Friday, October 21, 2011

An Interview with Kathryn James

After I read Mist I couldn't stop thinking about the writing, the story, the characters,  and wanted a chance to chat to the author, so I stalked her and asked her nicely to chat to me via email and she agreed. Phew. Here is the interview:

Can you tell us a bit more about what Mist is about?
 It’s about what happens when you demonise people who are different to you. You give them a bad name and then believe they are out to get you. And you drive them out. Then the driven out people decide that if they’ve been given a bad name, then they’ll act bad.

In Mist the people who have been driven away are the Elven. The Watchers who police them are afraid the Elven want to come back and take over the world, so they imprison them, making matters worse. My heroine Nell meets an Elven boy and instead of fearing him, she befriends him.

In the past I’ve worked with gypsy and traveller children, and some of the characteristics of the Elven were inspired by this – the gypsies are a secret people who live on the fringes, often misunderstood and distrusted. But like my Elven are also lively, passionate and intriguing.

What was your journey to being published?

For Mist it was through my excellent agent Julia Churchill at Greenhouse. When I finish writing a book most times I’m the only one who’s read it. What it needs then is a fresh eye to read and comment. That’s where Julia is so good. She always has useful constructive comments to make. She did that with Mist, so I would say it had a couple of revisions before she sent it off to the publishers for me.

On the whole though, it’s taken a long while to get published. I’ve written scripts for a video production company for years, which was very enjoyable and gave me lots of experience writing for kids and teenagers. I also wrote two books about a gypsy boy a few years ago.

Nell is such a great character – was she with you from the start or was the concept of the story there first?

I wanted to write a story about a secret people, so that came first. I was walking in the woods and I saw a patch of mist, and I remembered reading myths and legends about mist in the woods – how if you walked into it you wouldn’t come out the other side, you’d end up in another world. And when you did find your way out time would’ve passed differently to the outside world. And I got to thinking about a wood with a mist that led somewhere else where a hidden people lived. And I thought of a young girl running headlong into it, as though chasing someone. And that was Nell. She sort of arrived in my mind fully formed. I knew who she was and how she would react from the start. Same with her sister, Gwen.

Grizedale forest - aerial photo by Jonathan Webb
 The woods and the forest in Mist felt very much real to me and I wondered if you had a set location in your mind when you were writing about Nell and Evan’s adventures.

It was in Grizedale Forest in the Lake District that I saw the mist and had the idea for the book. It’s so dark and primeval in there, your imagination runs riot. We also have woods near us at home that are just amazing early in the morning, with the light coming through the trees. I love most woods and forests. I have a really detailed picture in my head of the Elven forest and I would love to walk through it! Especially in the deep snow that occurs in Frost, the follow on book to Mist.

Evan’s brother, Fen, really scared the life out of me yet you manage not to let his antics dominate the story. How did you make sure his darkness in the story did not take over?

He was scary, wasn’t he! I think it was because he was unpredictable and there was the hint that he was suffering some kind of mental breakdown – which can be frightening to witness in someone. I don’t like out and out baddies in stories. I like the idea that even the worst people might be able to be redeemed, that there’s a little bit of light in their darkness. And I like finding out what it is about their lives that made them become mean or dangerous.

I loved Nell’s bravery in the face of Fen’s madness. She was scared stiff but she stood up to him, and so did Evan in the end. I think Fen’s badness doesn’t overwhelm because much of the story is about Nell and Evan finding out that they can trust each other, and then they stand firm against him.

Friendship, family and loyalty is so important in Mist and was it difficult to reign in Evan and Nell’s growing friendship during the writing of Mist?

I had to think about it carefully, but by the time I came to write Mist, I knew Nell and Evan so well that I knew how they would react to each other, how Nell would react when Gwen got kidnapped. I loved writing their relationship, and how they eventually realise that they had this very special bond between them – a unique friendship between an Elven and a human. I really enjoyed the end when they realise that friendship is becoming something more! I also enjoyed writing Nell, Gwen and their mum’s scenes. They seemed to flow very easily from my mind. I could see them getting ready in the morning so vividly.

The story, the characters, the forest, it is all very fairy tale orientated, but on the darker scale. Are you fond of fairy tales and do you still read them if you are?

I love to read re-imagined fairy tales. I’m thinking of Angela Carter here, and others who have taken a very basic and well known tale, which in its original is nothing much and turned it into something amazing and intriguing and relevant. I love the Elf King poem by Goethe for example. I like sci fi as well, and I think that you can see a real connection between the old myths of fairy abduction and a belief in other beings and dimensions with the modern day belief in alien abduction and other worlds.

In writing Mist I was putting a new spin on old fairy stories about Elven and time distortions and other worlds.

What is your writing process like? Do you write clean copy, do you obsessively plot and revise?

I used to get an idea and start typing before I actually knew where it would end. I was always good at getting a basic idea, and the characters came easily, but plotting was my downfall. Making it up as you go along is exciting but lead to lots of dead ends and the scrapping of whole chapters. So now, thanks again to Julia, I try to do a very detailed synopsis. A chapter by chapter breakdown of what’s going to happen. And then I expand each chapter. This way works much better.

Do you get the chance to read and relax and if so what do you read and how do you relax?

At the moment I’m writing fairly frantically. During the year I’ve written Frost and another book that’s with my agent. And now I’m working on another. I don’t read much when I’m writing because it puts me off. If I read a really good book, I sit there and think ‘I wish I’d had that idea’ or I start to rethink the book I’m writing on. I do most of my reading in between finishing one book and starting another. Then I read and read obsessively. I got a Kindle for Christmas and I love the fact that you can download a book and start reading at any time, even lying in bed at night! I miss seeing the book covers though and wish that the screen saver could be the book cover you’re currently reading.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers, both schoolgoing as well as adult?

Never give up! If you’re determined you can do it. Never start a book and not finish it. Make a commitment that even when the going gets tough and you have to scrap whole chapters, that you keep faith with it. There’s nothing like getting to the last page and sitting back and thinking ‘yep, I did it. I wrote the whole thing!’

Also try and do a very detailed synopsis before you set out. I learned this late but it is so useful. Plotting is so important. OK, some things might change, but if you’ve got the structure set down before you, and each chapter mapped out, then it is so much easier.

Another useful thing is to try and write a blurb for your book idea. The sort of thing that you see on the back of books. If you can’t get your ideas into an exciting paragraph then maybe you need to rethink them.


I loved doing this interview and the advice was great! If you've not read Mist, I do hope you consider picking it up.  Thanks so much, Kathryn (find her website here) and I'm really looking forward to reading Frost!


Jenni (Juniper's Jungle) said...

Wow, what a brilliant interview. It's so interesting to read about the influences on the book.

A.J. Mullarky said...

I'm from the Lake District! Grizedale really is beautiful. This sounds like a fantastic book.

Clover said...

Really fascinating interview, thank you both of you! I loved the part about being inspired by a certain area of the Lake District as well (I had no idea Kathryn James is a British author - this excites me because I can now read Mist as part of my British author themed month in November! YAY!)

Stephanie @ Read In a Single Sitting said...

Great interview. I love her inspirations--Carter and the terrifying Erlkonig!