Cat Hellisen is the author of When the Sea is Rising Red, a young adult fantasy thriller about magic, freedom, and the sea. Cat is a tea-drinker, a ukuleleist, and has reached an understanding with the sea. She lives in Capetown, South Africa.
Could you tell us 5 random facts about yourself?
I collect coloured glass bowls and vases – I don’t even know why. I can get pretty obsessive over my music, which drives the people around me insane, especially when I put all the albums of an artist on repeat for days. My social skills are somewhat suspect, so I am pretty panicky about meeting people. I play ukulele and guitar with little skill, and if I hadn’t taken up writing, I’d probably be a starving artist.
Tell us about your journey to becoming a writer.
When I was in school, I was always completing other people’s creative writing essays, but it never occurred to me that writing was going to be my job – I wanted to be a musician and was sadly blind to my lack of ability. It took a lot of drifting about before I started taking writing seriously. There was so much I had to learn and unlearn, and many kind people offered their time and advice before I started writing work that was of a publishable quality. Some awful books are now tucked away on my hard-drive, but finally I wrote something that an agent was interested in. I’m constantly working to improve my writing, but I struggle quite a bit with what I want to write, and with what people actually want to buy.
What has surprised you about writing and publishing?
The time frame, I think. It takes me a year to two years to write and revise and rewrite a book until I think it’s good enough; add months (or years) to the submission process, and another year or two of editorial revisions, copy-editing, and the publisher working on covers before the novel hits book stores. I was aware of it, but the reality was still an eye-opener.
Why do you feel drawn to the stories you write?
I’ve always been interested in fantasy. Not so much the Lord of the Rings style sagas, though I enjoy them occasionally, but fiction that re-invents reality. The fantastical intrigues me, and I love everything through from the reality-tweaking of magical realism, to the full-blown created worlds and adventures in more epic fantasy. Naturally, when I started writing I stepped through the Looking Glass.
What has been the toughest criticism given to you as an author?
I don’t know if it’s so much criticism as suggestion. Constructive criticism is fine – fix your grammar, your spelling, learn how to plot, build tension – that’s good stuff. But I still don’t deal well with being asked for likeable heroines/heroes and more palatable stories, to tone down the weird if I want to sell. The authors I love do none of that, so I guess it chafes when I’m told that my writing is hampered by my imagination.
What has been the best compliment you’ve received?
That so many people have found my world-building in When the Sea is Rising Red immersive. When readers talk about how real the world is, how they could see everything, could smell the salt air and feel the magic crackling, that gives me a thrill.
Where’s your favorite place to write?
I don’t have one yet. My dream is to move into a house where I can have my own table to work at. Right now I work in front of the coffee table. I homeschool my kids, and I love it, but it does mean that I have to grab my time in five minute fragments. Ideally a garden shed with a locked door would be nice, though I can imagine what people would assume I’d be hiding in there. (Bodies, stills, portals to another dimension.)
What is one thing you wish you’d known when you sat down to write your novel?
Nothing. I think with starting out, ignorance is bliss.
How do you approach writing villains or antagonists?
Every person in a novel is the protagonist in their own story. As a writer, I choose a side, and allow one (sometimes more) person to tell their truth. But that doesn’t make it the only truth. Or even close to the truth. With that in mind, I don’t really have villains. I have the protagonist’s perceived antagonist, and how the reader sees them is filtered through the “hero’s” own belief system, actions, and desires.
That came across a bit weird, so in short: I write people; some of them are worse than others, some are better, but that’s not the deciding factor in what makes them the villain.
How do you construct the world and tonal environment of your story?
The world is a character in every story I write. I pay the same attention to what the world wants as I do to any other character. I map its mood, what its wearing, and what its feeding on. Also, I keep a lot of notes, then lose them.
Which is easier to write: The first line or the last line?
The first. Always the first.
What is your favorite chapter or scene you’ve written recently?
The one with the house-sized African Land snails with their palanquins and finery.
Which one YA novel do you wish you had when you were a teen?
Oh gosh, there are so many good YA novels that are coming out every day, I can’t pick one. But I will say I’m glad Chabon’s The Mysteries of Pittsburgh existed when I was a teen.
Do you have things you need in order to write? (i.e. coffee, cupcakes, music?)
Not really necessities, but I quite like having coffee and a clean house before I get started.
What are you working on now?
I’ve just finished revisions for the not-quite-a-sequel to When the Sea is Rising Red, called House of Sand and Secrets, and I’m gearing up for the revisions on my middle-grade novel Beastkeeper, and then I’ve got two novels to get back to. One is about a necromancer’s daughter, and the other is about three dogs and a magician.
Bonus Question! Would you rather be a book, or a computer?
A computer. AI and multitudes of stories.
About ‘When the Sea is Rising Red’:
After seventeen-year-old Felicita’s dearest friend Ilven kills herself to escape an arranged marriage, Felicita chooses freedom over privilege. She fakes her own death and leaves her sheltered life as one of Pelimburg’s magical elite behind. Living in the slums, scrubbing dishes for a living, she falls for charismatic Dash while also becoming fascinated with vampire Jannik. Then something shocking washes up on the beach: Ilven’s death has called out of the sea a dangerous wild magic. Felicita must decide whether her loyalties lie with the family she abandoned . . . or with those who would twist this dark power to destroy Pelimburg’s caste system, and the whole city along with it.
For more about Cat Hellisen:
You can connect with Cat on Facebook, Tumblr and find her on Twitter as @HellionCat. For further information and contact details, check out her website CatHellisen.com. When the Sea is Rising Red is available for purchase from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other booksellers.