Photo by Andy Donohoe

colour where they always were, right at the beating heart of our UK heritage and ancestry. Always a truth teller, she is also one of our most gifted, contemporary storytellers.’

Catherine’s writing career started at St Martin’s College where she studied film, thanks to a brilliant art teacher who encouraged her through secondary school (an otherwise deeply unhappy experience). When she finished, she ‘had babies’ and bored at home, pitched an idea for a film. It got taken up, and ‘I thought maybe I could do this’. She devised an idea for a TV show, a pony story starring a teenager with a Welsh mother and Guyanese father (strong similarities here to Catherine’s own life, not least a passion for ponies, of which more later). A friend knew an editor at a publishing company looking for stories like this and sent it off. The publisher took it on and, says Catherine, guided her through the writing process: ‘They really helped me, sent me on a writing course at Ty Newydd with Jan Mark and Catherine Fisher, I had a masterclass with Bernice Rubens.’ More book deals followed with the Women’s Press and Oxford, and then she was invited to write a screenplay for a film. Reluctant at first – the subject was a crime drama with black boys and girls: ‘Really? Are there no different stories?’ – she took it on (A friend said, ‘If you don’t do it, someone else will’) and it became Bullet Boy. More work followed both for screen and page, including Holby City, and the children’s novels that grew her reputation, Sawbones and its sequel Blade and Bone, and The Curious Tale of the Lady Caraboo plus her first book for Barrington Stoke, Arctic Hero. She thinks there’s a great deal of synergy between writing for the screen and writing for young people: ‘If you’re writing for children you’re telling stories through drama, people don’t walk about saying how they feel, everything has to be shown – if you’re writing for screen, that’s the same.’ She’s very aware of the influence television has had on her writing: ‘I grew up with telly – often if I read something it was because I’d seen it on the telly. I’m of that generation where TV was really important. Sunday afternoon family costume dramas were my favourite thing.’ Another thing learned from writing for the screen, ‘You want everything to matter, if it doesn’t matter, if there isn’t a payoff, why is it there? But, like knitting or sewing, you want it to look like there’s no effort involved.’


In a world where there’s far too little diversity amongst the heroes of our novels, she’s often asked to write these missing stories. When Scholastic asked her to write a book about the slave trade rather

Books for Keeps No.241 March 2020 9

than setting the story around abolition acts as suggested, she chose instead to write about the massacre on board the slave ship the Zong and the subsequent court case, all seen through the eyes of slaves and former slaves themselves: ‘the start of a long change’. Of her historical fiction she says: ‘Part of my writing is about belonging, because if you’re someone like me – born here, not white, you do not ‘belong’. My books say you know what, yes you do, this is your country, this is my country. I’m a Londoner but I go around saying “look, I’m English (it’s painful for my Welsh mother!) – this is what English looks like”. White writers don’t have to deal with that.’

She’s disappointed in the slow change around diversity, highlighting upcoming children’s conferences with almost all-white line-ups of speakers, but another major concern for her is that the environment for young writers is so much harder than when she started out, that they’ll need even more luck to succeed. She highlights lower advances, the unequal distribution of promotional support and an unwillingness amongst publishers to take time to develop authors for the future.

Catherine’s own future however is pretty secure: she has a new book with Bloomsbury about her hero Alexandre Dumas, out later this year, a new book coming from Barrington Stoke and a novel for Pushkin too, as well as a top secret project she’s not allowed to talk about yet. And the computer game. A note for any publishers who’d like her on their list, she’d love to write a pony series: someone sign it up!

As she walks me back down the hill to the station, chatting about her love for ponies (she rides one called Flicka) and pony books (the Jill series) and obsession with the Netflix series Free Rein, Catherine is still insisting her career is down to luck rather than an extraordinary ability to tell stories that tease out truths; it’s her readers who are the lucky ones.

Books mentioned Freedom, Scholastic, 978-1407185484, £5.99 pbk

Race to the Frozen North, Barrington Stoke, 978-1781128404, £6.99 pbk

The Curious Tale of the Lady Caraboo, Walker Books, 978-0552557634, £7.99 pbk Sawbones, Walker Books, 978-1406340570, £6.99 pbk Blade and Bone, Walker Books, 978-1406341874, £6.99 pbk

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Andrea Reece is managing editor of Books for Keeps

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