I have been a fan of Cathy Cassidy and her brilliant books for years, and I was delighted to get the chance to interview her ahead of her appearance at the Mountains to Sea book festival next month.
What is your writing routine? When and where do you write? Do you write longhand or on the computer?
I write directly onto a laptop, starting in the mornings at half-nine or ten; this gives me time to get things straight and make sure the dogs have been walked, and I can settle in and focus. I have a writing room filled with all my favourite things – books, vintage toys, postcards, fairylights and more. I write at an old desk, a junk-shop find, and occasionally do some writing standing up too. I might take my bike for a spin around the park at lunchtime, then back to work. I try to get 1000 words or one chapter done, as a minimum.
How much planning do you do before you start writing one of your books?
It can be years of planning, but you will rarely find much evidence of this in my notebooks! I often draw my main characters and make a moodboard to help me step into their world, but planning a story – even a series – on paper is not something that works well for me. I prefer to gather up the ideas, inspirations and research and allow them to unfurl in daydream form. This helps me get a grip of the story and once I am happy that I’ve got enough to work with, I start writing.
Which chocolate box girl (or boy!) was your favourite to write?
I find it very hard to pick! I loved writing Cherry Crush as it was the book that helped to create the world of Tanglewood and introduced the sisters, but each book has been special to me in different ways. Marshmallow Skye was my first attempt at a ‘ghost’ story and Summer’s Dream was important to me as it looked at such a hugely important topic, one my readers had been asking me to tackle. Coco Caramel felt quite personal, as some of the minor details came from my own childhood, and Sweet Honey was a joy to write because it was fab to step into the shoes of such a fiery, dramatic character and see the world from their viewpoint! Fortune Cookie was without a doubt the toughest one of all to write, but as I knew it was the last in the series it had great emotional impact for me.
Which chocolate box girl were you most like as a teenager?
I was pretty much a straight split between Skye with her shy, quiet, daydreamy personality and her love of vintage and history, and Coco, with her animal-crazy, want-to-change-the-world ambitions. I think I’m still a good mix of those two personality types even now!
Did one of the sisters come to you at first, or was it always a group of sisters? Was one character’s voice particularly strong?
It was always a group of sisters, but to begin with Cherry and Honey were the key characters. Coco, Skye and Summer’s voices developed more gradually, and Jake’s character was a surprise even to me – he hadn’t been in the original plan at all, but as the series evolved I knew that the last book would have to be told by a Chocolate Box Boy!
How did you find writing short stories for Life is Sweet compared to writing novels? Was there a particular character whose perspective you were keen to explore?
I started off writing short stories for teen magazines in my teens and twenties, and even spent a while as Fiction editor for the legendary Jackie magazine, so the short story format is one I am quite comfortable with. I loved writing all of the stories, but I was especially interested to explore the thinking and motives of characters like Shay, Finch and Ash.
What is your favourite chocolate?
Milk chocolate truffles of all kinds are just heaven… it’s research, right?
Does your past work as an agony aunt affect how you approach dealing with different issues in your books?
I would say no, it’s more that my work as a teen agony aunt kept me informed of the things that young people were worrying about. In the books, I don’t try to solve problems in the way an agony aunt does… but exploring a problem in the pages of a novel is perhaps even more effective and helpful for readers than my work as an agony aunt was. I certainly get more letters and emails now asking for help than I ever did as an official agony aunt – I think kids see themselves in the stories, or feel that perhaps I might understand them and not judge.
As you studied art, who are your favourite artists and illustrators?
Love this question! My favourite artists are the expressionist Egon Schiele, The pre-Rahaelite Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo… they all awesome. Favourite illustrators include Arthur Rackham, Edmund Dulac and Kay Nielsen, and contemporary illustrators Jane Ray, Jackie Morris, PJ Lynch and the wonderful new talent Erin Keen I’ve been lucky enough to work with on Looking Glass Girl, Chocolate Box Secrets and Broken Heart Club.
Do you draw your characters or use visual references when you are writing?
Yes, I do both… my notebooks are always full of cartoon sketches of characters and scrapbook patchwork pictures which help me imagine a particular place or thing.
What is your favourite thing about appearing at book festivals?
Book festivals are a great way of meeting readers and getting feedback and a sense of how your books are connecting with people. It’s a great balance for any author who spends most of their time alone with a laptop and a head full of daydreams!
You run writing competitions and have been very encouraging to young writers. What is your best writing advice?
Write as much as you can, outside school as well as in, and write ‘from the heart’ as this passion will show in your work. And remember – it takes a lot of practice to get good at anything you’re trying to achieve, so keep at it and be patient if you can!
Who are the writers you most admire at the moment?
My new writing hero is Jandy Nelson, whose books I’ll Give You The Sun and The Sky is Everywhere are stunningly original and beautifully written.
What were your favourite books when you were growing up?
All of my books came from libraries when I was growing up, and because of this I was privileged to be able to read very widely. I read classics, fantasies, sci-fi, adventures, picture books and more… some favourites were Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons series, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books, the Narnia series by CS Lewis and Watership Down by Richard Adams.
Looking Glass Girl is based on Alice in Wonderland. If you could enter the world of any book, which would you choose?
Probably not Wonderland, as I always found it slightly menacing and dark… I think you can probably see that from Looking Glass Girl! It sounds cheesy, but I’d happily step into the world of the Chocolate Box Girls series, as it’s my ideal fantasy world and my ideal fantasy family, based on a place I once lived briefly and loved very much. If I can’t pick that, I’d go for the wild Welsh hills of the Mabinogian stories or the magical mythological landscape of the old Irish Celtic tales.
A big thank you to Cathy for her wonderful answers! She will be at the Mountains to Sea book festival in Dun Laoghaire on Saturday March 12th. Check http://www.mountainstosea.ie for more details.