Sunday, 21 November 2010

Interview with a Debut Author: NICK GREEN

* Hi Nick and welcome to tall tales & short stories. Would you like to tell us a bit about yourself?

Hi! The short bio of me is that I was born in the mid-70s, I live in Herts, and I like cats. Oh, and I write books. The writing books part means there isn’t an awful lot of other stuff to say – it’s such a time-consuming business, I don’t have time for a life, as such. I suppose I make up interesting stories to compensate for my pleasantly dull real life.


Everyone who came to the strange gym class was looking for something else. What they found was the mysterious Mrs. Powell and Pashki, a lost art from an age when cats were worshipped as gods.
Ben and Tiffany wonder: who is their eccentric old teacher? What does she really want with them? And why are they suddenly able to see in the dark?
Meanwhile, in London’s gloomy streets, human vermin are stirring.
Ben and Tiffany may soon be glad of their new gifts. But against men whose cunning is matched only by their unspeakable cruelty, will even nine lives be enough?


* What inspired you to write The Cat Kin?

The Cat Kin grew out of an idea I had, which initially I wrote down and forgot about. Cats keep themselves agile with all the stretching they do, almost as if they have some natural ‘yoga’ of their own – even a house-bound indoor cat will stay agile this way. I wondered if human beings could copy this cat-yoga, and (letting my imagination run on) wondered if it might eventually give you the powers of a cat. And so pashki was born.

* So, why cats? Are you a cat or dog person, or both?

I’d keep any animal that wasn’t too dangerous, but I do have a special affection for cats. Their natural mysteriousness makes them better story-fodder.

Incidentally, cats are often cast as villains in fiction. It was interesting to think up a story where cat-ness becomes a heroic quality (even if the heroes aren’t cats as such). Another reason is that I think cats have a lot in common with adolescent kids, e.g. the protagonists in my books. Both are a curious paradox of independence and neediness, of warmth and remoteness, very simple and direct in some ways, unknowable in others. Cats are like teens; teens are like cats.

* ‘Pashki – one of the most ancient disciplines of body and soul.’ Is pashki based on any form of exercise or meditative process or is it all from your imagination?

Pashki is mostly pure imagination, but anyone who knows yoga will spot the similarities. Yoga talks about ‘chakras’, the energy centres of the subtle body. Pashki has ‘catras’, the corresponding centres of the Mau body (a cat-shaped subtle body). Most of the named moves and stretches, I just invented, based on watching the movements of cats. Some of them are faintly humorous as a result, such as the ‘Scratching Tree Stretch’ or ‘Chasing The Bird’.

* Cats and Ancient Egypt are a predominant theme throughout the book. Did you do much research into cats and Ancient Egypt? If so, is this part of the writing process you enjoy?

I chose Ancient Egypt because it seemed the logical choice as a culture that might have invented pashki. It is a fascinating area to research, but also frustrating, because even the Ancient Egyptians themselves couldn’t always agree about their gods and beliefs and so on. It was a changing culture. So some of it is research, but a lot is invention. Never let the facts get in the way of a good story!

* One of your main protagonists is Tiffany a teenage girl. How difficult, or easy, do you find writing from a girl’s perspective?

Surprisingly easy. I don’t know why; I have no sisters and went to an all-boys’ school, so I ought to be useless at empathising with girls. (Perhaps I am, but I hope not!). I suppose I don’t think too much about gender. People are themselves; they don’t get up each morning and think ‘I’m a boy / I’m a girl’. They just get on with their lives. Making too much of it is surely the quickest way to get it wrong!

* Tiffany’s brother, Stuart, is chronically ill with Muscular Dystrophy. Did any real-life experiences influence this choice of disease and do you think it’s important to highlight these kinds of health problems so that the younger reader can understand conditions such as these?

I wouldn’t write a story with the express purpose of highlighting a condition or issue, as I don’t think that makes for good fiction. If I’m honest, I suppose I should say that I chose muscular dystrophy because it suited the story I wanted to tell. I researched it, of course, and I came across stories of young people with the disease, but I don’t know any sufferers personally. I am glad if readers take away some awareness of the disease from this book, but that’s not why I included it. But I do like Stuart as a character – his handling of his condition makes him every bit as heroic as his sister. I certainly became much more aware of conditions such as this one during the writing of the book.

*You tackle some serious issues within the book while at the same time writing a page-turning adventure. In tackling some of the issues, such as animal cruelty, chronic medical conditions, family break-ups, and criminality; was your publisher open to all your ideas or did you have to censor yourself in any way?

As far as I remember, none of the issues caused undue alarm, although my agent was at one time concerned that readers might try to imitate the heroes and end up falling out of trees or off rooftops! But I think some publishers who rejected it early on, may have been put off by the merging of such gritty ‘realism’ with the fantastical elements. But I wanted it to feel as real as possible.

* Do you use your own children or any others as a ‘sounding board’ for your books?

My own children are still too young (and weren’t even born when I wrote The Cat Kin!). But I have a friend in New Zealand whose son was just the right age at the time. He remains a big fan. Another ‘test reader’ was the daughter of a well-known picture-book artist. As a sort of thank-you, I have named two characters in the second Cat Kin book after these first readers.

* The Cat Kin was your debut novel. Was it your first attempt at writing a novel or did you have other manuscripts hiding away?

I started writing a novel the day I left school, having deliberately held off in order to concentrate on A Levels! It was the first of two fantasy novels I finished, but neither was any good. It did however get me used to the writing process and the level of commitment involved. It’s much easier to contemplate and plan a novel when you’ve got two or three behind you. It’s no longer an intimidating impossibility.

My first stab at a novel for children was a time-slip story called ‘The Century Spies’. At the time I thought it would get published, but with hindsight I can see why it wasn’t. It just wasn’t exciting enough!

* How long did it take you from initial inspiration to finally achieving the publication deal?

Blimey – how long have you got? What I will say is that it took 18 months from the time when I had finished the book, to signing the first publication contract (which was with Faber back then). I had by then resigned myself to the idea that it would never happen. To that 18 months, you’d have to add all the writing and planning time… say, another year?

* Did achieving your first book deal change the way you approach your writing?

It made me more confident and willing to take a few more risks. Initially I wasn’t sure that people would respond to the idea of pashki, for example, but it turns out to be thing that most readers like best – a reader even emailed me from Australia to tell me that she’d started her own pashki club at school. So now I’m a bit more willing to consider my more far-out ideas.

* Do you plan your stories in advance, or do they happen on the page?

Both. I plan in great detail, because I have to have the confidence that I’m not just driving into the wilderness. But I also recognise that the writing process throws up lots more ideas that no plan could ever anticipate. I saw advice from one writer (who doesn’t plan) and he said that writing a novel unplanned is like driving in the dark with headlights – you can only see a little way ahead, but you can make the whole journey that way. I would more or less agree – but I would point out that you still need a map, and a destination! So I make myself a rough map, and update it as I go along.

* Rewrites and Revisions: How much did you have to do throughout the writing of The Cat Kin?

My view is, rewriting is a fundamental part of writing. In a way, the biggest part of it. My first draft is really more of an ultra-detailed plan. It’s in the rewrites that it becomes readable.

* How long have you been pursuing your writing ambitions and what have you done along the way to improve your writing?

Since my teens I’ve wanted to be a writer. Probably even earlier – I remember writing stories at school aged 6 and 7, and asking my bemused teacher how to spell ‘styracosaurus’. It would be truer to say that writing is just something I really love, so of course I do it whenever I can. It’s writing, more than being published, that is the real goal. It was nice when I realised that – it took the pressure off and stopped me worrying so much about publication deals.

* Before getting an agent and achieving publication did you have to deal with rejection along the way? How did it feel to finally secure the agent and publishing deal?

See above.

I won’t say I no longer mind about publication, but it’s no longer the be-all and end-all. It’s nice to have readers, and publication is a way to achieve that, but writing can give enormous pleasure by itself. I did get a lot of rejections, but those were expected; remember I’d written three books before The Cat Kin, and sent all of those off to publishers, and all of them got rejected by everyone. So I must have had something like a hundred rejection letters if you tot up all the agents and publishers. So yeah, I got used to it! Finally getting a contract was a bit surreal.

My agent at the time was Janice Swanson at Curtis Brown, but she has since retired and I am currently looking for a new one. I seem to recall she was especially keen on the dialogue and characterisation in The Cat Kin, and loved the idea of pashki itself. My editor at Faber said similar things about pashki, and asked me to expand upon it in the story, which I did.

* You mentioned to me about The Cat Kin being published by another publisher prior to it being published by Strident. I was wondering if you could explain what happened?

Faber was the first publisher to take The Cat Kin, and obviously I’m very glad they did. But in the end it didn’t work out, because I wanted to make The Cat Kin into a trilogy, and although they were initially keen on the idea, they changed their minds after I had spent a year writing book 2. That was very frustrating – no-one wants to waste a year’s work. I experimented with various alternatives, such as self-publishing the sequel, but then Strident approached me and offered to take on the series – if I could get back the rights to the first book. It took a while, but in the end I had the rights reverted to me, and Strident brought out their own version of book 1. The text is almost identical (bar some minor updates) but the cover art is much better.

* What made you think ‘I want to write for children?’ Is it a genre you enjoy reading?

My memories of childhood reader are still very vivid. I like the idea of writing a book that someone might remember all their life. That’s more likely to happen with younger readers, I think; children are better at suspending disbelief and engaging fully with a book, like children stepping through the wardrobe into Narnia. Adults (with a very few exceptions) never quite get that drawn in. Also, the younger voice comes more naturally to me. I don’t know why. Maybe I just find adulthood dull.

* Which authors/stories did you enjoy reading as a child/teenager? How do you think they compare to the children’s novels available today? What do you think children of today want to read?

I read a lot of Diana Wynne Jones, Susan Cooper, Robert Westall… authors where there is a strong fantasy element, but very vivid and credible characters.

Today I think there is a bewildering choice for children. The best authors are as good as ever they were, but unfortunately I think they are often obscured by a few bestsellers, some of which are deserving and some of which aren’t. Booksellers need to take more risks on books that show quality, not just the latest fashionable subject matter. The Harry Potter books were successful because of the storytelling, imagination and humour – not because they were about wizards per se. But booksellers wrongly started pushing all sorts of other wizard books in the wake of it, instead of recognising what it was that had really made readers buy those books.

* What’s next for Nick Green? Can you tell us about any upcoming projects?

My next book out, I hope, will be the sequel to The Cat Kin, entitled Cat’s Paw. I am currently in the process of writing the third and final book in the series, Cat’s Cradle. I also have two other young adult books I hope to publish sooner or later. I’ve been busy as you can see!

* Words of wisdom and advice to any aspiring writer?

I can’t say it any better than Nike: Just do it.

* Any other comments/observations/general mind-blowing information you‘d like to add?

Only to say thank you for some thought-provoking and interesting questions.

But my current favourite bit of mind-blowing information is: if you laid all the mobile phones in the world end-to-end, you’d get some very strange looks.

The Cat Kin ~ a tall tales & short stories review

At it's heart this is a classic adventure story aimed at both girls and boys. The idea of Pashki is an original concept that I really warmed to and I think kids will love. Who wouldn't want to channel their inner cat!
The narrative purrs along at a well-plotted pace and there are some really original and exciting moments especially in the final showdown - but I won't give any spoilers you'll have to read the book to find out. Perhaps some scenes aren't for the faint-hearted but for kids who enjoy an action-packed adventure with a bit of fantastical mysticism mixed in with some gritty realism, all centred around two likeable characters, Ben and Tiffany, and an original premise, I think they'll thoroughly enjoy this page-turning book.


1 comment:

Dwight said...

"Never let the facts get in the way of a good story." I agree, Nick. I'm a firm believer that the better stories have self-centred heroes, fallible popes and kind murderers.

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