How did you get started? And how old were you when your first book was published?
Really it’s a total lack of skill or training in any other area! I knew I wanted to write from my teenage years, so I pretty much spent the years between then and now learning to write as I might have trained to do any job. So while this meant I started early it also means I couldn’t let myself fail, or it’s back to shifts at the airport. My first novella was published when I was 23, my first novel just before I was 24.
Do you know how many books you’ve had published, or have you lost count 😉 ?
Erm. The latter I’m afraid! The count stands at five novels as Kate Johnson and two as Cat Marsters, plus twenty or so novellas. Or maybe thirty. I’m not quite sure.
You write as both Cat Marsters (paranormal/fantasy) and Kate Johnson (spy fantasies/chick-lit mysteries) What draws you to those particular areas? And which do you prefer?
Well, they’re starting to cross over now, since my last Kate Johnson book was paranormal too. I tend to use a content distinction as opposed to a genre one; by which I mean the Kate Johnson ones are mainstream and the Cat Marsters are erotic romance. As to why I write in these areas…hmm, anybody’s guess! I suppose I write what I like to read, and those are my favoured genres. I always joke that I write paranormal because then I can make stuff up instead of researching it…
In I Spy? main character Sophie is a bit mad. No getting away from it, but lovable in a daft way. What made you develop her like this, or did she just take over the story as you wrote it?
A bit from column (a) and a bit from column (b). I first wrote her when I was about 21 or 22 although she’s been refined a bit since then. Yes, I said refined. So I suppose there’s a lot of youthful energy about her and that lack of direction that’s both freeing and frightening at the same time. She’s got that early twenties ebullience, completely unaware of how young she is, and how likely failure is. She’s still, to use an analogy from her favourite TV show, not done baking yet, trying to work out who she’s going to be. The things she already knows about herself are not particularly concrete: she’s not going to be a pretty blonde forever and she doesn’t want to end up drifting and aimless.
She’s also a product of my particular hatred of weak, wimpy heroines like the ones I was forced to read for GCSE English (there’s a reason Sophie despises Tess of the d’Urbervilles). Unlike Luke, her hero, she’s not had any special training to become a spy or even take care of herself, but that doesn’t matter because no one gets to push Sophie around, at least not for long. I wanted to say that even if you’re not a highly trained operative you don’t have to be a pushover; you can always stand up for yourself, you can always fight.
I thoroughly enjoyed The Untied Kingdom, especially the contrast of the dark, desperate situation and the gallows humour. Are you now entering a more “serious” phase of your career?
Maybe. Maybe I’m growing up, although I do hope not. I think the content of my books is often quite dark, even when the tone is light. As one of my favourite writers (Joss Whedon) says, “Make it dark, make it grim, make it tough. Then for the love of god tell a joke.” I’ve been told by editors that my books are a bit gloomy for romance novels, as if they ought to be just light and fluffy all the time. Oh, how I laughed! Then shot another character.
On heroes, your website Days of the Insane, has a more than respectable scattering. I realise your undying wish is to have Richard Armitage play Major Harker in the film version of your book. But do I detect more than a little hint of Richard Sharpe in Major Harker’s character?
Indeed you do! I actually got a lot of information and ideas from not just the Sharpe series but The Sharpe Companion, which fills in a lot of the background to the books and gave me a wealth of information about a serving soldier’s daily life on the Peninsula, and the possibility (very low) of promotion from the ranks. Even how many lashes of the whip would be considered to kill a man.
There was a great description of Sharpe as “bone and muscle, not a hint of flab. In this, he was typical of virtually every infantry soldier in the Peninsula… Their hardness, toughness and fitness far surpassed the soldiers of any modern army, with the possible exception of special forces.” I wanted to write a character like that, a really heroic hero, someone who just wouldn’t fit into our modern world. Therefore, I had to invent a world for him!
The Companion also details Sharpe’s many injuries, pointing out that by the end of the war he was severely battered: “Stripped, an observer must have wondered how he was still alive.” That description stayed with me when I was writing Harker, to the extent that wondering how he’s still alive is Eve’s first question when she sees him with his shirt off.
And…oh gosh, have you noticed my crush on Mr Armitage?
To plot or not to plot? Are you a planner or do you just dive in?
I plot very little. That is to say, I don’t write things down. It’s a funny thing, but writing it down seems to spoil the process, and if I can fool my writing brain into thinking it’s making everything up as I go along, then everything works a lot better. I keep a plot loose in my head but quite often don’t have a clue where a story is going when I start writing it. I honestly didn’t know how The Untied Kingdom was going to end; on the other hand I’ve got my current Wip fairly clear in my head. Maybe that’s why it’s being so difficult about getting written!
What is the hardest part of the writing process for you?
It’s not writing so much as editing. Figuring out what I need to do to fix a book can be torturous, and so can getting edits back from an editor. Until then I can kid myself the book is perfect as it is…and then the editor does her job of finding fault with it and it’s like someone pointing out that your baby really is quite ugly!
Do you enjoy research, and how do you set about it?
I do, but I occasionally get frustrated when I can’t find the answer to a question. This is of course where it’s handy to write fantasy: I can make up the answer if I want! I get out library books, I check my own little library, I go online and–this is my new favourite way to find stuff out–I ask Twitter! Let me see if I can remember any particular research methods for The Untied Kingdom…apart from the Sharpe books and making charts of army chains of command on my computer, I seem to recall asking my brother questions about playing the guitar over a few pints in the pub.
How do you develop your characters?
Quite often they develop themselves. Harker, for instance, came from a few influences–Sharpe, as well as Terry Pratchett’s Sam Vimes and Firefly‘s Mal Reynolds–but once I started writing him he took on a life of his own. Eve, on the other hand, had no particular influences. I thought, “Hey, a washed up popstar, that’ll be fun,” and just went on from there.
While I was rewriting Run Rabbit Run, I added in a lot from the hero’s point of view and the more I wrote, the more I discovered about him. Sometimes it feels like the characters are already there, already existing, and I’m just getting to know them. I thought I knew Luke quite well, but then I wrote a few scenes, almost stream-of-consciousness, and suddenly there was a lot more depth to him.
Which authors who have influenced you?
Terry Pratchett and Jennifer Crusie, both for being clever and funny. And Joss Whedon, who created Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly and showed me that you can be funny and dark at the same time .
How do you relax? What interests do you have other than writing?
Reading, obviously. Twitter. I probably watch far too much TV and go to the cinema reasonably often. I like walking but don’t do it as often as I should, because basically I’m lazy. I sing a bit sometimes, mostly to myself because it’s not necessarily something anyone else wants to listen to.
I know you are very active on Twitter (@K8JohnsonAuthor), have your blog at http://etaknosnhoj.blogspot.com/ and a Facebook fan page https://www.facebook.com/catmarsters How do you feel these have helped your career? And how would you rate each for their usefulness to a newbie writer?
I’d rate them highly. The thing is that as a published author you’re expected to have an online presence, so you might as well practice that just as you practice your writing craft. Who knows whether a potential publisher or agent might look you up online? And you can’t discount useful connections, with other authors if nothing else, who can not only teach and advise you but also possibly talk you up!
As for how they’ve helped my career, I’ll just say that the first of the Sophie books was sold after a friend I met online recommended me to her editor. (Wow!)
Can you tell us something of your work in progress?
Well…here goes. It’s a fantasy epic about a blind slave (that’s the concise version). My hero, a warlord and privateer, belongs to an elite caste of people with supernatural gifts, which are denoted by tattoo-like markings on the skin. He finds a starved, abused slave with not one or even two of these marks, which is highly unusual, but three, which is unheard of and takes her from being the lowest wretch in the land to the most exalted. He’s a big, brutal, self confident guy, and she’s terrified of her own shadow, so the trick is to bring him down a peg or two and build her up a bit. I do like to set myself a challenge.
And finally, what advice would you give a new writer?
Don’t give up. If you quit, you get won’t published. If you keep going, you might get published. And I know ‘might’ isn’t as good as ‘will’, but it’s a lot better than ‘won’t’.
Thank you, Kate, for an excellent interview. This is where I admit to a shared fascination with Major Sharpe and thus Major Harker. And yes, heroines should be able to stand up for themselves, challenge and keep their personal integrity.
Kate’s latest, The UnTied Kingdom is thoroughly recommended. I loved it!