Friday, June 8, 2007

[Interview] Katherine Roberts, children's author

Katherine Roberts graduated with a First in Mathematics from Bath University and has worked with computers, racehorses, and in a pet shop.

Her short stories have appeared in magazines such as Take A Break and in anthologies of horror fiction. Several of them have won awards and prizes.

Two of her earliest fantasy stories, "A Gift from the Merlee" and "Death Singer," eventually grew into her prize-winning first novel, Song Quest, which was published in 1999 and won the Branford Boase Award for an outstanding first novel for children.

Katherine Roberts' novels include Spellfall (2000), Crystal Mask (2001), Dark Quetzal (2003), The Great Pyramid Robbery (2001), The Babylon Game (2002), The Amazon Temple Quest (2002), The Mausoleum Murder (2003), The Olympic Conspiracy (2004), and The Colossus Crisis (2005).

The Cleopatra Curse (2006) and I am the Great Horse (2006) are her most recent novels.

She spoke about her concerns as a writer.

When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?

You don't decide to be a writer. Either you are or you aren't.

I take "writer" to mean "story teller", a person born with a vivid imagination. Writing, telling or singing stories will be part of their life, whether or not they make any money from doing it. The non-writer, on the other hand, will often be at a loss for something to write and find writing hard work. They might manage to write a successful book but they will only be doing it for money (or some other outside purpose), not for the pure joy of telling the story.

Who would you say has influenced you the most?

Almost all the writers I read, especially the ones I read as a child.

Childhood favourites include Anne McCaffrey, Ursula Le Guin, and just about anyone who wrote pony books. I still enjoy the fantasy writers and often re-read old favourites for comfort, though I think I've grown out of pony books -- an exception would be Blind Beauty by K. M. Peyton.

As an adult, I do not have favourite authors. I like to read a wide variety of genres and am attracted more to story than a writer's name. I often discover brilliant books in charity shops several years after they have gone out of print.

What are your main concerns as a writer?

The gulf between the public perception of authors (that we're all millionaires with glamorous lifestyles) and the more mundane reality -- it can be embarrassing when you get begging letters from charities and schools, etc.

How have your personal experiences influenced the direction of your writing?

I think it's too early to tell, though everything filters through eventually.

What would you say are the biggest challenges that you face?

Getting my books supported by book-selling chains.

The chains are reducing their range of books in favour of greater quantities of titles they know they can sell, such as biographies of famous football stars or fashionable authors. This means that a lot of published books simply do not get into the chain shops at all. Since Waterstones took over Ottakars at the end of this year, the choice has become even narrower.

How do you deal with these?

I have no control over this.

What is your latest book about?

I am the Great Horse is the epic story of Alexander the Great, told from the point of view of his war-horse Bucephalas. I first came across Alexander while researching my Seven Fabulous Wonders series. He was always there in the background, sometimes a hero, sometimes a villain. I knew I wanted to write a book about him, but didn't want it to be just another Alexander novelisation. The horse's viewpoint seemed obvious since I'm so keen on horses, and Bucephalas' "voice" came to me fully formed. He isn't meek and mild like Black Beauty ... he's a battle-scarred war stallion with attitude!

How long did it take you to write it?

About five years.

I wrote the first chapter from my memory of what I knew about Alexander, to capture Bucephalas' voice. Then I started collecting research material. During this time, I was still working on my Seven Fabulous Wonders books, so I was writing some of a Wonders book one day and researching Alexander the next. I used ancient Greek horsemanship books such as Xenophon's Art of Horsemanship, classics such as The Greek Alexander Romance, and two very good modern biographies of Alexander -- Peter Green's Alexander of Macedon and Robin Lane Fox's Alexander. I also used my own experience of being a racehorse groom.

When I started writing, I researched the history in a lot more detail as I wrote the first draft, so that my first draft became a journey of discovery for me as much as it must have been for Alexander, keeping some of the excitement ... I was determined to deliver my manuscript before Oliver Stone's film came out, and managed to do so in 2004, just a few weeks before its release. I then went to see the film and loved it.

Where and when was it published?

America August 2006, U.K. March 2007.

Which aspects of the work that you put into the book did you find most difficult?

Reducing the length by a quarter so that it could be published as one volume, not three.

Originally, it was 200,000 words. I wanted the book to be an epic read, rather than lose some of its power by splitting it into three. I also wanted it published as one volume because I know from experience how frustrating it can be trying to track down the various parts of a trilogy when you're ready to read them.

It was difficult to reduce the length because that meant cutting 50,000 words, which is almost the length of a normal sized book.

I prefer the published version, because reducing the length has made the story much tighter and stronger.

Which did you enjoy most?

Writing the horse's voice, which allowed me to sneak in all sorts of comments about the recent war in Iraq without anyone realizing.

So, what would you say I am the Great Horse is really about? And, why was it important for you to comment about the war in Iraq in this way?

I suppose it is my "post 9/11 novel", since I started it a few weeks after the twin towers came down in New York. If you think about what Alexander did back in 322BC, it mirrors almost exactly what Bush and Blair tried or are trying to do to Iraq and Iran after 9/11. The only difference being that Alexander led his men personally against the Persians (and he wasn't after oil).

What sets the book apart from the other things you have written?

It is written by a horse [and] yes, this is the first book I have written from the point of view of an animal. My other novels have young protagonists, usually in their teenage years. With Alexander, this would not have worked since his story spans his whole life. So I used the horse to tell the story instead.

In what way is it similar?

It covers a period of Eurasian history and includes elements of fantasy. I have always been a fan of fantasy and [science fiction] SF. My first four books were genre books -- the Echorium Sequence being a fantasy trilogy, and Spellfall being a fantasy meets real world story. My Seven Fabulous Wonders series is based on ancient Greek, Babylonian and Egyptian history and their myths and legends.

I'm not sure why I'm drawn to this kind of history, but I find it a rich field to work in.

What will your next book be about?

Genghis Khan.

I have been working on this book for two years, on and off. Research is all part of the fun and includes biographies of Genghis Khan, Secret History of the Mongols, Chinese horoscopes, and Mongolian poetry. I think there will be some poetry in the book. The idea came out of a collage I made when I was wondering what to write after I am the Great Horse. I ripped up some magazines, stuck down pictures and words that appealed to me, and ended up with a sheet of images that, to my total surprise, suggested Genghis Khan ... a worthy successor to Alexander!

What would you say has been your most significant achievement as a writer?

Keeping going.

It takes dedication and self-belief to keep writing and sending out work during periods when there is little encouragement or money coming in. I have won awards for my work, which is always nice because it means someone has recognized what you've done, but the real achievement is always sitting down at the blank page to write the next story.

How did you get there?

By remembering what Gandhi said: that whatever I do will be insignificant, but it is very important that I do it.

What does this mean to you personally?

Writing what I feel needs writing and following my heart, however insignificant my book might be once it is done. Not giving in to the demand for "commercial" books. Putting truth above fashion.

Related books:

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