Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Interview with Katherine Catmull: Author of Summer and Bird

I'm so thrilled for my friend, Katherine Catmull, whose first book, Summer and Bird, will be released next week. You might know Kat from her amazing, award-winning work on the stage-- she appears often (but not often enough if you ask me) in productions at Hyde Park Theatre where her talented husband, Ken Webster, just so happens to be artistic director. 

The fickle publishing world so adored Kat's first manuscript that they signed her on immediately for not one but two books. This is such a phenomenal, fantastic, freakin' rare and awesome occurrence and it could not have happened to a lovelier human. CONGRATS KAT!! 

Kat took time out of her whirlwind, pre-pub schedule to answer one of my famous too-long lists of questions. Check out her answers below and be sure to mark your calendar-- her big book release party is October 9, 2012, at 7 pm at BookPeople. 

SG: Tell me about your life as a writer-- until I heard you sold your book (a two-book contract actually) I confess I didn't know you wrote fiction. Have you been a secret writer all along? 

No! Or well — as a child and even teenager I always thought I might be a writer. I wrote stories and plays as a kid, and poetry as a teenager. But it got harder and harder—I got more and more frozen and scared around it. So in my twenties I turned to theater instead. Theater erases the frozen/scared issue: you have to show up to rehearsal, you have to show up for the show, you have to keep going up there no matter what happens. That was exhilarating for me, as a professional Frozen/Scared person.

So when I hit my late 40s and decided it was time to try a major writing project on my own (I’d written some short plays and collaborated on longer ones), I had a few tools, from theater—or at least I was familiar with that feeling, that flowing on and on feeling, the ice thawed. At least I knew that feeling could exist. 

SG: And the book that's about to come out-- title? synopsis? 

Summer and Bird. It’s for age 10 and up, a sort of magic-realist/folkore/fairy tale influenced book, one of those classic setups of “two children go into a forest and then . . .” Here’s the way I described it when I was pitching it to agents: 

When their parents vanish overnight, pragmatic Summer and her stormy, light-boned sister Bird follow a meager clue--well, it might be a clue--into the forest. There the sad, electric song of a patchwork bird draws them Down, where they must fight—against a ravenous, bird-swallowing Puppeteer; against each other; and against their own fears, ambitions, and griefs—first to find the truth about their parents, and then to help the birds find their way back to the Green Home, the birds' true home, lost to them since the bird queen vanished years ago. 

But at the border of the Green Home, earth and sky crash together like jaws, demanding a sacrifice.

SG: How'd you come up with the idea?

I was babysitting the two young daughters of some theater friends. On the drive out, I decided I’d try being that cool kind of babysitter who makes up a bedtime story to tell the kids instead of reading one. But they had already picked their books to be read that night. So the next day I wrote down the few beginning pages I’d thought of on my drive, and set them aside. At that time I had the beginnings of a zillion different writing projects stashed here and there. 

About three years later, I decided to get serious about actually writing and FINISHING a major project, so I went through all my scraps and landed on that one.

SG: How did you get your ass in the chair once you had the idea?

Yeah, that’s the hard part. I felt so much better when I read that George Orwell quote, from his essay “Why I Write,” where he says that “Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness,” because that’s what it feels like to me, too. Once I’m deeply into it, I love writing, but I have a VERY hard time getting deeply into drafting. Revising is a lot easier for me (except when it involves a lot of new drafting). I dunno. I am trying to be a good parent to my writer, not nasty but still firm: you know you need to do this. Go into that room and close the door.

SG: What was the process like writing it-- hours and hours every day?

Well I had a near-full-time job then (I was averaging around 38 hours a week), and rehearsing and performing in plays sometimes, too, as well as singing in a band, so — it was more like two or three hours four or five times a week. And often those few hours were not so much  about “writing” as about me sitting grimly in a chair, too stubborn to write and to stubborn to give up. I still do way too much of that.

SG: Did you wait til it was done to sell it? And what was your process getting an agent?

Yeah you have to wait with fiction, at least these days. No one wants to see your almost-finished novel. No one really wants to see your completed one either! I didn’t give much thought to selling it until I was nearly done, but then I was all: MUST SELL THIS. I carefully selected a few lucky agents on whom to bestow the offer of a chance to read my WORK, and all three promptly said: No thanks! 

But then Ed Ward—he does those music segments on Fresh Air, and used to write for Rolling Stone, but he lived in Austin for a while as well, and I know him slightly—kindly said he would ask his agent to look at the manuscript. That took a few months, but when the agent did read it, he offered to represent it.

SG: Tell me about getting The Call. Did you spit your teeth out when you got an offer? 

The agent offer or the publisher offer? For the agent offer, the first Call I got that day was from my credit union, saying someone in Georgia had stolen our debit card number and drained almost every cent from our checking account overnight. So I was at the credit union, kind of shook up, waiting to talk with someone about it, and when I checked my iPhone I saw that  Dave had written to say “I love the book and would like to represent it, let’s talk.” So when the bank officer called me over, I had the wrong expression for a newly-penniless person: I was grinning like an idiot. (The credit union covered the stolen money, by the way. Thank you, UFCU.)

A few months later, when Dave forwarded me the Dutton offer, I was in my car in the BookPeople parking lot. I called my husband, then drove home and called my dad and half of my numerous siblings, one at a time, to yell OH MY GOD GUESS WHAT. 

SG: You did leave your job, right? But I still see you onstage (thankfully)-- how are you juggling being one of Austin's most beloved, most talented actors and being a writer? Does one inform the other? And did you read that (dreadful I thought) self-indulgent piece by Molly Ringwald in NYT recently about her novel? (You don't actually need to answer that, I just couldn't resist pointing it out.)

I did leave my day job, but I do still act when I can. It’s tricky right now because I am so new to publishing, I don’t know exactly how to predict six months in advance whether I’m going to be free or when it will be horribly inconvenient to be tied up in a play for three months. It’s not like there are that many roles for a woman my age anyway. I should write some!

And I have not read the Molly Ringwald piece but I will go find it RIGHT NOW.

SG: You went to Ireland to research the second book, right? What was that like? Had you been before?

Had never been before and it was utterly lovely, except for the absolutely terrifying driving, and missing Ken. But the landscape and the people were extraordinarily lovely. And it was very helpful for the second book, too. It’s so amazing to have that kind of freedom, to set my own schedule, to travel when I want or need to.

SG: What's next-- book tour? Second book? 

Nah, no book tour—maybe for the next one! I do hope to do some school visits, though. And yes, second book, which is at a funny place I don’t want to talk about! But it should come out in 2014.

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