WRITERS' MINDS Catherine Johnson

Now, in her 25th year as a published author, Catherine Johnson talks to Words & Pictures' Sarah Broadley about her thoughts and experiences.

Ideas for stories can be sparked from the glimpse of a photo, a page in a well-read book or a 'what if' question we ask ourselves. What or where is your favourite go-to place for inspiration?

Every book is different and sometimes (like I've heard it said about dating – which I've never done as I come from a long time ago and am now too old) if you look too hard it just runs away!
I walk, I read – Stella from years ago came from a book about a mourning dress I found in Hackney Library. I write – Nest of Vipers came out of a character I wrote for a short story and fell in love with. I go to museums – Sawbones came out of a trip to the Hunterian Museum (first draft done in six weeks). I talk to people – Face Value sort of came out of a story I was told when I was a writer in residence in Holloway Prison, and Brave New Girl came out of being on a bus in Hackney and overhearing the driver arguing with a passenger (they were mother and daughter). The Curious Tale of The Lady Caraboo came out of an interview I did where I was asked about my favourite historical con artist; I remembered Caraboo and suddenly I was gripped! That book took years to write.

So everything really. I was talking to a friend here in Hastings about his neighbour who was kidnapped and had both his thumbs cut off (they were sewn back on). Sometimes real life is so much stranger than fiction; I think the best thing is just to keep your eyes and ears open.

As well as novels, you have written and created for film, TV and radio. What’s it like writing for all of these mediums? And is there ever a creative crossover?

There might be in historical period ... My favourite time for writing has to be the long 18th century (according to historians it lasts up until Queen Victoria) and I've set five books in that period as well as a TV series (unmade) and one that was made (I did the dramatic inserts for Simon Schama's Rough Crossings on BBC2). I think the relation between screen and young fiction is that both mediums are driven by narrative in a way that some adult fiction isn't.

From Face Value (2005) to Race to the Frozen North and Freedom (2018), what has been your most rewarding novel? And what, if anything, do you wish you could’ve changed in any of them?

Ooh interesting! Most rewarding is difficult because novels are a bit like your children and I wouldn't want to change them either (except to maybe ask if one of them might become a dentist, which would save me a lot of money). I have never been a particularly successful author, financially or prize winningly - although I was nominated for the Carnegie Medal and shortlisted for the YA book prize. I just plod along I suppose, which means that publishers aren't bothered about what I write. They don't want the same thing from me over and over again which is a sort of advantage. I love discovering lots of useless shallow knowledge, which you have to have to make the world of the book real.

Have you ever considered a collaboration with an illustrator or a writer you admire?My eldest is an illustrator and I would love to write a book with her, but I think picture books are the hardest because they use the least words. I suppose I am happy not to collaborate with words because there is so much of that with my TV work, so books are where I get to do whatever I want.

Is there a book you have read that you wish you had written yourself?A million! Two that I love are The Tiger in the Well by Philip Pullman, which is about women's matrimonial and general rights, immigration and refugees. Also The Long Song by Andrea Levy. This is a real masterclass in story telling – it's sad and funny and structured like a Rubik's cube.

Where to next for Catherine Johnson?I have a lovely job! I am currently lead writer on a TV drama for Silverprint Pictures, which is inspired by a book by Miranda Kaufmann called Black Tudors. We're a long way from the finishing line but it's so exciting and I am learning so much. I am also working on a computer game and it has been amazing. This evening, in fact, I just heard a sea shanty with my lyrics and it will go in a museum in the 'world of the game' section.

Book-wise, I am writing a few short history bios and have an adult novel that had to go on the back burner for now.

Feature photo: Catherine Johnson. Photo credit: @CurtisBrown


Sarah Broadley (left) lives in Edinburgh with her family and two cats. She is a member of SCBWI Scotland.
Follow her on Twitter.

Carry de la Harpe is Features Editor for Words & Pictures.
Follow her on Twitter.

Contact: writers@britishscbwi.org

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