you can no longer have any influence in shaping it.
With The Romance Reader, traditional publishing was less of a goal. The main reasons I wanted a traditional publisher was to get all the additional professional services which improve your manuscript, such as advice and editing, book cover design and marketing, as well as knowledge about how the industry works (distribution and royalties). If you self-publish, most of these services can be obtained as soon as you write “the end” through a manuscript appraisal agency and editing services. With self-publishing you are in control of the services. Fortunately, you never hear the term ‘vanity’ publishing anymore; self-publishing has lost that stigma.
For me publishing is still the ultimate goal. I enjoy the act of writing (most of the time) and spend a lot of time writing. The accepted wisdom is that you write for yourself and for “a reader” (I suppose the second person stops you becoming too self-indulgent and hermetic). If you have faith in your final story, why not share it?
How did your manuscript develop, both in your initial
thinking about it and in the revision process?
In total, it’s been about ten years of thinking about An Arresting Woman. I wrote the first novella in late 2009 and stuck it in a drawer. In 2011, I wrote The Girl from Erskineville and I wrote The House of Tears in 2014. In 2014 I worked with a mentor from The Manuscript Agency to improve the first two novellas (I hadn’t finished the third). My mentor made some insightful comments and was very definite about some things that should and shouldn’t happen. I redrafted the first two and completed the third. She read them again and guided me in the right direction.
Several months followed, with a self-imposed deadline of early 2015 because the New South Wales Police were celebrating 100 years of women in the police force.
I did not even know about this until my mentor told me. At first I couldn’t believe my luck closely followed by disbelief that the looming centenary hadn’t occurred to me before.
Finally I asked The Manuscript Agency to find me an editor. I had already sent an (unedited) first chapter to publishers who accepted electronic submissions and received back two rejections and otherwise silence. This time I wasn’t in any way dispirited. When you send a submission to a publisher electronically, it’s a bit like buying a lotto ticket, you don’t really expect it to win, but you buy one anyway.
While my editor was editing, I found the perfect cover illustration on Istock photos, purchased it and taught myself how to use a free graphics package called GIMP. The edits came back, I made the changes (and a few more of my own) and within five minutes I had uploaded and published the first of my Lillian Armfield novellas.
What happened in writing that you didn’t expect would happen?
The characters started to take on a life of their own and become an invisible presence. I talk with my Reader and say, ‘Lillian would or wouldn’t do that’, or conversely he tells me, ‘But Lillian would/wouldn’t have done that!’
Parts of oneself and one’s own life also seep into the pages. I am a tragic dog lover and so Lillian has a dog after rescuing her in a raid on a hotel where patrons in the back courtyard were betting how many rats it took to kill a dog. I too have a terrier called Dice, also recused from human cruelty.
What do you hope people will take away
from reading your work?
To imaginatively capture a world that was different to ours, where there were much fewer options for women and technology as we know it was embryonic at best (horse and bikes were the mode of transport and people sent telegrams instead of emails), and yet create characters to which we can all relate as humanity is in many ways timeless.
What are you working on next?
After finishing the 3 novellas in the An Arresting Woman series I am going back to my second manuscript, The St Patrick’s Quartet, also historical fiction, set in World War Two in Australia. It was put on ice because I wanted to get An Arresting Woman finished before the centenary of women in the police force arrived. I have already had some initial feedback from my MAA mentor. This manuscript will require less of a rewrite than a massive paring back. This manuscript certainly had its time in the bottom drawer so I know I can approach it with fresh eyes and will be strong enough to “kill off my little darlings.”
After that, I plan to go back to the novel I wrote in November 2014 for NaNoWriMo (https://nanowrimo.org/). If you ever want to lose a month of your life, but gain a novel, this is the annual activity for you! In this contemporary novel, I explore how technology impacts on our lives (when we are not ready for it morally and psychologically), and how social media as the new way we humans choose to communicate (or not to communicate) brings us together (for better and worse).
Which authors do you most
admire, and why?
I have listed some above when discussing historical fiction.
I was recently inspired by The Narrow Road to the North by Richard Flanagan. I have not heard the label historical fiction applied to it but there are strong elements of historical fiction in it. It is the story of Australian prisoners of war, forced to work by their Japanese captors on the Thai-Burma rail. Flanagan’s father was himself in the death camps.
I am really enjoying Hugh Howey’s Wool series, a science fiction, post-apocalyptic story of the remainder of humanity living in underground silos, having destroyed themselves with the technology of warfare. Howey original self-published Wool as a series of short stories but with reader demand, he continued writing. He was picked up by a traditional publishers and now Hollywood will be making the films.
Do you usually read ebooks or traditional format? Where do
you mostly buy your books from ie bookstores, online?
I read paper books if given to me as gifts or lent to me. My first choice now is an e-version – either buy with “1–click” or borrow electronically through my council library. Something to do with instant gratification and bingeing on a series.
Are there any writing forums, blogs, groups that you follow
or belong to that you have found to be invaluable?
I’m a member of the WA Society of Women Writer’s (each state has an affiliated organisation and they share newsletters). Again, my invaluable mentor suggested I join a network and be informed about writing events. I joined a writing circle, which reads and critiques each other’s work (up to 2,000 words per month). It’s actually a very good discipline to provide feedback that is honest and helpful but not critical and hurtful.
When you write, do you have to jot down all your ideas
first or do they come to you as you go?
A bit of both. I do a lot of walking with the dogs, and if I’m not listening to music (which blots out my imagination), then I can do a bit of thinking. For historical fiction it helps to have done a fair amount of reading first. And then to just let that stew and ferment before you put fingers to keyboard. Sometimes dreams have also been helpful in finding the solution to a narrative problem.
Tell us what’s next for you?
Much of the same, though the focus will be on rewriting and editing this year with my World War 2 novel and the nanowrimo (contemporary) novel. I still work to pay the bills, go to university (honours in creative writing) to keep some discipline in how I write, and there are the demands of family. And if there’s any time or emotional capacity left – I will write, write and write.
Where can we buy your book? And is there anywhere
else we can find out more about you?
You can buy my book through Amazon and Smashwords and all the distributors associated with Smashwords (Ibooks, Barnes and Noble, Kobo, Overdrive, Oyster, Aldiko etc). I have designed a hard cover for The Romance Reader and will use CreateSpace (an Amazon company) to produce some hard copies. This is printing on-demand. Better for the environment – if no one wants your book, then no paper is wasted.