An interview with Harriet Castor

HMCastorHarriet Castor once wanted to be a cricketer. And a nun. But before she had to piece together how such a combination might work, she fell in love with writing. When she was 12 her first book, ‘Fat Puss and Friends’ was published. Full-time ballet school and a couple more books followed and eventually Harriet went to Cambridge where she read history. After graduating she taught English in Prague, worked in publishing, and spent three years at The Royal Ballet as a Benesh notator, but she’s now a full time author, with more than forty books to her name. VIII is her first novel for teenagers.

FCBG: I believe that next year will see the 30th anniversary of your first published book. Can you tell us a little bit about that book, how it came to be published and what it meant for you?

Harriet Castor: It happened in a rather wonderful way. As a child, I was always writing little stories and making books – as my own daughters do now. One day, in the summer holidays when I was twelve, I was bored and decided to write a story. Then, on a whim, I decided to send the story to a publisher. My mum warned me that it would be sent straight back, but I decided to do go ahead anyway.

I thought I had written a picture book text, so I looked in the back of one of my picture books to find an address. It was totally wrong – I sent it to a printer’s, but they very kindly sent it on to the publisher and eventually my story landed on the desk of Liz Attenborough at Penguin. As luck would have it, she was looking for texts for short chapter-books for young readers – a fresh idea at the time, though of course one that took off in a big way subsequently. She thought my story would fit the format if I could add several more stories to it about the same character, each one becoming a chapter. So, during the autumn term that followed I wrote a few more stories, and at the end of the Christmas holidays Liz invited me to bring them to Penguin’s London office in person.

I arrived, clutching my pages nervously, with my parents and one of my sisters. I was impressed beyond measure by the whole experience – seeing the office, meeting Liz and her colleagues, the fact that there was carpet on the walls in the lift! Then Liz asked my parents to come back later, and she and one of her colleagues took me out to lunch on my own. To be treated as a grown-up was the best thing of all. At last, part way through the meal, I plucked up the courage to ask Liz whether she would publish my stories. She said yes. Few experiences in my life have matched up to that! The book became ‘Fat Puss and Friends’, with wonderful illustrations by Colin West, and was in print for about 15 years.

FCBG: Although you’ve written from a young age, ballet has also played an important role in your work life, working as you did for several years at the Royal Ballet. Which is your favourite ballet, and your favourite book about ballet? Have you any ideas for writing inspired by a ballet or an opera. (I too worked briefly at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, as a translator one season for a Hungarian opera singer).

Harriet Castor: How interesting that you worked at the Opera House too! It is a fascinating place to be. Yes, ballet has been very important to me. I went to a full-time dance school as a child, and very much wanted to dance professionally. Though I failed in that ambition, I did end up working for The Royal Ballet as a Benesh Dance Notator, which was an amazing experience. As a child I had stuck magazine pictures of dancers like Lesley Collier and Anthony Dowell above my bed… as a notator I ended up working with them in the studio, along with the likes of Darcey Bussell, Carlos Acosta and Tamara Rojo. It really was a childhood dream come true.

A single favourite ballet is very hard to choose, but I know my favourite choreographer: Kenneth Macmillan. It would be a tie, I think, between his ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and his ‘Song of the Earth’. In both cases the music is of course sublime: it’s by Prokofiev in the first instance and Mahler in the second.

My favourite book featuring ballet is perhaps ‘Prologue’, by Joan Brady. As a child, I particularly loved Lorna Hill’s books ‘A Dream of the Sadler’s Wells’ and ‘Veronica at the Wells’.

FCBG: Your most recent book, VIII, is about a historical figure everyone thinks they know something about. What challenges did this provide when writing VIII?

Harriet Castor: Huge challenges, because you could line shelves and shelves with the books written about Henry VIII, there are so many – and many of them are utterly fascinating and brilliantly written. How, I felt, could I possibly dare to add to them? But I became convinced I had something new to say. That was immensely exciting.

FCBG: How did Elton John, Robert Downey Jr and John Malkovich help you when writing VIII?

Harriet Castor: I used film clips a great deal when I was writing VIII, perhaps because I had to make great and continuing efforts to ‘overwrite’ the Holbein image of Henry in my head: I needed to replace it with something vivid, living, immediate and powerful. It’s only in my head that these clips have any connection with Henry, but that’s the nature of the creative process, isn’t it? I used several moments from different roles portrayed by Robert Downey Jr and by John Malkovich as inspiration (Malkovich is very good at rage!), and a couple of rather extraordinary Elton John videos, one featuring Robert Downey Jr (I Want Love) and one featuring Justin Timberlake (This Train Don’t Stop), to access what it might feel like to experience the isolation of a powerful and famous person. A magisterial biography of Elvis by Peter Guralnick also helped me think about that same issue – and about the nature of charisma.

FCBG: I’ve read that if you had to pick a favourite writer and just one book, you’d pick Hilary Mantel, and Wolf Hall. Have you met Mantel and talked with her about writing about the same period and some of the same characters?

Harriet Castor: No, I haven’t – what a lovely opportunity that would be! But in all honesty I can’t pick just one favourite book. The very smallest number I think I can get it down to is four: ‘Wolf Hall’ plus ‘The Thirteen Clocks’ by James Thurber, ‘The Owl Service’ by Alan Garner & ‘The Time of the Ghost’ by Diana Wynne Jones. Is that allowed?

FCBG: Since VIII, I believe you’ve been working on two books about two sisters, Queen Mary I and Queen Elizabeth I. Do you think any of your relationship with your sister appears in these two books?

Harriet Castor: I have two sisters, in fact, and one brother. In any straightforward sense, the answer is no, because Mary I and Elizabeth I grew up in circumstances very far removed from a modern nuclear family: Mary was seventeen years older than Elizabeth, for a start. But of course as a writer you are constantly drawing on your own psyche (in one way or another), and we are all deeply affected by our family experiences as children. One thing that fascinates me is that Mary and Elizabeth’s situation was, in an intriguing way, the universal sibling situation writ large: whereas classically, one might say, the older child feels knocked off their perch by the arrival of a new baby, and psychologically the subconscious fear for the older one is that of annihilation, Elizabeth was positioned very explicitly as a replacement for Mary – Mary’s status was taken away from her and transferred to Elizabeth; there was even a rumour that Elizabeth was going to be called Mary too, and their father, Henry, made it very clear at various points that he hoped Mary would die. Here we have the darkest fear that’s buried in sibling rivalry being played out!

FCBG: The Tudor period is clearly a passion for you. What other historical periods particularly appeal to you, and might we ever see them in a future novel?

Harriet Castor: Several years ago I wrote, I think, seventeen of the titles in a lovely children’s non-fiction history series called ‘Famous People, Famous Lives’ that Franklin Watts produced. I was given all sorts of people to research and write about, from Mary Seacole to William Caxton to Winston Churchill and Queen Victoria. I learnt then that, if I get deeply enough into any historical period I start to find it fascinating, so the answer to your question is… who knows!

FCBG: What’s your (ideal) working day like? Where do you write?

Harriet Castor: Because I live in the noisy chaos of a house with two young children, my dream is to have time completely on my own (well, with the cats for company). I savour a quiet house, and no prospect of being disturbed, more than I can express. However, the reality is very different. Usually my girls are awake by 6.30. Despite this, it is always somehow a struggle to get them ready for school (they will do anything but get dressed!). Then we walk to school. By about 9.20 I’m home and have made a thermos of strong coffee to take to my desk, which is in a corner of my bedroom. I work straight through until 3pm, which is when I need to go and pick my girls up. Often I will try to do a bit of work-related reading once they’re home, but it’s usually pretty impossible. I’ll hope to read again (I permanently have piles of research books on the go) once they’re in bed, but it’s very rare that I can write then – usually I’m too exhausted!

FCBG: Thank you Harriet, interviewing you has been a real pleasure. We look forward to hearing you speak on Saturday morning at conference.

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