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RICHARD ON WRITING SASSYCAT (interview)

 

photo of richard1. Where did the idea for Sassycat come from?

The idea started as an idea of writing a cat story – but for a long time I couldn’t think of the right narrative to go with a cat’s point of view. Then one evening I was watching my own cat (Bibi) getting spooked – you know how cats seem to get suddenly scared of things that are invisible to us? OK! I realised that cats live in a world of ghosts, and maybe other animals do too. What if the animals were protecting us from beings we can’t even see, a danger of which we’re not even aware?
Then I had to think up a whole knowledge of the supernatural that the animals understand and we don’t.

2. Writing in the voice of an animal for older readers is tricky, isn't it? Did you worry about getting the voice right?

The key thing was getting the right personality for each kind of animal. Then the voice followed naturally from the personality. Only Darlene has a definite ‘accent’ – the other animals speak with the tone and mannerisms appropriate to what they’re saying.
I didn’t worry about how catspeak or dogspeak might actually sound (noises in the throat? or is it all body language?) – what you get in the novel is a translation into English!

3. Could she just as easily have been a dog?

Absolutely NOT! Sassycat is the essential feline – essential young feline, anyway. None of my animal characters could have their personalities shifted to any other animal. And if the main character had been a dog, she wouldn’t have been perverse or self-sufficient or a go-it-aloner. The whole story would have to be different.

4. Do you have a cat?

Yes, my cat is Bibi – and just happens to be a tabby with four white socks. (Also a white bib - Bibi because of his bib.) He’s grown a bit solid now, but in his younger self, he was definitely the model for Sassycat. The only difference being that he’s a male cat – but somehow that doesn’t seem to matter too much with cats!

5. Perhaps unexpectedly, many young people like Rebecca are drawn to cemeteries. What is the fascination?

That’s an easy one: it’s the fascination of what’s scary. When I was a kid, there was a very old tumbledown cemetery beside the local church, and we used to dare each other to walk across it at night. But I swear none of us would have crossed it without the group watching – I know I always made a long detour to avoid it when I was on my own.
There were many stories told about it, and one particular corner that was supposed to be unhallowed ground, where criminals and murderers had been buried. (I now think that wasn’t true – but at the time, that was the most frightening part of all to walk across.)
One time, when we were crossing as a group, a mate of mine stepped in a spot where an old tombstone had completely crumbled away, and his foot went through the earth and down into the hollow of the grave below. He went in up to his thigh, yelling like crazy – he really believed that something had caught hold of him. We pulled him out, yelling like crazy too.

6. Did you know what was going on in the cemetery before you started writing the novel?

I knew there were ghosts, a whole army of them, but at first I imagined them more as traditional ghosts – like the old woman Rebecca sees very early on. (I was probably thinking of a tele-movie called “Woman In Black” when I thought of her.) As the novel developed, the ghosts became less and less traditional – many different types of them. I had to refer to them as ‘entities’ when ‘ghosts’ no longer seemed to fit.
Even the old woman ended up being less traditional than she started – in her form as a smoke-like spinning column, then the tiny moving dots of colour that create an appearance of solidity when she’s really insubstantial.

7. How did you come up with the unique idea for the black slimy beings?

The idea of flat black shadows crawling along the ground in the shape of human hands, arms, legs and faces first popped up in a story I wrote called “A Guided Tour to the Kingdom of the Dead”. The story was set in Egypt, and the image came to me when I was travelling in Egypt – maybe because the pictures on the walls of Egyption tombs make the human body look very very flat!
Sometimes, the beings also glisten like tar – that was a further development which came from a dream I once had, of being encircled by streaming rivers of tar.

8. Did you know how the story was going to end?

The big surprise was Sassycat’s journey into the underworld to rescue Rebecca. I always knew there would be a great battle in which the animals would defeat the supernatural invasion, but the idea that Sassycat needed to go underground and rescue Rebecca only came to me when I was approaching the battle scenes.

9. You have written so many stories and books. Are you a very disciplined writer who writes in the same place at the same time every day?

Am I ever! For a long time, I was a very undisciplined writer, who waited for inspiration to arrive. So I ended up with lots of beginnings but nothing finished. Seriously – about 30 unfinished novels! Also, I knew that my best ideas came to me late at night, so I kept notebooks by my bed and kept jumping up at all hours to write down some new possibility. Trouble was, I never had the motivation to turn those ideas into actual words on the page. In the end, I discovered that turning ideas into words is something I do best in the morning – and I need to do it every morning. So now I set the alarm for 7, have breakfast and start work by 8 – every morning, no weekends or holidays. I don’t hang around waiting for the muse to come – I start writing and very soon, yippee, I’m inspired and zooming ahead.

10. What do you find most difficult about writing a novel?

There’s a stage when I’ve finished the opening dramatic scenes, which have usually been clearcut for a while, and then I have to work out how to deal with the wider narrative sweep of the novel. In Sassycat, for example, everything has to happen up to the time when the tree falls across the creek. Then suddenly there are all sorts of possibilities. What to focus on next?
I truly believe that every story has its proper shape that the writer has to unearth – out of all the possibilities, there’s one that will turn out best. But it’s hard to know in the early stages. I think I’ve gradually developed a better and better instinct for guessing – without knowing - ahead.
The other side of the coin is when you’ve got that best possible shape, and the latter part of the novel seems to just write itself. (Even when it’s doing unexpected things, like Sass’s journey underground – it’s as though it was always meant to happen!) That’s the easiest part of writing a novel!

11. Which scene in Sassycat was the most fun to write?

I suppose the most fun scene was the funniest scene – for me, that’s the scene where the rats explain their ‘dream’ of becoming lovable cuddly pets. I also remember a special pleasure over the scene where Sassycat ‘conquers’ Suzee and leaves Nathan out in the cold. That started out as just a necessary plot scene and ended up so unexpectedly funny, so totally cat-ish!
One of the most deeply satisfying scenes to write was the scene in Rebecca’s bedroom, when  the entities come closer and closer to Rebecca under the sheets. I wouldn’t call that ‘fun’ to write, exactly, but it was involving, stirring, emotional – I’m struggling for words here. What I mean is, I had to draw some very personal, very basic stuff out of myself to produce that scene.

12. And which part was the hardest?

The hardest? Probably Chapter 20, where Thaddeus explains the animal understanding of the supernatural to Sassycat. So much to explain – and fascinating in itself – but I couldn’t afford to let it turn into a lecture or go on too long and hold up the action. I had to work very hard to keep the animals’ personalities in the forefront of the picture, and I had to struggle to get everything across in as few words as possible.

 

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