World of Books.com talks with Harriet Castor about writing, her favourite books and Henry VIII
At the unusually young age of twelve Harriet Castor had her first children’s book, Fat Puss and Friends, accepted for publication by Penguin. Since then she has written over forty books, both fiction and non-fiction, for children and adults. She completed a History degree at Cambridge University, specialising in the Tudor period, and since graduating has had a variety of jobs, including teaching English in Prague, and spending three years with the Royal Ballet as a Benesh Notator. Harriet now lives in Bristol with her husband and two daughters, and writes full time.
Thank you for agreeing to an interview with us, Harriet! With your new book, VIII, coming out 1st October, you must be really busy, so we appreciate you taking time out to chat to us today.
Harriet: It’s a pleasure. Thank you so much for inviting me!
Q: You had your first book accepted for publication at 12? How young were you when you began to write? And how did you go about getting this first book published?
– I’ve been writing stories for as long as I can remember. When I was a small child I used to make books out of folded pieces of paper – as so many children do. I would write a series about a particular character and try to sell the books to my parents and siblings for 2p a throw!
Then one day, in the summer holidays when I was twelve, I wrote a story about a cat and decided (because I was bored as much as anything, I think, and wanted to do something different) to send it to a publisher. My mum was a bit concerned, because she knew it would come straight back with a rejection note, and she didn’t want me to be too disappointed. The astonishing thing was that it never did come back – it became the first story in Fat Puss and Friends. I was immensely lucky.
Q: What three words of advice would you give a young aspiring writer?
– Read. Write. Rewrite. Read for pleasure – anything and everything that takes your fancy. Write as regularly as you can: you learn on the job, you learn by writing. Other writers can inspire you, but only you can find the way that you want to write. And rewrite: supremely important. No writer produces a perfect first draft. The way a piece of writing is made into something good is through the redrafting – the chiselling away, or even the hacking out of whole chunks and total remodelling. You need to look at your writing with a cold eye – never say ‘that’ll do’ if you know, in your gut, that something isn’t working.
Q: What is your favourite book? And who is your favourite writer?
– Aargh, what a difficult question! I’m afraid I’ve got to cheat and name more than one… Diana Wynne Jones lit up my childhood. Her books fired my imagination – and still do now. Dorothy Dunnett’s historical fiction grabbed me as a teenager and has never let go – the six volumes of her Lymond Chronicles are an astonishing achievement. But if I had to say one writer I would say Hilary Mantel, and if I had to say one book it would be Wolf Hall.
Q: You certainly seem to have travelled Harriet, what with working in Prague and touring with the Royal Ballet. What has been the most inspirational place you’ve travelled to?
– I never toured with The Royal Ballet, in fact – I always worked at the Opera House in Covent Garden (inspiring enough in itself, actually!). Prague will always have a special place in my heart – I first visited it on a student theatre tour in December 1989; quite by chance we arrived in the middle of the Velvet Revolution, and it was the most extraordinary experience to be there at that time. I knew I had to go back… culturally, historically and architecturally it is an amazing city.
Q: You’ve admitted that from a young age you have been obsessed with the Tudors. What is it about this period in history that has grabbed your imagination?
– It’s actually hard to pinpoint – it exerts such a visceral, emotional pull for me. I think, in the end, it has to come down to the extraordinary stories – stories of triumph & tragedy, murder & intrigue, astonishing bravery & breathtaking betrayals. What’s not to love?!
Q: Your new book, VIII, is the first novel you’ve written for teens and young adults. What made you want to write for this age group and how does the book differ from some of your others?
– I didn’t take a decision to write a YA novel – rather, the idea for VIII turned up and that’s what I knew it was! And it marks, I know, a watershed in my writing life. It’s the best thing I’ve ever written and I now feel that, in terms of the type of work I’m doing, I’m where I’ve always wanted to be. VIII represents a darkly intimate, psychological take on historical fiction. This approach fascinates me and I want to do more…
Q: The book centres on a young Henry VIII, a “hugely talented” young man, who was said to have been the “model of virtue” in his early years but who, despite this promising and eager beginning, turned into one of the most vilified “monsters” in English history. Portraying Henry VIII as an innocent young man is quite a different slant on such a retold part of our heritage. Why did you choose to write from this differing viewpoint?
– That’s a very interesting question. My reason for writing VIII was precisely that I felt I had something new to say about Henry, despite how well known his story seems to be. The fact is, the part of his story that we all know is only the final 20 years of his life. He wasn’t born a paranoid tyrant. He wasn’t even born heir to the throne – he was the younger son, the ‘spare’. His story becomes very different – and something even more interesting, I think – if you look at his journey as a whole.
Q: In three words how would you describe the character of Hal (another name for Henry)? And what reaction do you expect from your readers towards him?
– Three words: idealistic, charismatic, insecure.
I will be totally intrigued to find out how my readers react to him! I hope very much that they will identify with him – the story is told in the first person for exactly that reason. Identifying with him is easy when he’s a loveable, impetuous, charming boy… but what happens as his quest for glory makes him slide, inch by inch, towards evil? The thing is, he can’t see it happening. He thinks, all along, that he’s doing the right thing. I can’t wait to hear readers’ responses to that!
Q: Why have you chosen to write as H.M Castor for this novel?
– Partly, it marks the fact that this is a new venture for me – a kind of fiction I’ve not written before. And partly I wondered whether some male readers might be less likely to pick up a book that has been written by a woman. Perhaps especially a book about the Tudors – Tudor historical fiction is often romantic, and that’s not what VIII is like at all. I didn’t want any assumptions to be made.
Q: Not only do you write fiction books, you also write a lot of non-fiction, educational books. Do you have a preference to which genre you write? And how different is your approach to both?
– I enjoy both genres, and they involve very different creative processes, so the contrast in itself can be very enjoyable. The approach is utterly different. Writing VIII felt like digging out my insides with a spoon. Writing non-fiction is a much more cerebral process.
Q: Right, so the one we ask everyone! Here at World of Books.com we are dedicated to providing good-quality second-hand books to the public. By sourcing a large amount of our books from charities, we are also able to support their cause, often sending books out to developing countries and recently to UK based Army barracks. Any book we can’t sell, we recycle; last year alone we saved 12,500 metric tonnes of waste from going to landfill sites. In a world with an ever-growing digital media base, and increasing environmental concerns, do you believe in the importance of giving each physical book the chance of a new home?
– Absolutely, and I’m actually a frequent customer of yours online! I’m often looking for out of print books and you are a wonderful resource for me. Thank you for all your fantastic work, both here and abroad.
Remember, Harriet’s (writing as H.M Castor) exciting new novel, VIII, is out in book-stores on 1st October, don’t miss out! Looking for your next read? Check out World of Books.com.