Interview with Catherine Zebrowski

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It’s our favorite time of year. If you’re longing to curl up next to a fire with a new book, then we just may have the book for you. If you have been lucky enough to attend one of Catherine Zebrowski’s readings, then you may have already placed her novel, Sleepwalking Backwards, on your to-read list. If not, this is your chance to learn more about this prominent author and her work.

 

  1. Catherine, can you tell us a little bit about all of your different published projects? You write in a variety of genres, is that correct?

I have published two books of poetry through lulu.com and recently published my first novel, Sleepwalking Backwards, with TouchPoint Press. Much of my poetry in the books I have published so far was inspired by stories I heard from my Irish mother who grew up on the West Coast of Ireland. In my work, there are some similarities in these two very different genres. I have tended to write narrative poems that often contain characters either named or inferred. Alternately, many people have commented that the writing style in my novel is very poetic.

I would say the biggest difference in these two genres is that in poetry you try to say as much as you can in each word. With a form so short often each word has multiple meanings and there is very close attention to rhythm. One of the hard things about reading poetry from the page that is truly a spoken form. When I read poetry I usually read it out loud, and, when I am revising poems, I always read them out loud. With fiction, especially something as long as a novel, there is more of a concern with which word is right for the particular sentence. Again you choose words that will give as much meaning as possible, but in the cast of fiction, this might be the mood of the characters, the personality of the characters or even a local accent.

2. Can you expand on the different genres that your works cross and how you view that shift?

I like to mix genres in my writing. I like stories that blend mystery, the everyday life, and the supernatural. I would also say I think all good stories do that in either an obvious or an implied way. I think the idea of genres is useful but the best stories combine them all and sometimes putting a story into a specific genre is difficult because it can pigeon-hole readers, as well as, writers.

3. Does your writing reflect what is on your bookshelf?

I guess I would have to say yes and no. I like novels that somehow make me feel something strongly and stories that make me laugh and cry. I try to put that range of emotion into my stories. I also like authors that can stir up anger and fright while I am reading – anything that leaves me thinking is a good story. I also like reading biographies of writers and artists, fiction and non-fiction about Ireland, and, of course, poetry.

4. We’re lucky to have you part of our team. How did you find/choose TouchPoint Press? How involved were you in the publishing process?

I heard of TPP when a professor at Worcester State University got a mystery novel published by your company. I saw how pleased she was with the process and her book. Both the cover and the printed page were very attractive when it came out. I felt very involved in the process. I had never worked with an editor before, and that went really well. For the cover, I spent three pictures a friend took from his backyard observatory as ideas to the media department hoping they would use one and they used all three pictures in a college type cover that came out beautiful.

5. What have you learned over your many years of publishing?

I’ve learned that when a work is about to be published, it can include certain decisions about content that did not have to be made earlier. There was one poem that I had been working on for a long time, and I really liked the last line but thought it was not quite right for the ending to that particular piece but could not get rid of it. When I decided to have it published I did make the decision to get rid of it in that poem but, of course, I am using that line in my new collection – I just somehow could not totally let it go.

In Sleepwalking Backwards I had to make several decisions, and one of my dilemmas has to do with changing the name of a university where one of my characters worked. I have a mixture of real and imaginary places in Worcester in my novel and back when I wrote the first few drafts I made up a place called Worcester University. In the meantime, Worcester State College became Worcester State University. I knew this would be confusing for some readers but the actual description of the building in the fictionalized university mirrored my character’s personality and her comfort with everything old, so I decided to keep it as originally written.

6. You started writing when you were young so what was the moment when you considered yourself a “real” writer? How do you feel about those childhood writings now?

I wrote my first story when I was, I think, ten years old. I gave in to the nun to keep after she edited some of the spelling. It was pretty funny. It was about five pages long and included illustrations. It was called Tony and his Cat. In the first chapter the cat wandered into the yard, in the second chapter Tony played with the cat, and in the last chapter the cat either died or wandered away. That was my last stab at story writing for a long time as I then began writing poetry and came back to novel writing about two decades later. I guess I always felt somewhat like a storyteller.

7. Do you have a writing/editing pet peeve?

I can’t read anything that is full of clichés. There have been some novels highly recommended because of their storylines and breakthrough ideas, but I have been unable to read past a few pages because the wording was dull and overused. I love how a story is told as much as the story itself.

8. If you didn’t write, what interesting thing would you want people to know for you?

That’s kind of a hard one. Once I wanted to be a biologist, but I have lots of allergies to the outdoors. So now I just observe nature through windows and write about it.

9. What question are you dying to answer?

I would like to ask myself if I feel compelled to start new drafts of the novel I wrote about 9th Century Ireland.

10. Hmmm, I wonder what you answered. You have talked in the past about how you love creating multi-dimensional characters and character-driven stories. How much do you pull from your own life to create those characters? Do you believe real life inspiration important for characters?

In my writing, I do sometimes pull from my own life. For instance, my characters from the 70s, Gloria, goes to Worcester State College the same years I did but she is not me, her politics are different from mine, and the family she grew up is very different from mine.

11. Are there any books you could never get rid of from your bookshelf?

There are many. I guess I will start with a book called The Sleepwalkers by Arthur Koestler which was a huge inspiration in writing my novel Sleepwalking Backwards. In it, Koestler describest he great accomplishments of the early astronomers such as Newton and Kepler along with their obsessive and odd behaviors. It is a book full of knowledge and entertainment, and the title is from the fact that he felt that they were like sleepwalkers going through their lives coming up with very profound scientific facts while hardly realizing the significance of what they had discovered. He also showed them as real people, though geniuses, with worries of family and survival.

Okay, I will just list a few writers both whose book and biographies I could never get rid of: Yeats, Oscar Wilde, Mary Shelly, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickenson, Dylan Thomas, William Trevor, Joyce Carol Oates, Margaret Atwood, and James Joyce along with a biography of his wife, Nora.

12. Has a book ever made you laugh out loud or cry? What emotions do you enjoy eliciting from your readers?

I love when a book makes me laugh out loud or cry which happened fairly recently. I consider that the measure of an extraordinary storyteller. I also like when a book makes me feel scared or uncomfortable. I like being jarred by a story. I definitely want to make people feel emotions deeply when they read my work.

13. What is a non-literary inspiration that has helped you?

I am often inspired by observing nature and also be everyday unexpected happenings. I love history, and that is also an inspiration for my writing.

14. How long does it take you to finish a writing project? Do you find writing energetic or exhausting? How do you get it all done?

My novels usually take many years to write. In the past, when possible, I tried to carve out at least three mornings a week to work on a project. Sometimes work and etc. would keep me from that schedule. When I am working on something as long as a novel, I usually have a goal of about four or five pages in these few morning hours. Sometimes I come up with more, sometimes less. I will sit for that time at the computer and revise if nothing new is coming to me. When I am very involved in a novel, I am kind of thinking about it all the time and ideas will come to me all times of the day that I try to remember and write down.

15. It takes a disciplined person to keep those writing “appointments” when they aren’t feeling particularly inspired. Just curious…did you ever consider publishing under a pseudonym?

At one time I was thinking of publishing my poetry about Ireland under my mother’s maiden name – McDonaugh.

16. How do you balance your writing life with your work and family life? Do you consider writing a second job?

The one good thing about getting older is I am now retired so I have the time to accomplish more with my writing. For many years, I struggled with that issue of time when I was working and raising a family.

17. That sounds like it’s much easier! Could you tell me something a habit or routine that you follow while writing? Do you have a “writing kryptonite”?

I need to have a quiet room surrounded by books, pictures, and other objects that have significance to me and the room must have many windows. I think observing nature has always been my kryptonite.

18. Back to your TouchPoint Press novel, Sleepwalking Backwards, and your current writing plans. We were so excited to see it appearing on shelves this year. Can you tell me anything about your future writing plans? Are you planning a sequel for your characters?

Right now I am involved in working on another poetry manuscript that is quite different from the others I have published. The working title is The Warped Floor, and many of the poems are about nature and what goes on under the earth. I have a rough draft of a novel I wrote several years ago that I have been working on lately. It is a historical novel that takes place in 9th Century Ireland.

Sorry, Sleepwalking Backwards fans. It looks like we won’t be expecting a sequel. But we are looking forward to seeing more brilliant novels from Catherine in the future!

19.  What is something that you want your readers to know?

I guess that I am excited to have readers and I really appreciate that they take the time to read and enjoy my novel. I have gotten some wonderful comments in terms of depth of character and readers who seem to care about the characters. That makes me very happy. I would like to say a huge thank you to everyone who has read the book.

20. And the million dollar question: What does literary success look like to you?

To me, literary success means I have written and published a novel, and I get to go to libraries and bookstores and meet with people to talk about the novel which always brings up other interesting topics. I have met many people and had interesting conversations promoting my book in the last few months.

 

Yep, it’s all about the relationship between the author and the readers. Like our facebook page to find out the time and location of Catherine Zebrowski’s next reading.

And learn more about the author and her work here.

 

 

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