Catherine Balavage is a writing machine. I had the chance to catch up with her recently and am amazed at how much she gets done. Catherine is the author of four non-fiction books and has two novels coming out in the next few months. She was also a judge for The Cornish Writing Challenge 2017 and edits and runs Frost Magazine, a brilliant resource for writers with plenty of guides and tips.
Q. What age did you start, seriously writing? What was the reason for doing so?
Catherine Balavage: I loved writing for as long as I can remember. I was a voracious reader. I got ill when I was a child and would read a book a day. I always wrote. I started with poems and then tried to write a novel. I got some writing published before I even hit my teens. Writing is my passion. I would do it if no one paid me, I would even do it if no one read it.
Q. Was being an author a long held ambition?
Very much so. But I put it off for a long time. I was not sure I had a book in me. Then I stopped making excuses and started to write.
Q. What were you doing before becoming an author? Tell us briefly about your career and if that set you up for a novel writing career?
I tried to be a journalist but there were no jobs going. I also realised I was not tough enough. There was no way I could door step people, or ask bereaved people certain questions. I went into acting but I always wrote and then became a theatre reviewer. I had a multitude of awful jobs after I moved to London. I have worked as a writer, reviewer, in PR and as an actress. They all set me up as a writer. Everything is connected to something else.
Did you study or take any writing courses?
I have done various writing seminars and workshops. All were very handy. I learned a lot.
Who are your favourite writers and why?
I guess with my favourite writers you never notice the writing. When I was younger I loved Roald Dahl, Beatrix Potter, and The Famous Five. I review books so I love so many writers. My favourites are Anne Tyler, Stephen King, and Maya Angelou. I also love Gillian Flynn. You learn so much from good writers. In fact, I believe the way to learn to write well is to read.
How do you come up with the idea for your books?
I think they just come to me. Sometimes it is through passion, or personal life experience. There is a need to tell a story and it goes on from there. I also get inspired by music.
Do you come up with the book title first or the idea first?
The premise. Although titles are a good way to set the theme.
What distracts you?
Mostly the proverbial pram in the hall. Although writing is the best career for motherhood, and I highly recommend it. Children add so much. Other than that: food, the internet, social media, books I want to read, tiredness. There is always an excuse, but there is also no excuse.
What’s the best time for you to write?
When my son is not hanging off me. Nap time is best for productivity. Writing is the best thing anyone can do with their lives. I love it so much. If you love it,never give up. Writers write.
Do you have a word count limit per day?
It changes but is between 1500-3000 words a day. Depending on the book. I always stick to it. Determination is key.
Do you have writing mentors?
Margaret Graham. A wonderful writer and superb human being. She has improved my life immeasurably. Check out her books. Her work is stunning.
How did you submit to your agent/ publisher?
I submit according to guidelines. I have been offered publishing deals in the past but decided against them. The novels will not be self published however. I tend to self publish non-fiction.
Did you read any ‘how to write a novel’ books?
Stephen King’s On Writing is a bible. I would recommend it for every writer. I have even bought it for writer friends.
Tell me about your writing processes.
It changes. My first book was in my head and it was just a case of writing. I would walk around until my son fell asleep in his pram. I would then go to a coffee shop and bang out 2000 words. My second I wrote as a script first. I highly recommend that. It is good for structure.
What is your office/ writing space like?
I write at a desk. Otherwise the toddler tries to take my MacBook down. I used to write in various places. Now it is pretty much either at the desk, or on my iPhone.
What are you favourite snacks while writing?
What’s the last book you read and loved? What’s the next book on your reading list?
The Upstairs Room by Kate Murray-Browne. It was amazing and I highly recommend it. Next up is Milly Adam’s At Long Last Love.
What specifically do you find challenging?
Finding the time and editing. Rewriting is also tough. I find my eyes start to go a bit square.
Why your chosen protagonist?
I write strong female characters that are complex and human. They probably are autobiographical in some way. I guess most characters come from my personal experience, or things I have witnessed. They are a composition. The real truth is that as I write they develop a mind of their own. Sometimes I don’t even know where the story is going.
What’s the most euphoric moment in writing a novel/ book?
When it is published. There are few feelings like it. It is just pure joy.
What books are on your ‘to read’ list?
Hard question. Milly Adam’s new book. Paula Hawkins new book. David Mitchells’s books. I have not read them yet and hear great things. I am also reading Sam Baker’s novels. She is very talented. I can recommend them.
What’s your take on writers block?
Just write. It doesn’t matter if it is not good. You can edit later. No other profession gives a name to their laziness. Professional writers write when they need to. Only amateurs write when they feel like it.
Have you had your ‘I’ve made it’ feeling yet?
Yes. With every published book, every person who tells me they loved one of my books, or that my book helped them. And with every good review.
How did you finance writing your novel?
Mostly by freelance writing. I also have a passive income from the books I have already written. I run my own online magazine Frost Magazine. I also do freelance PR. It all adds up.
What are the most important skills for a book author to have?
A good work ethic. Just do it. You also have to be able to take rejection and keep at it. Do not give up.
How do you mentally prepare for the mammoth task of book writing?
I try to exercise for an hour five days a week. I try to eat healthily but I love food too much. Oh well.
What tools do use for writing?
Pages on my MacBook and the notes section on my iPhone. Sometimes I even use pen and paper.
Can you talk about your cover letter for your book when sending it out on submissions?
I always do the submissions guidelines. It is best to tweak it for each submission. This is helpful: http://www.frostmagazine.com/2016/02/gillian-holmes-aka-the-editor-responded-to-frosts-request-for-help-writing-a-synopsis/
Did you get many rejections? How do you cope/ handle rejection?
I used to be an actor. Rejection is easy for me. I don’t take it personally. I also pitch articles to magazines a lot. I just keep at it.
I have four books coming out in the next 18-24 months. Two novels and two non-fiction books. I am also a judge for the The Cornish Writing Challenge. Other than that it is freelance writing, motherhood, PR, and editing/writing for my online magazine Frost http://www.frostmagazine.com.
Where can we catch you?
Please check out my books here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Catherine-Balavage/e/B00QFQ3BP4/ref=dp_byline_cont_pop_book_1
And have a gander at Frost Magazine. There is a lot of information and tips for writers. http://www.frostmagazine.com
The following interview is part of a series of author interviews on fiction and non-fiction craft, techniques, writing habits and processes. Enjoy.
WHO: NOVELIST AND POET ANNA VAUGHT
Q.What age did you start, seriously writing? What was the reason for doing so?
Well, I had a tough childhood so I always wrote and had a lot of imaginary friends (Which you see in Killing Hapless Ally). I only started really applying myself to extended fiction in July 2014 after gaining the courage to do so.
Q.Was being a novelist a long held ambition?
I had done a number of freelance pieces but always lacked the confidence to write a longer piece. I just sat down one day and thought, “Right. I am going to write a novel.” And I did. I am now on my fourth novel – one published, one out on subs. I’m also co-editing and editing two anthologies for Patrician Press, the publisher of Killing Hapless Ally, in 2019 and 2018 called ‘My Europe’ and ‘The Tempest.’
Q. What were you doing before becoming a novelist?
My background is in secondary English teaching. I’ve worked abroad and travelled a great deal and I run an English tuition which helps me continue writing. I also have three young sons.
Q. What did you study at university?
I have both a BA and MA in English. However I am a prodigious reader and believe that has been my biggest teacher in terms of novel writing.
Q. Who were your favourite writers growing up and why?
I discovered Dickens very young and it had a big impact – I loved his humour and characterisation. Roald Dahl was another favourite, of course
Q.What inspired Killing Hapless Ally?
KHA has a great deal of truth in it. Though parts are fictionalised, largely, I lived it. I appreciate that people without a screwy background may be running away, but that was it. I carried Ally both as a better version of myself (so the assumed self) but also as a burden that felt real and palpable for over thirty years. Since publication, strangers have written in to me because they’ve identified with the issues of mental health in Killing Hapless Ally. People have also come to my talks and opened up and told me it meant so much to them, reading about an experience similar to theirs. One reader wrote to me saying the book had changed her life. I’m now working on a novel called Passerines: I have a particular interest in mental health and mental illness because of the struggles I have had and I also love reading about history. I started reading about Violet Gibson, the Irish aristocrat who shot Mussolini (true story!) and also about the psychiatric hospital in Northampton where she was sent to for the rest of her life. Lucia Joyce also ended her days there. Part of Violet’s therapy was to care for the songbirds in the hospital garden – hence the title
Q.Do you come up with the book title first or the premise first?
KHA was always the title because killing Ally was the goal so I held it from the very beginning.
Q. Which comes more naturally to you – character or plot?
Q. What’s your take on writers block?
I’ve never had writer’s block. Don’t wait for inspiration. Let it strike while you are at work.
Q. What distracts you?
As a parent, my life is so full of distractions that I have absolutely no ideal writing conditions and very little protected time. I wrote part of Passerines hiding in the back seat of my car.
Q.Do you have a word count limit per day?
I have fiddled with Prolifiko (check them out on Twitter; they are very nice). You have to do whatever you can. I have written as much as 12,000 words in a day and as little as three lines.
Q.Did you have beta readers or friends help read the novel as you wrote it?
I had a few friends and my husband Ned as supportive early readers. I also joined a reading group where a couple of people gave feedback on my work. It can really help. I ask people’s opinions on Twitter a lot actually. I’ve found the writing community is very supportive there.
Q.Do you have writing mentors?
Well, not exactly, but the writers Avril Joy and Kate Armstrong have read bits of Passerines
Q.How did you submit to your agent/ publisher?
With Killing Hapless Ally, I submitted the book partially and then in full. I have started off with a wonderful small press (Patrician) who are exciting to work with.
Q. Do you read while writing?
I read all the time; two or three books a week.
Q.Anyone whose works inspires/ taught you how to write because of their sheer genius?
There are too many to name, but, Dickens; Joyce; Flaubert; Beckett; Flannery O Connor; Chekhov; Faulkner. The best book I read recently was ‘The Wake’ by Paul Kingsnorth.
Q.Did you read any ‘how to write a novel’ style books?
I liked Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer (Harper Collins). I also did a Cornerstones report while drafting Killing Hapless Ally and met a really lovely editor, but I’m not sure I would pay this kind of money again. I am sceptical about a lot of courses as I guess many authors are. I think the key things are reading and graft
Q. What books are on your ‘to read’ list?
Joanna Barnard’s Hush Little Baby; books from my subscriptions at And Other Stories and as a supporter at Galley Beggar; historical research on the doctors and nurses who kept psychiatric patients safe in the Second World War; Thomas Wolfe’s The Web ad the Rock.
Q.Tell me about your writing processes.
Research (which is ongoing). Write a shit Frankendraft where I turn out 60,000 words. Cry. Rewrite. Edit again. Involve other readers. Edit again.
Q.What specifically did you find challenging?
Honestly? Confidence. I am very determined but I fundamentally lack self esteem.
Q.How do you keep secondary characters interesting? Do you give them a story of their own or do you write multiple character books?
Rule of thumb. Everyone needs a story. Characters who add nothing get chucked.
Q. What are your current projects?
It is a busy time. I am working on two further books and editing two anthologies as well as continuing to run my tuition business.
Q.Where can we find you, read your books and work?
You can follow me on twitter @bookwormvaught and on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/annavaughtwrites/. My writer’s blog is www.annavaughtwrites.com. You can catch me on Goodreads or my Amazon page. My poetry is also published this year in The Emma Press Anthology of the Sea and The Patrician Press Anthology of Refugees and Peacekeepers. You can look at www.annavaughtwrites.com for news on this and for links to other writing, blogs and books. For teaching, you can find me at www.annavaughttuition.com.
You can buy copies of KILLING HAPLESS ALLY at www.patricianpress.com.
Wersha is the recipient of an Arts Council England award for her debut novel. The book explores mental illness in young female adults. She is currently interviewing participants with mental illness to inform R&D work.