[Interview] Catherine Czerkawska

Catherine Czerkawska is a poet, a novelist and a playwright.

Her books include The Amber Heart (Amazon Kindle, 2012), Bird of Passage (Amazon Kindle, 2012) and The Curiosity Cabinet (Amazon Kindle, 2011)

In this interview, Catherine Czerkawska talks about her concerns as a writer:

When did you start writing?

When I was very young I wrote poems, stories and fan fiction before fan fiction was ever invented – stories about The Beatles, especially John Lennon. I found some of them a little while ago in a box of old papers. They weren’t too bad, considering how young I was.

I think I probably wanted to be a published writer from the start. But it’s so long ago that it’s quite hard to remember. I submitted poetry and stories to all kinds of magazines and when I was still in my teens, I began to get personal letters instead of standard rejections. By the time I was at Edinburgh University, I’d had various poems published. My first biggish sale was a short story called "Catch Two" for She Magazine. (They paid well.) I was also writing plays, especially radio plays, and I sold my first short play to Radio Scotland when I was in my early 20s. I went on to write more than 100 hours of Radio Drama, some television and many stage plays.

How would you describe your writing?

I’d describe myself as a novelist, although I still write the occasional stage play. I’m an unashamed mid-list writer. Some of my novels are historical and some contemporary. I hope they’re well written (don’t we all?) but I also hope they’re good, readable stories. I write a lot about relationships, often in a rural setting, but I don’t always do happy endings. A sense of place is very important to my fiction. I do a lot of revision, a lot of honing. Maybe because I started out as a poet!

Who is your target audience?

When I’m writing, I don’t have any target audience in mind. I’m too involved with the characters and the story. At some point in the process, (but I couldn’t say exactly when) I start to think about the audience, the readers. Am I communicating this story in the best way possible? What am I trying to say? Will people understand it?

I would say I write for a ‘mid-list’ audience - the kind of readers who seem to be increasingly ill-served by traditional publishing, which spends too much time and money trying to predict the next big success on the basis of the last big success. And I don’t much like being tied to a specific genre. In some ways, I write the kind of books I like to read myself but I always love talking to readers about my novels.

Which authors influenced you most?

There are two distinct influences. The first involves Victorian novels, the Brontes in particular. In fact my novel Bird of Passage is something of a ‘homage’ to Wuthering Heights. It’s quite subtle, but it’s there. I love the way Wuthering Heights is so heartrending but by the end, past miseries are resolved in a loving relationship – balance is restored. I love that about these novels.

But I enjoy contemporary fiction too. I’m a big fan of William Trevor. I routinely think ‘I wish I had written that’ when I’m reading his stories. They seem deceptively simple, but they have untold depths and complexity.

How have your own personal experiences influenced your writing?

Obviously I’ve accumulated a lot of experience over the years. Everything feeds into the writing. People often ask ‘where do you get your ideas from?’ but ideas are everywhere, every relationship, every experience, (even the difficult ones). It’s a process of trying not to become cynical, trying to become wise instead, trying to tell the stories that might mean something to readers just as they mean something to the writer.

What are your main concerns as a writer?

Big question. I’m endlessly interested in the relationships between men and women, not just in their love stories, but in how we betray other people for all kinds of reasons, how other people betray us and how we come to terms with that.

I’m interested in how past suffering influences the present.

And – of course – as a writer of historical fiction, I’m fascinated by the attempt to recreate the past as it might have been – not as we might see it through modern eyes. Well, that’s practically impossible, I know, but if you immerse yourself in a time and place, you can make a good enough job of it.

Perhaps most important of all, I want my readers to believe in the world I’ve created. It might be a past or a present world. But they have to believe that it’s real and true.

What are the biggest challenges that you face?

Disillusionment with the process. I had quite a lot of success early in my writing life. I spent a number of years as a reasonably successful playwright but I always knew that fiction was where my real ambitions lay. Then I had three traditionally published novels, and each time I thought ‘this is it’. One of them in particular did very well. But for one reason or another – all of them to do with fluctuations within the publishing industry – I always seemed to be going back to square one and starting again. Maybe most writing careers are like that: a switchback rather than a curve.

On the other hand, I’ve developed a lot of persistence and it has allowed me to work at my craft. I think I’m a better writer now because of it. Most ‘beginning writers’ underestimate the sheer volume of work you have to produce to get anywhere.

Do you write every day?

I write just about every day but not always fiction. I do some reviewing and the odd essay and feature article. But I’m always thinking about the latest novel, and when I do get down to it, I write very intensively. I can keep going for twelve hours at a stretch!

I work best in the afternoons and in the evenings when the house is quiet. I like to stop at a point where I actively don’t want to stop – that way it’s easier to start again the following day.

I do a very rough first draft. I wouldn’t ever let anyone see it. Then I let the work lie fallow while I get on with something else. And then I revise. A lot. It’s quite a long process.

If I’m writing something that needs research, I’ll do some preliminary research, then write the first draft to find out what I don’t know. The Curiosity Cabinet consists of two stories, separated by several centuries. I wrote each part of that story separately and then put them together afterwards – printed them out and actually shuffled the pages about physically – it worked surprisingly well.

How many books have you written so far?

  • Shadow of the Stone (Richard Drew, 1989): Novel written to go with my television series of the same name, first produced on STV with Alan Cumming and Shirley Henderson, all episodes now available on YouTube
  • The Golden Apple (Century, 1990): A novel about a cross cultural marriage.
  • The Curiosity Cabinet (Polygon, 2005): Alys visited the fictional Hebridean island of Garve as a child. Donal was her playmate. Now she has returned after a long absence and a difficult divorce. Interwoven with the story of their growing love, is the darker tale of Henrietta Dalrymple, kidnapped by the formidable Manus McNeill and held on Garve against her will. With three hundred years separating them, the women are linked by an embroidered casket and its contents, by the tug of motherhood and by the magic of the island itself.
  • The Curiosity Cabinet (Amazon Kindle Version, 2011)
  • Bird of Passage (Amazon Kindle, 2012): A novel about the shocking realities of state-sanctioned physical abuse in Ireland and its aftermath in Scotland. Bird of Passage is a powerful story of cruelty, loss and enduring love.
  • The Amber Heart (Amazon Kindle, 2012): An epic love story set in the troubled Eastern Borderlands of 19th century Poland, this is a tale of obsessive love and loyalty set against the backdrop of a turbulent time and place.
Published Plays:
How would you describe your latest book?

The Amber Heart is a love story set in the Eastern Borderlands of 19th century Poland. I think it tackles very adult themes sensitively, but there’s no denying that it’s the story of an intense physical obsession between two people, set against the backdrop of an equally turbulent time and place.

It is also the story of the ‘pancake yellow’ house of Lisko, the heroine’s beloved childhood home, and the way in which the lives of the characters are disrupted by the political turmoil of the times. It has been described as a 'Polish Gone With The Wind'. It is very loosely based on a series of extraordinary facts which came to light when I was researching my own remote family history.

How long did it take you to write the book?

Unusually for me, this one has been on the go for about 20 years! I did a lot of the research while my beloved father was still alive – I’m very glad that I did because he gave me lots of information, lots of details which would be very hard to find now. The late great Pat Kavanagh was my agent at the time and although she told me she loved the book and she was one of the best agents in the business, she simply couldn’t place it with any publisher – lots of positive responses, but they said they didn’t think they could market anything with a Polish setting. We both got very frustrated about it. I filed it away and got on with writing plays. But I kept going back to it from time to time. It’s a big piece of work, 130,000 words. Then, over the past three years, I revised and rewrote it much more intensively. I had matured as a writer and I think it’s a much more readable story now.

When and where was it published? How did you find a publisher for the book?

Last year, I took the decision to go completely ‘Indie’ and start self publishing, initially to Kindle.

The Amber Heart is my third and most recent Kindle novel.

I think like most writers of my age and stage, I had begun years earlier by looking for traditional agent/publishing deals. I was headhunted by an agent who specialised in drama after a play of mine won a major award and then the agency asked Pat to look after my fiction.

At first all went well – my first novel was sold to a small publisher, my second to a much bigger ‘mid-list’ publisher, but the whole industry was changing. That publisher, the Bodley Head, old and distinguished, was bought over by one of the Big Six and after that even Pat couldn’t sell The Amber Heart.

Much later, returning to novels after years spent on plays, I was shortlisted for the Dundee Book Prize with The Curiosity Cabinet and it was subsequently published, but although the print run sold out, the publisher declined to look at the next book and wouldn’t reprint TCC. Neither novel fitting in with their future plans, so it was fair enough But both are now available on Kindle and selling well.

For a long time, it had struck me that there was a growing imbalance for authors. Many of us were getting what my fellow writer Maggie Craig calls the Rave Rejection – ‘We love this but the marketing department says it won’t sell in big enough quantities.’ Traditional publishers were – so my agent told me – looking for an ‘oven ready product’. They were also looking for a breakthrough book right away. When I first began writing and publishing, you had time to grow as a writer. Many best-selling authors today made that breakthrough with their forth, fifth or sixth book. Now they’d be dumped after book number two. I still remember the sudden shock of hearing my later agent say ‘I won’t submit this because although it’s good, I don’t think it’s a breakthrough book and if I submit two books by you which are turned down, nobody will even look at a third.’ It was as though somebody had placed a time limit on my creativity. It was appalling.

Then along came eBooks and Amazon. I don’t have any illusions that this is a particularly benevolent industry and I don’t plan to put all my eggs in one basket, but I still wake up most mornings thinking, God Bless Jeff Bezos. This is a company which has given me the professional tools to do the job. I don’t expect nurturing – just a good businesslike relationship. Long may it continue.

Which were the most difficult aspects of the work you put into The Amber Heart?

Punctuation. Although I have a degree in English Language and Literature, I’ve spent years as a playwright. You get into the habit of writing speeches the way you want the actor to say them, regardless of punctuation. Then, suddenly, you have to get it right.

The other challenge for me was having an editor – albeit not my main editor – suddenly advise me to chop off the last third of The Amber Heart and finish it a hundred pages earlier. I enjoy working with a sympathetic editor but this was a bridge too far and I said I wouldn’t do it. When I think about it now, I see that there may be a difference between what appeals to a male and what appeals to a female reader. I felt very strongly that to do as he suggested would have made the ending of the book deeply unsatisfactory. One or two female readers agreed with me. So I didn’t follow his advice, although it did send me back to the manuscript to tighten it up a bit.

Which aspects of the work did you enjoy most?

I would have to say, writing the sensuous scenes between the hero and heroine.

Fifty Shades this isn’t, but it is a story about an intensely physical but forbidden relationship - an obsession really - between two people – one that lasts for their whole lives. That’s not all it’s about of course – but it is certainly central to the novel and the key to the whole story. I loved writing these scenes.

What sets the book apart from other things you've written?

The background, I suppose. That Polish background was familiar to me from my own childhood, in Leeds, which was where my refugee father finished up after the war, and where he met and married my Irish mother – but I don’t think I realised just how strange it would seem to others. And how much subsequent perceptions of Eastern Bloc countries might colour other people’s idea of a ‘Polish’ novel.

Essentially, The Amber Heart would appeal to anyone who enjoyed the movie of Dr Zhivago but it’s quite a challenge to get that across to potential readers!

In what way is it similar to the others?

It’s a love story with a tragic twist. So is Bird of Passage. The Curiosity Cabinet has a happier ending. All of them have largely (but not wholly) rural settings.

What will your next book be about?

It will be finished later this year – I’m revising it at the moment. It’s called The Physic Garden, a historical novel set in very early nineteenth century Glasgow. The central character – and narrator - is one of the gardeners of the old Physic Garden (the medicinal garden) of Glasgow University. He’s a very old man when he relates the story of events that happened in his youth. It’s a story about friendship and horrific betrayal. He has spent his life trying to forget it, but in old age, he has to try to come to terms with it.

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

Two things. Finally finishing and publishing The Amber Heart, against all the odds. (It’s a BIG book and very dear to my heart.) And my stage play Wormwood which is still part of the Scottish Higher Drama syllabus. It’s about the Chernobyl disaster and I think it may be the best thing I’ve ever written. The critics liked it too.

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