YA in SA: Interview with Cat Hellisen

Credit Nerine and Thomas Dorman

1. Hi Cat, until Joe at Something Wicked suggested you I must admit that you had not popped up on my radar, would you care to introduce yourself to readers that may know your book but not you and for those that are meeting you (virtually) for the first time?

Hi Matt, thanks for getting hold of me (and thanks Joe for the props). I live in Muizenberg, which is a village-by-the-sea inside a bigger village by the sea, basically. I grew up in Cape Town and Johannesburg, so while I write secondary world fantasy, being South African definitely influences my writing. I’m a huge music fan, and occasionally I like to torture my family and animals by playing the ukulele at them.

2. When the Sea is Rising Red your first novel is a fantasy laced with magic, vampires, young love, rebellion and a steep divide between the rich and poor. Have you always been a fan of fantasy literature?

Very much so. My earliest reading memories are of being engrossed in my Story Tellers, which were a series of tapes and magazines with stories that ranged from traditional fairy tales to poetry and various other weird and wonderful things. I think a lot of children’s literature is perfectly okay with the fantastical, and it’s only when we venture into the adult section that the battle lines are more clearly drawn. These days I’m very easily bored by a lot of fantasy. I like stuff that plays with tropes, or language, or brings new ideas to the genre.

3. Do you think that inserting social issues into novels (addressing social issues and the divides between rich and poor) helps readers identify more closely with the characters?

I have no idea. I think that in paranormal and fantasy YA there’s been a trend to make the main characters as one-dimensional and non-threatening as possible, perhaps to make it easier for readers to slip themselves into the story – the character is nothing more than a place holder. I find that insulting to most readers and I don’t enjoy books like that. I prefer stories that give me characters with meat and bones and flaws and failures – something that contemporary YA currently seems to do better. Social issues are perhaps a part of filling out the dimensions of character, but not if they feel tacked on or extraneous to the story.

Some of my favourite recent YA has done interesting things with character and society: Chime – Franny Billingsley; Slice of Cherry – Dia Reeves; Shadows Cast By Stars – Catherine Knutsson, and Above – Leah Bobet.

I can’t speak for how anyone else writes, but for myself I like to write characters who feel real, and that sometimes means not entirely likeable.

4. Who were your favourite writers when you were a YA reader (and were you a reader as a teen)?

I read voraciously as a teen, but mostly from the adult section. It’s only now as an adult I find myself reading more YA. Probably because a lot of what used to get shelved as fantasy or urban fantasy is being marketed towards teens now, and possibly because there’s simply more variety in teen-lit these days. My favourite authors as a teen were David Gemmel, Stephen King, Clive Barker, Diana Wynne Jones and Gene Wolfe.

5. When the Sea is Rising Red was published in New York by Farrar Straus Giroux (a Macmillan imprint) – how did you bypass local publishers and end up with an international deal?

When I first began querying my (unpublished) novels, there were no publishers in South Africa (and I think it’s still the case) who dealt with fantasy. It wasn’t so much that I bypassed them as I had to look overseas to find an agent and a publisher. I spent a lot of time hanging around on the Absolute Write forums, where I learned a great deal from publishing people who are way smarter and more experienced than me, and then I began querying. And carried on. And carried on. And kept writing. (A good thing because those early books are too awful to contemplate.)

6. Do you ever visit schools or libraries in South Africa and have you considered Skype visits for international virtual visits and if you answer yes to either of those questions what is the best way to get into contact with you to arrange visits?

I haven’t visited any schools. I’m weirded out by the idea because I don’t really know what I could possibly say that isn’t some variation of – “the info is out there, learn, and prepare to grit your teeth and keep going in the face of failure.” I believe I’m supposed to be doing some virtual book tour thing in the near future along with some fantastic YA writers, but details are a little hazy at this point.

7. What influenced your decision to write for teen readers?

I don’t really think I write for teen readers specifically, more that I wrote a book that could be marketed towards the YA audience. I write what I like to read, and then it gets labelled to sell. Hah, that sounds horribly cynical, but really, I just write stories, I don’t usually have a particular audience in mind.

8. What is your favourite part of the writing process?

When I read something months later, and am pleasantly surprised by the bits I enjoy.

9. The SA YA writing pool seems to be incredibly small, can you recommend other SA authors that you enjoy reading? (I currently have you, S.A. Partridge, Lily Herne and Michael Williams as well as Liz Davis from Namibia)

S.A. Partridge is much better at this than I am. Heh. Most of the YA writers here concentrate on contemporary, and I’m mainly a fantasy reader. I’m sure that there are fantasy YA writers out there in SA, I just don’t think I know of any off-hand. Sadly.

10. Are you currently working on anything new or do you have anything planned for the near future?

I’ve a couple of books on sub to editors at the moment; a scary enough thing in itself. To distract me from that I’m working on a very dark little children’s book and another story.

Thank you for taking the time to answer these questions

It was my pleasure 😀 Thanks for inviting me to be a part of your YA in SA series.

You can find Cat online at her website www.cathellisen.com/

or on Twitter at twitter.com/hellioncat

One Thought on “YA in SA: Interview with Cat Hellisen

  1. Sandi J. on August 7, 2012 at 11:24 am said:

    Great interview. I read WTSIRR, and I loved it. The characters were fascinating, and the story was completely unpredictable. I follow Cat on Twitter. She’s one of my favorite authors because she’s witty, nice, and has a wicked sense of humor. I can’t wait to read her next work.

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