January 19, 2016

Katherine Catmull

A maker of literary magic
Interview by
We spoke with Katherine Catmull about fairy-making, being a little bit weird and what it means to hold "the moon in your mouth."
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Clare Macleod has always paid a bit more attention to the magic around her, “the Strange,” those dreamlike moments that feel as spooky as Halloween. Living with her father in Texas, she did her best to keep this to herself—never mentioning fairy-makings, closing up her creativity so it almost didn’t exist, except for a bit of poetry. But when Clare and her father return to her former home in Ireland, she finds it impossible to ignore the Strange around her. Her house in Skye is part of a fairy road which draws her into a spirit world that only she can protect.

Much of The Radiant Road is about addressing your “true” self, recognizing truth as beauty and seeing that beauty in yourself. What do you think Clare does well in this pursuit? What do you wish you could be better at in your own search for truth?
Thank you for pulling out that thread. I think I mean that in your actions, you’re not just finding but also building your true self—you might call it your soul, the way Jung talks about soul. The place where you’re deep and authentic. And you are building and re-building—making and remaking—all the time. The way in a dream you are choosing and making at every moment.

One thing I love about Clare is how when she makes a terrible mistake, she owns it and then does everything she can to fix it. That’s the harder, better, cooler choice.

Clare is a lot better than I am at learning about to be brave. I still have trouble with that. I do share her stubbornness, which turns out to be a useful substitute for courage sometimes (though of course sometimes it’s the opposite of useful).

You’ve mentioned that the art of Andy Goldsworthy inspired the fairy makings of The Radiant Road. What is it about his art that spoke to you?
Andy Goldsworthy, for anyone who doesn’t know—and if you don’t, go Google him right now and get your mind blown—works with nature. That is, he builds his pieces out of what he finds at natural sites, and then he leaves them there to transform, decay and die with the seasons, just like we do. That helped me think through what might be attractive about Time to the artists of Timeless.

I also like how he works in collaboration with nature, doesn’t bring in a lot of machines and tools to force and bend the world to his will. His way of making is similar to the one the yew is teaching Clare, a kind of focused play with what’s at hand.

Also, though . . . I mean if you ran into a Goldsworthy piece deep in a forest, how would you not think of fairies right away?

Did you find yourself noticing potential “fairy-makings” while writing this book? Did you make your own?
Well I’ve seen a murmuration or two, and they’re extraordinary.

And while otherwise nothing I’ve seen is in the class of Clare’s sightings, there have been many little moments of Strange. Here’s one example. When I was in Ireland, standing at the edge of the lake (the one that became the lake Clare runs across), a swan swam straight up to me, until we were facing each other. She tapped the water with her beak three times, stared at me for a moment, then swam away—leaving behind one lovely, long white feather, which I still have. A swan is big part of my previous book, Summer and Bird, so it felt like a sort of blessing or baton pass from my first book to this new one.

Clare is drawn to the image of a girl running across the sea, “on a path made by moonlight.” This moonlit path was inspired by a book you loved as a child, Maida’s Little Shop. What other books have most influenced this book, and your writing in general? What part of The Radiant Road do you hope will become a part of young readers?
In terms of influences on my writing, Philip Pullman inspired me not only with the beauty and brilliance of his books, but also with the idea that you can (and probably must) write about complex subjects for young people.

I wouldn’t presume to hope bits of my book would stick with readers! And I don’t know how to guess what would. Probably the writer of Maida’s Little Shop would never have guessed that one tiny fragment would stick in someone’s mind so hard and turn up transformed in another book. I love the unpredictability of that.

Many of the descriptions of nature and making were so dreamlike, I felt like I was reading a bedtime story, something to read aloud before falling asleep. Was that your intention?
Not exactly, but that’s extremely lovely! As both a writer and a reader, I am especially drawn to narrative voice, so for good or ill my books usually have a strong voice, I think—something you can hear in your head, if you listen.

When Clare is away from Ireland, she makes an effort to protect the strangeness in herself and not let it be changed too much by the judgment of the world. What childhood strangenesses did you protect in yourself?
I am sure most everyone has that feeling—“I’m the weirdo here”—and I did, too. Like when you’re super excited to tell someone about your new passion, and they look at you blankly—or with a little, baffled laugh: “You are so funny.” (I got that one a lot.) Or worse.

I think that’s why so many teenagers absolutely shut down their creative impulse—it’s just so painful when you hand someone your heart on the page (or in a song or painting or whatever) and they drop it on the floor and walk on. No wonder we protect ourselves. It’s not worth it, though. You honestly get used to the people who don’t like your stuff or the many (MANY) more who just have zero interest. It doesn’t matter. You’re making your self as you make. Keep making.

As Clare ventures further into the fairy world, one of the greatest and most terrifying tasks she must accomplish is to meet her beast, a type of fantastical soul mate. What would your beast be? (You don’t have to tell us—that’s a very personal question!)
It’s a great question, though. I thought about it while writing, and the one thing I felt is that it would come out of the ocean. Wild oceans are always crashing around the outskirts of my dreams. When I was quite small, I had a terrible fear of whales—I think early traumatization by Monstro in Pinocchio. So maybe my beast is a whale. I do think we fear our beasts. I am fascinated with whales now, but if I met one I’m sure I’d be scared breathless.

In her adventure to preserve the connection between human and fairy worlds, Clare ends up carrying a moon in her mouth. In your acknowledgments, you thank your yoga teacher for teaching the practice of having “the moon in your mouth.” What does it mean to have “the moon in your mouth”?
I stole that from a yoga practice sometimes taught by a teacher here in Austin, Steve Ross (whose Scottish accent I also borrowed for Clare’s father—hi Steve! thanks). I was really caught by the image. Part of the practice is that during the asanas, you’re holding this cool moon in your mouth, very gently, your teeth parted to make room for it, your lips closed. And the moon’s cold floods your bones (which doesn’t sound nice here in January, but in August in Austin, it is GREAT). I am not sure what the practice officially intends, but for me it’s that sense of reverently, carefully, holding something sacred, tucked inside you like a nesting egg.

What do you love most about writing for young readers?
You know what, it’s really things like that story above. I can be caught by an image like “hold the moon in your mouth” and follow it through to see what that would actually be like, and why you might do it, and young people will stick with me, whereas many adults would be, “But how could you actually hold the moon in your mouth? That really doesn’t make sense: Are you very large? Or has the moon shrunk? Is the moon no longer in the sky, isn’t there a worldwide uproar about that?” IT’S A STORY Y’ALL, JUST ROLL. Kids will roll.

When you’re not writing novels for young readers, what do you like to do?
Lots of things, but one is acting! I’ve been a stage actor in Austin for decades. It’s terrifying and tremendously liberating. Talk about throwing yourself on the wind and letting it bear you up—yes, every time you step out on stage. I also write plays sometimes. And I love to read, of course. Cook a little. Hike in the woods. I also have a weird talent for and attraction to long, lonely road trips.

What are you working on next?
I’m only partway into a draft, so who knows what may happen. But right now it’s about wilderness. It starts in a little town on the edge of a big Wild, and there’s a girl who is herself a kind of edge between human and Wild.

Get the Book

The Radiant Road

The Radiant Road

By Katherine Catmull
ISBN 9780525953470

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