GOLDEN LANGUR INTERVIEWS NOVELIST AND POET, CATHERINE EDMUNDS
GL: In your signature you describe yourself as Novelist/Poet. Would you like to share a little about your writing as a novelist? How many novels have you published? What genre do you use? Are there any particular periods or theme that you focus on?
CE: I’m now onto my third published novel. The first (The Sand in the Painting) should probably never have been published, as it was literally the first novel I’d ever written – there aren’t any juvenile attempts lurking at the backs of drawers. When I look back at it now, I want to re-write every word, but at the time, I was so relieved to be in print, I couldn’t see a problem. It was a work of general fiction with an ensemble cast, told from various points of view. I learnt a lot through writing it, and even invented a couple of characters that interested me sufficiently to re-use them in my latest novel. By the time I wrote my second novel, Small Poisons (Circaidy Gregory Press), I’d matured as a writer. The book is technically far more polished, and I think it’s a much better read. It’s a work of magical realism, described by my editor as ‘The contemporary novel for Midsummer Night’s Dreamers’, and explores the wayward interface between illusion and reality in a totally unexpected setting (a suburban garden). The third, Serpentine (BeWrite Books), is the most personal of the three, as it’s about an artist, and for all I’m a professional musician as well as a published author, I would always describe myself first and foremost as an artist.
GL: When I first approached you for an interview you were awaiting the publication of a novel. Tell us about your latest novel, Serpentine. What is it about? Is it an ebook? When was it published?
CE: Serpentine is due for release by BeWrite Books on April 6th  as an ebook in the three main formats (mobi, epub and pdf), so people will be able to read it on any e-reader, tablet or computer. It opens with a quote from Nietzsche – ‘Art is the proper task of life’ – and follows the attempts of Victoria, a young artist living in London, to reconcile her absolute need to be a creative artist with her frequently cataclysmic attempts to make personal relationships function with any sort of success. Vicky is in turns sassy, difficult, funny, infuriating – all of which makes the book sound a bit chick-lit, but actually it fits far more comfortably into the literary fiction genre.
GL: Are there any dos and don’ts about submitting a novel that you might like to share with our readers?
CE: Don’t write in a vacuum. In other words, unless you’ve subjected the novel to the sharpest, harshest critique by your peers that you are able to obtain, you are unlikely to have written anything a publisher will consider worth taking any further. Wait until the vultures have torn it to pieces and you’ve put it back together, and they’ve shredded it again, and you’ve reconstructed it again – and then you might have something that’s becoming plausible. Then edit, edit, edit, edit, keep editing. Cut the first chapter in its entirety. Possibly the first two. Reduce the word count of the entire novel by at least a third. Make sure the grammar is immaculate and the spelling is absolutely consistent. Read the publisher or agent’s guidelines over and over again. Realise you’ll need a slightly different version each time you send it out, as nobody will be asking for precisely the same thing. Never use a generic letter. Always do your research and personalise it as far as you can.
GL: Following on from your point about not writing in a vacuum, what is your idea of an ideal reader? What are you looking for in your reader? Do you envisage those who read your poetry will take to your novels and vice versa? Or are the two geared to different readers?
CE: My ideal poetry reader is any poet who is more skilled at the craft of poetry writing than I am. They don’t have to write in a similar style, but they do have to be experienced and knowledgeable. I’ve been lucky enough to find a number of skilled poets along the way who’ve been kind enough to critique my work (and of course I’ve returned the favour). The poets who like my poetry also tend to like my novels as they occupy the same literary world as the poems, though greatly expanded, but it doesn’t often work the other way round. My best readers for the novels are skilled prose writers and avid readers, though not necessarily novelists. They often apologise for not appreciating my poetry. Anyone can read a novel, but reading poetry is a special skill, best learnt by writing poetry. This is why most readers of poetry are poets. You can’t skim a poem. You have to stop and think and digest every word. It’s a bit too much like hard work for the casual reader who simply wants to enjoy a good story.
GL: Would it be fair to say that you’re principally a novelist who also writes poetry? Which came first, novel writing or poetry?
CE: I came to writing relatively late, having not done any creative writing since schooldays until a poem popped out of my head and onto my computer in my forties. This was not entirely out of the blue. I used to spend time chatting in the old msn chat rooms and the friendliest people I found in them were the poets, but as a non-writer I felt like an interloper, so I wrote a poem in order to fit in. The feedback was extremely encouraging. I wanted more, became hooked, and haven’t stopped writing since. I began writing my first novel within a few months of the first poem, so the poetry and novel writing evolved together and have continued side by side ever since.
GL: Are there any novelists whose work inspires you? How important is reading for you as a writer and poet?
CE: You can’t – really can’t – write anything unless you are and always have been an avid reader. I’d realised this initially while still at school, when I noticed that my stories were always better if I wrote them immediately after reading a decent novel. I analysed the novels to see which were the most effective in this regard, and made sure to read an Arthur C. Clarke novel shortly before taking ‘O’ level English Language. It worked. I gained an ‘A’ grade.
As to the authors who inspire me – there are too many to mention, but two stand head and shoulders above all the rest. First: Jane Austen. So much unsaid. So much beneath the surface. So much passion. So much heartache along with gentle humour to make it all bearable. Second: Stephen Donaldson – both his fantasy works and his crime fiction, but especially his science fiction. Searingly effective writing. Masterful plotting, superb characterisation, and an emotional intensity that few contemporary writers can match. Austen and Donaldson make odd bedfellows perhaps, but I love them both and each has inspired and influenced my writing in their own way. If any diehard Donaldson fans read Serpentine I can guarantee they will go ‘Ha!’ at one point when one character utters one word. Yes, just one word, and suddenly you’re in Donaldson’s universe, albeit briefly. Nobody else will notice anything untoward, but I wanted to give a nod to my favourite contemporary writer.
GL: Do share a little about your poetry. How did you come to write poetry? Do you use any particular poetical forms? Again, are there any particular themes that inspire and shape your poetry?
CE: Once I had written my first free form poem in the old msn chat room, and become addicted to positive feedback, I started exploring different possible poetic forms, using Wikipedia as first point of call. I soon discovered villanelle, sestina, and in particular, the various types of sonnets. I’ve had publication success with all these forms now, and the discipline of writing them has certainly helped improve my freestyle poetry. As for themes, I’ll write about pretty much everything and anything, but it’s almost invariably fiction. I’m not someone who has an experience or recalls a memory and then writes it down as a poem. Never have done. I can’t see the point. I’m a storyteller, so that’s what I do, whether through my poems or novels. Autobiographical writing doesn’t interest me. Victoria, the artist in Serpentine, is emphatically not me, even though she’s painted some of the pictures I have (one of which is used as the cover art) and had some similar experiences. She is her own person, and she goes her own way, as do all the characters who appear in my writing, whether poetry or prose.
GL: Your poetry has been widely published. Would you please name a few anthologies, competitions and your own collections?
CE: My earliest publications were in now defunct e-zines that burnt brightly for a while, but were then snuffed out. Once I’d gained the confidence that early publication brings, I discovered Earlyworks Press and their route into print publication through competitions, so I had a go, and quickly became successful. I have now appeared in a good number of their anthologies as poet, illustrator and cover artist. I have also had success with Leaf Book competitions, both in poetry and flash fiction. Companies as diverse as Byker Books and Sam’s Dot Publishing have published my short stories, and my poems have been published in magazines and e-zines such as Antiphon, 14, The Journal, Fleeting Magazine, and many others. Circaidy Gregory Press published my first solo poetry collection, ‘wormwood, earth and honey’, which has recently been re-released as a fully illustrated ebook, and I am now working on a second collection. 2010 was probably my best year for competitions, with two short-listings for poetry in the Bridport, as well as many other placings and a few wins. So long as my winnings stay greater than the fees I pay out to enter, I reckon I’m doing okay.
GL: Are there any subjects that you as a novelist or poet would be reluctant to use in your writing? Are there any specific concepts that you are trying to express in your novels and poetry?
CE: I don’t write about subjects about which I know nothing or which I have no desire to explore. This is why you’ll find no short stories or novels with wartime settings and no Westerns. I haven’t written any historical fiction to speak of, though I wouldn’t rule it out entirely. I don’t like to write at length about miserable subjects as I want my readers to go away happy, or excited, or inspired, or shocked, or in wonderment – but never depressed. I never set out to express any specific concept – I let the stories do that for me. The characters know what they’re doing. I simply take notes and type them up.
GL: Your blog also showcases your skill as a painter. Do you exhibit your paintings widely? Please expand a little more about how you use your painting in your poetry and novels.
CE: I define myself through my art, much as Vicky does in Serpentine. It’s what I do and who I am, and always have been. I’ve only recently started exhibiting, and that’s been largely due to the internet, as before I started exploring online I had no idea what opportunities were available. I exhibit widely online, and have received commissions, mostly for portraits, as a result. I also exhibit in the ‘real’ world – annually in local exhibitions, and occasionally further afield. Last year I was a prize-winner in the Patchings Exhibition in Nottingham. I also recently joined the women’s art collective ‘Vivian Vile’, which exists to encourage women artists and help them find opportunities for development and promotion. Through them, I managed to exhibit a self-portrait in the ‘Cultivate’ gallery in London.
Art influences my writing to an enormous degree. Serpentine is about what it means to be an artist, but all my poems are reactions to art works, even if that is rarely explicit in the text. Writing is my way of expressing and interpreting art.
GL: You have been a member of Writers’ Dock for quite some time now. How has this shaped your writing? What is it that you, a published novelist and poet, find particularly stimulating about a writing site like Writers’ Dock? Are there any aspects of the site that you think might need a rethink and revamp? Do you have any suggestions?
CE: The thing I like about Writers’ Dock is its flexibility. It’s a huge site – there’s something for everybody. I tend to use the daily prompts and rarely pop outside that section to see what everyone else is up to, which might sound a bit restrictive, but virtually all my writing, whether short story, novel, or highly edited poem, starts off as a quickly penned response to a prompt (picked up from the site) in combination with a browse through images on an art site. I don’t think the Dock needs a re-vamp or re-think. It simply needs to retain its fabulous variety and the warm welcome it gives all members.
GL: What is it about the use of prompts that stimulates your writing? Is it the challenge of writing impromptu?
CE: My writing starts out in a stream of consciousness style, so give me a word or two and a few images and I’m away, not thinking too hard about what I’m writing, letting anything bubble up from the corners of my psyche, and committing it to paper in a random way – only worrying if it makes too little sense later on. The poems I write for the daily prompt section only take a few moments to jot down, and then perhaps five minutes or so to edit to make sure they hang together. I often don’t see the meaning in them until people have commented on them and given their own interpretations, at which point I can say, ‘Aha! So that’s what I meant!’ and edit them accordingly. My writing is essentially imagistic. Concrete images, not vague abstract waffle. Present the ‘thing’, and let the reader worry about how to interpret it. All is metaphor – except when it isn’t. I sometimes write absolutely literally, just for the fun of it, and this can cause confusion if people are looking for hidden meanings.
GL: Which novel or poetry collection or even a single poem are you most proud of? Please would you tell us why?
CE: My favourite novel is always the one I’ve just finished, so it’s undoubtedly Serpentine at the moment, though had you asked me last year I would have said Small Poisons. Even with poetry, it tends to be a poem within the last half dozen I’ve written, and as I write two or three poems a day, that’s going to be a very recent one.
GL: Has the recent rise of e-publishing had any impact on your writing and publishing? What are the pros and cons of e-publishing for you as a writer and poet?
CE: I’m a huge fan of e-publishing. There are pragmatic reasons: ebooks are cheaper, so people who aren’t quite sure whether to buy your book or not are more likely to take the chance if it’s not too expensive. Readers no longer have to worry about whether they have shelf space for yet another book. They can store hundreds. Thousands. All on one natty little reader. The figures speak for themselves. In just a few years, ebook sales have shot through the roof, while paperbacks are struggling. Of course paperbacks and hardbacks will never disappear – on a shelf next to where I’m typing this interview, I have a collection of large art books which would be absurd on an e-reader, and not even much use on a widescreen pc – and of course there are many other examples where a beautifully bound hard copy is simply a wonderful artefact, almost irrespective of its content – but for convenience of reading, the ebook is the thing, without a question. In the world of poetry, e-publishing has enabled wide distribution of many e-zines that would have failed in no time if the publishers had had to bear the expense of print for every copy, and this has given opportunities for many more poets to be read, which has got to be a good thing.
GL: How has your writing changed over the years and what plans do you have for your writing in the future?
CE: The more I write, the more honed and skilled my writing becomes. I look back at my early poems and wince – as no doubt in ten years’ time I’ll be looking back at my current output and wincing – but no matter. I love writing. I start every single day by writing a haiku, and have done so for a number of years. I can’t see that stopping. The act of writing a haiku sets me up for the rest of the day, as I no longer have a virtual ‘blank page’ staring accusingly up at me – I’ve already written, so anything more is a bonus. As far as novels are concerned, I have a rule that as soon as one novel is published, I start another, so I’m now at the stage where I’m on the verge of setting out on the adventure of a brand new novel. I have no idea what it’ll be about, but the likelihood is I’ll write a poem one of these days and want to expand it, and eventually it’ll become an entire novel. That’s what happened with Serpentine. In 2008, I visited the Serpentine Gallery in London and wrote a sonnet about it (which incidentally is being published by South Bank Poetry in July this year) and from that the ideas grew and grew until I had an entire novel. I may very well write a short poem from today’s daily prompts on the Dock, which will become my next novel. Who knows? We’ll see.
GL: Finally, who is your muse?
CE: Ah, now, that would be telling. I have a number of muses. None of them know they are fulfilling that function. I’d die of embarrassment if they ever found out. Shhh . . .
More about Catherine Edmunds’ writing can be found here: www.freewebs.com/catherineedmunds