Thursday, 19 April 2012

Author Spotlight: Catherine Czerkawska

I’m delighted to welcome wonderful storyteller, Catherine Czerkawska to the Reading and Writing blog today. Plays, short stories, novels, poetry, articles - Catherine has written and published them all and is a professional writer in every way. She has an interesting story to tell about the reason she changed from traditional publishing to taking control of her latest three novels. Today, we’re introducing her beautiful sweeping love story, The Amber Heart, which is set around 19th century Poland.

The Amber Heart Blurb and Short Excerpt

A beautiful, butter-yellow mansion.
A spirited heroine and a troubled hero.
An epic tale of obsessive love and loss in 19th century Poland.

When Maryanna Diduska first meets Piotro Bandura, they are both children but their situations could not be more different. Maryanna is the pampered daughter of Polish aristocrats while Piotro is the child of a poverty-stricken Ukrainian widow.

Stefan took a pouch from his jacket and, with a laugh, scattered coins, as though scattering grain, watching them spread out and dive, hunting among grasses, squabbling volubly, fighting for what they could find, like so many starlings. But one of them didn’t move. He was the tallest and the oldest, a boy of perhaps eleven, his hair black and matted, his face sallow under the grime, his eyes an unexpectedly bright cornflower blue. He stood still, hands hanging by his sides, fists clenched, and he stared up at Maryanna, unsmiling, unmoving. She shifted uneasily. For perhaps the first time in her life, she saw a gaze of pure resentment directed straight at herself. She turned her head into her father’s jacket.

‘Daddy, tell the boy not to look at me,’ she whispered.

This is also the tale of the beautiful pancake yellow house of Lisko, Maryanna’s beloved childhood home, and the way in which the lives of its inhabitants are disrupted by the turmoil of the times.

The Amber Heart is a vivid, dramatic and unashamedly romantic story of love and loyalty, of personal tragedy and triumph, set against an intriguing foreign backdrop: the turbulent Eastern borderlands of 19th century Poland.

The Amber Heart is available from Amazon (UK) and Amazon (US)

What kind of writing did you start with and which do you prefer?

I began in my teens with poetry. I had some success with it: a couple of collections and even an Arts Council Award. I also used to write fan fiction before it was invented – stories in which Beatle John Lennon was the hero. I also tried writing plays for radio when I was young. I have more than 100 hours of produced radio drama to my name but these days I only write plays for the stage. Now I find myself focusing more on fiction, long and short. I certainly have plenty of ideas waiting in line so will probably concentrate on novels in the future.

How much did your Polish ancestry inform your writing?

A lot. I went to Warsaw by train when I was in my twenties. We had to cross East Germany and the guards came aboard with dogs and guns! I spent some time with my father’s uncle and aunt, and my great uncle, Karol Kossak, was like a throwback to another age. Later, I saw a production of the Merry Widow in Vienna, and Danilo reminded me of him. He would take me out walking or for rides in the horse drawn droshkis that were used as taxis in the town where they lived. We would go to cafes for coffee and cognac and he would draw little sketches on paper napkins for me (he was an artist, from a distinguished family of artists.) He would kiss my hand and generally behave exactly as a hero should. I think I was in love with him, even though he was in his eighties. I wrote poems about him, and then a couple of radio plays reflecting my Polish background, but I always knew that eventually I would write a historical novel, or perhaps more than one, set in Poland. The Amber Heart is that novel and Karol found his way into it as Julian – the heroine’s brother-in-law.

Did you have to do a lot of research for this novel?

I’ve researched it for years. My late dad filled notebooks with memories and sketches. I sent letters to Polish newspapers and people responded. I also read lots of personal memoirs – and the Austrian authorities were unbelievably helpful too. (Poland was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at that time). I also researched costume, food, traditions and so on. I love the domestic background to fiction and do my best to get it right.

I discovered that my great grandmother married her estate manager (something which was frowned on by the rest of the family.) She was a youngish widow with children when an elderly unmarried relative died and left his big estate to her eight year old son, my grandfather. She had to appoint an estate manager and must have travelled between the two houses. It was clear that she fell for him although I don’t think they lived happily ever after. I took the bare bones of that story, imagined it happening in mid nineteenth century Poland and wove it into my novel, but in greatly modified form. New writers will often say ‘but it really happened like that’ but that’s no excuse for clumsy plotting. You always have to remember that you’re writing fiction.

Why did you eventually decide to self-publish your novels?

I’m a natural mid-list writer and publishing was becoming impossible for me. I had an agent and a good track record and several novels waiting to go. Crunch time came when my agent read The Amber Heart and said he thought it was ‘wonderful.’ My old agent, the late Pat Kavanagh of Peters, Fraser and Dunlop, had had the same reaction some years earlier. She had done her level best to sell it (she was a mega agent and if she couldn’t sell something nobody could) but although it had rave reviews from editors, it always fell at the sales and marketing hurdle. ‘We don’t see how we can market this.’

When a new draft was sent out, all these years later, I began to get the same reaction and I finally saw the light. For years, I had been wondering why in Big and even in Medium Sized Publishing, everyone except the content creators could make a living, even if it was only a modest living. It was always accepted as a given that even time served and experienced writers needed a day job. And yet we are still expected to behave as humble supplicants. There’s been a lot of talk about publishers ‘nurturing writers’ but nurturing is for babies. I simply wanted a professional relationship. Thanks to Amazon and Kindle, I have that. I don’t need them to be nice. Just businesslike.

Do you think eBooks are the future?

In a word, yes! I love paper books too, but the next person who talks to me about the ‘smell and feel’ of books will probably get a dusty answer. If you’re talking about gorgeous Folio editions, I’d agree, but eBooks are just another method of delivery and a very good one.

How do you promote your books and does it work?

You have to be prepared to do a lot of it: blogging, using social networking, joining groups, connecting with readers. You’re an inspiration in this area, Rosemary! I think the problem for new writers, starting out on eBook publishing, is that they don’t have enough work, they aren’t prepared to pay for things like editing and cover art, and they don’t do enough promotion. The gorgeous cover of The Curiosity Cabinet was a gift from an established artist friend, but I commissioned the others from professional artists and have been very pleased with them. You have to change your mindset. Treat yourself as a business. For my last mainstream novel, The Curiosity Cabinet, I did lots of promotion myself, most of it online, so I was well aware of what was needed. I’m now a member of an excellent group called Authors Electric – we blog and help each other with advice and promotion. I’ve also just joined the newly formed Alliance of Independent Authors. The trick will be to balance the promotion with the writing. It’s a steep learning curve.

What is the most difficult part about starting a new book?

The first draft. I love the planning and the research and once the first draft is written, I could go on revising for ever and then some, but getting that first draft down is a bit of a slog. I once read a piece of advice suggesting that you should stop when you really don’t want to – it will be easier to pick it up again the next day because some of that excitement will be there. If you stop at the end of a chapter, it will be hard to get going again. I gallop through it as quickly as I can. Nobody ever sees that draft but me.

Did you read a lot when growing up – any author in particular influence you?

I read all the time and everywhere. I loved William Brown, the Wind in the Willows, historical novelists like Rosemary Sutcliff and Henry Treece. I loved Alan Garner’s books, especially the Owl Service. I had a passion for Mary Stewart and Daphne DuMaurier and the Brontes, especially Wuthering Heights. I also read The Lord of the Rings long before it became a cult – my dad found old copies in our local library, read it and passed the books on to me. I was enchanted.

Do you have a favourite writing place?

I have a nice quiet room upstairs with a view of gardens and distant woods. It’s wonderful, but I don’t seem to get into it half often enough.

Do you find time for hobbies?

Not a lot. I deal in antique textiles and vintage clothes from an eBay shop but that’s mostly to buy time to write. But I also collect textiles for myself, and enjoy boot sales and antique markets and auctions. I garden a bit too. And we live in a very sociable village.

Are you working on another novel (if you want to answer that!)

It’s called The Physic Garden, it’s set in early nineteenth century Glasgow and it’s a book about male friendship and betrayal. I’m 90,000 words into it, but it needs work. There’s a hole in the middle of it and it needs filling! On an editor’s advice, I attempted to change it from first to third person, but I couldn’t do it. I don’t mean it was too difficult, I mean I literally couldn’t do it. It felt like wading through treacle. At last I woke up in the middle of the night, as though somebody had prodded me, and thought ‘he has to tell his own story!’ My central character, whose name is William, has such a powerful voice that he isn’t going to be elbowed aside for anything.

Any tips for new writers?

1 This was one from Pat Kavanagh and it’s about fiction. Only write a novel because you can’t bear NOT to write it. If you can take it or leave it, if you’re bored with it, if you don’t get excited just thinking about it, then you shouldn’t be doing it. The nuts and bolts can be challenging, but you have to feel passionate about it.

2 If you find yourself ‘watering your Dylan Thomas adjectives and watching them grow’, (which is what another writer once told me I was doing) make sure you are looking for the right noun or verb, rather than piling on the adverbs and adjectives. I don’t mean get rid of all of them – but finding the precise noun or verb will make your writing much stronger.

3 Revise, let your writing lie fallow for weeks or months, revise again. Read aloud and revise. Print out and revise again. It’s amazing what you will see in a printed version that you will never see on the screen. I revise too much, probably. But the main fault with new writers is almost always that they don’t revise enough. They think it’s finished when it’s only half way there.

Wonderful answers and tips - many thanks, Catherine!
You can find Catherine on her Website, Blog, and the Amber Heart Blog
Catherine is an award winning novelist and experienced playwright. Now, many years after she was first published, she is embracing the digital revolution. The Curiosity Cabinet, one of three finalists for the Dundee Book Prize, was first published by Polygon and is now available only on Kindle along with a trio of short stories called A Quiet Afternoon in the Museum of Torture and a novel called Bird of Passage. Her new novel is The Amber Heart, an epic historical novel, a tale of love and loss, loosely based on her Polish family history. Much of her fiction is historical – but not all of it. She has never slotted comfortably into any one genre although she would call herself a natural mid-list writer.

She has held Creative Writing fellowships and residencies and spent four years as Royal Literary Fund Writing Fellow at the University of the West of Scotland. When not writing, she deals in antique and vintage textiles, clothes and other collectables which often find their way into her writing.


Bill Kirton said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bill Kirton said...

Well, there are interviews and there are interviews. This is definitely an interview. So much fascinating information - about Catherine, her works, and the whole business of writing and publishing. I'm already a big fan but this makes me realise I've only scratched the surface of her output. Thanks, both, for a highly enjoyable, thought-provoking read.

Catherine Czerkawska said...

Thanks, Bill! And many thanks to Rosemary for letting me rabbit on!

Rosemary Gemmell said...

Thanks Bill - Catherine was a wonderful interviewee and has such a fascinating story to tell.

Joan Fleming said...

Thanks to both - Rosemary for asking the right questions and Catherine for the interesting answers. It's an interview I'll read again, just like Catherine's books, articles... etc!

Joan Fleming said...

Thanks to both for an excellent interview - Rosemary for asking the right questions and Catherine for her interesting replies. It's one I'll read again - just like Catherine's books, articles... etc!

Maggie Craig said...

Fascinating interview, Catherine & Rosemary. I love the sound of Great-Uncle Karol! I also really relate to your desire to have a professional relationship with publishers. Never understood why so many of them seemed to have a problem with that.

I'm currently commissioning a new cover for One Sweet Moment from a professional designer and it is proving such a rewarding experience. We writers know how our books should look! Off to buy The Amber Heart for my Kindle now!

Catherine Czerkawska said...

Thanks, Maggie - and I know you feel the same about that professional relationship, but it seems to cause problems doesn't it? I've enjoyed working with designers so much - and I hope they've enjoyed it too. It's a bit like working in theatre where you have a good idea what you want, or at least the tone and feeling you want, but then you also know that you're working with talented people who can bring so much with them. For too long, in publishing, that relationship has been jeopardised by the need to satisfy supermarkets and stationers-turned- booksellers. Which is fine for tins of beans or packets of pens, but I'm not sure that it works for books: all those pink high heels on books that were emphatically not chicklit...
ps I should point out for anyone reading this blog that although it isn't expensive, (it's a BIG book!) the Amber Heart is coming up for a free promo VERY SOON - along with some other books by the Authors Electric Group.

Rosemary Gemmell said...

Thanks, Joan - Catherine's writing does merit re-reading passages!

Rosemary Gemmell said...

Thanks for commenting, Maggie - you'll know all about that writer/agent/publisher dynamic!

Talli Roland said...

Having lived in Poland for two years, I'd love to read Catherine's novel! Best of luck to her.

Jean Bull said...

The Amber Heart sounds lovely.
My husband was going to publish a non-fiction book, even got to the point of rights almost being discussed at the Frankfurt Book Fair, (I felt really jealous!) but the publisher wanted him to make such fundamental changes, that he didn't go ahead.
Sarah Duncan's blog today is on a similar vein, emphasizing that 'It's YOUR book'.
So good luck with your self-publishing, Catherine!

Diane Fordham said...

Congrats Catherine and Rosemary what an interview! Well done x

Rosemary Gemmell said...

Thanks for visiting, Talli - interesting that you lived in Poland.

Thanks for that comment, Jean - interesting!

Many thanks, Diane!

Paula Martin said...

Great interview, and I am in awe of Catherine's versatility, and amazed by the research she did for her novel which sounds fascinating.

Rosemary Gemmell said...

Hi Paula - and everything she writes works well in each genre!

Catherine Czerkawska said...

I'm blushing now! But I think in many ways that has been part of my problem. Publishers and agents like you to pick a genre and stick to it. They say that's what readers like, but I'm not sure I believe them.

Chris Longmuir said...

Catherine is a marvellous writer and her success has been hard earned. Good luck with the new book, Catherine, and thanks for giving us the interview, Rosemary.

Erin O'Quinn said...

That was a well-done interview centering on a magnetic personality. I wish I ccould be as versatile, and as dedicated, as Catherine. All best wishes to her for a continued bright future. Sorry I'm a day late with my comments.

Slán, Erin

Catherine Czerkawska said...

Thank-you to everyone for lovely comments - and thank-you to Rosemary for giving me space on her excellent blog!

Rosemary Gemmell said...

Hi Chris - thanks for that comment!

Hi Erin - thanks for dropping in and commenting. Never too late!

It's been lovely having you here, Catherine. Wishing you continued great success!

Jenny Harper said...

Thanks for a great interview, Rosemary and Catherine. I have downloaded The Amber Heart and I'm very much looking forward to reading it.

Rosemary Gemmell said...

Hi Jenny - thanks for leaving a comment!