Catherine Czerkawska is an experienced and widely published novelist and playwright, living and working in Scotland. She has written many plays for the stage and for BBC Radio 4 and has published numerous novels and short stories. Wormwood – her play about the Chernobyl disaster – was produced at Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre to critical acclaim in 1997, while her novel The Curiosity Cabinet, was shortlisted for the Dundee Book Prize in 2005 and subsequently published by Polygon. Her most recent novel, The Physic Garden, has been described as ‘heartbreaking’ and a ‘beautiful, elegant exploration of betrayal’. It is currently available on Amazon’s Kindle Store, with a paperback edition planned for later this year. She is working on a trilogy of novels set mostly on the beautiful Canary island of La Gomera – a love story about a relationship between a Scotswoman and a Spanish musician.
What inspires you to write?
Anything and everything. I’m never short of ideas, only short of time to write them. History, especially local and social history is a great sources of inspiration. My novel The Amber Heart was based on my own Polish family history. I collect antique and vintage textiles and they often find their way into my fiction as well. The Curiosity Cabinet was inspired by time spent on the beautiful Hebridean island of Gigha, just off the Kintyre Peninsula in Scotland. I divide my writing time (whether I’m working on plays or novels) pretty much between historical and contemporary fiction. I write love stories although I’m not sure I would call them romances – they don’t always end happily nor is everything neatly tied up at the end. I hope they are satisfying, but also realistic. I think I have a very strong visual imagination, and a strong sense of place. Places inspire me and so does music.
Tell us about your writing process.
I’m not a great outliner. I will often do a very sketchy outline but that’s all. I often know the beginning and the end of a story but I have to write the novel to find out how we get there. If I do a precise outline, I get very bored and then don’t write the book! On the other hand, I do a lot of rewrites. I write very quickly, get a draft onto my PC as quickly as possible because I hate that blank screen. Then, I have something to work with. I love revising. Love it. At some point – quite late in the process – I will always print out a draft and look at it on paper. With the Curiosity Cabinet, which is really two stories intertwined, I wrote them separately, the historical and the contemporary, and then printed them out and literally put them together on paper before going through the process on my PC. Eventually, I have to stop myself revising and decide that a piece of work is finished. Otherwise I could go on for ever.
I never create character sketches these days although I used to. And I think it’s a useful tool. It’s something I suggest people do when they are starting out. As a playwright, you find yourself doing it all the time. But now, when I’m working on a novel, I begin at the beginning and go on until I come to the end. One BIG file. I know it wouldn’t do for everyone but it suits me. One thing which might be useful for other writers, though – although I don’t do outlines or character sketches – I do surround myself with material of all kinds – sources of inspiration. I suppose they are the equivalent of mood boards for a designer. There will be pictures pinned up, music which is a kind of ‘soundtrack’ to the project, reference books sometimes, cuttings, poems. There’s a strange kind of excitement to it. It’s as if I have to fall in love with a certain ‘ambiance’ and immerse myself in it and then I can write. You can find some of my sources of inspiration on Pinterest too. Of course it can all be a distraction. Writers are very good at displacement activity and this is one way of indulging in it and pretending it’s work. But all the same, it seems to be a necessary part of the process for me, and it works!
For Fiction Writers: Do you listen (or talk to) to your characters?
Both. I listen to them speaking. They tell me their stories and I write them down. But I also talk to them. Find myself having some kind of dialogue with them. It’s a way of finding out about them. I don’t know everything about them at the beginning. Sometimes they surprise me. When I was writing my novel called Bird of Passage, I didn’t know everything that had happened to Finn in that novel until about half way or more through the process. HE, the character, couldn’t remember. Had been so traumatized that he blocked it out. I seemed to have to uncover it gradually for and with him. Similarly, in The Physic Garden, I knew that there had been some terrible betrayal, something that ran through the whole novel, but I didn’t know the details until quite late in the writing process. In that novel, which is a first person narration, I had to let the character himself tell his tale, tell ME, so that I could write it down. That novel in particular felt rather like ‘channeling’ another person. Very uncanny.
What advice would you give other writers?
I think you must find out what suits you best. You shouldn’t ever, as a writer, obsessively follow somebody else’s advice, if it seems counter-intuitive to you. You have to find your own voice and your own way of working. There is a lot of well meaning advice out there these days and some of it comes from people who are too inexperienced to know how little they really know.
On the other hand, I think writing is a craft. It isn’t possible to teach talent, but it’s certainly possible to teach the craft of writing. And it’s possible to learn it, as well.
On the whole, I tend to subscribe to the Stephen King school of advice: read a lot and write a lot. Most people underestimate just how much of both these activities successful writers do. Although when I’m in the middle of a novel of my own, I tend not to read new and challenging work by other people. It isn’t so much that I fear a voice will influence me as that I don’t really want to be distracted at that point. So I go back to old favorites like the classics, Jane Austen, the Brontes, Dickens and a few much loved writers like Barbara Pym, Daphne Du Maurier, E F Benson.
How did you decide how to publish your books?
I’ve been in this game for a long time. I’ve been traditionally published and I still am with my plays and some of my non-fiction. I suppose I’m a ‘hybrid’ writer. But I’m also a mid-list writer and that meant that I was finding traditional publishing increasingly difficult. They were always talking about the ‘demise of the mid-list’ but I thought I wasn’t ready to go just yet and besides, I found mid-list novels were what I enjoyed reading most. There was so much I felt I had still to write, as well as back list titles I wanted to rewrite. The Curiosity Cabinet, for instance, was very nicely published in the traditional way, but they wouldn’t reprint it when it sold out. I secured a rights reversion and published it in eBook form with a new cover, which was in fact a gift from Scottish textile/digital artist Alison Bell. Latterly, the whole agent/publisher/submission process was becoming ridiculous. I had an agent, but publishers only ever seemed to want an instant breakthrough bestseller, and they were always looking to clone the last bestseller. It doesn’t quite work like that. I got fed up of waiting, tired of receiving all kinds of different advice about different ‘experts’ about the same manuscript. (Cut the first third, cut the last third, change the point of view, don’t change the point of view) that when Amazon came along with Kindle I was a fairly early adopter. I’ve never looked back. I’m not averse to traditional publishing though. If the right deal came along for a particular book I might say yes. And it wouldn’t all be down to money. But it would be ‘horses for courses’. I know many writers who are published by several different publishers (as I am myself) and who also self publish a significant body of work in eBook form.
What do you think about the future of book publishing?
I think the hybrid writer probably IS the way of the future. I think the balance of power is tipping in favour of the writer. And I think eBooks will only become more popular as our children grow up. I think and hope that publishers will adjust to this new state of affairs and that the relationship between publisher and author – even for those who decide to go down the wholly traditional route – might become more businesslike. (Although I’m not holding my breath. Not just yet!) I used to hate the way in every other area of my working life I was treated as a professional, but in publishing I was expected to behave like a humble supplicant. It won’t do. We need more partnerships. Now, if I’m self publishing, I can work in partnership with, for example, a cover artist, and it’s wonderful. I can employ an editor if I wish. And I know from my own experience that some traditional publishers seem to be taking that on board. However, I definitely thank heavens for Amazon every day of my life!
What do you use?
Professional Editor, Professional Cover Designer
What genres do you write?
Love stories, historical fiction, romance, contemporary women’s fiction, literary fiction, contemporary fiction,
What formats are your books in?
Both eBook and Print
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