In my second feature centred around World Book Day 2015, I talked about Alice, libraries, music, the power of dreams and much more with best-selling children’s writer Cathy Cassidy, in an interview a few days before her WBD appearances at Preston North End FC and Newcastle City Hall.
It’s been a busy 2015 so far for Cathy Cassidy, and promises to remain so.
The Merseyside-based children’s author is set to publish two new books in the next couple of months, her Lewis Carroll-inspired Looking Glass Girl in April followed by the final book in the much-loved Chocolate Box series, Fortune Cookie, in June.
But before all that she had a major date with five other authors, facing 5,000 kids from 100 schools across the North West at Preston North End FC.
And Cathy, talking to me from home ahead of her big day, was feeling the pressure – not least as she reckoned her football skills weren’t up to scratch.
“It’s a bit scary! I never imagined I’d be doing a talk in a football ground! For me, the best thing is not to worry too much about the logistics, and just assume the people organising it – who are brilliant – will make it amazing.
“I’ve heard from a lot of people going along. There’s a lot of excitement out there. As long as they don’t give me a football, I should be alright!
”Back at primary school, I played football with the boys sometimes and they put me in goal, which I felt really proud about. Now of course I realise they were just shoving me out of the way!”
So is Cathy not like Liesel in Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, who proved quite a handy player in her back-street games?
I’ve since caught up with Cathy and can confirm she survived that ambitious, ultimately successful PNE World Book Day event and one the following day at Newcastle City Hall organised by the wonderful Seven Stories.
But while you’re have to wait for the writewyattuk take on the Preston event, here’s my full pre-event interview with the lovely-as-ever Cathy.
First, we talked about two of her fellow WBD authors at Preston, Cathy taking – to use the football cliche, which seems apt in the circumstances – each game as it comes and only thinking about her next 90 minutes on the pitch.
“I know Frank (Cottrell Boyce) a little and think he’s amazing, very inspirational and possibly one of the nicest, kindest people in children’s books.
“And I met Cressida (Cowell) a long time ago and really liked her. She’s lovely, very quirky, and cool.”
As it was, there was clearly a spark with the other ‘players’ on the day too, talented writers and illustrators Danny Wallace, Jonny Duddle and the day’s MC, Steven Butler, all making a big impression on Cathy that day. But I’m getting ahead of myself there.
I put it to Cathy, also involved with last year’s successful Biggest Bookshow on Earth on Tour event for World Book Day at King George’s Hall, Blackburn, that it must be odd playing to such a big crowd for someone whose normal working day tends to involve just a writing room and a laptop.
“I know! How amazing, You can’t think too much about the numbers, but talking to your reader or a child who might not be a reader yet – helping them see how magical books can be, opening all kinds of doors to them.
“This is way bigger than any live audience I’ve done. I’d say about 1,500’s the biggest before. But there’s no point in worrying about it. You’ve just got to do your thing.
“What I you think is important is to hope some of those kids are going to find something they can connect with.
“With that line-up and all those amazing authors, there will definitely be something for everybody.
“And what an amazing, incredible event to pull together, with kids coming from right across the North-West region.”
It’s fair to say Cathy is a great believer in children’s lit, education and arts funding, and a fierce defender of our libraries, following recent national and local Government spending cuts.
And while it was inevitable that the subject would come up, the Coventry-born writer was quicker off the mark than I gave her credit for!
Asked what the first book she read that made her think a career in writing might be for her, she responded: “There were so many, it would be so hard to pick just one, but perhaps I could say it was down to libraries, because I was such a library addict.
“I would go to visit with my Dad and come out with armfuls of books. That was such an education to me, and libraries gave me all that for nothing. If you didn’t like a book you could just take it back the next week.
“I discovered so many things, unveiled by that ability to just go in and pick something randomly off a shelf.
“I could never have become the person I am today without libraries, yet they’re under threat right now – including three l regularly visited. That breaks my heart.
“They say kids don’t read these days, but we know different – not least through these bookshow events, experiencing just how much it means to these children.
“Only last night I had a sad email from a girl whose school library is being closed down, being turned into some kind of common room.
“They’ll be putting some books in the corner of a lobby and throwing everything else away – no school library, just a book corner.
“Along with her friends, she’s making banners, starting a petition, and asked me to write to her headteacher, which of course I will.
“Please, anyone who cares about our future should stand up for libraries and reading. Children are our fantastic, imaginative, creative potential, and we must look after them, protect them and nurture them.”
The 52-year-old wrote for Jackie and Shout magazines and was a primary school art teacher in Scotland before becoming a full-time writer.
She initially moved from Coventry to Liverpool as an art student, and after several years bringing up a family in Galloway, South West Scotland, is now back on Merseyside.
The mum-of-two has had more than 20 books published since her 2004 debut Dizzy, including three for younger readers about Daizy Star, which she also illustrated.
Cathy has sold more than two million books worldwide, and nominated three times over six years for the Queen of Teen accolade, winning once.
So tell me about The Looking Glass Girl, your modern-day re-imagining of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland stories.
“This year is the 150th anniversary of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland being published, and last year Puffin were asking about different children’s classics and I said how much I really loved Alice.
“It’s one of those Marmite things when you’re talking about classics, but Alice is one I really loved when I read it fairly young, probably aged eight or nine, thinking of all those quirky, fantasy bits, funny and quite cool.
“Then you read it again later and get all sorts of totally different things from the experience, in what is a very surreal almost-nightmarish story really. And that’s the take I’ve carried with me all these years.
“It was a library book and one I didn’t own myself at first, but I’ve various different copies now, and it’s one of those books you go back to, keep re-reading.
“If you talk about it to children, they actually believe it’s a fairy-tale. I love that, and it’s so ingrained in our culture.
“It’s a magical story and means an awful lot to almost everybody. Very few people know little about it, maybe because of various films, but that’s the power of that story.
“I’m not re-telling the original story, but have written the tale of a group of girls who have an Alice-themed sleepover which goes wrong.
“One of the girls falls into a world of nightmare and confusion in what is quite a dark story compared to some I’ve done.
“I think kids are really going to like it and connect with it though, and I don’t think there’s anything unsuitable for my younger readers. It’s just that there’s a little more of an edge, showing the darker side of bullying and fear, although there’s nothing graphic.
“No one falls down a rabbit hole, but there are big parallels to the original. It wouldn’t really interest me to just re-tell someone else’s story though.”
Is the story sullied by modern thinking on what Lewis Carroll might have been like away from his books?
“The story is so powerful and strong that you don’t think too much about the person who wrote it. There’s nothing in the story itself that makes me feel uncomfortable, although I feel that‘s the product of someone who was quite disturbed probably.
“The Tate Liverpool about three years ago did the most amazing exhibition of Alice-inspired art, with photographs from Lewis Carroll’s private collection, his manuscripts and early drawings, plus masses of work inspired by the stories.
“It was quite amazing – from the surreal to more decorative responses to the imagery. It’s in our society and in many others now, quite multi-cultural.
“I might not have necessarily wanted to hang around with Lewis Carroll, but it’s the story that matters, not the person that writes it.”
It also seems a perfect book to plug on World Book Day, a celebration of children’s lit over the years.
“Yes … but sadly it won’t be out until the start of April!”
A lot of readers know Cathy first and foremost for her Chocolate Box series, and the last instalment follows next month. What’s more, it appears that she has even more books coming out in 2015.
“Fortune Cookie is going to be out at the start of June, and it’s a crazy year for me, with two other books coming out!”
The Chocolate Box series is largely set in the West Country, where I believe you saw out some of your student days.
“I worked one summer in Somerset when I was an art student, and deliberately went back to set the story in the village where I worked. I always like to have a strong sense of where a story is set.”
Is it sad to say goodbye to a few of your characters after so long?
“The character telling the story in the final book hasn’t been in any of the previous books, only being alluded to or hinted at the end of Sweet Honey.
“In that way it’s exciting – I wanted to tie up the loose ends and finish the story and it was nice to do that from outside the perspective of the sisters.
“But leaving the story behind and having it released into the wild to see what people will make of it, knowing it’s the last, is quite hard. A lot of readers have really loved that world.”
That said, it’s rumoured there’s a TV series in the offing for the Chocolate Box series (which started with Cherry Crush, published in 2010).
“It’s still definitely a rumour, I’d say. There is a TV production company with the rights to do a treatment for a possible series, but it’s very early days and I don’t really know enough about how that works.
“I imagine this is the kind of thing that won’t always come off. They’re working on it, really believe in it and think it’s amazing, but it then needs a broadcast company to put it out.
“The impulse would be to jump up and down and say, ’How awesome’, but until it actually appears on TV I won’t believe it!
“I think it would be awesome TV though, in the way it connects. The stories have such a big place in the hearts of the readers and TV would bring it to a much wider audience.
“It’s all about families and friendships, problems and overcoming them, lovely elements of that kind of Bohemian fantasy of the perfect life you’d love but that isn’t always so perfect under the surface.”
We talked about the fantasy aspects of Alice in Wonderland, but your books are more about real-life issues. Does part of that come from your past ‘agony aunt’ days with Jackie and Shout magazines?
“I don’t think it comes from that as much as it does from me, It’s a fair enough assumption, but it’s really the other way around.
“I’m fascinated by what makes people tick and how people react to things and manage to cope with the awful stuff life might sometimes throw at them.
“Then others look like they may have everything but inside are very damaged or messed up for no obvious reason.
“It’s just the complexity of the human condition in some ways. That’s a very fancy way of putting it – but I’m so fascinated by feelings, emotions, friendships, families, and the way in which we fix ourselves, glue ourselves together and find a way of making our lives worthwhile and happy.”
You do seem to pride yourself on ‘connecting’ with your fans, as you put it.
“Yes, and I think that’s very important, and matters to me. Everyone who writes gets a proper, personal reply, although it might take me some time – I’m so snowed under now.
“And if you take the reader out of all this, there really is no point. I get so much back from my readers, and this lovely feeling they get something wonderful from a book.
“Some have come to me at a signing crying, because a book has meant so much to them or has helped them with something. To know you can actually impact on someone in that way, it’s quite a powerful feeling.
“That does far more for me than being an agony aunt or being a teacher had – being able to write a book that can help kids.”
In a recent video interview, a young girl asked about Daizy Star, and you revealed how your Dad was part of the inspiration for Daizy’s father, who builds a boat ready to travel the world. Do many real-life family experiences cross into your books? Only there’s a thin line sometimes between personal and public. Do you feel conscious about writing ‘too personal’?
“Yes, I don’t think I would. Family is family, and there are always people who will be sad or unhappy or who won’t remember something a certain way. For me, fiction is the way to go about that.
“Almost every one of my books is about me in a way, stepping into the shoes of a different character.
“With Daizy Star, my Dad had died just before I started that series, and I was carrying an awful lot of grief. He was probably my biggest inspiration, a big hero and a big supporter of me as an odd child who had big hopes and big dreams.
“He was definitely always in my corner, so it made me want to dig up some of the crazy things, because he was a very eccentric guy trapped in a little working-class place that didn’t give him many options for carrying out those dreams.”
What did he do for work?
“He repaired cars. He was a panel-basher. He was good, but it wasn’t really what he wanted to do. But there were so many things he wanted to do – it was a different thing every six months or so! Again, that’s something reflected in the Daizy Star series.
“My dad really did build a boat in our backyard, and it wasn’t even a boat like Daizy’s dad. It was a huge trimaran!
“I remember going with him to get the mast of the boat, choosing which tree we would have, carrying it back on the roof of the van with lots of rags on it. It stuck right out in our backyard towards whoever was behind us, who wasn’t very impressed!
“There was a garage next to our house that got deconstructed because it was so full of the hull. The whole house was ruined by it, my Mum hated it and couldn’t bear it. There was no way she was going to go sailing around the world in anything, let alone this.
“But I thought it was amazing and believed totally in it and that dream we would go sailing around the world. We never did, but it’s one of those things – that power of dreaming and power of belief that transmitted itself to me.
“Later in life, when he was around 55, Dad designed a 1930s-type racing car as a kit car. It never worked as a kit car, because it was so complicated to build and he was the only person who could build it!
“But in the end he built around 25, and they’re all around the world now, some in Australia, some in Europe. They’re the most amazing things.
“So there’s certainly no sell-by date on a dream. He finally got to do the thing he loved. He never made a penny, but he was happy.”
Did you inherit your love of folk music from your parents?
“I think it would be from my Dad. He loved American folk like Burl Ives and Woody Guthrie, while I discovered Bob Dylan later.
“He was also crazy about Hank Williams, and we had one of his songs at his funeral. All of these things you’re kind of brain-washed by as a child.
“So they ended up being brainwashed by that! I think my Dad would so love the music my kids are making now. Unfortunately, he died at a point when they were still deep into deep emo/goth stuff.
“No one would ever have predicted they would turn out to be producing ballady folk. I love how things come round like that.”
Indeed, and I should plug at this point the work of Cathy’s son Calum Gilligan – previously with Subject to Change – and daughter Caitlin Gilligan, who both perform and record their own material.
In fact, Caitlin was featured on this very blog very recently, after her debut EP release with Finch and the Moon, with a link here.
Cathy and I have a lot of 1980s’ musical influences in common, from The Cure and Dexy’s Midnight Runners through to Echo and the Bunnymen and The Teardrop Explodes. Did those bands provide her art student soundtrack?
“Absolutely, and I hate to admit it, but the reason I went to Liverpool was because Echo and the Bunnymen and The Teardrop Explodes were there!
“I remember watching the Teardrops’ Reward video and thought I wanted to go there – as people would be walking around in air force jackets and hiring jeeps. So cool!”
Funny Cathy should say that (he adds, nonchalantly), with the tale of that very video told in a recent Julian Cope interview on this blog, with a link here.
Anyway, on with the story, Cathy …
”Liverpool was that place I wanted it to be. It felt like everybody was either in a band or designing dresses or painting things on walls. It was full of creativity.
“Those bands I loved and admired were there and that made you feel like you were part of something.
“You would see them when you were out and maybe talk to them. Some of The Bunnymen lived just down the road from me, while Julian Cope lived just across the back from one of my student flats.
“It was lovely, and music is the backdrop to your life. It was such fantastic, emotional music too.”
At the risk of over-doing the plugs here, I’ll also add that if you press this link, you’ll find an interview with Echo and the Bunnymen’s Will Sergeant, touching on those days. I’ll stop now though (honest).
Wikipedia suggests you’ve written 23 books now. Are you still keeping count?
“I probably lost count when I got to around 10, and I’m very challenged in the numbers department anyway.
“The problem is I’ve written short books too, and there were four e-book shorts last year, then there are non-fiction books, the Daizy Star series, the stand-alones, even some tiny books given away on magazines way back at the beginning. Do any of those count?
“Anyway, some say 23, some say 27, and maybe we’re getting into fractions as well.”
Whatever the number, that’s not a bad turnout in barely 10 years, is it?
“I think it’s pretty good going.”
I believe you’re Puffin’s top-selling children’s author too.
“Ooh, I don’t know about that. I think I am for girls, but they publish the Wimpy Kid books in the UK, and I don’t out-sell Jeff Kinney.”
Then there’s the Queen of Teen label. Does that must make you feel pretty proud?
“I think that’s hilarious, for me to be a Queen of Teen! Such a weird thing.”
I’m guessing you were more the quiet one reading in the corner at school. Is that why that seems so strange getting that accolade?
“Exactly, that’s always where I was and it’s still where I prefer to be! I don’t actually feel comfortable in the middle of anything.
“I prefer to stand on the edge of things. That’s where you see everything. If you’re in the middle of everything for too long you begin to believe that’s where you ought to be, and I would hate to feel like that was my right.”
My girls talk about the ’popular girls’ at school, or the ‘plops’ as my youngest puts it!
“Ooh – I love that, and might steal that! Being popular doesn’t really mean anything. It’s only really when you’re a kid when you’re trying to work out where you are and how you fit into the world.
“School gives you this idea that the popular kids rule the school, but what you don’t understand when you’re that age is they don’t rule anything else.
“When you look back with the benefit of hindsight, those kids don’t actually come to anything after school, and that’s such a shame.
“You believe life’s always going to be that way and actually it isn’t. You have to adapt and change, and sometimes people on the edge of things are the ones that can use all that they’ve observed to move forward.
“Life is not a popularity contest, and that’s so hard to tell people now when kids are brought up and brainwashed to believe it’s the case with things like The X-Factor, Big Brother and every magazine that still exists which is full of gossip, Z-list celebrities and aspirations to be rich and famous.
“Instead, try and do the things that make you happy, because rich and famous won’t make you happy. I think it’s damaging to our kids to try and show them that’s the only way.
“So don’t aspire to be the person in the middle, aspire to be good at what you do and do the things that make you happy, and don’t worry if you’re the quiet one that likes to stand on the edge.
“Being quiet is just as good as being confident and noisy! It’s about being you and using the qualities and skills you have.”
Quite right too. But did Cathy ever really think all those daydreams of being a writer when she was a schoolgirl might come to something like this?
“Not at all. I mean, imagine! I wasn’t filled with confidence as a teenager. I knew I wanted to give it a really good try and was willing to work for it, but when things begin to go right don’t necessarily think they’ll keep going right either.
“Having a journalistic career was lovely for me and felt like I was writing for a living, and I was illustrating as well. Those two things meant a lot to me.
“But then being given a book deal blew the whole lid off my world!”
Might you have ever stuck with being an art teacher, or would you have felt unfulfilled?
“Being an art teacher, if you’re doing it properly – why would you be unfulfilled? I loved every minute of it. It was very fulfilling and a wonderful thing to do.
“I still miss it, as I miss being a journalist. Lots of things I’ve done were fantastic at the time for what I needed to be.
“But – and I hate to be political here – I just wish the Government would leave teachers alone, because they’re squeezing the life and the joy out of teachers.
“That is so dangerous for our kids, destroying that for those that go into teaching for the love of it – which is most of them. I loved teaching art. It was one of the best things I’ve ever done.”
You’ve been based back in Merseyside for a while now. Was it sad to leave Scotland, where your children grew up?
“I do miss that whole wild countryside feel of Galloway, that peaceful sense. It will always be number one in my heart.
“But it’s lovely where we are now, having the culture of a city right on your doorstep.”
Finally (wrapping up after around 40 minutes of our planned 15-minute chat!) I ask Cathy about her writing room, and whether she gets regular interruptions from her beloved lurchers, Kelpie, the senior, and young Finn.
“Kelpie does sometimes, and Finn, who is now three and much cheekier. The problem is that my writing room is now in the house and the dogs don’t usually go upstairs.
“They’re not encouraged to anyway. Kelpie will sometimes if she’s looking for me or looking for something to do. Finn will though. He’ll just stick his nose right on your knee as if to say, ‘What about me?’
“My writing room’s a little untidy, and always is. It’s full of my old books, all these things I collected that I didn’t have as a child. It’s kind of nostalgia all around me, like an extended version of the shed I had in Galloway really.”
You once wrote about your former shed that it was perfect because there was no internet connection. That seems to have changed now. I hate to sound like a stalker, but you do seem to be on social media sites a fair bit.
“Yes, I think I need to destroy the wi-fi connection. My output would probably go up 75 per cent! But when I’m writing I actually try to limit myself.
“I’ll look first thing in the morning and again maybe at lunchtime and later in the day, when I spend a lot of time updating my facebook fans’ page and Dreamcatcher blog.
“I kind of miss the shed on that basis. You really had to want to go off and check your emails back then!”
Actually, Cathy was one of those who inspired me to kit out my own writing shed, although I have to admit I’ve barely been out there all winter, as there’s no heating or power supply.
In fact, I was relieved recently when I learned just how little Dylan Thomas wrote in his famed boathouse in Laugharne, mid-Wales. Word has it that most of his creative output came in the room he had at his parents’ house before all that. This gets Cathy thinking.
“I’d love to know the actual output of these sheds, especially for those people who live in the North!
“I was great in summer, and spring and autumn were fine, but winter in Galloway was just Baltic!
“The people who helped us with my shed up there said how well insulated it was and how it would be fine. But there were icicles inside! There was no way I was sitting in there, not even with seven jumpers and scarves on!
“It’s probably my age, but it’s just fantastic to have an inside place now, where you still have all your lovely stuff around you so have that feel of the shed, but you’re inside!”
Looking Glass Girl by Cathy Cassidy is available in a Puffin hardback from April 2.
For all the latest from Cathy and various links, try her official website here.
Keep checking this blog for a feature on this year’s World Book Day event at Preston North End FC.
More Books about Chocolate and Girls, the first writewyattuk Cathy Cassidy feature, from July 2013, can be found here.
* With thanks to Carolyn McGlone at Puffin and World Book Day 2015 North West regional organisers Jake Hope and Elaine Silverwood.