Catriona Child: On Music, Harry Potter and Inspiration
On Wednesday 19 August, we headed down to the Edinburgh Book Festival to watch Catriona Child perform her short story ‘Diamonds in the Rough’ as part of Story Shop, a series of events run by Edinburgh City of Literature Trust as part of its Emerging Writers Programme, to give new and upcoming local writers a chance to showcase their work. You can read her story and watch the video here. After the reading, we caught up with Catriona…
Kate Moreton: So, the first question! I’m interested in where you take your inspiration for characters. Quite a lot of authors say they take bits from people in real life and mix them together, so I was wondering what the inspiration for characters like Davie in Trackman came from?
Catriona Child: Okay, Davie… It was always a guy. The idea for Trackman came from a dream that my husband had, of this guy on a subway train who handed a pair of headphones to a girl that was crying, and then all these weird, dream colours came in. So it was always a guy in my head. I started thinking about who the Trackman should be and he seemed like the troubled young Scottish guy. I actually heard my brother’s voice in my head when I was writing it, and I based it on males that I know – everyone who’s read it from my family say that they can hear my brother.
KM: Is that the same for most of your characters?
CC: Yeah, I guess so. In Swim, the character Marièle, the older lady – a lot of it’s based on stories that my granny told me so I had my granny in my head when I was thinking of her. I try to hear real people’s voices in my head, so even though the characters are completely fictional, I’m using real life too.
KM: Do you ever find that you write yourself into your stories?
CC: I used to swim so I drew a lot of my own experiences in Swim, and I guess it’s nice to be able to put your own opinions. I’m not very outspoken but I can be quite opinionated so it’s nice to put that out there. Then I can say, well, it wasn’t me who said it!
Louise Dickie: (We laugh) Yeah, I loved the fact that Davie had this distinctive Scottish voice throughout the whole of Trackman, you could tell that he was from the area…
CC: Yeah, it’s funny because I don’t really swear in my life and a lot of people who read it were like ‘oh my god, I can’t believe that there’s so much bad language in it’. I guess it just kind of came out when I was writing it… I didn’t set out to write an Irvine Welsh-style novel with lots of swearing in it, it just came out in Davie’s character.
LD: So, if you had to choose, which writer would you consider a mentor or who would you like to have a big literary dinner with?
CC: I think I’d probably have to go for Stephen King, because he’s just someone that I’ve always read from a really young age, and I still read him now, so it’s like he’s been with me the whole time. In fact, when I was in high school I won this merit prize in first year, and we were given book vouchers and told to buy books and bring them back in for the prize-giving. So I went and boughtCarrie by Stephen King and everybody else bought dictionaries and encyclopaedias so I felt a bit ‘oh my god I shouldn’t have bought this!’ (Laughs)
LD: What do you think of events like this that try to promote Scottish authors? You read a lot in the national newspapers that are promoting mostly English authors, that have been established a long time, but the Book Festival, does that help?
CC: Yeah, I think it’s great. I’ve actually applied for Story Shop for the last three or four years but this is the first year that I was successful, which was great. I think it’s brilliant because the Book Festival attracts so many people, not just from Scotland, so it’s a really great way to showcase your talents. There’s so many young, breakthrough Scottish artists and they’re all really great and it’s just trying to find your voice amongst all these other artists.
KM: Yeah, it’s a big community! Especially here, I’d imagine. Going back to Stephen King, are there any books that have been most influential, particularly to your writing, that you’ve been inspired by?
CC: When I was first starting out I was quite influenced by Alan Bissett, his early books. I came to see him at the Book festival a few times and he’s such an engaging person on stage, he’s more of a performer than a writer so he was really inspiring. I was like ‘I really want to do what you’re doing!’
KM: So what book are you reading now? If you have time, with your one year-old daughter, of course!
CC: I know! I’m trying to keep it up, but my reading’s gone down a bit. I’m actually reading Michael Palin’s Pole to Pole. When I was off on maternity leave, I got quite into it because the show was on the Discovery Channel and when you’re sitting about, watching day time TV I thought, ‘oooh I quite fancy reading this!’
LD: And are you reading to your daughter?
CC: (Laughs) Yes, things like Three Little Pigs, the Gingerbread Man… these sorts of things!
KM: I grew up with Harry Potter! Although maybe she’s a bit young for Harry Potter at 1…
LD: Harry Potter is actually mentioned quite a lot in Trackman?
CC: Yeah I’m a big fan of Harry Potter – JK Rowling is a big influence. I just love the Harry Potter books, I read them pretty much once a year, just because you really care for the characters.
LD: It’s as if you grow up together with them! And I think that’s what struck us, particularly when we were reading Trackman, is that it was kind of like a book that echoed our teenage years because it was songs that we grew up with, and I can remember queueing up outside the bookshops to wait for the Harry Potter books, seeing everyone dressed up in their Harry Potter clothes.
CC: Yeah, that was taken from experience of standing outside Waterstones!
KM: Also the music – how did you select the songs that you’ve featured in Trackman?
CC: I’ve always been into music – I used to go to a lot of live bands before my daughter came along! I just let it happen organically. There were some songs that I put in, but most of them I was listening to music whilst I was writing it and if something seemed to fit then I put it in.
LD: So the fact that Davie works in a Virgin Record store, surrounded by all this music and then he ends up becoming the Trackman…
CC: When I left university that was my first job in Edinburgh, working in a Virgin Record store. I started as a Christmas temp, and ended up staying there for about 5 years, and then I thought ‘I’d better get out of here!’ (laughs)
LD: Davie, becomes this sort of human MP3 player, was that a decision that you made consciously. Did you know that he was going to become this guy who goes round helping other people or just something that as you wrote his character it started to happen?
CC: A bit of both really, I’d always kind of had that idea of music taking you back to certain places and the healing power of music, and then my husband had that dream, and I had this idea of someone helping people through music. Then it was just trying to think why Davie would have been chosen to be the Trackman, so I came up with his backstory, giving him this sort of troubled past. But yeah, it came as I was writing it, because I actually wrote the last chapter really early on and then I kind of worked my way towards the end.
KM: That’s quite unusual, I’ve never heard of that before! Partway through, were you ever tempted to change the ending or were you quite strict on keeping it the same?
CC: Well I really liked the end. My second book, Swim I rewrote that ending so many times and I just wasn’t happy with it but with Trackman the ending came really quickly, it was weird the way it happened.
LD: So if you were going to play a song for someone what would you pick?
CC: Ah that’s a good question. Erm… I don’t know actually. My favourite band is the Beatles, so I’d probably go for a Beatles track. I play my daughter ‘Ticket to Ride’ because I’m trying to educate her with music!
KM: (We laugh) I also wanted to ask about names – I know some authors pick a standard name, then create the character, and go back and change it once the character is formed. Or others go through a baby name book. A lot of your character names are very Scottish; how important were names to you?
CC: They were very important. I realised as I was writing it that they all sounded the same; I had Davie and Alfie and Pammy so I had to go back through and change them. I changed a couple, I think Martha and Susan, though I can’t remember what their names were originally. I thought it was quite weird that I’d done that, I don’t know if it was something about the sound of that name… but yeah, with names I think up loads of names in my head and one eventually just sticks and becomes the character, and then I can’t ever see myself going and changing it after that.
LD: Is there anything that you can tell us about your new book that’s coming out?
CC: Ooooh… well, it’s really fragmented at the moment because I’ve been trying to write scraps in-between naps and stuff like that, so I was thinking maybe I should write it in diary format because it’s so many scraps! (laughs)
KM: Have you written the ending yet?
CC: I know where the ending is actually, it’s another one where I know where the ending is, it’s just getting it there. I don’t want to jinx it though, as I’m still not quite sure what I think of it, and it’s all longhand at the moment because it’s too much faff trying to get the computer set up when she’s asleep, so I’m just like ‘aaaah I have half an hour!’
KM: I guess it’s good though, that it forces you to write something because you’ve got such limited time?
CC: Exactly! It’s funny because I was in the author’s tent at the Book Festival and Nicola Morgan, who writes young adult books, said the same thing. When she had her babies she ended up doing more writing because her time was so precious, she was just write, write, write! She said don’t worry about the house work just write, so I might have a really messy house but hopefully a book at the end of it!
KM: (We laugh) Our final question is: do you have any advice for young writers?
CC: Read, a lot. Also, something I’ve not been doing in the last year but, try to write every day, because someone said to me that writing is like a muscle and you just have to keep exercising it. I think that’s probably true. So try to write every day, even if it’s just rubbish, sometimes you’ll find a little gem.
Want to hear more from Catriona? You can buy all her books from the Luath website.
With thanks to Catriona Child for her time.