Catherine Webb’s Horatio Lyle (Amazon) novels are a great mix of genres, mixing crime and fantasy.
She published her first book at the age of 14 but has changed direction slightly with this new series.
Why did you choose a mix of genres in the Horatio Lyle stories? How did you find balancing the genres?
I’ve never believed that the genres have to be kept separate, or that there’s even such a thing as a book which ever sticks truly to one genre. Victorian Literature seems to be full of crime and romance; fantasy literature laden with relationships, science fiction with mystery and so on! Sure, every genre has certain clichÃ©s that it’s likely to wander into – fantasy has plenty of magic swords – but if you believe the maxim that there’s only seven stories written in all of human existence, then genres become less important than what actually happens inside the pages and are nothing more than a vague guideline to help keep a story contained! Or… to put it a better way… I am a firm believer that Colonel Mustard can be killed in the study with the dragon and that the detective investigating it can have a romantic relationship with the wicked witch while encountering horrifying things and having a bit of a giggle all at the same time.
Why the change from the more outward fantasies that you had written beforehand?
A number of reasons, I guess….
1. I’m getting old, sigh. Seven years isn’t a long time, but it is when seven years ago you were 14 years old, had a haircut like a straw igloo, went to school every day and used asthma as an excuse to get out of gym classes. I’ve read more, learnt more… I can’t believe I get to use this phrase… I’ve ‘grown as a person’ and become aware of other things and ideas. (My father wrote a ‘Dictionary of Bullshit’, the only book anyone has ever dedicated to me! – in which one entry was roughly: ‘Growing as a person: this is good. Growing as something else would not be as good.’)
2. I’ve studied history. And let’s face it, history totally rocks. And even more… history IS another country. A deeply magical, rather peculiar, recognisable and alien other country, full of stories far too strange to ever make it into fiction – even fantasy or science fiction!
3. Luck. I did English Literature at A-Level, specialising in Victorian Literature (I loathe Thomas Hardy!!); I did History at A-Level and university, running into a lot of Victorians; I did Physics A-Level and while I still don’t know what a rad is or why you need it to orbit the sun, I loved electricity and magnetism. I had an extremely brilliant Physics teacher called Miss Ingham who every lesson would bound into the classroom and go ‘now, this is interesting, I wonder why…?’ which I suspect helped a lot. And lastly, I had a very nice publisher at Little, Brown who summoned me into his office one day and said, ‘Yeah… how do you feel about Sherlock Holmes meets Invasion of the Body Snatchers?’ Which was an excellent thing, because it nudged me in a direction I’d never considered going before!
There’s a balance between science and magic. Is this a comment on the current debate on religion and science?
Not intentionally!(And to be perfectly honest, I’m not sure what the current debate between religion and science is at the moment. Science does not automatically equal atheism, since the more physicists uncover about the universe, the more unstable the model becomes, and sooner or later they’re forced to admit that quantum physics and philosophy are basically smooching together over the coffee. Likewise, religion never explained why dinosaurs don’t feature in the Bible. And ethically, I suspect that science and religion can be as much useful buddies as rival debating partners… that said, the last time I ran into this subject was while doing early modern history, when the debate came with a gunpowder aftertaste…)
I never set out to consciously attack a ‘debate’. I reason that if I care enough about anything, it will come out in the story whether I intended it or not, and that therefore the most sensible thing to do would be to tell a story first, and see what happens. I have been surprised by some of the things I get worked up about on the page!
In retrospect, if the balance between science and magic is reflecting anything in Horatio Lyle, I’d suspect it’s got more to do with the environmentalist inside me. I adore science and all its works, love machines and the things that science can do, and honestly believe that if the world is going to be saved, it’s probably going to be done by scientists. Equally, there’s no denying that if the world is going to burn, it’s probably also going to happen because of science! And that, is a worry and a troublesome thing to reconcile.
Does fantasy, especially children’s fantasy, need to be based on a logic or reality to be most effective?
Everything in literature needs to have a logic, even if its only one of self-consistency. Even Alice in Wonderland has its own, extremely twisted logic in that a law once laid down, will be obeyed. If you’re writing a world where gravity is inverted, then it must stay so unless a damn good reason is given; if you’re writing a spaceship inhabited by eight-toed baboons who communicate entirely by semaphore, then one of them suddenly can’t learn how to speak again, without offering up a good, self-consistent and logically justifiable excuse!
I guess this is kinda best shown on TV. Dr Who (which I absolutely adore and am trying to find a way to convince them to hire me that doesn’t involve the phrase ‘I’m your biggest fan!’) is a universe that could theoretically break every law of logic and reality. They can go anywhere and see anything and by this definition, almost anything can happen. But it also has to obey its own rules; the Doctor can open every lock except those conveniently deadlocked doors (forgive the nerdiness!) or the TARDIS can go anywhere in time and space but can’t jump between realities without basically blowing up. So there is logic at work, and one of the ways in which Dr Who is, I guess, so effective is because it can do anything and go anywhere, but always does stay grounded in reality. The Doctor’s companions are always as grounded as possible, with real problems and… I can’t wait to use this word… ‘issues’. (I like ‘issues’ because while it can mean sometimes just issues, it has also become the new way of saying ‘imminent disasters’ i.e. ‘Yes, well, there’s an issue with the nuclear reactor….’)
I personally like grounding fantasy in reality and then going off on a tangent – I think by twisting things we take for granted, you can make mundane things seem a little bit more magical, and that’s something that fantasy should be proud of!
Is children’s literature driven by issues, for example science, religion and racism?
I hope not; I hope children’s literature is driven by the desire to tell good and interesting stories! As a kid at my local library, the books I was told would be ‘good for you’ to read tended to tackle issues like bullying, family relationships, and so on and so forth, and I found them a great pain to read. They were trying extremely hard to discuss the ‘issues’ that the writers felt were pertinent to me, and as a result I felt anywhere between patronized, bored and disinterested. The books I enjoyed were the ones that told good stories, and more to the point, in telling such good stories they threw at me all the issues almost by stealth. Terry Pratchett I think is an excellent example – I love his books to bits, and always read them for the adventures, the characters and the stories. But there’s no denying the inherent moral core of all Pratchett’s works and the values that he related.
That said, for all I know, Pratchett may indeed have chosen to focus on the ‘issues’ and built the story around that. In which case he did it to a breathtakingly skilled degree, and I honestly did not notice myself acquiring through reading him, some of the values that I now have. Although I’m sure I did without noticing, and it was the without noticing part that probably made it so enjoyable…
Having been published whilst 14, has your perspective on writing changed as you’ve grown up?
I’m sure it has, but can’t quite put my finger on how… certainly my style as a writer has changed, because I’ve changed immensely, but in a way the extent is hard to judge. When you’re 14 you believe with absolute certainty that you are the most mature creature ever to walk the earth – when you’re 16 you feel rightly ashamed of when you were 14 and pleased to have at last come to the truth of reality and all its hardships, when you’re 18 you feel like a 7 year old again and know that the whole world knows more than you and is better prepared… when you’re 21 you feel like… well, I don’t know! I am 21 now and as a result have no objectivity whatsoever! So ask me in five years time what my perspective was when I was 21, and I hope I shall have a much better answer….I suppose from a pragmatic point of view, time hasn’t changed my commercial attitude to writing too much… when 14 I was always warned that it was a bumpy profession and I was to focus on my GCSEs damnit and only do the writing on the side. Writing still remains a pleasure rather than a painful job I have to do, and I still regard it as something of a hobby that happens to come with a salary. That said, now that university is over (at least until September) its grown in importance in my mind – but I think the inherently dodgy commercial nature of the business has always been something I’ve been aware of, mostly thanks to the warnings of my parents and agent.
Should literature be didactic or entertainment?
My Mum once told me the three cardinal rules of writing – ‘show don’t tell’, ‘slaughter your darlings’ (i.e. if you write 50 pages of text just to insert 1 joke, then don’t) and ‘put the story first’. I guess the last rule is the one I have the most sympathy for, since it seems generally the case that you will forgive a lot of fluff for a good story! While it feels shallow to say it, literature should be entertainment first. That doesn’t mean it can’t have a moral heart – in fact, I think it’s extremely important for a book to express ideas, values and morals – but these are always more effectively conveyed when they’re within a good story. A decent narrative, exciting plot, developed characters, all these things will make you sympathize and engage with the moral message far more than thinking ‘here is my message, let’s hammer it home’. Desperately trying to convey a message above the story undermines the immersion that a good book should have, because at every other page you start going ‘ah look, and now the writer is saying that about this’ rather than becoming fully involved in the story. Didacticism by stealth, hidden within entertainment, I think is far more forgivable, because the strength of the story will help any good idea become far more embedded in the reader’s mind, as the reader has become far more involved in the book.
And I reason, if you have a message that’s burning desperately inside you, then you will end up saying it. No writer is entirely in control of what they write, regardless of their good intentions – if you care passionately about the environment, then I am sure it will come out even if you’re writing a tome on sofa manufacturing in the 1980s! (The same thing applies to readers – if they care passionately about the environment, they’ll probably find it too, even if the writer had no intention of the same!)