Literary Sisters: Author interview with Kate Long

One of the aims of the ‘Literary Sisters’ series is to celebrate the work of some brilliant women writers out there.  So it’s a delight to feature Kate Long here this week.  I’m a big fan of Kate’s work.  Her characters are wonderfully believable, flesh and blood people.  She explores the complex dynamics of family life with insight, sensitivity and humour.  For a bestselling novelist, she is refreshingly down to earth about the writing process, and in the interview below she reveals how being read stories early by her mother shaped her imagination and how she juggles writing with her own role as a mum.

Kate is giving away a copy of her latest novel Before She Was Mine to two readers who leave a comment at the end of the post.  Winners will be drawn on Friday 14 September, so you’ve plenty of time!

In common with many of her other novels, Before She Was Mine is preoccupied with relationships between mothers and daughters: the central character, Freya, is caught between birth mum Melody and adoptive mum Liv.  It’s a brilliant read.  So if you don’t win the giveaway, I’d advise you to buy it, or borrow it from your library; save it for a long bath or – even better – a rainy weekend afternoon when you can savour it and read the whole thing cover to cover.

Kate, tell us how you manage to juggle all the different components of your work – writing, marketing (including events and appearances) and teaching.  And how you combine all that with also being a mother?

These days I’m lucky enough to be able to write full time, but I completed my first full-length adult novel when I was employed as a secondary school teacher and had a young baby in the house. Starting off my writing career under those kind of constraints taught me several useful techniques, for example the setting of manageable targets, the helpfulness of having a clear structure or plan to work from, and the importance of keeping going with a project and not faltering when I hit a sticky patch. My routine now consists of dropping the kids off at school, and then getting down to editing the previous day’s work. Next I add another 600-800 words, and by that point it’s quite often school-run time again. Finally, towards late evening, I have another note-generating session, preparing the ground for the next section. I think my daily word count’s quite low compared to other authors, but it does seem to build up fairly quickly.


Where do you like to write best?

Because I was so pushed for time and space when I first started to write, I taught myself to work anywhere. It’s extremely handy to be able to fill odd periods of enforced waiting, eg sitting in hospitals and outside the school gates, with longhand note-making; I just have to remember to carry paper and pen with me. Even if I don’t have writing implements to hand, I’ll often use the time to think through a plot issue or character problem. Sometimes ideas come more freely than when I’m at my desk.


Who is your most significant influence (literary or otherwise)?

It was my mum who kindled my interest in books, and in the idea of a fantasy life generally. She read me challenging narrative poems – The Lady of Shalott, The Inchcape Rock, The Jackdaw of Rheims – while I was still an infant, and fed me fiction that stretched my vocabulary and sparked ideas for my own stories. The house was full of books, many of them old ones passed on from other members of the family, and tending towards either the Gothic or the deeply pious. Meanwhile at school I was lucky enough to have two first rate English teachers, Mrs Johnston and Miss Windle, who took an interest in my writing and encouraged me from Year 7 right through to the sixth form.


Favourite time-off activity?

I’m a serious fan of the water vole, and spend a lot of time monitoring and photographing local colonies, lobbying council planning departments, and posting records on my blog, About a Brook. I also do training sessions for Field Studies Council students, and I’m delighted to have an article in November’s BBC Wildlife magazine. Sometimes the book-world and the vole-worlds collide, as in my latest novel Before She Was Mine: the only commercial fiction you’re likely read this year containing badger latrines and owl pellets.


Name your favourite Penguin literary mug.

It really has to be The Wind in the Willows because of the vole connection.


What’s the best thing about being a writer?  And the worst?

Nothing tops the moment when a reader gets in touch to say he or she has enjoyed your book, that it’s meant something special. Because that’s what you write for, isn’t it? To connect with other people. There are times I’ve also appreciated having a parallel life, an invented world into which I can escape when reality is proving tough. For example, when my husband was very ill a few years ago and needed a lot of home nursing, it was a special kind of break to be able to sit at my desk and open up the novel in progress.

The worst side of being an author for me is when you get shoddy reviews – and I don’t mean critically bad ones, I mean ones where the reviewer either hasn’t read the novel properly or seriously misrepresents it. Frustrating to have worked so hard on something for such a long time, and then have it dismissed by a journalist who can’t even get the name of the main character right.

Your writing is so well observed, and readers often comment ‘you’ve described exactly how I feel.’  Do you have a regular routine of writing in a notebook or regularly capturing observations?

I think I store a lot in my head. I’m the sort of person who’ll listen into conversations – you’ve been warned! – and take away ideas and re-work them into fiction. However, if I’m researching a topic outside my experience, such as eating disorders, I will put out an appeal on Twitter or contact groups or societies to ask for help. It’s my responsibility as a writer to portray certain situations accurately, not just to take a wild stab at how characters might be feeling.


How do you go about trying to capture the voice of each of your characters? 

Lots of research into my main characters’ backgrounds! I go through a creative writing exercise I learned at Arvon where I ask each one fifty questions, some bread-and-butter style and some more off-beat, and then I work up the responses into a timeline of their life. From that I generate pages of notes, with the result that before I start chapter one I already know a huge amount about where each character came from and the key events in their history. Sometimes I even cut out pictures from magazines to help me with the visualisation. When I finally come to put those characters into a scene, I know how they’re going to act and talk and respond, so the dialogue runs along almost without my having to guide it. Sometimes the voices are so loud and clear that the writing process becomes like dictation.


The Bad Mother’s Handbook was adapted for the screen.  Can you tell us about that process, and your own involvement in it.  Did it change your relationship with the book in any way?

My input was to co-write the script and, before filming began, to take part in a hot-seating exercise where each actor got to drill me about their character’s back-story, personality quirks, habits, attitudes. I also managed to watch some of the filming being done in Otley and Huddersfield. The director and producer were both very welcoming and told me I could hang out on set any time, but in reality it was hard to get over to Yorkshire from Shropshire, especially as my children were pretty young at the time. The days I did attend were fascinating, seeing the detail of the sets close up, hearing real live people speak the words I’d only ever imagined, and chatting with the actors about their past work. Because as a writer you’re only a tiny part in a tv production, you have to step back and let the book go, and that’s really intriguing because you see characters and plot lines unfurl in ways you never anticipated.

Writing the sequel this year’s been strange too because in some of the scenes I now picture Holliday Grainger or Robert Pattinson, Catherine Tate or the rest of the crew. The original Charlotte-in-my-head was blonde, whereas now when I picture her she’s dark, like Holliday. And the narrative was changed for the television version which has made continuity something of a conundrum: in the end I’ve stuck with what happened in the book as that was the original version and the one with the more fruitful plot line.


What are you working on just now?

I’m just finishing the final edits of The Bad Mother’s Handbook sequel, and assembling ideas for the new novel which will be called Your Beautiful Sister and is about a recovering anorexic and her family.


Where would you like to be in five years’ time?  And in ten years?

I don’t like to think that far ahead. In 2010 my husband had a very serious road accident, and that made both of us re-think our attitude to life, as such events tend to. We’ve become super-aware that your destiny can change in an instant and out of the blue, and sometimes making plans seems to be tempting fate. I’d say that by and large I just step gingerly from one day to the next.


If you had one piece of advice to give to your fifteen year old self, what would it be?

On no account have a perm, ever. It will only end in tears.


You can find out more about Kate and her work on her website, and follow her on twitter here.


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