Today I have the honor of continuing my new interview series with an interview with the fabulous Katarina West. I’ve reviewed her debut novel, Witchcraft Couture.
Katarina West was born in Helsinki, Finland, into a bilingual family that in addition to humans consisted of dogs, cats, horses, guinea pigs, canaries, rabbits and – thanks to her biology teacher mother – stuffed owls and squirrels. She spent time travelling in Africa, Asia and Latin America, and went on to study at Queen Mary and Westfield College in London and the European University Institute in Florence, where she completed a PhD in political science and published a book based on it, Agents of Altruism. During those student years she started work as a journalist, and continued writing for various Finnish magazines and newspapers for over ten years, writing on various topics from current events and humanitarian issues to celebrity interviews and short stories. She also briefly worked as a university lecturer on humanitarian issues in Northern Italy. Katarina lives in an old farmhouse in Chianti with her husband and son and when not writing, she is fully immersed in Tuscan country life, from jam-making and olive-picking to tractor maintenance.
I read Witchcraft Couture what feels like an endless time ago now (November 2014)! When can I expect a copy of your next novel?
- Hi, Rosemarie! Yes it seems a long time ago, doesn’t it? My next novel is coming out this autumn, and right now I’m writing one of the last drafts. It’s rewarding, to start to see the structure of the story coming out. It’s like sandpapering an old chair, and after a lot of hard work you start to see wood underneath the layers of ugly paint.
What is it about?
- Entitled Absolute Truth, for Beginners, it tells the story of a twenty-something art history graduate, Elisa, who falls in love with a famous scientist. It’s a love story – but for me it’s first and foremost a coming-of-age story.
Your novel feels strongly literary, which is to say for me it feels like you have stuffed as much detail in there as possible, but somehow you have also managed to make it enjoyable. What called you to writing in this style and genre?
- Good question. How do authors acquire their voice, their particular way of writing? As for me, much has to do with what I read as a child and a teenager, what influenced me in those years: the novelists I admired, and whose writing I wanted to emulate. I love rich, carefully-woven stories. I love reading them, and I love writing them.
- Another aspect that has shaped my way of writing is that I write in two languages – Finnish and English – and grew up speaking Finnish, not English, and I live in Italy, which means that in everyday life I speak and think in Italian. Since I have many languages in my life, the languages in which I write are bound to be more literary. I don’t think I could switch between languages so easily if I wrote in a dialect, for example.
- But it’s one of those eternal questions, really, that of an author’s voice. I think only part of the process is conscious: sure, you can mould your narrative voice, shape it, improve it, push it towards a certain direction. Yet only up to a degree, because so much of writing is instinctive. When you’re seated in front of your computer, you’re just trying to tell a good story.
You say you are an omnivore when it comes to reading novels. Are there some genres that you simply don’t read?
- Not really, because I don’t always read a book simply because it belongs to a certain genre. If a book sounds interesting, I’m always ready to read the first thirty pages, no matter what the genre is.
How do you feel about erotica and graphic novels?
- Frankly, I haven’t read enough of them to form an opinion.
When you were younger, did you know you wanted to be an author?
- Yes, I was about twelve when I solemnly swore to myself that one day I was going to write novels. In the years to come I did a lot of other things though, simply because I kept doubting myself. The fact that I worked as a journalist from early on helped me, because I kept writing, no matter what.
Did you study at university because it was expected, or because you enjoyed it? A doctorate is a pretty heavy time commitment.
- You know what? I went to study history because Dostoyevsky – my then idol – had said that a writer should have a superb knowledge of people. I didn’t want to study psychology, so I chose history, thinking that history was the human condition on a macro level. Honestly, can you have a sillier reason to study something? In any case, I fell in love with history and political science, and since I was still battling with my doubts, trying to gather that courage to write that first novel, I started to write a PhD instead. For a while I even toyed with the idea of remaining in a university environment. In that sense I can relate to Elisa, the heroine of my next novel, who dreams of becoming an art historian.
What is a usual day like for you now?
- I wake up at six-thirty, wake up my eight-year-old son and get him ready for school. Once he has left, I go outside for a short walk with my dog, just to get some fresh air in my lungs before I start writing. I usually write till it’s time to go to fetch my son, trying to grab a quick lunch somewhere in the middle. And then it’s family life till my son goes to bed. After that, it’s office time: social media, answering emails, contacting people, and so on.
What does your writing process look like?
- The first draft is always the worst. The quicker you get it done the better, and no matter what you do, it always looks horrible. Those are difficult months, because the perfectionist in me comes out, and doubts if anything at all will ever emerge from that mess of chapters. But little by little, I start to see light at the end of the tunnel. I love editing, it’s like working with clay, moulding it into a form you like.
Do you give yourself vacations from writing?
- I don’t write my novel during weekends. But often there are other things to write, like blogs and guest blogs, and so on.
Have you ever been on a scheduled writing retreat, or is your self-motivation enough?
- No, I haven’t. When I was writing Witchcraft Couture my son was still little, and it would have been difficult to go on a writing retreat. But we live in an isolated farmhouse that is as quiet as a monastery. I couldn’t write anywhere else – it’s so silent here that you really get work done!
Oscar has creative blocks. Do you suffer from these?
- In the past I have, and that was one of the reasons why I wanted to write this book. There was a critic inside my mind, and nothing I wrote was good enough for that voice. It was really a nasty vicious circle, my own silent nightmare, and I didn’t know how to get out of it. Then one day I saw creative blocks in a larger context and I realised that I could write about them. That’s how Witchcraft Couture was born.
Would you get your own Sampo?
- I think not. Obviously the temptation would be enormous. But I would prefer to create something that’s mediocre yet mine, rather than to pretend to be the author of a masterpiece. The satisfaction that comes with the first choice is just so much more rewarding. I like the idea of craftsmanship – that many aspects of writing are something that you can learn and improve; and that a quality novel, just like a quality outfit, is first and foremost a question of hard work.
- One of the things I love most about Tuscany, my home region, is that it has a long tradition of artisans: carpenters, restaurateurs, tailors, shoemakers, and so on. In some sense these people are really like artists – they have such a high degree of professionalism (and obviously so, as often the profession is handed down from one generation to another), and they are so proud of and passionate about their work. I really have such an enormous admiration for them.
You’ve mentioned in other interviews that you are constructing in your mind the Perfect Novel. Do you think it’ll ever be committed to a written page?
- Unfortunately, no!
Can you tell us a bit about your journey to publication? Why did you go for self-publishing? What made that choice for you?
- Initially I worked with an agent, who was excited about the combination of folklore, fashion and magic. But publishers were cautious. Maybe that was because as a story, Witchcraft Couture is such a rare bird – it’s on fashion, but it’s not chick lit, and then there’s that magical realism aspect too – and they didn’t want to take risks. So I decided to go solo, and so far the journey has been absolutely fabulous.
- Several years, because there were so many pauses in between. At times I had other writing projects, and many months passed and I didn’t even open the Witchcraft Couture file. And during the first drafts my son was always sick, and we didn’t have much babysitting help, so I was able to write the manuscript only at night.
How did you know that your book was ready for the general public?
- You just know it, when a chapter or a scene or a character is working. After a few drafts you’ve got a pretty clear idea of what works well and what doesn’t. The more you write, the stronger your own instinct becomes. Also, I’ve got a brilliant editor and I trust her opinion as to how much work is still needed.
Do you believe in ongoing promotion of your novel?
- Depends what you mean by promotion. If that means shouting online continuously how marvellous your books are, then the answer is no. But if it means, for example, slowly building a network of reviewers and book bloggers who might be interested in reading your novel, then that’s another story. In any case, I think the best way to promote yourself, especially in social media, is just to reach out to people, just to be nice and human and chat with them.
Is keeping up with your online presence daunting?
- No, but it can be exhausting, especially if there are problems with your manuscript and you want to focus on that. I try to do the basic minimum all the time, but sometimes there just isn’t enough time.
How do you gauge how successful your social media campaigns are?
- Both Twitter and Facebook offer possibilities to analyse the impact of your tweets or posts. And then you can of course check your book’s Amazon rating. But that’s all. I don’t do anything elaborate and complicated.
You’ve given a number of other interviews:
Are there any questions you wish people would ask, or wouldn’t ask?
- I love to talk about writing and books. I love to read other authors’ interviews about their writing, and get a glimpse of how they work. You can always learn something new.
- There isn’t anything particular I wouldn’t want to talk about, but sometimes even the simplest questions make me panic. Like the question about which book you would take to a desert island, knowing that it’s the book you’ll be reading for the rest of your life. And I answer something, quickly, just for the sake of answering, but then later on start to regret it, because honestly, there are so many brilliant books, and I simply don’t know which one to choose. I think that’s my problem: I have so few good opinions to offer. Maybe that was one of the reasons why I became a novelist in the first place, because writing is my way of getting some answers, of understanding life.
Do you have any further questions you would like to ask of Katarina? Some of the answers she’s provided certainly whet my curiosity about the rest of her life and her writing style.
I hope this interview leaves you wanting more. I have a chance to ask interesting questions of a range of authors that I review novels from. Let me know who you want to see next!