Katharina Marcus is a brilliant YA author. I first came across her when I read (and reviewed) her first book, Eleanor McGraw, a Pony Named Mouse and a Boy Called Fire. Her Boys Don’t Ride blew me away, and was my book of last year (in case you’re wondering, there won’t be an equestrian fiction review this year as I simply haven’t read enough to be able to comment). There are some great perks to working as an editor, one of which is working on books that you love, and earlier this year I worked on Katharina’s latest, The Boy with the Amber Eyes. It’s the sequel to Eleanor McGraw, and I am biased, but it is a great read. I’ve done links below the interview if you’d like to try any of the books.
I was delighted when Katharina agreed to an interview. So, over to Katharina...
JB: Why do you write?
KM: Honestly? I have no idea. It’s a stupid thing to do. It doesn’t make any money; it makes you psychologically unavailable to your children, husband and ponies; it makes you pace up and down in your kitchen; it is boring, annoying, painful and often feels like a complete waste of time. But I do it anyway. And for some unfathomable reason I’m glad I do.
JB: Do you plot everything carefully, or launch in and see what happens?
KM: Hm. Neither, really. Plans are there to divert from. And it isn’t the same process with every piece.
With Eleanor McGraw I had her voice, the character of Blueberry Mouse [the pony – Mouse – of the title] and only the vaguest idea for a story yet a very strong image for an ending. I did write out a rudimentary synopsis which I found a little while ago. It had very little to do with the finished product but the ending is still the original ending. There was a distinct moment in the process when the story took a completely different turn from what I had originally planned. I remember coming down to dinner one night and saying to my husband: “Oh dear, this has just gone into a direction I really wasn’t expecting.” The thing is, that particular turn became the most integral part of the story and I was already half way through! Pike just dropped this bombshell on me and I thought, “Great, cheers mate, you just made this book totally unpalatable to most people.” But that was his story, so I wrote it. I often feel like I am at the mercy of my characters, to be honest. It’s a funny relationship I have with the people in my head – I’m as much at their mercy as they are at mine. Thankfully I was wrong: people haven’t found it unpalatable. I should have given them more credit.
With Boys Don’t Ride, on the other hand, there wasn’t a plan at all. I’d just met a girl through work who inspired the character of Liberty and I started writing one rainy morning and it turned into this beautiful, gentle piece that I still can’t believe came from my pen.
The Boy with the Amber Eyes, well, that particular process was chaos theory at its finest but, like with Eleanor McGraw, I did have a very strong sense of what happens in the end. I wrote the ‘John’s study’ scene almost first. But that didn’t stop certain people from turning up and all sorts of other things from happening until that part of the story became just one element. The friendship aspect became much more important. Let me put it this way: until about two days before I sent it to you for editing, the title was Fire & Ash, hence the [reason that was the] dedication.
JB: How do you fit writing into your life?
KM: With great difficulty.
Real ponies, real children and the real work that feeds them and pays for the farrier and/or new pairs of Converse always have to come before imaginary people – often to the chagrin of said fictitious folk. One of the characters in The Boy with the Amber Eyes got so annoyed with me for having been left crying by a water trough for months she started appearing my dreams, pressing me to get a move on.
What does help is that I go through phases of insomnia. It’s one of the characteristics Pike and I share. So when I’m in one of my sleepless cycles I get a lot of writing done; usually between 4am and 7am, before I get the kids up and ready for school. When the house is quiet and reality hasn’t had a chance to infringe upon my imagination yet.
By and large it all greatly depends on what else is happening in my life on the work front. Because I am mostly self employed and client work tends to change rhythm frequently, plus in many cases is entirely weather dependent, I might have a couple of months when I have so little work on I can get half a novel written but then afterwards writing might not get a look in for half a year, as was the case when the water trough incident occurred. It’s useful that I am capable of holding a thought almost indefinitely. So, usually, once I get back to the story, I can slip straight back in. I pin that particular ability on my wasted youth as a barfly - holding a singular conversation over numerous nights while my best friend had to keep flitting off to serve people.
JB: Can you tell me about your own horses? How much do they inform what happens in your books?
KM: You’ll find my two geldings’ alter egos in Boys Don’t Ride (the ebook of which is still free by the way, pretty much everywhere now – Amazon, ibooks, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and Smashwords) as the characters of Oliver and Titch.
Blueberry Mouse, the pony who runs Hawthorne Yard in Eleanor McGraw and The Boy with the Amber Eyes, is very much an amalgamation of my two mares. The little one lent Blueberry her height, colouring, paces and ridability. The bigger one, also known as the equine love of my life, gave the fictitious pony her wisdom, sociability, kindness and humour.
In fairness though, I think all the horses I have ever met, ridden or worked with have informed my books. That’s especially true for The Boy with the Amber Eyes. I don’t own a stallion but I’ve worked with stallions and without those experiences I couldn’t have written Inigo. By the same token, I don’t own a 17hh Grand Prix Warmblood either (I wish) but I was lucky enough be allowed to ride one at one point. Again, without that experience certain elements in The Boy with the Amber Eyes wouldn’t have been written. You could say that client horses are the butter to the bread provided by my own four.
My own four keep me humble, amused, on my toes and, above all, grounded. What I come home to is a bunch of woolly, mud-caked Natives, all of whom are under 14.2hh. I’m lucky because at the grand height of 5ft1½ I never had to grow out of ponies. I like horses and they are generally easier to work with but I infinitely prefer ponies. Occasionally I look at my little herd and think, “I should get a bigger one, buy a proper horse.” Usually this is preceded either by one of my taller riding relatives or friends coming to stay and having to pleat their legs around a pony’s belly, or by an especially wonderful ride on someone else’s horse. But at the end of the day, I don’t have the space in my paddock, the scope in my finances or the time in my schedule to add another, big or small, and I would never ever swap any of my existing crowd.
JB: Why do you write about horses, and not, say, crime fiction?
KM: Who says I don’t write crime fiction? In actual fact, the story I tentatively started working on last week could be called a psychological thriller. It does have a horse in it, right from the start even, but if I stick with that particular project I don’t think the animals will be as important as they are around Hawthorne Cottage, or for Liberty and Tull. That said, I tend to get bored if there aren’t horses to write. I’ve been writing for a very long time and in all sorts of guises but I’ve found that only two things seem to make me see a project through to completion: if it is either a commissioned job or if it has a horse in it. I have a drawer full of half finished sci-fi and non-horsey contemporary stories but I simply lose interest if there isn’t a muck heap in sight.
JB: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given about writing?
KM: Stop moaning and get on with it.
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Thank you very much Katharina.
If you want to try Katharina’s work for free, Boys Don’t Ride is available as a free download all over the place (I’ve linked to Amazon, but it’s available on ibooks, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and Smashwords too). It’s £3.50 as a paperback. Eleanor McGraw is £5.99 as a paperback, and £1.60 as a Kindle edition. The Boy with the Amber Eyes is £7.99 asa paperback, and £1.60 as a Kindle edition.