Welcome to the one hundred and fifty-second of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, directors, bloggers, autobiographers and more. Today’s is with mystery writer (and author of poetry, children’s, scripts and more) Catherine Astolfo. 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 Catherine. Please tell us something about yourself and how you came to be a writer.
Catherine: I can remember writing fairy stories for my friends as soon as I could write a sentence or two. It’s as though I had been born with the obsession to put ideas and imaginings down on paper.
Morgen: I love that word “obsession”. My mum told me recently not to let it become an obsession (my brother’s obsessed with ‘Octopush’ (underwater hockey)) – I didn’t like to tell her she was a few months too late. 🙂 What genre do you generally write and have you considered other genres?
Catherine: I usually write fictional novels in the mystery genre. But I also have a comedic television screenplay, a children’s story (also mystery though), and a romantic-historical-mystery book on the go. I’ve had short stories and poetry published in the past, plus a handbook for school Principals (co-written). So I think I’m pretty much promiscuous when it comes to writing.
Morgen: I’d say so. 🙂 You mentioned short stories and poetry, what have you had published to-date? If applicable, can you remember where you saw your first books on the shelves?
Catherine: I self-published my print copies of The Emily Taylor Mysteries (four of them). I do remember opening that first box of books and bursting into tears. Tears of joy at accomplishing the lifelong dream of writing a book that people actually wanted to read. Now that they’re being published by Imajin Books as ebooks, I am absolutely pumped!
Morgen: I have that to look forward to. Have you ever seen a member of the public (whom you don’t know!) reading your book… in any unusual locations?
Catherine: Well, probably not so unusual, but someone on a GO train was reading my book. That was definitely a thrill.
Morgen: How much of the marketing do you do for your published works or indeed for yourself as a ‘brand’?
Catherine: Marketing is hard work. I do it all of course, having self-published. But I have a daughter and son who’re casting directors / film producers, so I have some pretty amazing help.
Morgen: They do say it’s not what you know… Have you won or been shortlisted in any competitions and do you think they help with a writer’s success?
Catherine: My short stories have won second and first in The Bony Pete contest, which is connected to The Bloody Words Conference, a gathering for mystery and crime writers. My first book, The Bridgeman, won a Brampton Arts Award. And yes, I do believe awards help – to give you a certain cache when approaching traditional publishers or even with readers online. Nice to be able to brag about in the website.
Morgen: Absolutely. Do you have an agent? Do you think they’re vital to an author’s success?
Catherine: As I mentioned, my children are in an industry that is closely connected, so my daughter has often acted as my agent. I think having an agent is absolutely necessary to initial and prolonged success.
Morgen: You mentioned eBooks a minute ago, are all your books available as eBooks? Do you read eBooks?
Catherine: I have a Kindle, which I received this past Christmas, and now I am addicted. I’m very excited that all four of my Emily Taylor Mysteries will soon be available as ebooks through Imajin Books, www.imajinbooks.com. Readers can sign up for their newsletter and be the first to know when Book One arrives!
Morgen: What was your first acceptance and is being accepted still a thrill?
Catherine: My first acceptance was a long time ago now – a short story – and being accepted is definitely still a thrill. Recently, with the acceptance of all four Emily Taylor Mysteries as ebooks by Imajin Books (a traditional publisher YAY), I am ecstatic.
Morgen: I don’t blame you. 🙂 Have you had any rejections? If so, how do you deal with them?
Catherine: Lots and lots and lots. I was told that you should be able to wallpaper a room with them before you’re done, but I gave up before that happened. I used to feel somewhat dejected by rejection – especially when they were nice e.g. “This was great, but…” or “We took it to our Publishers Circle as one of our three picks, but the publisher…” Oh, man, that feels like being one number off a million-dollar lottery.
Morgen: But having personal feedback is good – most of the ones I’ve received have been a standard letter (or a wall of silence). What are you working on at the moment / next?
Catherine: I am working on a novel called Sweet Karoline. Although there is a mystery, it’s a bit of a hybrid: there’s a love story and historical elements too. I’m also beefing up a comedy pilot for television, dabbling in a children’s mystery, and now and then adding to a cozy mystery. Sheesh.
Morgen: You sound so busy, do you manage to write every day? What’s the most you’ve written in a day?
Catherine: I don’t manage to write every day, though I’ve set the minimum at 500 words. Sometimes I will write all day, when I get the chance, but I’ve never really counted, since some of that is often going back and rewriting or choosing a different word or adding a character…and then I lose count.
Morgen: Well, 500 words a day is 182,500 words in a year! What is your opinion of writer’s block? Do you ever suffer from it? If so, how do you ‘cure’ it?
Catherine: I’ve had writer’s block a lot. I think it’s either fear of success or fear of failure! The only way I can cure it is to write. Just start writing. Even if it’s junk, I write until I feel that glorious flow once more.
Morgen: And isn’t it glorious. A question some authors dread, where do you get your inspiration from?
Catherine: I’m inspired by people, life. Everything I read in the newspaper, hear, see or smell sparks a dialogue in my head or propels me into scribbling out an idea. Sometimes they add to a story already in progress and sometimes they end up in my desk drawer.
Morgen: Do you plot your stories or do you just get an idea and run with it?
Catherine: I’ve done both. However, if I just get an idea and run with it, I end up plotting it later on in the process. My plottings, however, are certainly not rigid: I often change course and have to rewrite the outlines.
Morgen: And I get sometimes it’s because your characters take over. Do you have a method for creating yours, their names and what do you think makes them believable?
Catherine: I would say my characters are a combination of the people I’ve met. I exaggerate their quirks or combine personalities. I have to admit I often get names from the obituary section of the newspaper. I believe that their emotions and the way they handle situations make them believable. I try to write experiences that, while they may be unusual, are not out of the realm of possibility and therefore evoke shared or universal emotions.
Morgen: I love obituaries! Er, maybe I shouldn’t sound so enthusiastic but they’re a brief bio so great inspiration. With your poetry, do you write to form or free verse? What would you say is the difference between a piece of prose and a prose poem? Why do you think poetry is so popular and yet so poorly paid?
Catherine: I have written poetry in the past, but I love the novel process so much more. I always did free verse. I admire poetry because the selection of words must be so tight and absolutely right, which is how it differs from prose in my opinion: the words must be spare and perfect.
Morgen: Are you involved in anything else writing-related other than actual writing or marketing of your writing?
Catherine: The novel / story-to-film industry has been a part of my life for the last ten years. Currently we’re working on Scribes Digest, which will be an online networking and service for pre-published or self-published writers in all genres, including fiction, song-writing, and screenplays (www.scribesdigest.com).
Morgen: You’ve mentioned that your family is heavily involved, who do you first show your work to?
Catherine: My daughter is my first reader. She inspires, encourages, recommends, and generally keeps me going.
Morgen: Do you do a lot of editing or do you find that as time goes on your writing is more fully-formed?
Catherine: I’ve experienced both. Sometimes I think I cook the story so much in my head that it arrives as a complete casserole. Other times I start off in one direction and then change the map of the story so much that I have to edit a great deal. For instance, I love writing in present tense and everyone else hates it, so I very often revise tenses.
Morgen: It’s been done a lot but that shouldn’t put you off. I think it depends on the story. How much research do you have to do for your writing? Have you ever received feedback from your readers?
Catherine: I have to do a lot of research! My books are steeped in Canadian history, aboriginal and black, as well as social justice issues (puppy mills, Native spirituality, child neglect, wrongful convictions). So I read a great many books on the various topics and do internet searches. My husband helps a lot with the research. We’ve visited museums and towns to fuel the inspiration as well as gather the facts. Often my readers ask me how I knew all that stuff… but I do remind them that it’s fiction and I don’t claim absolute accuracy. Just realistic enough to be believable and on the edge of correct.
Morgen: You really do have your family behind you. 🙂 You’ve talked about the actual writing but what is your creative process like? What happens before sitting down to write?
Catherine: I often procrastinate, surf the net, play some word games, answer some emails – then open the file and just start. If I left off in a particular mysterious spot, or a tricky emotional scene, that helps to get me interested. Once the flow is with me, I disappear into some sub-conscious and my fingers no longer belong to me. That sounds really weird, doesn’t it? But that’s the moment I enjoy most: I am there, in that scene, with those people, and I love it.
Morgen: Me too. 🙂 Do you write on paper or do you prefer a computer?
Catherine: I love my computer. But I will write on paper when I must: e.g. I like taking a journal with me and scribbling ideas, or plot points, or writing about the scenery around me so I can include it in a novel.
Morgen: It sounds like you’re an outdoors writer, and whilst some writers like quiet, others the noise of a coffee shop etc. Do you listen to music or have noise around you when you write or do you need silence?
Catherine: I prefer noise. I’ve always been like that: I’d study at the kitchen table in the midst of my busy family. Now I have my husband on his computer, the cats buzzing around, and music in the background to keep me alert. If there’s silence, I can nod off. Not that my writing is boring of course! I’m just an extrovert.
Morgen: You’re in a select few. Most have said quiet or ‘gentle’ music (myself included in the latter). We’ve covered tenses, but what point of view do you find most to your liking: first person or third person? Have you ever tried second person?
Catherine: I really really like first person. But I switch to third person sometimes in the same book. I’ve got a bunch of split personality quirks I think. I have actually tried second person and I would love to explore that further. But most readers don’t like second – it’s too odd. You can only get away with it if you are considered a deep thinker, and that only happens after you die, so I probably won’t tempt fate by using it.
Morgen: I’m hoping that second isn’t popular because it’s not been done too much. I’m planning on releasing an eBook collection of second person stories so we shall see how that goes. 🙂 Do you use prologues / epilogues? What do you think of the use of them?
Catherine: I often use prologues, but not epilogues. For some reason, I like the tease of the prologue, but epilogues annoy me. When you’re done, you’re done.
Morgen: 🙂 Do you have pieces of work that you think will never see light of day?
Catherine: I have tons of them. I have also sworn a couple of good friends to go into my locked desk drawer to tear up a few old diaries.
Morgen: What’s your favourite / least favourite aspect of your writing life?
Catherine: My favourite part is when the subconscious takes over and I am zinging along, my fingers flying over the keyboard, the inspiration and plot are in sync, and I can’t type fast enough. My least favourite is when that’s not happening and I feel as though I am forcing it. I would also say that, aside from the actual writing process, my least favourite part of the life is the marketing. I hate trying to sell myself and my product.
Morgen: Yep, most of us have said those two. If anything, what has been your biggest surprise about writing?
Catherine: The biggest surprise for me has been how humbling it is: when people come up to me and tell me how moved they were, or how they laughed or cried at particular points, I just want to burst with joy, yet at the same time I feel grateful that I was given this tremendous gift.
Morgen: Isn’t it great! I came to writing a lot later than you (late 30s) and like dieting (which I’m sort of doing) I do wonder why I didn’t start earlier. What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Catherine: Have faith in your work and remain committed. It’s very hard work. I think anyone can dream up a great story line, learn the techniques of putting down the words, and adopt a style. But it takes that obsessive edge and determination to actually go through with the entire novel or book of poetry or song – not just finishing and polishing, but through to the selling.
Morgen: But if you have passion… Earlier we touched on your enjoyment for eBooks, what do you like to read?
Catherine: I love reading mystery and what we call “CanLit”, which is somewhat more general writing, I suppose. I recommend Elizabeth George and Minette Walters. I also love Margaret Laurence and John Steinbeck. And then there are our Canadian writers: Louise Penny, Giles Blunt, Dorothy McIntosh, Peter Robinson, Kay Stewart, Linwood Barclay…honestly, check out www.crimewriterscanada.com if you like mystery and crime with every subgenre you can imagine. We have tons of excellent writers of whom the world hasn’t heard, but should.
Morgen: And Margaret Atwood? I have her short story collections. 🙂 What do you do when you’re not writing? Any hobbies or party tricks? 🙂
Catherine: I bike, swim, take care of our mothers (from whom I get inspiration for my cozy about a retirement residence), grandchild-sit, and my most favourite activity: drink red wine. The latter leads to many party tricks, which are best not mentioned here.
Morgen: Oh go on…. OK, I won’t twist your arm (just those of your friends for your diaries). 🙂 Are there any writing-related websites and / or books that you find useful and would recommend?
Catherine: Aha! Tune into www.scribesdigest.com! I may be a little biased here, but still… subscribe anyway. You won’t be sorry.
Morgen: 🙂 Being based in Canada, do you find this a help or hindrance with letting people know about your work?
Catherine: Our small population and our odd cultural reticence does not help in any of the arts industries. We used to have a supportive government grant system, but that has gone the way of all such subsidies. Of course I appreciate my country for many other factors (such as health care), but I do think we are remiss in the cultural sphere.
Morgen: Ours has gone that way too, the arts are sadly looked upon as an easy cut. We’ve discussed marketing, are you on any forums or networking sites? If so, how invaluable do you find them?
Catherine: I am on lots of them: Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin, Blogspot, Digg – I find them somewhat valuable, but I must admit that I believe face-to-face and word of mouth are still the best avenues for me.
Morgen: Digg… ooh, not sure I know that, I’ll have to take a look. Where can we find out about you and your work?
Catherine: Go to www.catherineastolfo.com or www.imajinbooks.com or www.scribesdigest.com. The Emily Taylor Mysteries were published by our own company, Moe Publications, which is a branch of Sisbro & Co. Inc., our film company. Right now, we aren’t publishing anyone else but me, but we hope that will change in the future.
Morgen: 🙂 What do you think the future holds for a writer?
Catherine: I think eBooks are actually going to change the landscape and allow more people to read and more people to write and publish. Not necessarily a bad thing, though there are pros and cons to flooding the market. Most writers won’t get rich, but that’s the case now.
Morgen: As long as we can tick over (that’s what I’m hoping for). Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
Catherine: Thanks for doing this blog.
Morgen: You’re so welcome Catherine, I enjoy doing it. And thank you for keeping it going for another day. 🙂
I then invited Catherine to include an excerpt of her writing and this is from ‘Legacy’, Emily Taylor Mystery #2:
For a long time the boy knew he was only a step away from the edge. All he had to do was give in, use the anger. Take that one last step.
He began to spend more time alone, less time talking. Whenever anyone picked up on his mood, he lashed out. It seemed that anger was all there was left. He was waiting for the nerve to act.
He would pick flies off the screens, stuck there in the heat. He would slowly pull their wings off, or squish them between his fingers, or let them suffocate in his palm. Sometimes he would force himself out of the house in search of other insects or small animals to punish. In the brush and trees surrounding the back yard, he would trap ants, mice and once, a cat. He realized that this was his training ground.
On the day that he decided to act, he locked eyes with his brother. In that precise moment, he knew he could do it. He stepped forward in the knowledge that once he moved over that edge, their universe would be altered forever.
He lifted the gun and fired.
Catherine Astolfo retired in 2002 after a very successful 34 years in education in order to pursue her true passion: writing. Her short stories and poems have been published in a number of small Canadian presses. Her novel series, the Emily Taylor Mysteries, The Bridgeman, Victim, Legacy, and Seventh Fire, has received wide acclaim, including a Brampton Arts Award. Catherine has been involved with Sisbro & Co. Inc. since its inception and remains a partner. Her books have been optioned for film by Sisbro.
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