Welcome to the two hundred and fourteenth of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, biographers, agents, publishers and more. Today’s is with novelist Kate Long. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate further.
Morgen: Hello, Kate. Please tell us something about yourself and how you came to be a writer.
Kate: I live in a Shropshire market town with my husband and two sons and I’ve been writing for about twenty years, a published novelist for about ten.
Morgen: And I have two of them (‘The Bad Mother’s Handbook’ and ‘Queen Mum’ :)). What genre do you generally write and have you considered other genres?
Kate: I write what’s called commercial women’s fiction: mine are family-based dramas focussing often on parenting problems and adoption. I’m fascinated by the diverse shapes of modern family units, and I’m always asking in my books “What makes a good mother? What makes a good father?”
Morgen: Endless inspiration, I’d say. I mentioned two of your books a moment ago but what have you had published to-date?
Kate: I’ve had six novels published so far – The Bad Mother’s Handbook, Swallowing Grandma, Queen Mum, The Daughter Game and Mothers and Daughters. My new book, Before She Was Mine, came out on December 8th and tells the story of twentysomething Freya who’s grown up knowing both her adopted mum and her birth mother, and has to juggle those complicated relationships as well as working through a bad romance.
Morgen: Your plots are all very relatable, even from someone with a pretty ordinary background like me. Do you have a favourite of your books or characters?
Kate: I suppose my favourite of all my novels ought to be The Bad Mother’s Handbook as it did so well for me (it was serialised on Radio 4, nominated for a British Book Award, and adapted into an ITV drama). But I think artists are always fondest of their most recent project, and I can’t wait for readers to meet Freya and her eccentric mothers.
Morgen: Let’s hope many have already. I love anything eccentric (and especially enjoyed the DVD of The Bad Mother’s Handbook). 🙂 What was your first acceptance?
Kate: In the early Nineties I had a short story accepted for an anthology called Raconteur, and I was so excited when I opened the letter I ran down the street to a neighbour because I had to tell someone straight away.
Morgen: I had that feeling a couple of days ago; one of my blog contributors (in the U.S.) had met someone at a party who avidly follows my blog and loves my podcast (her words) so I had to go and tell one of my bosses, the only person to-hand at the time. 🙂 Does it still feel like that to you?
Kate: These days, when a manuscript’s accepted it’s still a tremendous, giddying relief that keeps me high for weeks.
Morgen: 🙂 Have you had any rejections? If so, how do you deal with them?
Kate: I had lots of rejections in the early days – for two unpublished novels and a first-attempt novella – and they did hurt. But the best remedy I’ve found is to get straight back on with the writing because it’s the only part of the process over which you have any real control.
Morgen: Unless your characters take over. 🙂 Have you won or been shortlisted in any competitions and do you think they help with a writer’s success?
Kate: I had a steady stream of competition wins in the early years which kept me going whilst I was trying to get a novel published. It’s possible I might have given up if I hadn’t had that encouragement and validation. Plus I made some invaluable contacts through submitting short stories, including the man who became my agent.
Morgen: A win-win definitely, and as you say they’re validations from peers. You mentioned that you secured an agent, do you think they’re vital to an author’s success?
Kate: My agent is Peter Straus at Rogers, Coleridge and White Ltd. I’ve no idea whether it’s essential to have an agent or not, but I certainly shouldn’t have liked to try and navigate my way round a contract without professional help.
Morgen: We’ve talked about traditional publishing, are your books available as eBooks?
Kate: Before She Was Mine and Mothers and Daughters are available as e-books and also audio downloads. All my novels can be borrowed as large-print versions from libraries. The Bad Mother’s Handbook can be bought on DVD or CD. Basically there is no escape from my stories!
Morgen: I have the DVD (and book) of The Bad Mother’s Handbook and Queen Mum book (I’ve not read the latter but look forward to doing so)… I clearly didn’t try to escape too hard. 🙂 This pre-empts my next question rather: if any of your books were made into films, who would you have as the leading actor/s?
Kate: Well my first novel was made into a tv drama starring Catherine Tate, Anne Reid, Robert Pattinson and Holliday Grainger. I was able to go onto the set and chat to the actors and producer, and it was tremendously exciting. I even have a couple of the props still – a mocked-up road sign and Nan’s jewellery box.
If Before She Was Mine was ever adapted for screen, I’d like to see a funky young comedian like Josie Long or Holly Walsh as Freya, with Anna Friel as her gorgeous but slightly unbalanced birth mum and sensible Ruth Goodman playing her adopted mother. I can picture them all very clearly!
Morgen: When I pulled out my DVD before we started this interview I thought Anna Friel was in The Bad Mother’s Handbook so it’s funny you should mention her. Did you have any say in the title / covers of your books? How important do you think they are?
Kate: I was able to negotiate over the cover and title of Before She Was Mine, and I’m really happy with the result.
Morgen: It’s a great cover so I can see why. 🙂
Kate: In general, though, I don’t think authors have very much say over cover design at all. When we sign a publishing contract we have to accept that we’ve become small cogs in a much larger machine.
Morgen: I’m a little biased towards (self-published) eBooks as that’s my only format but traditional publishers will certainly (we hope) know their audience. What are you working on at the moment?
Kate: I’m writing the sequel to The Bad Mother’s Handbook and having lots of fun exploring what happens to Charlotte, Karen, Daniel and Steve.
Morgen: Oh great… something to look forward to. 🙂 Do you manage to write every day?
Kate: I write every weekday morning and make preparatory notes each night. In fact I get twitchy if I’m forced to miss a day, and I even take the laptop on holiday with me so I can keep the momentum going. I need to keep prodding my characters to keep them awake, I’ve found.
Morgen: <laughs> What is your opinion of writer’s block? Do you ever suffer from it?
Kate: I’ve never suffered from it probably because I always plan my stories out from start to finish, and I even sketch out each scene in note form before I type it up properly. I shouldn’t like to begin writing from scratch with just a blank screen or a bare sheet of paper in front of me. That would send me into a spin, I think.
Morgen: That doesn’t phase me although I write short stories so certainly less scary, although I tend to have more ideas than I know what to do with. You’ve listed some of your characters, do you have a method for creating them, and what do you think makes them believable?
Kate: I always use a set of fifty prompt questions to generate not only character information but also backstory before I start a novel. When I type “Chapter 1” I already know where the main characters went to school, who was their first love, their most formative childhood experience and all kinds of detail that may never make it into the novel. But my knowing these things makes me more confident in the characters’ existence. I believe in them and I hope that belief translates itself to the reader.
Morgen: Wow, that’s thorough… and a great (fun) way for getting to know them. Do you do a lot of editing or do you find that as time goes on your writing is more fully-formed?
Kate: The editing process for me is continuous and, at certain stages, almost outfacing. Towards the end of a project I feel like a goat tethered to a post, winding up my rope in ever decreasing circles. I wonder whether I’m ever going to finish.
Morgen: But you do, and it must be very satisfying. Given that your plots are contemporary, do you have to do much research?
Kate: I know so little about the way the world works I find I have to research nearly everything. For Before She Was Mine I had to speak to a friend about her experience of breast cancer, arrange a tour of a plant nursery, interview a solicitor and approach a woman about her great crested newts.
Morgen: As you do. 🙂 Now, that does sound like an intriguing book. You’re clearly passionate about what you do, what’s your favourite / least favourite aspect of your writing life?
Kate: I love being able to escape temporarily into a world I’ve created – that really helped me get through last year when my husband was very ill and the world seemed a pretty bleak place.
Morgen: Oh dear, sorry to hear that. I’ve found writing to be very therapeutic and every experience we go through builds our store to draw upon.
Kate: In practical terms it’s also been helpful for me as a mum because it’s meant I’ve been around a lot more for my kids than I would have if I’d still been trying to hold down a teaching job. But the very best aspect of being a novelist is when I get positive feedback from readers. I feel so privileged to have been able to reach someone through my writing.
The worst parts? Bad reviews and having to sort out tax returns.
Morgen: I have that to look forward to (hopefully more tax returns than bad reviews!). What do you like to read?
Kate: More or less anything that comes my way. I’ve always been a keen reader, and I like to have several books on the go at once. For the car I choose an audio thriller, usually, someone like Val McDermid, Sophie Hannah or Kate Atkinson. Then there are authors I return to over and over – Laurie Graham, Liz Jensen, Jane Austen, the Brontes, Alan Garner, Nick Hornby. Then there are the novels I just light upon and love – watch out for Life! Death! Prizes! By Stephen May and The Thoughts & Happenings of Wilfred Price, Purveyor of Superior Funerals by Wendy Jones – they’re both cracking novels, coming soon.
Morgen: I often quote Kate Atkinson as being one of my favourite authors. She was the subject of a three-fortnightly college course (for her first three books) a few years ago and I’ve been hooked ever since. I met Sophie at last year’s Oundle Literature Festival Readers’ Day (she was delightful and I remember her equally charming young daughter chatting to the audience, completely unphased, whilst Sophie had to go and move her car!) and Val is my Christmas Day interviewee so I’m really looking forward to chatting to her. 🙂 What do you do when you’re not writing, Kate? Any hobbies or party tricks? 🙂
Kate: I’m mad about wildlife, especially small mammals. I’m an experienced water vole surveyor and regularly train student groups for the Field Study Council. I blog on voles here: http://staggsbrook.blogspot.com.
Morgen: Wow. You’ve got some really cute pictures on there. Are you on any forums or networking sites? If so, how valuable do you find them?
Kate: I’m on Twitter as @volewriter. I don’t know how “useful” that is, but I so enjoy speaking to other writers and to readers. Working from home can be quite isolating.
Morgen: And I found you on Twitter so very useful for me. 🙂 Where can we find out about you and your work?
Kate: My website’s the best place: www.katelong.co.uk. There you can check out my events diary, see photos from the film set of The Bad Mother’s Handbook and ask me questions via my VYou channel http://vyou.com/katelong.
Morgen: I’ve not come across VYou before, it looks great (and I spotted the film set memorabilia, the sign, behind you). Thank you so much Kate… for coming out of your isolation for me. 🙂
I then invited Kate to include an extract of her writing and this is from Before She Was Mine [which was published by Simon & Schuster on 8th December 2011]…
I found myself recalling, of all things, a conversation I’d once had with Nicky’s mum Joan when I was about sixteen. We’d been in the garden because she was having a barbecue and she’d had a fair amount to drink, which wasn’t like her. She’d sidled up to me and gone, in a voice full of tragic-sympathy, ‘Nicky and I always think you’re marvellous the way you’ve handled being adopted. So brave. It must be difficult, Liv not being your—’ she’d lowered her voice ‘—real mum.’
‘Well, you know, it beats being put out on the street,’ I said to her. Then I’d asked if she knew how many kids in my class lived with someone who wasn’t their biological parent. She’d looked sick and made a swift exit, so she never got to hear the answer, which was: At least half of them. Because the plain fact was that in every other household you’d have found a step mum or step dad, a granny or aunty or even in one case a neighbour standing in for absent kin. There were IVF and ICSI babies, born from donated sperm and eggs. And I knew other adoptees, too. In my maths group we had a Vietnamese boy called Hung whose dad was a ginger Scot and whose mum was half-Italian. Who says families have to match? Love’s the glue that holds people together, not genetic fit. Hell, if genes alone did it, every biological family would be a shining unit like something out of Hello! magazine. Not Tyler Dawes taking a pop at his dad with an air rifle, or Sheree Lewis throwing hot coffee over her mum during an argument about skirt lengths.
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