An Interview with Catherine Webb

Thursday, 2nd February 2012

Originally written for Culturedeluxe magazine.

Catherine Webb releases 'The Minority Council' under her pen name Kate Griffin on the 1st March, her twelfth release in all. What makes this all the more remarkable is that, at the age of 25, she has now been a published author for over a decade and balances her working life between writing fiction and theatrical lighting design.

Most fourteen year olds spend their Summer holidays in front of the television, but Catherine used this time to write her first novel, which went on to be published by Atom in 2002. 'I was surprised by [debut novel 'Mirror Dreams'] success,' she explains, 'But more in the sense that my parents had told me to expect nothing to come of it, rather than because of anything tangible like sales and the media coverage or anything like that. Anything above ‘polite rejection’ was astonishing and I try to stay surprised [at subsequent publication] even now – it seems a healthy approach to the entire writing business overall!'

Finding you are a published author with the prospect of writing more is not something many schoolchildren find they have to deal with - indeed many writers spend a lifetime looking for that first deal - but new found fame and fortune was something Catherine managed comfortably: 'A few people at school knew about it, but I kept it quite quiet at first - a teenager’s number one priority is conforming, and I wasn’t very good at conforming to begin with! My headmistress didn’t actually find out about the book thing until after I’d signed the contract for number three.'

'I’d always written, and now I was being paid to carry on doing what I’d always done. The money had no immediate effect, because I knew I wanted to save it up to pay for going to university and this was precisely what I did. Also, I was on £2 a week pocket money and this was the kind of income I understood. A publisher’s advance was so far beyond my realms of comprehension that putting it in a savings account was the only thing I felt I could do.'

'I still had schoolwork to do, and homework to hand in, and GCSEs to pass and A-Levels to pick and all things considered, that kept me busy enough. I’d even get emails from my agent during exam time, firmly instructing me to stop writing and get down to revision!'

Meanwhile, Catherine found herself in demand from teachers and pupils alike who saw her as a role model, an experience that she found somewhat uncomfortable: 'I would give talks at other schools, and I’d be 17 years old, sitting at the teacher’s table and being told to call everyone 'Bob' and 'Sarah'. I didn’t feel like any sort of role model in any way. I knew people who worked harder than me at school, and who dedicated far more time than I did to their chosen hobbies – bearing in mind that I still considered, and still do consider, the writing thing to be a brilliantly entertaining hobby which happens to pay. I knew violinists who could perform to astonishing standards, and students who spent their free time volunteering and looking after the elderly, or studying a new language or mastering new skills whereas it felt a lot like I was just doing what I’d always done for fun.'

'Being a role model in my mind somehow implied that I’d struggled to overcome hideous disadvantages and laboured, sweat pouring down my face, to produce finely honed texts expressive of great ideas. Whereas the truth was I simply loved writing and my family let me get on with it. The most horrifying thing was when people called me a ‘child prodigy’. I just couldn’t imagine a child prodigy eating baked beans on toast in her second hand school uniform while watching the Simpsons, trying not to do her French homework.'

'Interestingly, I’m still called a ‘new writer’ even though it’s eleven novels on. I get invited to talk on panels with other ‘new writers’ about my experiences of being published and I sit there and try and force my mind back eleven years to how that first felt.'

Resisting the temptation to leave school and make a living solely from writing, Catherine continued with her education and completed her Drama AS-Level. This led to her joining the Drama Society at LSE where a kitchen knife literally opened doors for her in the world of theatre and saw her move on to RADA.

'I hated acting but loved the way things worked, and loved theatre, so my drama teacher asked me if I wanted to do the technical module for my exam. No one had ever done it before, but I figured… hell, why not? And for one brilliant year I spent my Thursday mornings painting bits of wood in a corridor and running to Primark to get bits of cheap costume to dirty down and hitting buttons on exciting looking desks and so on. I didn’t have formal lessons as such, or even scheduled classes or a place to work – I just did my own thing and got on with it and it was fantastic.'

'Then when I went to LSE I got involved in Drama Society. I offered to do lights for the Christmas Pantomime – it was the first time I’d lit anything at uni – but the department in charge of the venue hadn’t unlocked the dimmer room. I had the director of the LSE and thirty angry actors on the stage while we tried to get access. The bureaucracy which controlled room access at LSE was notoriously incompetent and non-student friendly, but an electrician in the building had a handy trick involving locks and kitchen knives, which he taught me under an oath not to tell anyone else what I was doing. I learnt how to force the lock to the dimmer room and thus put on the show – but since this was technically a 'bad thing' I wasn’t really in a good position to tell many other people about how it was done. And so, mostly by default and because I had a reputation for being able to get access to equipment when others couldn’t, I became Technical Officer for the Drama Society and over a few years built up a team of brilliant techies who knew the ultimate technical secret of the LSE – that nothing is more important than having a handy kitchen knife.'

'I then had to decide what to do with my life besides novel writing and all things considered, theatre didn’t seem a totally unnatural choice… but since my main qualification in this regard was lockbreaking, it seemed a good idea to get training and, thus, RADA happened!'

'When I am a lighting designer, I am 100% a lighting designer.' explains Catherine on the balance between her two jobs. 'I think about lamps and cable and focusing and data and effects and that is what I do. When I am a writer, I am 100% a writer and think about plot and narrative and character. These two worlds only rarely collide – currently the only clash is as a playwright, which is something I’m trying to get into. We’re doing a rehearsed reading of one of my plays at RADA in a few weeks time, and as the writer I’ve been attending the rehearsals where, 90% of the time I’ll answer questions about the text but, occasionally, I’ll also be invited to have a think about the lighting. I suspect I write plays with a lighting designer’s hat on too, as while I try never to give too many stage directions, I always know where the lighting cues would fall.'

'Oddly enough, the two lives have a sort of self-regulating separation anyway. I tell people in theatre, perfectly frankly, that I write novels in my spare time, but 99% just never believe a word of it. Or rather… there’s a look that comes over their faces, a look which I have worn many times myself, that very special look of "Oh God, it’s an aspirant writer, I hope she doesn’t ask me to read her 600 page long first, unpublished novel about how hard it is to be a writer". I can recognise the expression a mile off, but unfortunately I haven’t quite mastered the art of going to the next step and explaining, "No, but really! I write for cash!" With the remaining 1% there’s usually a moment of "You do what?" followed fairly quickly by a trip to the Internet. My favourite ever clash-of-worlds moment happened when I was working in Canterbury on a production of Dracula. I’d been rigging with the tech manager (who was brilliant) for eleven hours straight and at the end of it, the director took me home; I was staying in his house. The book thing came up and, the instant we got back, the director grabbed his laptop and looked me up. ‘Oh God!’ he wailed as the full, ghastly truth unravelled on his screen. "I’ve hired a part-time lighting designer!" I hasten to add that he’s since re-hired me for other productions.'

'When you work in technical theatre it can be quite hard to de-tune your brain from all the things you can see working on stage. It takes a really brilliant production for me to not notice the lighting states and not assess the rig. Even on very good productions I’ll find myself looking at the mechanics of a scene change – I saw Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead a few months ago with my parents and, while the production was brilliant, on an instinctive level I couldn’t help but spot the slightly dodgy dimmer curve on the portal lights, and admiring the very tight iris zoom on the VL1000s at the end of every scene… I suspect, therefore, my technical background would probably lend itself better to science fiction than fantasy!'

'That said, I’ve always tried to write magic as a) quite a lot of hard work and b) something wonderful, magical in the sense of takes-your-breath-away rather than just dusty words being spoken out loud by someone in a pointy hat. Magical to me means that feeling of being unable to breathe as you sit on the edge of your seat, which good theatre does. And narratively speaking, I firmly believe that getting something for nothing is cheating, so like to think I make my magicians work quite hard for any payoff.'

Catherine instinctively finds magic in the most simple, mundane objects and her fantasy worlds owe a great debt to the diverse, urban streets of her native city, rather than traditional Tolkien-esque rural settings: 'I’ve lived in London my whole life, and love it. I love its quirks and inconsistencies – odd bits of graffiti, inexplicable sights. You don’t have to look very far or very deep to see hundreds of unlikely stories wherever you go. Get on a carriage on the Underground and just look at the people and I promise you, in a matter of moments you can find a story to tell. Bizarre traditions, odd bits of junk in unlikely corners, mosques next to chapels next to curry houses next to pizza parlours next to Afro hairdressers next to pubs next to DIY shops passed down from father to son – at its purest level, I think magic should be about wonder, and I spend a lot of my time walking through the city, just wondering.'

'Mankind has always told stories about itself and what it knows. In the old days we lived in the countryside and our fantasies were of woodland spirits and river gods, because these were indeed the defining features of our lives. Now we live in cities and the forests are lampposts and the rivers are piped under our feet and it makes perfect sense that our stories have changed with the times. Arguably fantasy was quite slow to adjust to the change – for a very long time the genre harkened back to this fantasy of a cleaner, purer medieval world when it still was about big horses, shiny swords and pointy hats. Fantasy now is full of detective stories, thriller elements, romance and history and urban fantasy reflects the genre adapting to the changing times. It’s very exciting to finally see it happen.'

Catherine's popular Matthew Swift series continues next month with 'Minority Council' and the character will show up in another two books within the Urban Magic series. 'The other two introduce a new character, and my first ever heroine, to this world – a shaman called Sharon – although Swift is also there a hell of a lot, stumbling into disasters with a cry of "It’s alright! I’m here now!" Swift has a lot more to do, I think. Every character has a logical destination, a point at which you have to throw your hands up and say "This dude is now comfortable with himself and his surroundings" but I think Swift and the angels are still very far off achieving that moment.'

Swift fans hold onto your hats (not pointy ones, obviously), the story continues in less than a month. For now, does Catherine have a teaser for us?

'Never sniff fairy dust. You might not know who it’s come from.'