Sunday, 27 February 2011

Interview with Catriona Robb our Speaker Secretary

The photo is of me on our friends' boat in Newfoundland and I'm holding Barnaby the Travelling Teddy Bear, whose blog I wrote and which can be read at
Catriona, when did you start writing?

I can’t remember exactly when I started writing but I first began thinking of myself as a writer aged 11 when my teacher at the time was sufficiently impressed with one of my stories to suggest I send my work to a publisher. He looked up an address in one of the books in the staff room and I still have the reply I received from Pan Books. No, they didn’t offer to publish me as a child prodigy but they did say my Enid Blyton inspired novel, The Mystery of Dundee Island (actually set in Newfoundland!) “showed very real promise”. That gave me the confidence to write down the stories I was constantly making up in my head in the belief that people would want to read them.

What genre do you like to write?

The story which impressed my primary school teacher was actually a fantasy about fairies (who emerged from eggs found in the back garden J) but these days, although I primarily write fiction, I focus on real life and particularly human relationships. My stories range from family sagas to romances with a healthy dash of action adventure. I’m more flexible as to literary genre writing both historical and contemporary novels as well as screenplays.

What things inspire you to write?

When I was younger it was simply wanting to share the story and, to a certain extent, find out how it ended as I tend to begin with a series of scenes and only a vague idea of where they might be heading. Since then I’ve taught myself to write to order, whether for an MA assignment or a competition, and that can have its own rewards too. You’d be surprised what you can come up with given a theme and a deadline.
That said my favourite ideas tend to come from my subconscious, whether informed by the news or work and life experiences and I’ve got at least two novel synopses from watching television adaptations and films.

What is the best piece of advice you have ever been given?

At a Historical Novel Society conference several years’ back, Bernard Cornwell was talking about how difficult it is to be objective about one’s own work, especially when it’s not going well. He said that once, when he was struggling, he typed up an excerpt from one of C S Forester’s novels substituting the name “Sharpe” for “Hornblower”. A few days later he re-read it, still thinking it was rubbish. Then he told himself that this wasn’t his writing, it was Forester’s and it had been successfully published. That gave him the impetus he needed to keep going.
I thought that was excellent advice but, if you can’t think of an author whose writing is similar enough to your own, then why not come along to the Tunbridge Wells & District Writers’ Circle? Our genre-specific workshops provide exactly this kind of encouragement in the form of objective, constructive criticism with tea, coffee and biscuits as an added bonus.

Do you have a writing routine?

My day tends to begin with checking my emails. Where it goes from there depends on whether there are any needing an immediate response and what my most pressing deadlines are. Ideally though I would concentrate on writing in the morning and deal with the business of life in the afternoon as it’s easier to switch mindsets from the creative to the prosaic that way round.

Who are your writing heroes or heroines?

Above all I like a good story, so as a child it was Enid Blyton (as already mentioned) and Arthur Ransome. I’m a huge fan of nineteenth century classics so I would also include Jane Austen, the Brontes, George Eliot, Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins … I could go on. Among modern authors I like Joanna Trollope, Rosamunde Pilcher, Giselle Green, Victoria Connelly, Christina Courtenay and Sue Moorcroft.

Which one of your characters would you least like to meet and why?

Probably the villain of my Italian Renaissance novel and screenplay, Castille. Like most bullies, he’s a terrible coward, nasty and vindictive but unfortunately he also has the power to make a lot of people’s lives very unpleasant indeed.

In what ways do you benefit from being part of the Tunbridge Wells and District Writers’ Circle? In what ways are you involved?

Writing can be a lonely occupation - to keep the perspective Bernard Cornwell talked about, it is essential to have writing friends who understand what it’s like: who can advise, encourage and, if necessary, cajole. Sheila Alcock is right about the alchemy that occurs when you read your work aloud and this is a profession where contacts can make a real difference. You never know who you might meet at a workshop or speaker event who could further your career.
I’m currently the Speaker Secretary of the Circle helping to organise each year’s programme of events as well as working to improve the profile of the Circle generally. In the past I’ve also edited the Circle Newsletter and continue to provide articles for it regularly.

Are you a member of any other writing groups?

My membership of the Romantic Novelists’ Association helped me to get my new job (see below) and I have benefited enormously from their New Writers’ Scheme. I have also made some extremely good friends who are now published and successful authors.

Congratulations on your new job. What is your job title and what does it involve?

At the start of this year I was offered the role of freelance production editor with a small women’s fiction publisher based in Surrey. I liaise with the main editor and author to resolve any issues with plot, characterisation and setting and also check for spelling, grammatical and factual errors before publication.

In what ways do you think it might benefit your own writing?

All writers need to learn how to edit their own work and there is no better way than to constructively critique others. It’s amazing how often, when reviewing a manuscript, you will recognise the flaws in your own writing and also gain insight into how to overcome them.

Does anyone else in your family write?

No one in my immediate family writes now but my late Grandfather had a series of articles published in Marbella’s M magazine in the late 1980’s. He lived and worked in Spain in the 1920’s and the articles contrasted the small fishing village Marbella was then with the upmarket tourist resort it has now become.

What would be your ideal writing retreat?

I’m lucky to have found a more or less ideal writing retreat not very far away in East Kent. I stay in a self-catering bungalow set in beautiful grounds, which I can explore when I need a break from the computer or to let my subconscious find the solution to a plot or character dilemma.
The estate is designed for retreats so there’s no television or radio and mobile phones aren’t allowed. It really does provide the opportunity to get away from day-to-day distractions and focus solely on my writing.

What would you take with you?

Besides my laptop, pads, pens, food (!) and research material, my friends Giselle, Jan and Cara are essential. Who but fellow writers would give you space to write when the work in progress is going well but be there if you need a chat, to give advice and to have a laugh together when you finish work for the day?

Finish the following.

It wasn’t a case of if she would tell – but when. She needed to time it properly.
Cora had kept the secret for so long now that to let it slip clumsily would ruin the surprise Golden Wedding celebrations she had worked so hard to perfect.

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