Interview with Catherine Banner - Part One

The View From Here Interview:
Catherine Banner

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by Jen

Catherine started writing her first book, The Eyes of a King, when she was just 14 years old, and its publication in 2008 drew vast media attention for the then 19-year old, hailed as the next J. K. Rowling. Random House signed Catherine for a three book deal. Rights to Catherine’s books have been sold to 13 countries around the world and the book is already a bestseller in the UK. Catherine lives in Cambridge and is reading English at University. Her second book, Voices in the Dark has just been released by Corgi, an imprint of Random House.

Tell me a bit about when you started writing. When you finished your first book what made you send it to former Children’s Laureate, Michael Morpurgo?
I started writing The Eyes of a King almost by chance. I didn’t plan to write a book at first, but the story kept developing over a couple of years and it ended up turning into one. Michael Morpurgo was an author I’d admired while I was growing up, and I knew he did a lot to encourage young people in writing. So I sent him a few pages and asked, if he had time, if he would mind reading some of it. I was surprised and very grateful that he did. He sent me some encouraging words, which were part of the reason I continued writing.

Did you show your family or friends your writing when you began?
I didn’t tell anyone much about the book until it was finished. I still don’t show what I’m working on to anyone until I’ve finished a draft. It’s mainly because the story tends to evaporate if I tell other people about it, almost like it’s been written already. My family and friends were very encouraging, which I especially appreciated since they didn’t know anything about the book.

You are represented by the agent Simon Trewin. Many authors would be nervous meeting a well known agent. Did you know who he was when you met?
I knew who Simon was, but I wasn’t considering sending him the book when I first met him, so I suppose that made it less daunting. He’s also a kind and approachable person. I first met him at a talk about writing, in Cambridge. Afterwards I went up and asked a question about some of the things he’d been speaking about. He asked if I wrote, and when I said yes, he suggested I could send him some pages – a few other people who had been at the talk were also sending him their work. I wasn’t expecting anything to come of it, but I thought I might get some advice, so I sent them off, and everything happened from there. It turned out to be a very lucky meeting.

How much luck do you think writers need, or do you think you make your own?
I think there was a lot of luck involved in becoming a professional author for me – at least being in the right place at the right time. In terms of writing, luck seems to be right at the heart of it too. Most ideas come to me quite suddenly. I try and think about everything and question everything, and I guess sooner or later stories take shape out of that.

How much do you write in one session?
If I’m working on a first draft I write a large number of words in one sitting because a lot of that work is rough, but then I often put it away once I know the story and start again. A proper draft progresses at a few hundred words a day, or a couple of thousand if the work starts going really well. But I’ll still go back and revise each scene up to ten or twelve times.

Can you take us through the steps behind one of your books getting published? How long does it take to write a book from opening line to final word, the editing, and final submission?
It takes me about two years to write a book right now, though it’s getting longer all the time. Once I finish my draft, I send it to my editor and she sends back comments and impressions. I work on it for another few months using her suggestions – usually she highlights problems or questions, which I then try to solve in whatever way seems fitting with the story. Then the book gets copy-edited and the proofs are printed. The cover design is completed around this point too. After those things are all checked, the publishers print the first advance copies. It’s been exciting to see how many people are involved in turning the manuscript into a book; it’s really a collaboration. The part of writing I enjoy the most is probably the stage when I've planned out the book and can start to write the first proper draft in more detail, because that's when the story starts to come to life and unexpected things happen. But I like all the stages; it's also exciting to work out the first ideas, and to see the book come together at the end.

What edits were you asked to make and how did you deal with them?
Most of the suggestions have been about structure – the balance of different characters and elements, or the pacing of one scene against another. One example of something that came out of the editing process was a cut I made to the first two hundred pages of The Eyes of a King. My editor had suggested they could be streamlined, and highlighted a few parts that seemed less necessary than others. So I went through it several times and it came out much better, a much tougher and more solid story, just from cutting maybe 10 or 12 pages worth of material. I don’t find it as difficult to receive the criticism as I might have expected. My editor’s questions about the books have been really valuable, and they aren’t prescriptive, which is something I really appreciate. One of the first things she said was that her comments were only suggestions. I end up addressing most of them anyway, but sometimes in quite unexpected ways and so it’s a really helpful process. It’s a way of seeing the book with new eyes.

You have grown up in the age of the Internet and web networking. Do you use any web tools as a writer and what would you recommend?
I write mostly on an old laptop with Word 92, and also draft some parts in longhand first. I find it easier to concentrate on the words that way. But I still rely on the kind of corrections you can make with a computer. It makes it easier to move sections around and work on the book as a whole, and I often think about how different the whole process of writing must have been in the past. I don’t have Facebook or Twitter, but my author site will be up and running soon at

Do you rely on spell check and have any pet-typos?
I don’t think my old computer has spell-check – but when I format the book on a modern computer I notice all the mistakes. Anything with double letters perplexes me. I use the word dishevelled about once or twice per book and struggle with it every time.

How do you manage your characters and plot - which comes first? Do you ever find that your characters run away with the story, and if so, what do you do?
For me the characters come first – but really, the characters are the plot. Especially because these three books are the story of a family, and their rise and fall over three generations, so the plot is really about the things they are fighting for and whether they succeed or fail. The characters act unexpectedly quite often. It’s what brings the book to life, so I usually let it happen. But I do a lot of work on the characters first, trying to capture their voices, their ways of thinking, so that when they do take over the story it doesn’t end up going in directions that don’t make any sense. Sometimes spontaneous changes have led to really important parts of the story. One example is the character of Maria. She first appears in The Eyes of a King when the narrator Leo meets her on a flight of stairs. That was exactly how she appeared in the story. I was writing the scene, and saw someone appearing there in my mind’s eye, so I began describing her the way Leo would see her. Her whole character came almost at once, and now she’s really at the heart of the trilogy.

I particularly liked the line in Voices in the Dark, "And if tears signified anything, my brother was baptized a thousand times.” Do you have a favourite line from your two books so far?
I think because I spend so long getting into the characters’ voices, it’s hard to step back and look at the lines. They seem almost inevitable by the time I finish a book. But maybe in five or ten years time I’ll be at more of a distance from the story and will look back and have particular favourites.

The book jackets are striking. Do you get involved in the design process?
I’ve really liked the designs so far too. The publishers ask me about the general design, but apart from that it’s a surprise to see what the artist creates. I think it’s a very different kind of image to the ones that an author has in their mind. But luckily I’ve been very happy with the covers. The designs add a new dimension to the book, so it’s been exciting each time to see the drawings taking shape.

Publishers want more of the same and writers often want to do something different each time. How do you deal with this clash?
I haven’t felt too much of a clash. The books aren’t what you might expect from a trilogy, since the three stories are a long way apart in time and the narratives are personal, not epic. And in addition to that, the books are not quite fantasy and not quite realism, and somewhere between young adult and adult. I’ve found the publishers very respectful of this. I think the expectation about books repeating other books is sometimes more of a problem once they go out into the world. I suppose when people look for shorthand ways of describing a book it ends up being constantly compared to other pieces of work. Ideally, I think, both the author and the publisher would like the book to have space to breathe.

You are now 50% older than you were when you began writing The Eyes of a King. Do you still like inhabiting Malonia?
Malonia has changed as I’ve written about it. Whenever I describe the settings, what I’m really describing is the way the characters inhabit them and try to make sense of their surroundings. I see Malonia as a version of the real world, a kind of possible world where people believe in different things and where their struggles are more on the surface, but where the most fundamental experiences are shared. The setting is one of the things I can see most clearly, but it looks different through the eyes of the three different narrators. So I’ve tried to capture that, and that also makes it interesting to return to.

Your characters all appear to suffer, and there is a fair share of teenage angst. Do you think your character writing has evolved at the same time as your own emotional life has developed?
This is an interesting question. I think it’s true that different problems seem more important to me each time I begin a new book. This is partly the reason each character takes up the story a year older than the last – in The Eyes of a King Leo is 15 at the start, in Voices in the Dark Anselm is 16. And their struggle with the world they inhabit is different each time. But it’s not something that really reflects changes in my own life, because I think I’ve always been trying to describe the same struggles.

“All those years, I thought I was unhappy. I don’t think anymore that I was,” Leo reflects in The Eyes of a King, looking back on his teenage self. How much of yourself do you put into Leo?
I don’t write autobiographically – an important part of the writing for me is trying to see the world through the eyes of a character who has a different viewpoint. I think that’s partly why the three narrators are male too. But I do write about a lot of the things that I feel are of importance. So some of the things the characters care about or think about will be things I’ve thought about too.

Part two will follow on Thursday in which Catherine discusses being hailed as the next J.K. Rowling and how she handles the publicity as one of the most exciting young talents in Britain.
Bibliography: The Last Descendants Trilogy
The Eyes of a King - 9780552556590 (May 2008)
Voices in the Dark - 9780552556613 (March 2010)

Author images courtesy of Simon Trewin.


Part two of this interview can be found here.

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