Friday 25 May 2012

Friday Feature: Interview with Kathryn James

Kathryn James caught my attention last year with her wonderful portrayal of Nell Beecham, the 13-year-old heroine of her first novel, Mist. I'm far from being the only one who's impressed - in fact, just two days ago she won the Dorset New Horizons Award - congratulations, Kathryn! While I'm eagerly awaiting book 2, Frost, I managed to persuade her to take a little time out from writing to answer some questions I had.

1. When you close your eyes and imagine your readers, who do you see?

Young teens, girls mainly. Those who like getting lost in urban fantasy books, where there’s ‘the glint of strange suns on worlds that never were or will be.’ But I also like to think that my readers are people like me, who didn’t have these kinds of YA books to read as teenagers, and so we love reading them now.

I'm definitely in the latter category! As I've said before, I'm VERY jealous of today's teens as they have so many more great books to read than we seemed to when we were young.

2. As those people who've read my review of Mist know, I loved Nell! She's a brilliant heroine - but when you were a teen, who were your favourite heroines?

Confession time! There’s a black hole when it comes to remembering what I was reading in my early teenage years. Maybe YA books didn’t exist in the dark mists of the early to mid seventies! I remember reading avidly up to about twelve. And the next thing I remember is reading adult books from maybe fourteen or fifteen years old - Agatha Christie, horror books, Georgette Heyer’s historical romances, John
Wyndham and Asimov for sci-fi. Oh and posily carrying round Hesse’s Steppenwolf, but not understanding a word of it. I do remember there being some teen romance books around that none of us touched, because they didn’t ring true and we thought we were too sassy and cool for them. So no teenage books apart from Alan Garner’s Owl Service and Red Shift.

I think that’s why I love these books now. Oh to be a teenager nowadays, with the choice of books available. I’d definitely become a fan of series like the Vampire Diaries.

3. Nell can clearly handle herself in a fight, as we see early on in the book when she stands up to the bully with the threat of a Heavenly Strike kick and the immortal line "My mum's a police officer. Do you think I'd get ballet lessons?" Have you got any personal experience of ballet or martial arts? If so, which one - and if not, which one would you have preferred?

Ballet – no. That’s not me at all Martial arts – yes. My eldest son did judo from a young age, and instead of sitting and watching them a few of us began to take lessons, too. So I got up to my green belt. I can still remember a few moves and how to fall!

4. Another of my favourite characters was Dru Church, Nell's motorbike-riding grandmother. There definitely aren't enough fabulous grandparents in YA, so it was great to see an older lady with serious attitude. Who are your favourite adult characters in YA books?

I loved creating Dru Church. Grans are groovy nowadays, they’re not little old ladies, they’re sixties activists, or ex Bay City Roller fans, or they’re out there getting university degrees. My friend is a grandma and she plays in a rockabilly band at the weekends. As for favourites – the witches from the Tiffany Aching books (see below) are definitely grannies with attitude. They also appear all through the Discworld
series, which has been responsible for getting plenty of reluctant teenage boys back into reading – including my eldest son. Also in a YA book from a while ago – The Changeover by Margaret Mahy – the strange boy Sorry, has a brilliantly unusual, witchy aunt and mother.

I was talking about grandparents in YA the other day and mentioned Dru, and Chloe's grandmother in Welcome Caller, This Is Chloe - but somehow the witches completely slipped my mind! I will probably be (rightly!) shunned by other Terry Pratchett fans with better memories than mine, now I've admitted that...

5. If you could invite any six YA authors or characters to a dinner party, who would you pick?

Madeline L’Engle, Alan Garner, Susan Cooper, Neil Gaiman, Diana Wynne Jones, Margaret Mahy – because they were the authors who set me on my path. Quite a mix. It would either be a roaring success, or one of those awful, silence filled, awkward parties, and I’d spend the time hiding in the kitchen wishing I hadn’t invited them.

Great picks - Susan Cooper, in particular, is a real favourite of mine.

6. What advice would you give to someone starting out as an author?

Finish what you write! Don’t keep changing your mind, and losing steam half way through. That’s what I used to do. I’d get part way through a novel, get stuck and drop the whole thing, and then think up a new idea. It’s not a good way to work. See your book through to the end. Maybe it won’t be right, but leave it for a while and then come back to it and read again. If you keep skipping a section when you re-read it,
then get rid of that bit because it’s not interesting enough to keep your attention, even if you think it’s marvellously written.

7. What are you reading at the moment?

I’m reading the first chapter of Anna Dressed in Blood – and enjoying it. Can’t wait to read the rest. It’s got the same ‘on the road hunting ghosts and ghouls’ feel as TV’s Supernatural, only without the brother.
I’m also reading Terry Pratchett’s I shall Wear Midnight, the fourth in the Tiffany Aching series of books, where the heroine Tiffany is fifteen, a witch in her own right and having trouble with romance. Not sure how this series goes down in the YA market, perhaps it’s read more by adults. And lastly, Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs. I love the old photos.

I'd be really interested in knowing how many teens read Tiffany Aching... I definitely get the impression a lot of the fans are Pratchett's adult fans, like myself, who read anything Discworld-connected. I haven't seen all that many teens reading it, personally.

8. I love the short stories on your fabulous website! You're also active on Twitter. How important do you think a web presence is to a YA author today?

I got the ideas for the stories from TV shows that do webisodes between seasons. So I thought I’d do the same for Mist, whilst waiting for Frost to come out. I think websites, blogs, Facebook and Twitter are all important nowadays. I’ve recently done an Elven Name Generator for my website because, as I’m sure you know, everyone has a touch of Elven blood from way way back! And now everyone can find out their secret Elven name. It links to my Twitter and my Facebook page.

So web presence is important, but I’ve also learned that going round schools and meeting readers is just as important. Actually getting out there and talking, is excellent for spreading the word about your book.

Love the name generator! You can now call me Sierra Morn Splash, by the way.

9. If you could ask any other author any question, what would you ask and who would you ask it to?

I’d ask Stephanie Meyer and Suzanne Collins what it felt like when they suddenly realised their books had taken off in such a huge way. And did it make it harder to write the follow-ups, because of all the expectations.

10. What's next for Kathryn James?

Frost comes out in January 2013, but apart from that I’m writing, writing, writing. I’ve one book with my editor at the moment. And I’ve got three detailed synopsis worked out. I’m alternating between a deliciously dark YA horror, a MG fantasy horror and a thought provoking fantasy/sci fi.

Wow, sounds like you're very busy! Great stuff - really looking forward to all of them, particularly Frost, of course.

Thanks for agreeing to talk to me, Kathryn - best of luck with all your next projects.

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