EP45: Katherine May – Creative Writing Cocktails

Katherine May
Katherine May is an award-winning writer, blogger and the programme director of creative writing at Canterbury, Christ Church University. She is an extraordinary talent, makes a mean gin cocktail, and has an incredible series of books coming in the next year…

 

PODCAST

In this episode you will discover…

  • The pros and cons of writing under a pseudonym
  • The importance of celebrating milestones
  • Top tips for tackling procrastination
  • And how a nice, long walk can not only improve your writing, but change your life

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EPISODE TRANSCRIPT (HIGHLIGHTS)

Katherine May is an award-winning writer, blogger and the programme director of creative writing at Canterbury, Christ Church University. She is an extraordinary talent, makes a mean gin cocktail, and has an incredible series of books called The Whitstable High Tide Swimming Club coming in the next year…

Your new series is coming in three parts in quick succession. How did that come about?

There was an odd conversation between me and the editor, Sam Eades. I had worked with her at a previous publisher and she contacted me last summer while on holiday in Devon, and I had this long conversation with her standing on Dartmouth Harbour where she asked me to write a novel about robot romance, and I said I don’t think I can do that. But I pitched her the Whitstable High Tide Swimming Club, about women getting together to swim together. She said she had a few ideas for me; it could be about robot romance, or it could be about a special place that everyone would like, and I said right, we’ll do that. I live in Whitstable. Everyone loves Whitstable.

How would you describe Whitstable?

It’s a gorgeous little seaside town, with a beautiful harbour, great food and a lovely shingle beach. I love a shingle beach better than a sandy beach because you don’t get sand in your food, so it’s absolutely perfect.

The editor came to you pitching ideas. It’s usually the other way round, isn’t it?

Yeah, I didn’t have to go begging this time. It’s a first for me, let’s put it that way, but I obviously didn’t shame myself too much last time. I’ve always got loads of ideas in my head anyway, so as I spoke to Sam and got a feeling of what she was after… She was interested in female friendship, something quite heartwarming, and I’d had this idea about  a year before. I went through my mental file and brought it to mind and began to talk to Sam about it. She had a few ideas to mould the text, and between us we came up with a pitch. It’s a very different way to any way that I’ve worked before, but I actually enjoyed it. It was quite collaborative.

Where did the idea of it being a three-parter come from?

That was one of Sam’s ideas. I think she’d seen that some other authors had done it, but when she mentioned it to me I loved the idea because it seemed like such a challenge, to make sure that you had a full arc in each section, but that they all related to each other, and then that they could be put together into a book at the end. I loved the idea that by the time the first one was out, the third one wouldn’t be written yet. That seemed like a really tricky challenge. Normally I go back and rewrite the beginning. I love working under constraints. It’s been very seat-of-the-pants. I had another book to deliver in March, so I started writing this one in April. I’ve had two months to write each third of the book. And I work full-time, so it’s been pretty intense. I’m also finishing a PhD this year as well!

Did this scheduling come from the publisher or you?

It’s definitely come from the publisher. Sam’s a data geek, so I’m led by her and she had this very strong idea that it had to begin in the summer, because it’s a very summery book, and the spacing came from the pace that I’m writing. One of the important things about it is the three parts get delivered quite close together, so there’s a kind of momentum, so that readers remember it between the various bits. For people who read a load of books by the same author I guess it serves them really well because they can pick up those books really quickly. It’s much harder as an author. There’s something really fun about that pace if you really like writing, which I do, luckily.

You joined a sea swimming club. Are you mad?

I haven’t joined a club, but I have started sea swimming a lot more often, and sometimes with lots of different friends, and I have taken part in the New Year swim that happens at Whitstable. With a hangover, I should add… It’s awesome, actually. It takes so much courage to go in there. You get into your swimming costume on the beach, and you feel cold already, and then you run into this absolutely freezing water. Not everybody should do it, you need to be in good fitness, you need to know your circulation’s all right, but it’s the most exhilarating thing you could imagine. You run in, it’s absolutely freezing, and you get this hit of joy from it somehow. The endorphins start pumping and then you run out again, stand on the beach and drink a Bloody Mary and go, ‘I want to go back in again!’ and everyone talks you down from it. It’s the most fun that you can possibly have with most of your clothes off. There are about thirty or forty of us all doing it at once, and we waited on the beach to assemble, then someone yelled and we all ran in straight away, had a quick float, then ran out again. It’s not a sedate activity. When I first moved to Whitstable, I had a house on the seafront and I remember looking out of my window in the middle of the night— we moved in November — and seeing people swimming. There’s always someone in the water at Whitstable, because someone gets inspired to skinny-dip, or whatever. I went for a run yesterday and got incredibly hot, it must have been thirty-five degrees yesterday, and when my run finished I was on quite a quiet bit of the beach and I thought what the hell, so I stripped down to my underwear and went for a swim. That is a fantastic thing to have on hand when you’ve just finished a long, hot run. It’s gorgeous in there. To get into the cold water and have a really leisurely swim and stay in for a while.

Did the swimming club inspire the book, or did the book inspire the swimming?

A little bit of both. Having swum at Whitstable for a while I knew to wait till the absolute high tide to swim, because as soon as the tide goes out a tiny it goes shallow and it’s impossible to swim, and you see people that don’t know the sea getting tricked out. They go wading in and it’s ankle-deep for miles. I began to think of this idea of how the same people meet at the same time on the beach every day and how a community might form around that of different people, and also the idea that you might turn to swimming at times of crisis in your life, and you might swim to solve your problems. I suppose that’s where it came from. As I began to write about it, people began to want to swim with me more, it’s quite interesting. People don’t always have the nerve to get into the water, it’s like there’s a big barrier to cross. I’ve swum with far more people this year than I ever have before because they’ve all wanted to join me. Quite often now I get texts when high tide’s coming up saying, ‘Are you swimming today? Do you fancy it?’ which is just lovely. It’s really sociable.

You started something called the Re-authoring Project. What can you tell us about that?

The Re-authoring Project came from when my first novel came out, Burning Out, which was about 2009, quite a long time ago, and I just realised how limited the opportunities were for authors to talk about their work. It was a little bit before all the podcasts had grown-up and Twitter was still very young, and I felt like authors spent a lot of time talking to each other about their books rather to an actual audience, so it became quite a closed loop. I’ve got a longstanding interest in installation art. I used to work at Tate Britain and at the National Gallery, so I’ve got a good understanding of the art world, I’ve got an interest in physical theatre and performance, so I got together with a couple of other creative producers and we formed an organisation that aimed to support writers to make more interesting performances of their own work, with interactivity in mind.

That very traditional author reading where you get up on a stage and you read from your book is actually really intimidating to anyone that hasn’t got natural reading skills, so we used to work with authors to get them to think about how they like to interact.

 

For example, one author that we worked with produced some puppetry. She worked with some figures to animate them in front of a crowd. Other people created interactive events, where they could talk to people one-to-one and story tell on a really personal basis. Some people worked with objects and installed work. One author installed a recording of their voice in a bus shelter, so people could sit down and listen to it, and she didn’t need to perform live, because that was when she found she choked, but she could happily record her voice. We really work to analyse their preferences and to make them think about exactly how they wanted to interact. I created a performance for my novel, which toured festivals, where I used live projection on stage to take people through a distillation of the story of the book. It was huge fun.

You’ve written under a pseudonym. What was there a specific reason for doing that?

There was a very specific reason. I was writing about my sex life! It emerged from the re-authoring work. I realised there were stories I wanted to tell that I maybe would feel too embarrassed to walk into the office the next day and confront my colleagues about.

The gift of the internet is that you can wear a new identity so quickly.

 

I wanted to write about sex in long-term relationships, and to tell the truth about how sex changes over time and how we’re all presenting this bravado all the time about how we’re having this amazing sex life, and actually it dies off over time. I wanted to be able to be honest and tender about that at the same time. I was working in schools at that point. A really, really difficult thing to write about under my own name. I conceived of the name, and as soon as I thought of the name, I could get an email address, a blog, a Twitter account, and actually it was incredibly quick to construct that identity.

What surprised me about writing under a pseudonym was the change it made in me.

 

It let me talk in a way that I wouldn’t normally talk. It let me adopt a new voice. It let me have conversations and consider ideas that perhaps I wouldn’t have been open to as myself. It de-politicised a lot of the stories around sex for me, it was really interesting.

Quite a liberating experience, then?

Massively. Really life-changing. I ended up in conversations with people who have become friends, who I would never have met in real life. I got to know Barbara Carrellas, who is this fantastically inspirational queer-tantric-sex-practitioner who teaches people how to use tantra for kink. I went to see her at a sex festival in Berlin, somewhere I had never set foot in before. It was the most scared I’ve ever been in my whole life.

I learned to listen to people whose views were not the same as mine, whose experience was different and learned a hell of a lot.

 

Did you imagine this pseudonym as a fictional character?

Betty Herbert started as a performance of an aspect of me, and over time became a different identity that I could drop into. I found it really useful to be able to perform somebody else, and Betty became me. There are loads of people who still call me Betty and know me as Betty. The problem with Betty is that people believed in her too much, and so it was very hard to then start saying actually I’m a slightly separate person to Betty, and a little bit different. It made life quite complicated after a while. Betty and I did a slow parting of the ways. As soon as the book came out, I came out as my real identity, which I wanted to do. It didn’t need to be a secret anymore, I wasn’t embarrassed by it, and I didn’t want anyone t be able to out me, or anything horrible like that, which has happened with other sex bloggers. I finished the book pregnant, unsurprisingly, and then had my son, and my life changed a lot anyway. I gradually found myself creeping out from that identity, and gradually made the switch to being Katherine. It’s only this year that I removed my previous Twitter handle, which was @52Betty, and became Katherine May on Twitter.

Tell us about your other new book, The Electricity Of Every Living Thing. It involves the coastline again, doesn’t it?

It does. I’m a great lover of the sea, and love being outdoors, and so The Electricity Of Every Living Thing is a memoir about the year I tried to walk the south west coast path and ended up learning that I was autistic. It was a really seismic year in my life, where I had this massive shifting of identity, and I think what the book recounts is how I knew that there was something I needed to learn about myself and walking opened up the space to me to explore it and be receptive to finding it out.

How do you discover autism on a nice, long walk?

I started the walk because I had struggled with motherhood, which is something that it’s very difficult for people to admit to. I had been completely overwhelmed by it in a way that I could that other women weren’t. And as I began to walk I began to connect that in my mind to other points in my life when I had been overwhelmed that I had kind of forgotten, or deliberately pushed out of my mind and began to see a pattern, which meant that one day when I was driving home from work and I heard a woman on the radio talking about what it was like to be autistic it was just this moment of, ‘Yeah, of course.’ It was almost as if I’d always known that. The information just dropped into my head like it had been there forever. So after that it was a process of coming to terms with what that meant for my personal identity, to know that about myself, and to learn to live with that knowledge and that understanding. Which ultimately makes life much, much easier when you’re not fighting against what you are.

As an author of fiction, why did you choose to go with non-fiction with this book?

Having written 52 Seductions as Betty, that was a memoir. I did all the things in real life (don’t tell my dad) that happened in 52 Seductions. I guess as a reader I love non-fiction and memoir, and that’s about personal preference, but also I think politically it’s really important for us to begin to hear voices of women like me, who are living a life that hasn’t really been accounted for before. The idea of women being autistic is quite a new one. There are still people who don’t think it’s possible. And the idea of women living a successful, happy life with a husband and a child and all of these things are things we don’t expect from autistic women. The story of autism is a story that’s been told about men. You may have seen the film of Temple Grandin with Clare Danes, that was relatively famous, but I think autistic people in general are presented as very ‘other’ and very different, very mechanical, very disabled, and what’s been emerging in the last few years is that loads of load of adult women have been diagnosed with autism and we’re beginning to understand that actually we’re getting on okay, we just need some help with things around the edges and we don’t respond in the way that you might expect all women to respond.

Have you found that other authors have started talking to you about what they’ve discovered?

That links to 52 seductions, in that we bloggers who write about our lives tend to get together and talk about how it feels to expose so much of yourself. I’ve come across loads of other people that are writing about autism online and women that are writing about their diagnoses and how they get by. I’ve found a whole community of people who finally, for the first time in my life, I think ‘You sound just like me, I totally relate to that.’ I’ve gone through my whole life never feeling like I’m like other women. And it’s an incredibly powerful moment for me to finally relate to a social group.

It’s a top tip for writing. If you find the space to write in that hits you emotionally, that’s got stuff in it that you really need to talk about, then writing becomes incredibly easy.

 

Nature plays a big part in this book. You set yourself a particular challenge, didn’t you?

I wanted to walk the entire south west coast path, six hundred and thirty miles of it, before I turned forty. I didn’t make the whole six hundred and thirty miles, I have to say! That was one of the interesting bits of learning for me. I had spent my life setting myself challenges that I couldn’t possibly meet, because I had no sense of who I was and what I could cope with. Any sensible person would have realised that with a three-year-old, as I had at the time, and a job, and all sorts of other things going on, that it was an absolutely silly and impossible task, and the challenge lay in finding that out.

I think it’s okay to do things that are too hard. I think it’s brilliant to find your limits of what’s too hard for you, rather than always doing stuff that you find easy.

 

I realised that I was a lot tougher than I thought I was. There were moments where I was absolutely exhausted. It only ever rained on me, I don’t think I ever walked on a sunny day. I thought I might just die and fall off a cliff and no one would ever find me again. I was on my own, I couldn’t call on other people to come and rescue me, because the path is very remote, so unless you can get to the next town, there’s nothing you can do. I learnt that I could tough things out that I didn’t realise I could.

Did your writing change after that?

 

It became much more imbued with the world around me. I became interested in the really rich textures and the depth of the natural world and the flat surfaces that we encounter every day. When you’re the mother of a young child you spend a lot of time in soft play centres, which are very plasticky. I found that as I walked there were loads of layers of information for me to learn about, which of course as an autistic person I really enjoyed getting really geeky about exactly what rock I was walking next to and what were the wild flowers and what were the birds flying past me. Also that it’s incredibly soothing, that environment. It’s as noisy as everyday life, but the noises are somehow more gentle on the ear, and more like the kind of thing that my ears wanted to listen to.

What do you do when you get to the end of your first draft?

 

You’ve got to put it away for a while, But, you should also celebrate the end of your first draft. You have to celebrate every single point. It’s so hard. So many people never finish a book, even in first draft. Go out and celebrate it, and then you leave it alone for a little while and you come back to it with fresh eyes. A fortnight would do.

You could read other people’s work that’s really different to what you’ve been writing. Just refresh your brain by turning it on to something else.

 

There’s something particular about writing that never quite gives you that moment of triumph. You’re always a little bit dissatisfied with the draft, or you’ve turned to worry about whether anyone will buy it, or if anyone’s going to give it any publicity. Or you’re wrangling over the cover. There’s always something that kills your good mood about writing. You just have to grasp those opportunities to be happy about it when you can, and pat yourself on the back and say this sucks a tiny bit at the moment, but I’ve still achieved something really big. I’m less awful than I was yesterday. It’s really good to mark those key moments. First draft is a key moment, Final draft is a key moment. The book coming out is a key moment. You’ve got to enjoy them all.

You’re the programme director for creative writing at Canterbury Christ Church University. What does that involve?

We run a professional writing BA for undergraduates, and a creative writing MA. I look after both programmes, make sure that students are happy, the staff’s happy, that kind of thing.

Who would you recommend should go on such a course?

Our undergraduate degree is for people who’ve got an interest in writing and really want to develop their voice and pick up really precise grammar, understand the different markets that writers can work in. We’ve got a big focus on getting people a job, because authors need day jobs, we all know that, right? So, that’s a very practical course in lots of ways, but still with loads of lovely creative elements.

The MA is for people that have been writing for a while, are passionate about writing and really want to fine-tune that voice. we tend to attract much older students to that, so people from their thirties onwards. We do have some people in their twenties, but the profile tends to be older. It’s also for people who really want think about themselves as an author in the market and to start thinking about how they need to react and interact with people: social media, presentational things, how to approach agents and publishers, and also how to think about yourself as somebody who’s a specialist in a particular genre.

Really getting people to stop saying, ‘Oh, I just like writing,’ and start saying, ‘No, I’m an author and this is what I’m trying to do.’

 

We teach the basics of marketing, to look at the market in terms of very specific segments and to think about specialising in what segment they’re trying to appeal to. We get people to think really hard about how to try to talk to your audience and not to an audience in general. I feel like I spend an awful lot of my time saying, ‘You’re not writing for everyone, you are writing for forty-five-year-old women who like knitting, and that’s great because you love those people and you’ve got to show them some affection.’ It’s massively important. To take the wider point, I think we are a very deliberately commercially focused MA, and we’re conscious that there’s a tendency in universities to try and intellectualise writing and to encourage people into experimental forms and to the extreme literary end of writing. We wanted to do something different. We wanted to take in students who wanted to write the next bestseller. Our ambition as a programme is that we would like to have been the programme that gave a first to Dan Brown.

What we’ve got to stop doing as academics is stop teaching students to write books that nobody wants to buy in the market, and instead help them to write the book that they want to read themselves.

 

It’s something that we’ve thought really hard about as a team, and we know we may be a little bit different to everybody else, but that’s such a great position to be in. We really want to honour those writers that are writing not for for other highbrow authors but are writing for a general readership.

Apparently you make a mean cocktail. Does that help your writing?

I write sober, unlike Ernest Hemingway. I’m a keen cook anyway, and I think that mixing a cocktail is almost like cooking a whole meal. You can get all those flavours in, and really play with it and experiment and it’s massive fun. I also like to make my own alcohols as well. Elderflower gin, blackcurrant vodka, I quite enjoy a little bit of messing around. I make my own rose hip syrup, which makes a really nice rose hip negroni, and last week I made some elderflower cordial, which has gone a bit wrong and has fermented, so I seem to have made some fizzy elderflower desert wine.

What advice do you have for us as we approach our deadline?

I like to make a big spreadsheet that lays out every single day that I’ve got left. I have targets for those days. And I have lovely little formulae that add up the number of words and give me a percentage of how much I’m on target. I do think the only way to do it is to break the task up into individual tasks and really plan, unless you’re someone that enjoys doing everything last minute, which I absolutely hate, you’re going to find yourself writing the last quarter of your book in a week, screaming and crying and it’s just not worth it.

As I’ve gone on with my magnificent spreadsheets, as I see them, what I’ve learnt is to make space in the spreadsheets. There has to be some flexibility within that. So I might have a week’s word target, rather than a daily word target, so that I can play about a bit. Because some days you can’t think of anything to say and you’ve got to go for that long walk to get the ideas to flow again. I need to know whether I’m on my critical path. There’s a whole other critical path within the publishing house, but I need my own to ensure that I’m delivering everything I need to do. I’ll also plan things like blog posts, and when I need to start talking about different things to my audience to let them know things that are going on.

There’s probably a whole blog out there where authors share their geeky spreadsheets with the world, because I’m sure that everyone who’s got one is really proud of it. I love my spreadsheet. It’s awesome, it does all the work I need to do.

 

We have a question of the week from Richie Janukowicz: how do you kill procrastination? I bet you don’t suffer from this, do you, Katherine?

No. That’s because I never forget that I’m gonna die one day. I semi-serious, but I do think that if you keep your end goal in mind, then it kills a lot (of procrastination). One of my procrastination tips is to have projects that you can switch between. If you don’t fancy writing a chapter today, then maybe you can write a blog post? I quite a little bit of web design on the side, so maybe you can spend some time tinkering with something visual instead, which is useful, but not the same mode.

If nothing else, there is going for a walk. It does really help, because at least you’re getting exercise then.

 

Or read something. When people start worrying about their procrastination, they’re worrying about one fixed thing and their brain is asking for a break and I think if you can find lots of different activities that you can give yourself a rest while doing something productive, then you’re never procrastinating. Bring back momento mori. I think everyone should have a skull on their desk, I really do! I have a picture of Jean Rhys on my desk, who’s my absolute heroine, and it’s her in her late eighties, drunk. She was a very cantankerous, difficult woman, but she only had literary success at the end of her life, and she waited her whole life for that acclaim that she got. I think it helps to have those kind of people in mind as well.

I’m really lucky that attention has come to me younger, and my challenge is not to squander it, as she would have valued it massively.

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