Meet Catherine Cheek, or Kater if you know her. You gotta love a woman with pink hair (at least it was pink when we met at World Fantasy Convention last fall–my god, has it really been almost a year?). As so often happens at conventions like WFC, amidst a lot of “Where do I know your name from….”, Kater knew who I was because of having read Heart of the Ronin for Adventures in Sci-Fi Publishing, and she walked right up and introduced herself to me. Several interesting conversations later over the course of the convention, here we are.
Kater is a writer, artist, and webcomic publisher from the Southwest. She’s one of those people for whom creating art (in all its forms) IS life. You can check out her broad spectrum of work at her website www.catherinecheek.com. What we’re talking about today, however, is writing.
TH: Can you give a brief arc of your career as a writer/author?
CC: In 2002 I had a very depressing year. I needed a project to lose myself in, and television sucks, so I decided to write a novel. I enjoyed writing it so much I wrote two more within a couple of months, ignoring just about everything but the words on the page, and completing them unsustainably fast (about a month each). It pulled me out of my depression, and by the time I was done with the third one, I thought, “Hmm. Maybe I’m a writer.” All my friends said “duh,” but it wasn’t obvious to me. I had never wanted to be a writer when I grew up, and except some bad angsty teenage poetry and one time I wrote out an adventure of one of my D&D characters, I’d never really tried it before.
After I finished my fourth novel, I went back to the first one and realized that it wasn’t any good (duh). So I rewrote it and sent it out to agents and editors. Some of them made the mistake of giving me favorable responses, which only encouraged me. One agent, who had requested a full manuscript from me, gave me a flyer for a writer’s convention in San Francisco, and since then I try to make two or three a year, including World Fantasy and Wiscon.
For several years I alternated writing novels and re-writing old novels, and then in 2004 I met some Clarion alumni who enthused about the workshop. I decided I wanted to attend, so I started writing short fiction, figuring that I’d learn to do that the same way I learned to write novels (by doing it). In 2007 I attended Clarion San Diego with some amazing people. Clarion was a turning-point career wise, because before that I felt like I was writing alone. Now I’m part of a class, a cohort, and we root for each other and commiserate on one another’s disappointments. One of my fellow Clarionites also introduced me to our agent, Kate Shafer-Testerman of K.T. Literary, who agreed to take me as a client in 2008.
The first novel I wrote, SEEING THINGS, after having been extensively workshopped, tweaked, and… okay, completely rewritten from the ground up, is currently under consideration with publishers. I still write short stories, and sometimes get them published. My best sales so far were to Weird Tales (“Gingerbread House”), Fantasy magazine (“Voice Like a Cello”, also chosen as a “Locus Recommends” for 2009) and a reprint of one of my Clarion stories (“She’s Taking her Tits to the Grave”) which was published in Nightshade’s THE LIVING DEAD anthology.
TH: How important was it for you to “find your tribe” at Clarion? Can you imagine how your writing life would be different had you not attended?
CC: I don’t really think it’s necessary to have a “tribe” of spec writers in terms of career. Some writers are quite solitary, and that works for them. Others swear by their writer’s groups. I made friends at Clarion that I’ll have for decades, and some of them are generous enough to give me critiques on my short stories (useful, because I have no writing group.) We give each other tips on new markets and such, but that sort of concrete information is available free on several forums.
If I didn’t have my Clarion class, I’d still write, still submit, but fewer people would know or care how I was doing. I’d still read tables of contents, but I wouldn’t have other people to root for. I’d still attend cons, but I wouldn’t be as excited about the people I was going to see there.
TH: What is The Story of Catherine? Is it a novel? A short story? A sculpture?
CC: Catherine is what my driver’s license and birth certificate say that I am, and twice in my life I’ve tried to be Catherine, even going so far as to introduce myself as such and publish under that name. Recently I’ve decided to give it up. I don’t feel like a Catherine, and I hate when people change it to “Cathy.” Everyone calls me Kater, and that’s the name I’m submitting under now. I still have www.catherinecheek.com though, if you want to look at some of my creations on my art blog.
TH: Every writer has things they would like to accomplish, e.g. first sale, next sale, first novel sale, first bestseller, etc. What accomplishment are you striving for right now?
CC: I want my novels published. I’ve spent so many hundreds of hours with my novel characters that they’re real people to me, and the thought of never sharing them makes my heart clench. I have two urban fantasy series. SEEING THINGS starts the more traditional (vampires, lycanthropes, etc.) one. It has a noir feel and very low-key magic. ALTERNATE SUSAN is quirkier (does not have, and will never have vampires or lycanthropes), and takes place in an alternate version of my home town. I also wrote a middle grade novella this year, called ANIMAL MAGIC, which I’m very excited about, as it’s fast-paced and very funny. It’s not yet under submission.
TH: Do you have any writing stuck away somewhere that will never see the light of day, but nevertheless helped you build your skill to publishable?
CC: I wrote a high fantasy YA novel called THE WARRIOR AND HER EMPRESS which is a 100,000 word hot mess. It taught me the wrong way to write a high fantasy novel. I might cannibalize it for themes and worldbuilding, but I think it would take too much work to salvage it.
TH: What are some of the things that inspire you?
CC: I’m fascinated by subcultures. This is why I adore writing urban fantasy. Cults fascinate me, and geek culture. Hobbies are never just hobbies, they can define how a person self-identifies. I touch on this in my novels—re-enactors, Morris dancers, gamers, Pagans, gardeners, rugby players, Rennies (people who work at the Renaissance Festivals), comic book fans—all of them make appearances.
TH: What is it about subcultures that gets your creative juices flowing?
CC: Subcultures are fascinating because they can be nearly invisible to those not in them. I like the idea that there are hidden worlds, hidden conflicts happening right in front of you, but if you’re not part of the group and don’t know the players, you have no idea. The Rennies hate the SCA, the SCA hate the Rennies, and the society lady has never heard of either of them.
I also like the way that subcultures have their own rules. I love anthropology, sociology, psychology. A person in a group acts differently from a person alone, and when they move from group to group (home, school, friends, club) they change each time. Someone can be a boring programmer during the week, but on the weekend he’s a fierce warrior competing for the crown of a Kingdom. Someone can be that straight-laced girl who works at the library, but in her off hours, she gets together with her coven and practices magic. By joining a group, you can be someone new. Discovery, belonging, finding yourself: these are all common tropes in all fiction.
TH: What about the writing process most appeals to you? What is the most fun?
CC: The best part of writing is being in the middle of a novel, when I pretty much know where it’s going, and the characters are going strong, and the hours just fly by. I love when I write a great scene that I’m proud of and read it out loud for my husband. I love taking a beloved character and ruining her life, like shaking up an anthill. Guess I’m a bit of a sadist.
Submitting my novels would be a lot easier if they weren’t in series, but when I have a novel in my head that wants to be written, I have to write it, even if I know its chances of publication are slim. Monetary rewards in this field are not great; one has to create for the joy of creation. And also, each novel makes me a little better at writing. This is what I tell myself when I write the nth in a series and the first hasn’t sold yet.
TH: Have your reached the point at which you realized that you had “made it” as a writer and author? If so, can you describe the milestone or circumstances where you had that realization? Do you recall how that felt? If not, what is the milestone you’re seeking?
CC: Getting my novels published would be a major milestone for me. I’ve published maybe a dozen short stories, but I consider myself a novelist first. I used to feel quite self-conscious at cons, especially when I met famous writers, but I faked confidence. Now I don’t need to fake it anymore. I’ve written well over a million words of fiction, many novels, and dozens of short stories. I know where I need to improve, but I know my strengths too.
TH: Do you think the “fake it ‘til you make it” approach is at all connected with finding yourself among a community of other spec-fic writers? Does just saying you’re a member of the “tribe” make you into that thing that you’re wanting so badly? An author of SF, F, and H?
CC: I’m not sure I like “fake it ‘til you make it.” The only thing I “fake” is my extroversion at cons. Like many writers, I’m an introverted person, and being social and outgoing takes a lot out of my physical, mental, and emotional resources. It’s taken me many years to learn to overcome my shyness. Being around so many famous authors threatened to bring that shyness back, but having confidence that I belonged among them gave me courage.
For me, as much as I like the idea that I’m part of a community, that’s secondary to why I write. I write to create, and I seek publication because I want to share my creations, my stories and characters, with as many people as I can.
TH: Have you found other authors in the spec-fic community to be more supportive or more competitive? We’re all competing for a limited number of magazine and book slots, right?
CC: I think one can be both supportive and competitive. I’ve become an ardent collector of books and magazines in which my friends’ stories appear. But I’m also quite competitive (which you’ll find out if you ever play bridge with me) and I do have a problem with envy. When one of my fellow Clarionites gets a piece in a nice magazine, (It happens often. 2007 was an awesome class) I feel a bittersweet mixture of envy and happiness. But it’s not a zero sum game. Fierce competition means that we push ourselves to try harder, to write better. Fierce competition means that the magazines have a better selection of stories to choose from, which means better magazines, which is better for the readers.
And envy? I have a problem with envy. Sometimes I think we all feel irritation that “that book” got published and ours didn’t. Or more often, I feel envious that so-and-so not only got a nice book deal, but that she’s ALSO insanely talented in other areas. I know I’m not the only one who feels that way. But what can I do? Write something else. Keep trying. If I feel competitive and envious of another’s success, that’s my own character flaw, and has nothing to do with anyone else.
TH: Some say that professional writers have to look at themselves as a business, a branded commodity. Do you take that approach?
CC: I think that’s true. I read an article recently that the secret to success is a combination of two things: perseverance, and meeting the right people (and not being a dick to them). There are plenty of great novels out there which will never be published because their authors aren’t willing to stick it out. But I don’t think there’s any “fail” for writers. I think you just choose between “succeed” or “quit.” I submit relentlessly, and I try not to be a jerk.
One thing I didn’t fully realize when I first started submitting is how tight-knit the SFF community is, and how much unpaid and/or underpaid work it takes to sustain it. There are so many people running forums, cons, webzines, or editing magazines, compiling anthologies, writing reviews, and doing other things to keep our community alive. It’s not money that motivates these people, it’s love for the genre. I always keep that in mind when I submit my fiction; we’re all in this together.
TH: Writing seems to have been a mix of therapy and frustration – boon and curse – for you, a theme that is common among writers. What’s the ratio these days?
CC: Actually, of all the things I do in my daily life, from drive to brush my teeth to check my email, writing is probably the least frustrating. It’s not really therapy so much as something that aids in my general health and well-being. I feel better when I’m writing much the same as I feel better when I’m getting regular exercise, regular sleep, social contact with my family, etc. Creating things, making something new, is what I feel I was put on earth to do. When I’m not writing, I’m throwing pots. When I’m not playing with glass, I’m binding books. When I’m not grouting a mosaic, I’m growing things in the garden. Writing just happens to be the creative outlet I enjoy most.
TH: What can readers expect to see from you in the near future? What are you working on?
CC: I wrote four short stories this summer, which I’m in the process of cleaning up and sending out. I also just started a new urban fantasy novel, still in the inchoate stage, tentatively titled “Slow Magic Apocalypse.” Two of the short stories I wrote in June take place in the same universe.
TH: What is the most memorable moment (good, bad, or other) you have had in your life as an author?
CC: Ironically, it was for writing a play. I was participating as a writer in OPP’s “Play in a Day” project in Tucson, and our play, which I thought was quite powerful, didn’t win. I was a little disappointed. After the play, however, the actors came up and asked me and my co-author for our autographs, because they were really blown away by the script, and they wanted to thank us for giving them something so meaningful to work with.
TH: Is there anything else you would like to talk about that I haven’t mentioned?
CC: My friend once asked me “What would you do if you could look into a crystal ball and know, without a doubt, that you would never have a novel published.” I told him I would start a webcomic, because that’s the only field where you can self-publish without stigma.
I haven’t given up hope that my novels will find homes, but last year I did start that webcomic. It’s www.coopdegrace.com, and I update once a week. It’s about chickens, and it’s funny. Sometimes I resent the work it takes to get it on schedule, but after a year and a half, it’s starting to gain momentum, and strangers are leaving laudatory posts. I like the idea that I’m brightening that many people’s Friday mornings.