I’m really happy to welcome my friend Catherine Knutsson to my blog today. Catherine’s debut novel, SHADOWS CAST BY STARS, releases June 5 from Atheneum/Simon & Schuster. (And yay! I got to read it already–so good! Put it on your list, quick!)
Catherine, like Cassandra Mercredi in SHADOWS CAST BY STARS, is a member of the Métis nation. She lives on Vancouver Island, on which the fictional Island of her novel is based, and divides her time between working with horses, singing, and writing.
Here’s the blurb about SHADOWS:
Old ways are pitted against new horrors in this compellingly crafted dystopian tale about a girl who is both healer and seer. Two hundred years from now, blood has become the most valuable commodity on the planet—especially the blood of aboriginal peoples, for it contains antibodies that protect them from the Plague ravaging the rest of the world.
Sixteen-year-old Cassandra Mercredi might be immune to Plague, but that doesn’t mean she’s safe—government forces are searching for those of aboriginal heritage to harvest their blood. When a search threatens Cassandra and her family, they flee to the Island: a mysterious and idyllic territory protected by the Band, a group of guerilla warriors—and by an enigmatic energy barrier that keeps outsiders out and the spirit world in. And though the village healer has taken her under her wing, and the tribal leader’s son into his heart, the creatures of the spirit world are angry, and they have chosen Cassandra to be their voice and instrument….
Incorporating the traditions of the First Peoples as well as the more familiar stories of Greek mythology and Arthurian legend, SHADOWS CAST BY STARS is a haunting, beautifully written story that breathes new life into ancient customs.
Well….I’d call myself a drafter. Or a muller, perhaps. I start writing a story when a line or two arrives in my head. I don’t know who says the lines, or what they’re about, but they strike me as important, and I write them down. Then, I try to figure out what story they belong to. That’s literally what happened with SHADOWS CAST BY STARS – the first line “We live the Old Way.” arrived, and then, I had to match up the story.
Next, I write for a bit. Generally, I write a couple of chapters, and then, take a big step back to do what I call “writing around”. That’s when I spend time trying to find the core of the story, what makes it tick, what elements I want to work with, sort of like a painter choosing a palette, I think. Then, I write a bit more, let it sit, revise, let it sit, revise, let it sit…and repeat. What I do try to do early on is write the “hook” paragraph of a query letter, as that really helps me wrap my brain around the story I’m trying to tell – who the characters are, what’s at stake, the big picture stuff – as I find I get too micro-focused sometimes, and forget about the macro.
And, while all of this is going on, and especially during the “sitting” phases (which can take a long time!), I read non-fiction. For SHADOWS CAST BY STARS, I read a lot about non-western modes of healing (for example WHEN THE SPIRIT CATCHES YOU AND YOU FALL DOWN by Anne Fadiman and LANGUAGE OF EMOTIONS by Karla McLaren) and a ton of world mythology and anthropology. Non-fiction tickles my brain in a different way than fiction, and I find it can really help settle the core of the story in my mind, as well as giving me new colours to play with!
These days, though, I’m spending more and more time working on structure. I’m beginning to understand that if I don’t supply a solid framework for my story, it sort of crumbles, and I end up having to toss what I’ve done and start again. That’s fine when I’ve got tons of time on my hands, but with deadlines and projects and contracts and such, I need to start working in a more streamlined way, and I’m hoping my structural studies will help with that!
SHADOWS is rich with ancient beliefs and First Nations mythology. I’m wondering how difficult it was to blend “fact and fiction”. How did you find the right balance? Was it challenging to stay true to those beliefs and myths while incorporating them into Cass’ story?
Really difficult. One of the things that was always in the back of my mind was cultural misappropriation. My undergrad degree is in Art History, and in my First Nations/Native American art history courses, we discussed cultural misappropriation (in the context of repatriating cultural artifacts). That’s where I started to garner an awareness of the damage cultural misappropriation can do, especially in light of the aftermath of residential schools. Little did I know I was learning about my own cultural heritage! And, because of that, I tried to write from a place of honour, especially since story functions in a different way in many aboriginal cultures. For example, Kwawakawak people “give” stories, and you don’t get to tell that story unless it’s been given to you first. So, receiving a story is a real honour, because the stories are sacred. I was aware of this, and though some of the characters in SHADOWS CAST BY STARS are part of traditional stories, I tried to stay away from the stories themselves, because I hadn’t been given them to use.
And, I also spent a lot of time imagining what life would look like for First Nations and Métis peoples two hundred years in the future, given how dramatically life has changed for them (and all people, really!) in the last hundred years – or even the last decade! That allowed me some leeway to explore how traditional societies might evolve, and one of those ways in this story includes banding together in a community made up of peoples from all different nations, so that their mythology and beliefs and practices would blend together out of necessity, rather than because I was resorting to stereotypes. And, in many ways, that’s led me down some interesting paths myself. I’m beginning to learn Michif, the language of the Métis people, as a result, for example!
What I can say with absolutely certainty is that I really struggled with finding the right balance between fact and fiction, and I really hope that I got it right!
Catherine, I know you’re a musician as well as a writer. Do you find those two creative pursuits complement one another? (and if so, how?)
Well, all those hours in the practice room really prepared me for the long hours at the keyboard! Sometimes, when I’m having a rough day and it feels like I’m so far away from being a competent writer, I remember the piano lessons where I spent the entire hour on a single bar of a fugue (ah, Bach!) or worked on a song for an entire year (Black Anemones, I’m looking at you) and still wasn’t able to sing it as well as I wanted to, or a thousand other struggles that musicians encounter daily. That doesn’t always make things easier, but it’s a springboard, I guess. If nothing else, I know how to practice!
I’m also very lucky that I had such great teachers who taught me more than just music. My Alexander technique teacher taught me about end-gaining, or, the quagmire we create for ourselves by focusing on the result rather than the process. My acting teacher taught me about character study, subtext, plot, and motivation. My singing teacher during my associateship had been a children’s librarian before becoming a pro singer, and taught me so much about the magic and power of words – she’s the one who really got me thinking about how the sound of a word can create a whole visceral experience, and word choice is a big part of how I write, thinking about how words sound together, and the physical response they create.
And, all my theory/analysis/composition lessons really taught me a lot about structure and conflict. Am I always able to apply it? Hah, no. But, still, I find these days I’m thinking about musical structure and relating it to my writing more and more. I never got the math/music connection, myself, but writing/music? Yep. I think the two are sisters!
I definitely agree that there’s a writing/music connection. And now I’m curious about the Alexander technique–time for some research!
What’s the last book you read & loved? And also, what book in your current TBR pile are you most looking forward to reading?
Can I have two last-books-I-loved? Yes? Okay! First of all, I just read GEORGE’S MARVELOUS MEDICINE by Roald Dahl, and laughed so much! I love Roald Dahl so much. The other was WHEN THE SEA IS RISING RED, which happens to be by my friend Cat Hellisen. However, even if she wasn’t my friend, I would still have loved the book. Gorgeous prose, a haunting story, and characters that are challenging in all sorts of ways. The world needs more Cat Hellisen stories!
As for the TBR pile, which is less a pile and more a series of shelves, I’ve got a few that I’m looking forward to – DOGSBODY, by Diana Wynne Jones, and THERE IS NO DOG, by Meg Rosoff are two that are sitting there, waiting for me. But I am super-extra excited about CODE NAME VERITY, by Elizabeth Hand, which I recently ordered, even though I was supposed to have a moratorium on book buying. Oops!
LOL, I can totally understand that kind of oops!
Would you share a favourite quote or piece of advice for writers?
This is one that I’ve come across recently, but I copied it out and taped it to my monitor so I’ll see it every time I sit down to work. It’s from Robert McKee’s STORY:
Of the total creative effort represented in a finished work, 75 percent or more of a writer’s labor goes into designing story. Who are these characters? What do they want? Why do they want it? How do they go about getting it? What stops them? What are the consequences? Finding the answers to these grand questions and shaping them into story is our overwhelming creative task.
Finally, can you tell us what’s up next for you?
I’ve got a few irons in the fire – the sequel to SHADOWS CAST BY STARS, a contemporary YA, an alt-history MG, and a middle eastern-inspired fantasy project (think GAME OF THRONES meets ARABIAN NIGHTS). Oh, and a couple of adult stories, though I’m still mid-research with those.
Because I need so much time between drafts, I find it’s really helpful to have a bunch of things on the go at the same time, so I can put one thing aside and work on something else while the rest stew!
Stewing is good! (Seems to me, you taught me that….) It sounds like we can look forward to lots of awesome stories from you–yay!
Thank you, Catherine! Congratulations on the release of your debut novel!
SHADOWS CAST BY STARS, by Catherine Knutsson
June 5, 2012
Atheneum/Simon & Schuster
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GIVEAWAY! Catherine is offering a signed copy of SHADOWS CAST BY STARS for one lucky winner, and some gorgeous SHADOWS swag for another!
Contest closes June 5 at midnight EST. Open internationally.
To enter, leave a comment on this post — be sure to include your email so I can contact you if you win!
Earn an extra entry by tweeting about the giveaway (mention @sharigreen to be sure your entry gets counted).