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Black Static


In Conversation With Cate Gardner

6th Apr, 2012

Author: Peter Tennant

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Back in Black Static #27 I reviewed three works by Cate Gardner, the chapbook Nowhere Hall and the novellas Theatre of Curious Acts and Barbed Wire Hearts, all of which I rather liked, and a while back Cate was kind enough to include us as a blog stop on her Travelling Theatre Tour, so I thought I'd follow all that up by putting some questions to the author.

PT: Okay, you used to write as Catherine J. Gardner (don't deny it - I have all the magazines stashed in the garage), and then you took a break and when you started writing again it was as Cate Gardner, and you seem to be trying to put some distance between yourself and the CJG period. So what made you decide on taking a break and what prompted you to start writing again? And how would you characterise the differences between the work of Cate and Catherine J?

CG: Actually, I returned to the writing fold as Catherine J Gardner and about a year into my return decided as I was known as Cate Gardner on forums, twitter etc that it would make sense to change my writing name to Cate Gardner too. Plus, as an unknown I figured that the chances of getting my name on the cover of an anthology/magazine would increase if I shortened it a little. See, I'm quite tricky.

As for the writing break, I never officially stopped writing. Around 2001, I stopped writing short stories to concentrate on novels (more on this woeful tale later in the interview). At that time, I'd already written four novels and went on to write another two before coming unstuck with a book named Last Seen Drowning. Working at a low-paid job for years had meant that I'd built up quite a bit of debt and to clear it I started selling on eBay. During the eBay years, I intermittently worked on Last Seen Drowning and by intermittently, I mean every few months I'd add a paragraph or two. Although I rarely wrote anymore, I still considered myself a writer until... day I found out a woman at work had written a novel, so I stopped to talk to her about it. At the end of the conversation, I realised that I wasn't a writer anymore and that all the things she was telling me about writing I had once known. As soon as I got home, I threw what remained of my eBay stock away, joined a writer's forum and started to relearn how to write short stories. About six months later, I decided I was ready to start submitting stuff out into the world again.

As for your final question, the work of Catherine J was more gothic romance and supernatural fiction, and Cate is more surreal, whimsical and darker.

PT: You're a very visual writer, with at times an almost painterly style. I've seen your work described as surreal, and I agree. So what I'm wondering is, do you include artists among your list of influences and if so which ones and why do they appeal to you?

CG: I don't. Although, I am determined that Salvador Dali and Edward Gorey will be future influences. However, I often trawl Deviant Art when I'm planning a story, so I'm going to completely ignore my first sentence and say that I often find individual pieces of work over at Deviant Art that I use to spin a tale. No one in particular though.


PT: Both Nowhere Hall and Theatre of Curious Acts have male protagonists (perhaps inevitably in the case of the latter given The Great War setting). Are there any particular challenges for you when it comes to writing from the perspective of a different gender?

CG: Writing male protagonists isn't necessarily more challenging than writing female protagonists (or antagonists) because I am neither that man nor that woman. Does that make sense? They're make believe and thus they are what I make of them, besides, my characters are often very unlike someone you'd meet on the street. I hope.

PT: Staying with the theme of gender for a moment, in a recent guest blog post you talked about the significant contribution women have made to the horror genre. And yet it's a field of writing in which they still appear to be underrepresented. Do you have any thoughts on why the genre doesn't appeal to women writers as much as it does to men? And, from a personal perspective, do you feel being a woman has helped or hindered you as a horror writer? How do you feel your perspective is different from that of your male peers?

CG: Regarding your question as to why the genre doesn't appeal to women writers as much as it does to men, I disagree. I'm sure the horror genre appeals to some women as much as it does to some men. Everyone is different. Some women like horror, some men like horror. Some women like romance, some men like romance. I have no idea of the ratio between female horror writers and male horror writers, but I do know there are plenty of women writing horror.

I wrote the post you mentioned for a friend's blog (Damien Walters Grintalis who has just sold her first novel to Samhain) for Women in Horror month, which, as I said in the post, is something that normally passes me by, and isn't something I'm normally all gung-ho about. Nor was I gung-ho this year. I think it's a shame that people still need to question that women write horror.

From a personal perspective, I'm not aware of any hindrance (or help, for that matter) pertaining to the fact I'm a woman with regards to my writing career (such as it is). I certainly hope it has made no difference at all. We're all writers. I don't pick up a book because it's by a female author, nor do I put one down because a male author wrote it. The story is all that counts.

I've read horror since I was about ten, starting with the Pan Horror Books. It never occurred to me that I should be reading a particular genre because I was a girl, and I mostly read the books that older members of the family (which also included The Chalet School Books and a wealth of Enid Blyton) passed onto me.

PT: Could you talk us through the writing of a Cate Gardner story, from first idea through however many drafts until the finished work is sent out to find its way in the world? How much do you plan stuff out in advance? Do you concentrate on different facets of a story at different stages, or do you aim to get it all right first time?

CG: It changes.

For the story I'm working on now (a short story for an anthology that has to be in by next Saturday--freak, freak), I spent a week compiling ideas, and then, as I gathered those ideas into a workable plot, I threw most of them away and built something very different. Somewhat happy with my plot, I started writing the first draft and within the first page decided to follow a different track. I threw away the plot line and wrote off the cuff the rest of the way. All that time plotting wasn't a waste though. I kept images from the original and it helped form the characters.

I always write a first (sometimes rough, sometimes almost there) draft, then a second draft and edit from there--tidying up, adding scenes, rearranging things etc.

PT: As an addendum to the above, what kind of research do you do for stories, and do you have any particular tricks to get and keep 'in the zone', to find the right mind set for each story?

CG: Most of my stories don't require any research or just need little things researched. In the case of the latter, I tend to google and usually get an answer within a couple of pages. For something like my novella, Theatre of Curious Acts, which is set during and just after The Great War, I read soldiers' diaries and letters online. I also had a collection of WW1 Punch magazines, which helped with product placement.

To get into the zone, I'll sometimes play a song that resonates with the story (for the novella that I'm currently editing I play Katy Perry's The One That Got Away before starting work), but most times, I just start writing and there is no zone.

PT: Looking at the credits on your website, you seem to produce stories at a prodigious rate, but as yet you haven't published a novel. Any thoughts as to why not?

CG: I wish I wrote short stories at a prodigious rate. I used to, but now they can take a few weeks to get into shape. I miss the days when I used to write a story one day, polish it the next, and then submit. I need to stop wasting time on Twitter and Facebook.

Any thoughts as to why I haven't published a novel yet? Simple answer, because I haven't written a publishable one yet. I started my first novel in 1996 and have completed at least ten (although, I have a nagging feeling I've forgotten one). Gosh, I feel a bit depressed now. Thanks, Pete. I still love some of those old stories and do think I could do something with some of them but I have so many new ideas that I could be working on and new always wins out over stale.

As a side note, my novella, Theatre of Curious Acts, was originally a short novel but after several edits we arrived at just under 40,000 words. So, I sometimes feel as if I have had a novel published it's just that no one else is aware of the fact.

PT: I've seen you describe your work as whimsical and dark, which I think is fair enough, though not prescriptive. What appeals to you about the conjunction of those two qualities?

CG: I like odd things and I like dark things. At the beach yesterday, my sister-in-law and I were collecting shells for the kids and I kept exclaiming that I'd found the prettiest shells. She turned to me and said, 'You're picking up all the black ones, aren't you?' and I was although I didn't think it a fair assessment. In my stories, I like to add splashes of vibrant colour, a hint of strangeness to offset the dark.

PT: There's also about much of your work a sense of sadness, a quality I'd sometimes quantify as elegiac, and hand in hand with that a strong feeling of compassion. As an example, the trench warfare scenes at the start of Theatre of Curious Acts vividly bring home the horror of the situation, but at the same time I intuit that Daniel Cole is more disappointed in his fellow man than angry or outraged as such at what is taking place. Would you agree with that assessment? To what degree does Daniel Cole's personality and his philosophical/spiritual outlook coincide with that of Cate Gardner?

CG: That's possibly because I'm sad... Oh wait, you meant sad as in the 'woe is me' sense of the word.

I feel all introspective now. Am I disappointed in my fellow man? I hope I'm far too optimistic to be disappointed in anyone. I was going to say that a tiny part of Daniel must be me because he came from me, but then that would also mean that I am in part that cad Swan Ecklund and maybe also Death. Though I'm sure a shroud would hide a multitude of cake-sins and the scythe would help with the gardening.

I like Daniel. He's a good man, who tries to do the right thing, yet his heart leads him astray... and yes, I hope that's me. Well, except for the man part.

PT: Do you have any belief at all in the supernatural, or is it simply a plot facilitator for you?

CG: I hail from a family who almost all claim to have seen ghosts or experienced ghostly occurrences (shaking beds, things moving) and yet, I'm the only one (of my generation and above, the youngsters are far more sensible) who hasn't had a ghostly experience. Maybe the ghosts are scared of me.

Do I believe in the supernatural? Not at this given time, but I'm willing to be proved wrong.

PT: Death features in much of your work, both in the form of dead people and the more archetypal figure of Death himself. What's that all about? Would you care to lie down on this leather couch over here and talk about your childhood while I take notes?

CG: I'm obsessed with Death. I even have a little Grim Reaper in my office who dances to the Addams Family tune and has the cutest purple shroud. One of those unpublished novels (The Midnight Motel) that left me all woeful earlier in this interview features Death as both the protagonist and the antagonist--he's a misunderstood fellow.  

PT: What are you currently working on? What can we expect to see next from the word processor of Cate Gardner? 

CG: A novella--The Bureau of Them--a tale of dead boyfriends, abandoned places and Lego houses. I also have three short stories to write before I can settle into writing a novel...another that may actually sell. Fingers crossed.

Thanks for the interview, Pete. Excellent questions.



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