Women in SFF Author Spotlight – Cat Hellisen (WHEN THE SEA IS RISING RED)
Cat Hellisen writes fantasy for adults and children. She has lived in Cape Town, Johannesburg, Knysna, and Nottingham, and currently lives in Fife, Scotland, where the forests and the fields and the Forth provide constant inspiration.
Since she grew up in a series of libraries, Cat has always preferred reading to just about anything else. Even though as a child she assumed all writers were already dead, she figured that at some point they must have been alive and so she set out to write her own stories. (They were almost invariably about dogs. Magical dogs.) It took many years before she actually wrote something which other people wanted to read. Along the way, she discovered that having hobbies outside of books was actually a fun thing, and she has done belly dancing, archery, aikido, running, and figure skating.
Welcome to the Hive, Cat. Let’s start small: tell us about a great book you’ve read recently!
It’s actually one I’m reading right now, so I’m savouring it: Alix E Harrow’s The Ten Thousand Doors of January. It’s pretty much everything I want from sff, and it’s giving me all the feels.
Okay, time to escalate things: reality warps and you suddenly find yourself leading a D&D-style party through a monster-infested dungeon. What character class are you, and what’s your weapon of choice?
I have never really played D&D, though my daughters are HUGELY into it. My youngest tried to introduce me with a campaign (for one, lol) she was DMing and I played a tiefling Bard who thought he was actually a human. He was a terrible bard and actor. (And a terrible human). He used daggers, but he also played the ukulele so badly that it probably counts as a weapon.
When you’re not trawling through dungeons, how do you like to work? (In silence, with music, or serenaded by the damned souls of a thousand dead shrimps? Do you prefer to type or to hand-write? Are you an architect or a gardener? A plotter or a pantser? D’you write in your underwear, or in a deep-sea diver’s suit?)
I work with silence and music, but I hate working near people, so no coffee shop writing for me. I use a computer because I can’t read my own writing. (I have problems holding a pen properly for long periods of time. I think my hands just never understood how to do it.)
Tell us a little bit about your writing method!
- come up with a first line
- start writing
- write about 80 000 words trying to work out what the story is
- scream and give up in despair
- come back 1 year later, write another 50 000 words
- realise what the story is about and who these characters are and what they want
- revise endlessly
I think this is the first process we’ve been given in list format!
What (or who) are your most significant female fantasy influences? Are there any creators whom you dream of working with someday?
Well, I wouldn’t even dream of working with them because I think they’re all dead. I grew up thinking all writers were dead already, so it’s not a huge shock, I suppose. The writers who shaped me are Angela Carter, Diana Wynne Jones, Ursula K le Guin, and Tanith Lee. I once saw Tanith Lee on a panel, and was too shy to go up afterwards and tell her just how much her work meant to me. She was so much larger than life and more than a little terrifying. And the next year she was dead, and I’m still sad I never told her.
What was the last thing you watched on TV and why did you choose to watch it? Alternatively, what games have you enjoyed recently?
The Younger Spawn and I are currently rewatching New Doctor Who, and we’re on season 10, so that’s pretty much taken up any free tv time I might have had.
The world shifts, and you find yourself with an extra day on your hands during which you’re not allowed to write. How do you choose to spend the day?
Sleeping. I currently only get through my days by taking 600mg of caffeine, so… I need a good long induced coma, I think.
Can you tell us a little something about your current work(s) in progress?
I’ve just finished a story about a magician with no magic, who is actually his own ancestral house. It’s the waaaaangstiest thing I have ever written, which is high levels of wangst. I’m a fan, clearly. I’ll need to revise that when it comes back from beta readers. In the mean time, I’m working on an interlinked series of short stories in which the dead tell their versions of fairy tales to a live human muse trapped in the afterlife.
What’s the most (and/or least) helpful piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
The most helpful was ‘everything can be fixed in revisions’. As someone who can get a bit caught up in things not being perfect, and spiralling into self-destruction, it’s a useful little mantra to remember.
Every writer encounters stumbling blocks, be it a difficult chapter, challenging subject matter or just starting a new project. How do you motivate yourself on days when you don’t want to write?
I often don’t. Everyone is different, but if I know it’s just perfectionism brain talking, I open up what I call ‘the square brackets of absolution’, which gives me a space to write as terribly as I like without judgement. It’s helpful for getting the words to flow. But if I’m stuck because I’m blocked, that’s usually a sign for me to step away, refill the well, and trust my subconscious to untangle the problem. Be it in weeks or months.
If you could visit any country at any point in history, where/when would you go, and why?
South Africa a hundred years into the future, because my dream is that it will be a powerhouse, and a Future Country that will work through all its problems and show the world the way. Also it’s the most beautiful country in the worlds, she said, for no reason whatsoever which has anything to do with where she was born.
Who are your favourite female characters in literature or pop culture? And do you have a favourite type of female character you enjoy writing?
I enjoy the warrior women characters, but I also, depending on who wrote them and why, sometimes feel a little annoyed by them. So I tend to write and enjoy women who don’t rely on physical strength (or at least, don’t always) to get by. I like spies, and women with brains and many useful, underappreciated skills. I like the kind of stories where women win not because of a sword, but because of a needle.
Tell us about a book that’s excellent, but underappreciated or obscure.
Beth Bernobich, who now writes as Claire O’Dell, is one of those writers who was criminally underlooked. She wrote several fantasy novels, but I especially enjoyed her science fantasy The Time Roads, because it’s an alternative history with time travel, with spies and revolutionaries, so everything I love, basically.
Ooh I love a good alternative history!
Finally, would you be so kind as to dazzle us with an elevator pitch? Why should readers check out your work?
If you like lush language, evocative world-building, characters who are morally grey, often queer, and always human no matter how unhuman they are, then I’m probably your writer. Add in lashings of weirdness and body horror and very messed-up romance, and then I’m definitely it.
Thank you so much for joining us today Cat!