Instructor Q&A: Katherine Catmull

Being confined to What Could Really Happen feels as confining to me as being allowed no figures of speech.”

-Katherine Catmull

Katherine Catmull is the author of Summer and Bird (Dutton Young Readers/Penguin), one of Booklist’s 2012 Top Ten First Novels for Youth and a TLA Spirit of Texas Reading pick for 2014-2015. Her YA fantasy, The Radiant Road, was released by Dutton earlier this year and has already received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and School Library Journal. She is one of four co-authors of The Cabinet of Curiosities (Greenwillow/HarperCollins, 2014), a collection of scary short stories. Catmull is also an actor, freelance arts writer, and a produced and published playwright.

Katherine is teaching a class for the Writers’ League Called “Magic Words: The Art of Writing the Unreal” on Saturday, April 16, 2016 at St. Edward’s University. Read the interview below and visit the class page to learn more.


Katherine Catmull headshotScribe:
How did you begin writing speculative fiction? How would you categorize your own writing? Would you say you have a “genre of your own”?

Katherine Catmull: My genre is probably on some line between light fantasy and magic realism—Summer and Bird more the latter, The Radiant Road more the former. And of course, for The Cabinet of Curiosities I was writing teen/tween horror.

What they all have in common is my preference for magic/fantasy elements that feel like they spring organically out of our shared reality, if that makes sense.

For me writing speculative fiction is a natural extension of writing metaphor. I can write “her heart leapt into her throat.” So why can’t I follow it through—push it even further, if it helps tell the story? “Her heart leapt into her throat, straining its small wings there. In one strong throb, it was in her mouth; then out; then disappearing into the blue like a small, shining red bird.” (I just made that up on the fly—but you get the idea.)

Being confined to What Could Really Happen feels as confining to me as being allowed no figures of speech.

Scribe: When you write, what is your favorite way of creating a living, breathing new world?

KC: To start very tiny: the quality of the light on a stone, or air on your skin. The colors of what’s around you right now. What things smell like. What your character feels like inside her skin in this moment. That’s how readers’ bodies and minds work together to assemble a world, with tiny sensory input like that.

The other great advantage to starting tiny is that you can make your world’s ecology develop naturally, so that each element of your world derives naturally from the others, and they all support each other. You get a richer, more immersive, truer-seeming world that way.

It’s also more fun and less intimidating to start small.

Scribe: How do you personally deal with fantasy clichés? Have you struggled? Have you made one of them your own?

KC: I am constantly stealing and pocketing fantasy clichés. Swan maidens, phoenixes, fairies, wise owls—you name the cliché, I’ve probably at least played around with it.

And of course I like to think I’ve made them my own, though that’s not for me to judge. But what seems to help me is not to just write the idea of a swan maiden, but the reality: What is it LIKE to be a swan maiden—or to be in love with one? What does it feel like physically, emotionally? What are the repercussions?

It’s back to tininess again. Force yourself to make a million tiny individual decisions about each fantasy cliché, instead of just grabbing one off the shelf and shoving it in to your narrative. It’s that layering of a thousand small decisions made by your own true and unique heart that will get you somewhere interesting and authentic.

Scribe: Your second novel, The Radiant Road, was recently released. Congratulations! What challenges did you have with this book that you didn’t have with Summer and Bird? Conversely, what was easier in creating The Radiant Road as compared to Summer and Bird?

KC: What was easier was that I had a slightly better grasp on how publishing works—how slowly the wheels turn, how many books are released every month, how hard it is to make an impact. In other words I was slightly saner about the whole thing, compared to my wild-eyed first-time-novelist self. With my first book, publication felt like crossing a threshold, arriving at a new world. And maybe it was, in some ways. But that new world just had more of the same road to walk down. It’s the road you have to love, and I do.

What was harder—I think all books are hard in their own peculiar ways. So far, they don’t seem to get easier exactly—except that knowing that they don’t get easier makes it easier, in some ways.

While I was writing The Radiant Road I’d occasionally be at a school doing a reading from Summer and Bird and feel bewildered: how did I do that? This is a real book! I’ve forgotten how to make that happen!

I’m working on a third book now and the same thing happens if I look at The Radiant Road. It’s like someone else wrote it. Every book is its own crazy irascible challenge.

Thanks, Katherine!

Click here to register for Katherine’s class.

Click here for our current class schedule.

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