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Tuesday, 13 August 2013
Author interview no.688 with mystery writer Catherine Astolfo
Back in July 2013, I interviewed author Catherine Astolfo for my WordPress blog. I hope you enjoy it...
Welcome to the six hundred and eighty-eighth of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, biographers, agents, publishers and more. Today’s is with mystery novelist and interviewee (October 2011) Catherine Astolfo. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate further.
Morgen: Hello, Catherine. Please tell us something about yourself, where you’re based, and how you came to be a writer.
Catherine: Hi, Morgen! I’m from a medium-sized city in Canada, located near Toronto, Ontario. Growing up, the city was a small town, and we had characters galore. My mother always told us lovely stories about her life on a farm. Thus I had a rich upbringing in creativity. As soon as I could put pencil to paper, I started writing stories. First, fairy tales for my classmates, then short stories for my sisters and cousins. I have the feeling that I was born a writer.
Morgen: How lovely. I read a lot when I was younger (and Stephen King in my teens) but it didn’t occur to me that it was a profession I could do until I went to evening classes January 2005). What genre do you generally write and have you considered other genres?
Catherine: I write mysteries. Lately, there is a new sub-genre that’s being bandied about in North America at least: the literary mystery. Much as I dislike the term “literary”, I must say that I am happy at last to have a category for my books. One literary agent said that the plots of literary mysteries are “underneath the surface”. The characters take the front seat. The vocabulary tends to be somewhat more extensive and the focus is on the personalities involved. The reader learns something about the human condition through the stories. In addition to solving a puzzle, of course. My current novel, Sweet Karoline, can also be classed as a psychological thriller: the unreliable narrator; the underlying feeling that we’re not being told everything. I have considered other genres, especially the general literary one. In fact, I have an outline for a future book that follows a couple of generations of women.
Morgen: I’ve always thought of literary as being a genre that are more poetic than other genres (and where non-genre books fit)… no doubt I’ll have readers tell me otherwise! What have you had published to-date? Do you write under a pseudonym?
Catherine: I have had four mystery novels and several short stories published so far. On July 14, 2013, the fifth book, Sweet Karoline, debuted. My publisher is an independent Canadian company from Edmonton, Alberta. My short stories have appeared in such publications as NorthWord Literary Magazine. In fact, “What Kelly Did” won the 2012 Arthur Ellis Award for Best Short Story in Canada. I don’t use a pseudonym, although I have considered using my maiden name for a future book that’s not in the mystery genre.
Morgen: Some authors do to avoid their avid fans expecting one book but reading another (although looking at the jacket blurb would help) but I’ve always written a bit of everything so I don’t have to another name (it is hard enough to get one noticed!). Have you self-published? If so, what led to you going your own way?
Catherine: As a matter of fact, I self-published my Emily Taylor mystery novels first, before I acquired a contract with Imajin Books for all four of them. I was a bit impatient initially and am grateful to Imajin for taking a chance on a series that had already done the “soft sell” (i.e. to family, colleagues, friends). Emily Taylor has faired much better with Imajin’s brilliant marketing skills. There are, however, lots of pros to self-publishing, too. I think we’ll see more authors going that route as electronic channels make the process easier. Of course, there are cons to all of that, too. But if a writer has a good product, something that readers identify with, popularity will follow no matter which route the author took.
Morgen: It’s certainly a hard slog with no one else in your corner – I think why people are so grateful to have this platform. Are your books available as eBooks? How involved were you in that process? Do you read eBooks or is it paper all the way?
Catherine: All of my books are available as eBooks. Fortunately, my publisher does all the work in that area, because I’d be lost. However, I do read eBooks. I love my Kindle. Mostly because I have very little room left on my shelves, I am happy to store up to 1000 novels in one slim package. It’s also very convenient when we travel. I no longer use up all the weight in my suitcase with books. Having said all that, I still buy paperbacks too, especially when I can have them signed at a reading. I’m happy that the Emily Taylor Mysteries and Sweet Karoline are available in both formats.
Morgen: I’ve just uploaded four collections of short stories (with another two on their way) and it’s really not that difficult but then I’ve done a few now. I also have a guide on how to eBook. Designing covers is possibly the most fun bit, next to writing of course. Do you have a favourite of your books or characters? If any of your books were made into films, who would you have as the leading actor/s?
Catherine: I love Sweet Karoline (don’t tell the Emily Taylors I said that). I believe it’s my best work to date. Although I also love Emily, I have a feeling that Karoline is going to be even more popular. It’s such a hybrid: mystery, romance, history, psychological thriller. So far, among an eclectic bunch of first readers, it has appealed to everyone. Emily might be a bit more oriented toward a mature female audience. For Sweet Karoline, the lead character is Anne. I really want Halle Berry to play her in the movie! Although Halle’s a bit older than Anne, I’m sure she could pull it off; she’s who I picture when I think of that character. As for Emily, I’d pick Jonny Lee Miller to be her husband Langford.
Morgen: An interesting pair. I’d definitely go and see it. Which authors did you read when you were younger and did they shape you as a writer?
Catherine: I am a voracious reader and always have been. My absolute favourite authors are John Steinbeck and Margaret Laurence. Their writing is so rich and complex and beautiful. I know they shaped me as a writer, because as a reader, I am fond of description, multifaceted characters and remarkable settings. I think authors tend to write what they like to read, so although I don’t pretend to reach the heights of a Steinbeck or a Laurence, I strive to emulate them.
Morgen: We do have our own voices but as I’ve been told many times, we have to be readers as well as writers. Did you choose the titles / covers of your books?
Catherine: Imajin Books is an incredibly inclusive publisher. I did choose the titles. As well, I had a lot of input into the covers. Ryan Doan is the cover designer for Imajin and I am always blown away by his images, colour and motif for each of my novels.
Morgen: It’s a great cover. What are you working on at the moment / next?
Catherine: At the moment, I’m working on a short story for the Mesdames of Mayhem Anthology, a Young / Adult mystery novel, and a cozy called Nosy Rosie. I’m beyond busy, but I must like it that way, since it tends to be my state of being.
Morgen: It’s one I’ve got used to too, although it certainly beats having a day job (although I’ll be teaching creative writing locally from next January so it doesn’t give me long to get everything done that I want to get done – see earlier reference to eBooking and add in six unpublished novels). Do you manage to write every day, or ever suffer from writer’s block?
Catherine: I do manage to write every day, but I have to confess that sometimes the writing is a blog, or an interview like this one, or a whole bunch of creative tweets. As for the novel writing, I do sometimes suffer from writer’s block. I try to work through it by just doing it, as the saying goes. I simply start putting down words. Then I sift through the junk to find the nuggets and follow the flow from there.
Morgen: Just doing it works for me. :) Do you plot your stories or do you just get an idea and run with it?
Catherine: I do a bit of both. I always have an outline. The thing is, my plotlines tend to change fairly often because I do run with an idea that pops up. I consider my plot graphs works-in-progress or living things, because they’re always going off in different directions. It’s spooky sometimes when a character takes the wheel and drives off on another road. Usually I follow them because I have no choice.
Morgen: I love it when they do that. Do you have a method for creating your characters, their names and what do you think makes them believable?
Catherine: I create my characters from bits of me, my family, friends, strangers on a bus. I love a t-shirt slogan that I saw recently: Careful what you say, you might end up in my next novel. Usually, however, my characters are combinations, exaggeration and imagination, so they turn out to be their own personalities and not copies of a living being. Often I get their names from obituaries. Seriously. I read through the newspaper and make different blends of first and surnames. What makes my characters believable is their humanity, their emotions and reactions to extraordinary circumstances. Sometimes their profession helps readers connect with them (for instance, Emily Taylor is an elementary school principal). Essentially, though, I think it’s the trick of infusing fictional people with realistic feelings, dialogue and actions.
Morgen: I have the same t-shirt! Do you do a lot of editing or do you find that as time goes on your writing is more fully-formed?
Catherine: I’ve had both experiences. Often I do a lot of editing as I move forward. This happens particularly when I’m working through a block, because sometimes the work isn’t at its best – the words were flung into the stream to break the logjam. Other times I cook the scene in my head for ages. I repeat the phrases over and over until they spill full-formed onto the page. Whenever you catch me with a vacant stare, it’s probably because I’m writing a scene in my head. At least, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
Morgen: The joy of being a writer is that when we’re staring out the window, we can say we’re working and mean it. Do you have to do much research?
Catherine: That depends on the book. Sometimes I know right from the beginning that this particular novel is going to require a lot more research than others. For instance, a section of Sweet Karoline is based on a family myth about my children’s ancestors and their connection with Joseph Brant. I knew I had to – and wanted to – do a lot of research into that history. Other times, the research is a surprise. For The Bridgeman, I realized suddenly that of course I would have to find out about lift bridges and puppy mills before I could write about those topics with any authority. In order to be realistic, novels require some level of inquiry. Even though I adhere to the adage not to let the facts get in the way of a good story, there must be a sense of realism or the reader will be unhappy.
Morgen: You do have to get it right because there will always be someone out there who is an expert in something and be only too glad to tell you. What point of view do you find most to your liking: first person or third person? Have you ever tried second person?
Catherine: I am most fond of first person, though I’ve used third and very often mixed the two within one novel. I’ve never tried second person, but I think it would be intriguing and incredibly challenging. Maybe I’ll attempt it one day. I have to add that I also use present tense a great deal, which some readers might not like so much at first. But I believe it adds an extra dimension of that “in the moment” quality. Akin to using first person, the reader is drawn into the story as though they are experiencing the action up close and personally – and right now.
Morgen: Second-person is my favourite but even I’d not recommend it for anything longer than short stories. It’s very tiring to write and read, and most editors don’t like it, which is a shame. Do you write any poetry, non-fiction or short stories?
Catherine: I do write poetry and short stories, but I’ve never tried non-fiction. I have a feeling the research for the latter would do me in. My imagination would simply not allow me to be so factual. My poetry days are somewhat behind me, though now and then I jot down song lyrics, which are very poetic. No one has put them to music yet though. Elton John hasn’t coming knocking lately. Short stories still appear every once in a while, usually when I’m writing a piece for a contest or an anthology. I am partial to the challenge of choosing exactly the right words, being succinct but thorough and precise. It’s a terrific, skill-testing exercise for a writer.
Morgen: It certainly is. I write a short story a day for my blog’s 5pm Fiction slot and it’s great discipline to keep it tight. Do you have pieces of work that you think will never see light of day?
Catherine: Absolutely! Some of my song-lyric poetry will probably never be unearthed. And likely should not be. There are also some short stories and book outlines that may never make it either. Some of that will be as result of the “so much to write about and so little time” syndrome.
Morgen: Oh yes, I know that feeling. I’ll never run out of ideas… even at one a day! Have you had any rejections? If so, how do you deal with them?
Catherine: I’ve had lots. Here I’m including very mean reviews as rejections! How I deal with them depends very much on my state of mind. A cruel review can send me into a spin or make me doubt myself. I can suffer from writer insecurity. Usually, however, I dig into my inner resources and carry on. I highly doubt that anything, any kind of rejection, could stop me from writing entirely. When the rejection happens, my advice is to own it, wallow a little if you must, then pick yourself up and keep going forward. It helps when you do a little research and discover just how many very successful authors were, at first, turned down many times.
Morgen: I had one lady on Goodreads love one of my free eShorts (April’s Fool, from memory) then read another (Feeding the Father) and hated it so much she vowed never to read anything by me again. It stung for about 10 seconds but then I found it quite amusing that something (which was actually based on a true story – I was tempted to ask her if she wanted to see the article) could get that reaction. I clicked on the ‘like’ button. :) Do you enter competitions? Are there any you could recommend?
Catherine: I have entered competitions. I think they’re good for the soul, even if you don’t “win”. The excitement before announcements can be inspiring. If you do get a win or a mention, it’s one of the best thrills ever. As a Canadian mystery writer, I have entered the Bloody Words Bony Pete short story competition and the Arthur Ellis Awards. For both, I was a runner-up or winner. I have also entered CBC (Canada Writes) contests (haven’t won any of those yet). Oh and Britain’s Debut Dagger – which I also didn’t win.
Morgen: Congratulations / commiserations. I’ve had a mixed bag too, but you just have to keep going, don’t you. Do you have an agent? Do you think they’re vital to an author’s success?
Catherine: I don’t have an agent, though I do have a casting director / producer who represents my books to filmmakers. I would love to have an agent, but in Canada, that’s like winning a lottery. With my current publisher, an agent is not vital to my success. I just have to hope Imajin Books never leaves me!
Morgen: It’s the same in the UK. Do you do much marketing for your published works or indeed for yourself as a ‘brand’?
Catherine: I spend an enormous amount of time on marketing. Online social networks, bookstore/library appearances, readings, launch parties, virtual book tours – every avenue I can to market my published works. As for my ‘brand’, that’s an approach that I would like to pursue once my novels reach a bigger audience. I’d love readers to say, “Have you bought the latest Catherine Astolfo yet?”
Morgen: And for them to say, “yes”. :) What’s your favourite / least favourite aspect of your writing life? Has anything surprised you?
Catherine: My favourite part of the writing life is when the subconscious takes over and I am zinging along, my fingers flying over the keyboard. The inspiration and plot are in sync and I can’t type fast enough. My least favourite is when that’s not happening and I feel as though I am forcing it. I would also say that, aside from the actual writing process, my least favourite part of the life is the marketing. I am often uncomfortable trying to sell myself and my product, though I still do it, of course. I am often surprised by how humbling it is when people come up to me and speak about one of my books. They tell me how moved they were, or how they laughed or cried at particular points. I just want to burst with joy, yet at the same time I feel grateful that I was given this tremendous gift.
Morgen: Two answers most interviewees have given, and what I’d say myself. What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Catherine: Keep writing. Despite setbacks or criticism or self-doubt, just keep doing it. (If you are a “real” author, you won’t be able to stop anyway.) But it’s perseverance, determination and commitment that will make the difference between wish and fulfilment. In this day of e-publishing, go for it. If no publisher recognizes the worth of your novel, go ahead and put it out there to the reading public. Ask them to decide.
Morgen: That makes me a ‘real’ author. I can’t imagine doing anything else, and being paid to teach it is the cherry on the cake (no icing, I’m on a diet!). If you could invite three people from any era to dinner, who would you choose and what would you cook (or hide the takeaway containers)?
Catherine: I would love to invite Margaret Laurence, John Steinbeck and Brad Pitt to dinner. I’d go to my local Italian restaurant and get pasta for take-out. I’d buy some carrot cake from our nearby bakery. Then I’d add wine! That would be the perfect evening – scintillating conversation and something delicious to eat – as well as look at.
Morgen: Brad Pitt (minus the beard). :) Are you involved in anything else writing-related other than actual writing or marketing of your writing?
Catherine: I belong to Sisters in Crime, the Toronto branch, Crime Writers of Canada, the Bloody Words Conference gang, the Toronto Writers Union of Canada and PEN. I do a lot of different things with each organization.
Morgen: We have a Sisters in Crime here in the UK but I’ve yet to join, probably will next year when the cashflow’s a bit healthier. Are there any writing-related websites and / or books that you find useful?
Catherine: Although for mystery writers mostly, www.crimewriterscanada.com is filled with authors, speakers for hire, and lots of interesting tidbits. The world literary café is marvelous for authors, but readers too www.worldliterarycafe.com. The following are terrific for author marketing and networking: Book Bub www.bookbub.com, Goodreads www.goodreads.com and 49th Shelf (for Canadians): www.49thshelf.com. Book blogs http://bookblogs.ning.com provides lots of good tips. There are hundreds out there, so google your genre and you’ll find a zillion great tips on writing. On my bookshelf you will find Forensics for Dummies, Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg and Write Away by Elizabeth George.
Morgen: I love the sound of ‘Forensics for Dummies’. I’ve avoided getting too technical so far, that sounds my kind of book, and the series are great. Are you on any forums or networking sites? If so, how valuable do you find them?
Catherine: I am on sooo many forums and networking sites! Google+, Blogger, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Tumblr, Shelfari, BookBlogs, World Literary Café, Goodreads… I could probably go on and on. I find social networking extremely useful, not only for my own learning, but for promotion purposes as well. I have established some great “relationships” and have been introduced to tons of great books.
Morgen: I get a list of 100+ free eBooks every day and can’t keep up with them all. The joy of Amazon’s Select programme (which I’ve just joined for the collections and will probably have a go with the novels when they’re ready – 90 days exclusivity isn’t long in the scheme of things). What do you think the future holds for a writer?
Catherine: I truly think the future is exciting. I believe that ebooks and printed books will level out with one another. While ereaders are convenient, they will never replace the tactile joy of a paperback. “Vanity press” will disappear as a limiting stamp and more authors will be able to invest in their own talent without being disparaged. Quality will be determined by the readers and buyers, so as authors we’ll be successful if we produce great books. With social media, we can reach out to those readers so much easier and to a wider audience than ever before. How’s that for a rosy outlook?
Morgen: Isn’t it. I can’t wait (not wishing my time away). Where can we find out about you and your writing?
Catherine: The best place to go is to my website. I’ve got all my links to my books as well as to my blog and other networks. Please visit! I absolutely love to hear from readers and fans. www.catherineastolfo.com.
Morgen: Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
Catherine: Since one of the greatest joys for a writer is feedback, I encourage your readers to write reviews for their favorite authors. As a writer, I’m interested in your reaction to my novel. This is your opportunity to write two or three sentences giving your opinion. You are not bound by the old rules of book reviews that you might have learned in school. You are relieved of the summary task! You don’t have to prove any expert literary skill to anyone, although you may want to demonstrate correct spelling and grammar to be taken seriously. Your only goal is to tell other readers what you thought of, reacted to or how you felt about this particular book. I’d also love emails from my fans! My email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Morgen: I’ve been very fortunate with reviews of my books / shorts – apart from Goodreads, they’re a tough crowd. :) Is there anything you’d like to ask me?
Catherine: Yes! How’s your book coming along?
Morgen: :) I’ve written seven altogether but only one (my chick-lit, The Serial Dater’s Shopping List) is online but once the final two collections (Story a Day May 2012 and 2013 – woefully overdue!) are up, hopefully in the next few days, then it’s on to the other novels, one of which needs some minor tweaking then it’ll either go up as an eBook or do the agent hunt. So, busy, busy. Thank you, Catherine. It’s been great chatting with you again.
You can read my earlier interview with Catherine here.
I then invited Catherine to include a sample of her writing and this is an excerpt from Sweet Karoline…
I met Ethan on the day that I killed Karoline.
Other than a few minor adjustments, I believe that I have handled her murder well.
The state of my car, for instance, has become something of a nuisance. Bits of tissue, used napkins, paper cups and pop cans litter the floor at my feet or fly out the window as I drive along. I am subjected to honking whenever I reach a red light.
People these days have no patience. They ought to understand that I am busy examining the stray bits in my car. Some of them are works of art. I don’t notice the change to green because they are so infinitely interesting.
This study of creative possibilities has become somewhat of an obsession. In the back of my mind I know that all I have to do is clean it up. Yet the thought of actually tackling the onslaught of debris leaves me inert and helpless.
Ethan offered recently to take me to the car wash. He’d help me dump the debris and vacuum the inside, but I have seriously considered the idea that I may be destroying a future Picasso. I have thus far refused his proposition. Not that I have shared my vision of a Picasso with him, of course. I just say that I never have time.
I have acquired a habit of going shopping. I make lists of things in my mind —groceries, toiletries, cosmetics, medicines, vitamins or clothing—that seem absolutely essential to the arrival of tomorrow. But once inside the pharmacy, the clothing store or the shopping center, the bright lights mesmerize me. My eyes blur and I can’t for the life of me remember what I have come for.
When I do buy something, I am left vaguely dissatisfied, certain that I could have gotten a better bargain somewhere else. Depressed because I had to use my credit card again and this purchase will become just one more thing to do. Write the check. Buy the stamp. Walk to the post box. Mail the envelope.
The little, unfinished things do sometimes bother me. Dirty laundry is piled up in the closet. The bed is always unmade. In the bathroom the ceiling is slowly cracking from some unspecified leak that I have failed to report to the superintendent. The drapes in the living room neither open nor close.
At first I tended to watch television all night long, despite the fact that the next day I was a zombie. After I decided to go on an extended sick leave, it didn’t matter. I started to sleep all night and all day, never moving unless forced to by some phone call or knock at the door.
And a synopsis of the same book…
“I met Ethan on the day that I killed Karoline.” But is Anne Williams really a murderer? Or was her best friend’s death a tragic accident for which Anne blames herself?
This compelling central character embarks on a rollercoaster ride of self-exploration that causes the reader to breathlessly follow her. Throughout an emotional breakdown in the present, sprinkled with flashes of the past that brought her to this point, Anne questions her own decisions, her lifestyle, and those of the friend she thought she knew.
The gripping twists of Karoline’s duplicity are vicious and deplorable. Entangled in the arms of the homicide detective who helped rule the case a suicide, Anne learns about love and decides to trace her complicated past. The journey uncovers dark family secrets, an unusual history, and criminal treachery. Anne must answer the classic question, “Who am I?” amidst a backdrop of racial tension, lies and hidden chronicles. Eventually she has to confront a deadly threat before the entire story becomes clear. Can she survive this maelstrom of revelation and betrayal with her sanity intact?
Catherine Astolfo is the author of The Emily Taylor Mysteries, published by Imajin Books. In 2012, she won the Arthur Ellis Award for Best Short Crime Story in Canada. She’s a Past President and Derrick Murdoch Award winner for service to Crime Writers of Canada. Her new novel, Sweet Karoline, was released on July 14, 2013. Find it here, at a reduced price for a short time: www.catherineastolfo.com. Sweet Karoline is also available via http://www.amazon.com/Sweet-Karoline-ebook/dp/B00DUIDMKO and http://www.amazon.co.uk/Sweet-Karoline-ebook/dp/B00DUIDMKO.
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