Interview With Cathy Bryant
Cathy Bryant worked as a life model, civil servant and childminder before becoming a professional writer. She has won fourteen literary awards, and her work has appeared in over 200 publications. Cathy has had two poetry collections published: Contains Strong Language and Scenes of a Sexual Nature (Puppywolf, 2010) and Look at All the Women (Mother’s Milk, 2014). She co-edited Best of Manchester Poets vols. 1-3, and Cathy’s latest book is the novelPride and Regicide, (Crooked Cat, 2015). See more at www.cathybryant.co.ukand see Cathy’s monthly listings for financially-challenged writers at www.compsandcalls.com She lives in Cheshire, UK.
You say you’ve been writing since you were 12, how has your writing changed since then?
My first MS was submitted to a publisher at 12, but I wrote before that as far back as I can remember. I think I made every mistake in the book back then, from over-use of adverbs to clichéd plots! If you go to any ‘what not to do as a writer’ article you’ll see exactly what I did, as I’m one of those people who learns by making mistakes, and lots of them. I’ve learned to write for my pleasure but to edit and submit thinking of readers and editors—why should they like this piece? What am I trying to convey to people? Is there a way of showing this rather than telling it? The great flash fiction master Calum Kerr recently wrote, ‘Some stories are descriptions of stories rather than the stories themselves’, and Terry Pratchett said that a first draft was the author telling him or herself the story. That’s very true, and it’s something one needs to learn to move on from—to learn to edit and develop a piece.
Where do you find your inspiration?
I find inspiration everywhere. I’m lucky that I write both poetry and fiction, so anything that strikes me can usually be written into one or the other. My chldhood is a source of gritty fiction, my lazy daydreams are a source of fantasy and science fiction, and any passing thought or idea can wind up in a poem. Misspellings and mispronunciations can be interesting prompts—Neil Gaiman got the idea for ‘Coraline’ when he misspelled ‘Caroline’.
How do you fit writing into your everyday life? Is it a case of life revolves around your writing, or writing revolves around life?
When I’m well enough—usually the mornings, as my fibromyalgia kicks in later—I go to work and sit in my desk in our ‘office’ (a tiny boxroom, but it works!). That’s usually my time for editing, submitting, doing accounts and that sort of thing. The creative stuff I usually do in the evening or later in bed: that’s when the ideas seem to flow best for me. Every writer is different and the trick is to find what works best for you, however weird it may seem.
When you’re not feeling inspired but need to write, what do you do?
That’s when writing exercises, prompts, themed competition deadlines or submission calls can come in handy. I’ll just sit and have a go, even if I’m not really feeling it. It keeps the writing muscles active, and often results in better work than you might expect. Another good ploy is to flick through old notebooks—the story I didn’t finish because I didn’t have time, the idea for a great article, the beginning of an interesting poem: they’re all in there and I just have to hunt! I try to regard it as playing rather than work. I just muddle around with ideas until one of them sticks.
Who are your biggest inspirations (writers or otherwise)?
The thousands of writers whose books I’ve loved. I’ll pick out a few, but really, the whole power and joy of reading has added worlds to my life.
For prose, the recently deceased and much lamented Tanith Lee. I admire her in so many ways—for her luminous prose, her wild poems, and particularly her drive to write. She wrote over 93 books of horror, romance, fantasy, science fiction, YA, historical fiction, poetry, short stories, TV scripts. You name it, she’d write it with brilliance and originality. She opened up worlds to me.
For poetry, Sylvia Plath, whose poem ‘Daddy’ hit me between the eyes when I was a teenager. Poetry can do this? Wow…I was hooked. She’s so good technically as well as emotionally.
My brother had Isaac Asimov’s books The Early Asimov when I was little, and in them I read about sending stories to magazines and getting rejections and the odd cheque. It was fascinating, and something I longed to do. Asimov taught me logical thinking and basic plot structure, too.
Jane Austen taught me wit: the power of delight and energy.
Tove Jansson taught me to have fun ignoring limits.
My writer friends, too many to name, have taught me everything about how to be writers and how to be human beings. I’m very luck in my friendships.
My husband, a professional writer and publisher who has made his living from writing (and nothing else) since leaving university, taught me how to be professional—how to go to work systematically.
These people have all inspired me in different ways. Without them I’d probably be utterly miserable in a job (and life) I hated.
Are there any genres/mediums you haven’t written but would like to?
Loads! I’ve just dipped my toe into nonfiction recently, starting with articles and then with my latest book, How to Win Writing Competitions. I have no more writing talent than hundreds of my friends, but I’ve won fourteen literary awards and writing competitions. I thought about the reasons for that, and what changed since the days when I won nothing, and wrote it all down into a simple system. I’m really hoping that it will help others to achieve the success that they want and deserve.
I’d also love to write plays and film scripts. I’ve written poetry, science fiction, fantasy, horror, historical fiction, literary fiction, gritty urban fiction and various other things, and I find that each genre adds something to my writing.
Are there any topics/genres you used to write that you no longer do? What changed?
I used to write a lot of horror, but that’s tailed off in recent years. I’m not sure why; it may be just that I’m concentrating on other projects—I do like to try as many different genres as possible. Perhaps I should do some horror writing exercises—always fun and spooky!
What’s your favourite topic to write about?
Anything and everything. I’m sorry not to be more specific, but one day I’ll find myself writing a personal ad for a 500-year-old dragon and the next I’m writing a detective novel featuring Mary Bennett, one of the sisters left unmarried at the end of Pride and Prejudice. If there is a link between my works, it’s the jolt between what people expect and believe and what actually happens. Sometimes that jolt is funny, sometimes it’s horrifying. In either case, there’s a story or poem there.
What about your least?
It’s hard to make politics interesting, and I have enormous admiration for those writers who can make political themes strong and un-preachy. I’ve written a lot of feminist pieces, but I do have to rein in my soapbox rantings. It’s difficult to make a point without resporting to dreary polemic. If a political angle creeps into a poem or story then that’s great, but I’ve rarely been successful with an all-out political piece. One exception is my poem ‘Caleb Hollow’s Room’, about the Bedroom Tax, which was highly commended in last year’s Mother’s Milk Poetry Competition.
What do you find the hardest things to write about?
I struggle to write about happy families and loving parents. My childhood was unhappy, and whenever I try to write about a terrific dad or a great family experience then the writing becomes stilted and flat. I’m not sure what I can do about that, though I have got some great horror stories out of failed attempts to write about loving families!
How do you handle negative criticism/reviews?
With difficulty, though I’m getting better! On the one hand, negative but constructive criticism before publication can be really helpful and I welcome it. A bad review, however, can be very depressing, especially if it’s down to a misunderstanding about the work. I don’t mind people who don’t like a book, but if they’re rude and lazy then it can be very irritating! There’s a wonderful article making fun of silly reviewers that can make me feel better on a bad day!
I once wrote a scathing review of a famous writer’s book. She emailed me very politely that same day, thanking me, taking some of my points into consideration and being so lovely and humble that I felt a total heel! I’ve been a bit more circumspect since then.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?
Let yourself write bad first drafts. Have a go. Don’t decide that you can only write certain things. Don’t let rejections get you down. Care about what you write. Don’t try to create and edit at the same time. It’s fine to make mistakes. Oh, if I could only go back twenty years and tell myself those things!
What was Neil’s reaction when you helped him fulfil his new year’s resolution?
He was so happy and proud of me! He says it had driven him up the wall watching me come up against the no-confidence barrier when he knew that it was stopping me from achieving something I wanted and could do. I’d had no idea. I’d thought that I was useless and shouldn’t write.
What are you currently working on?
I have a book that’s just come out: How to Win Writing Competitions (and make money) which can be found on Amazon and Puppywolf, so I’m very busy promoting that! Then there’s Pride and Regicide (a Mary Bennett mystery) due out at the end of the year from Crooked Cat.
I plan to write the sequel to Pride and Regicide for NaNoWriMo in November, so at the moment I’m really concentrating on poetry, as I know I’ll miss it when I’m working on all that prose. Life is wonderfully busy and I feel very lucky!