Wednesday, 11 May 2016

In Conversation with Kate Hamer

By Gillian Hamer

Kate Hamer grew up in Pembrokeshire. She did a Creative Writing MA at Aberystwyth University and the Curtis Brown Creative novel-writing course. She won the Rhys Davies short story award in 2011 and her winning story was read out on BBC Radio 4. She lives in Cardiff with her husband. The Girl in the Red Coat (March 2015) is her first novel, recently nominated for the Costa first novel award.

Hello and welcome, Kate. Can you tell us a little about you and your writing?
Thanks! I live and work in Cardiff though I was brought up in the countryside in rural Pembrokeshire. I’ve written, essentially, since I was a child. I used to write stories, illustrate them and staple them together in books. I’m a voracious reader too. I guess I write in a similar vein to the books I love to read which are nearly always dark twisty stories which hopefully take you somewhere unexpected.

Novelist is quite a new career for you. Was taking an MA at Aberystwyth Uni the catalyst to that career change or something you’d been planning for a long time?
Writing was always there in my life, always incredibly important but for a long time something I did mainly for myself. Attending the MA was an big step, apart from anything else it was me making a commitment to writing whatever happened. Another huge moment for me was winning the Rhys Davies short story prize. Winning that was a huge boost and told me possibly I might be going along the right lines.

TGiTRC has been called a 21st Century version of Little Red Riding Hood. Did that ever occur to you whilst writing and how do you feel about the comparison?
It comparison didn’t occur to me whilst writing but it hit me between the eyes with a whack after I’d finished the first draft. I read fairy tales avidly as a child and after I realized Carmel is very much the figure of Riding Hood who has strayed off the path and who is threatened by wolves. It was only after coming to the end of that first draft that I raised my eyes to the old Victorian print of Red Riding Hood (yes, it was hanging in my hallway all along!) and thought – ‘of course! She was there all the time.’

And then the book was shortlisted for the Costa First Novel prize! How did that feel?
Absolutely one of the most incredible, stand out moments of my life. I think I stood speechless for about ten minutes after I put the phone down. It’s something I couldn’t have begun to imagine when I was writing the book. I didn’t even know if it would get published then!

There’s a lot of attention on the complexities of mother/daughter relationships in the book, is this something that’s important to you?
I think it’s a rich and interesting relationship that’s surprisingly rare in novels. When the book was published I wrote an article for The Independent newspaper about mothers and daughters in literature and I had to really hunt to find examples. It’s a great thing to write about because it’s close yet complex. Eight year old Carmel in the book is already beginning to test the boundaries with her mother. It’s a loving relationship but scratchy at the same time, sort of ‘push me, pull you.’ The bond between Beth and Carmel is absolutely the beating heart of the book.

You’re based in Wales, where I also set all of my novels, is location and setting something you consider important in your writing?
Location is a lovely thing to write about. It’s a really strange one though – I’ve tried to write about Cardiff where I live and I’ve found it really difficult. I read Maggie O’Farrell once saying something like – I don’t write about places I’ve lived because I can’t imagine them - and I totally understand what that means. It’s almost like I need to be a little bit outside of a place to write about it. I feel particularly drawn to placing narratives in the countryside too – perhaps because that’s where I was brought up. 

Do you have your own special writing place?
I work at home in one of the bedrooms. Sometimes I think it’s good to refresh things though. Part of ‘The Girl in the Red Coat’ was written in Cardiff library because I felt the need for a change of gear and sometimes changing the place I write seems to do the trick. I recently heard of someone who changes where he works with each new project – I can relate to that.

What attracts you to psychological thrillers?
I’m really interested in people and the workings of the human mind and that’s where the psych thriller squarely sits. Their own peculiarities and motivations drive the narrative. It’s what I love to read – and such a hugely broad category, Hamlet to my mind is a psych thriller – so it seems a natural place to go when I come to write. 

Would you ever like to write in a completely different genre? If so what would it be and why?
I have a plot idea for a sci-fi novel though whether I’ll ever write it I don’t know. It appeals to me because you can really push the boundaries with sci-fi. Having said that it’s the relationships that would still propel the story forward. I don’t think it matters what time you’re in, for me that’s always going to be the case. Maybe one day…!

Are you a regimented plotter or do you go where the story takes you?
A bit of both. With ‘The Girl in the Red Coat’ I wrote the beginning and then very soon after the last few paragraphs so I always knew where I was heading although there were twists and turns along the way. I did the same with my second novel that I’ve just finished the first draft of and I’ve just started a third with the same method, so it seems to be a bit of a pattern!

If you could give three top tips to newbie writers – what would they be?Trust your instincts with the story. If you feel that excitement in your gut then go with that.

Read everything you can lay your hands on. Read your fellow contemporary authors. It lets you know what’s current but it also supports real living writers too.

If you feel a bit stuck don’t sit there staring at the screen. Take your characters for a walk. Chances are with them strolling alongside you they’ll start speaking to you again and you’ll soon be racing back to the computer to get it all down.

Finally, how is the ‘difficult second book’ coming along – and has it been more difficult than the first to write or not?
I’ve finished the first draft. It’s a dark coming of age tale about family secrets. It’s been a very different experience writing it. With your debut nobody has a clue (or cares) what you are doing. With the second one that’s obviously not the case but I just decided to forget everything and concentrate on the page every day. I think that’s all you can do as a writer. Each new page is a new journey.

The Girl in the Red Coat by Kate Hamer is out now (Faber & Faber, £6.99)

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