I am absolutely thrilled and very lucky to be able to host an interview with the wonderful Catherine Johnson, writer of many, many books and TV projects (her CV includes writing for Holby City). Her most recent book, The Curious Tale of the Lady Caraboo, has just published (and is immensely enjoyable – review to follow) and in this interview she discusses her excitement about the book and her experience working with children, prisoners, and publishers. Enjoy!
Please can you tell me a little bit about yourself and an overview of your career so far?
Gosh that’s hard. It’s been a long and not quite illustrious career although I have managed to be a full time writer since about 2007. I’ve worked around writing, as well as written, for most of the last twenty years. I’ve published 17 books, written one feature film (that got made- Bullet Boy – I have one in development), worked as a writer in residence in a prison and several schools, worked in local bookshops and in literature development, written for radio and TV and feel that I am amazingly lucky still to be published.
Tell me a little bit about the first time you got published and how it came about.
Oh this is a long story. I didn’t start writing until after I had two children. I trained at film school and thought that was what I was going to do. So when I had two little children I started writing a film script which went into development. That stalled but I sent an outline for a kids’ drama show to a TV company. I had a massive stroke of luck, someone in the TV office knew someone starting up a small publisher who was looking for books set in Wales for teens. They sent it on – I would never have thought I could write a book (all those words) – and the small publisher sent me on lots of courses at Ty Newydd (which is like the Welsh Arvon) and on a master class with Bernice Rueben (Booker prize winning novelist, now dead) and I learnt and learnt. Then when I had done one I enjoyed it so much I wrote another….and another.
“It’s the character. Get the character and you have the voice.”
What attracts you to writing historical fiction? How do you go about researching for your historical works?
I’m really not a historian – in fact I wasn’t allowed to take History GCSE (They were O levels when I was 15) as I had the worst mark in my whole year. But I loved historical dramas on TV – there was lots of Leon Garfield and I love the clothes. I always wanted to wear the frocks. And there was never anyone like me on TV when I was growing up wearing fantastic frocks. My first ever historical novel was set in regency London just because I liked the dresses!
It’s also important to me to write stories that remind readers that London has been a world city forever. I love Liza Picard’s books about London, and Peter Fryer’s Staying Power. I also use maps. Lots and lots of maps. That’s another brilliant thing about London, a lot of the street patterns are just the same as they were hundreds of years ago.
How do you go about finding the right voice and tone for your Young Adult novels?
It’s the character. Get the character and you have the voice.
You write novels, short stories, film and TV scripts. Which would you say is the most rewarding, and why? Which is the most difficult?
Financially rewarding? TV! I do love writing books but I can’t make a living at it. You can just do what you want in a book because it’s all down to you, which is lovely but I also enjoy the collaborative way of writing for TV. I like both! I am very lucky to do both.
What project/book/published pieces of yours are you currently most excited about?
I am so scared and excited about Caraboo. [Her new book The Curious Tale of the Lady Caraboo – review to follow shortly.] It’s horrible just before a book comes out because you try and try to keep a lid on your expectations but you always hope it will do well. But it’s also scary because people might actually not like it.
You do school visits and run writing workshops. Which have particularly stuck in your memory and why?
Ooh, that’s interesting. I enjoy seeing lots of different schools. I’ve been very lucky I’ve been writer in residence in Holloway prison which was really fascinating. And I got invited back to my old school which was terrifying. I love seeing the stories school students come up with.
Why is it important to run workshops and talks for young people? Do you find there is a strong interest in writing among young people?
I think when you’re at school it’s often the case that students think if they’re no good at writing essays then they’re no good at writing stories. I see it as a bit of a mission to prove otherwise!
What awards or achievements are you most proud of?
I’m proud of my children (I know) and all of my books (except maybe the first) and last year after years of being nominated for prizes but never winning, Sawbones won the Young Quills award for best historical fiction for 12+
What are you working on at the moment, and what are you reading?
I read loads. Just loved Poppy in the Field by Mary Hooper, Liberty’s Fire by Lydia Syson, Cuckoo Song by Frances Hardinge and Viper Wine by Hermione Eyre. I’m working on a contemporary YA set in my new hometown, Hastings, I’ve got a film project in development and (so excited) a TV series optioned…
You can also follow me on Twitter at @catwrote