Friday, June 26, 2015

Interview with Catherine Johnson, author of The Curious Tale of the Lady Caraboo

Today I'm very happy to have the very lovely Catherine Johnson on my blog talking about books historical fiction and diversity and her latest book, The Curious Tale of the Lady Caraboo, which is publishing 2nd July from Corgi.  I've been looking forward to reading this book for quite some time so I'm really happy both to have already read it but also to have Catherine on the blog too!

To find out more about Catherine Johnson or The Curious Tale of the Lady Caraboo, do visit the following websites:

Hello and welcome to Fluttering Butterflies! Could you please introduce yourself and your book, The Curious Tale of the Lady Caraboo.

Hello! I am Catherine Johnson, the woman with the most boring first name/second name combination in children's books. I have been a writing for a long time, (I used to have a career making films and videos but that was a million years ago) and I've written lots of books mostly YA, people might know Sawbones. But I also write for film and TV - including Holby City - and a film called Bullet Boy.  

The Curious Incident of The Lady Caraboo is a story about lies and love and was inspired by the true story of Mary Wilcox, a cobblers daughter from Devon who passed herself off as a Princess from the South Seas.

 It's about as close to a romance as I've ever got. But it's mostly about lies - who we are and who we'd rather be.

What struck me the most about this book is everyone's reactions to Caraboo. Why do you think there was this fascination with cultures and people of colour in a distant way but such a different reaction to the idea of her being a poor local?

Although the village where the story is set, Almondsbury, is not far from Bristol, the idea of a lost Princess was probably the most exciting thing that had happened in living memory. And a major part of why people believed that Caraboo was real was that Mrs Worrall, the local lady of the manor, wanted her to be real. I think, from my reading, that Mrs Worrall was bored out of her mind. She was an intelligent woman, born in America, who loved anthropology but because of the time she had no outlet for her interest.  It must have been a coup for her having such an interesting house guest, being able to invite professors and experts (which the real Mrs Worrall did) and be at the centre of a real cause celebre. 

I do love that this book is about a person of colour set in a historical time period and that Princess Caraboo is proudly on the cover - both of these being representations I don't see very much of. What are your thoughts on the levels of diversity portrayed in YA fiction in recent times? 

I do think there is more diversity now - especially in regards to sexuality - and I think authors and publishers are making an effort, but there is still a long way to go. I would like to see more authors from different backgrounds, not just race but class too, being published and promoted. Of course the books need to be good but I do think this is vital to get a range of different stories out there. But if we are going to get publishers to respond and publish more widely we need readers to read more diversely too! Part of the push for change we've had in recent years has come from readers and bloggers. So lets have more of everything, please and open minds everywhere!

At one point Caraboo says something along the lines of 'and weren't stories more rewarding than life?' What are some of your favourite books and stories? 

There are so many! One of my all time favourites is Susan Price's Sterkarm Handshake which is historical and science fictiony and brilliant. Also Holes by Louis Sachar, which is utterly brilliantly plotted and it never gets tired.  Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel is a big favourite and also Pao by Kerry Young, a book set in Jamaica in the first half of the Twentieth Century. But the one  that just breaks my heart every time I read it is The Long Song by Andrea Levy. That book is absolutely brilliant, tour de force of point of view as well as a view of history we hardly ever see. There are about a million other books too.....

Mary Wilcox and Princess Caraboo are based on actual events in history! Can you share with us any other incredibly fascinating lesser-known, real-life historical women? 

Women and minorities are always hidden in history. The poorer and less powerful - and women of colour are always at the  bottom of the heap - rarely have their stories told, but there are some and plenty of lives ripe for folding into stories. Here are a few;

Nanny of the Maroons, a real folk hero. She lived in the early 17th century and was kidnapped into slavery as a child in Ghana and bought to Jamaica. She endured terrible and inhumane treatment and ran away into the hills, where she organised free settlements of runaway slaves in the mountains and carried out raids on the British. The town that bears her name still exists.

Adelaide Hall, an American born singer, who was part of the Harlem renaissance who lived the greater part of her life in the UK. In 1941 she was the highest paid entertainer in Britain. I almost wrote a novel based in wartime Soho, she'd have definitely have had a walk on in that...

One last thing. Where I used to live in Hackney was a big old house, long since divided into flats. This was the Ayahs home, a home for Indian nannies employed by British families on the long voyage back from India but then abandoned in London without any money and unable to get home. This went on well into the 20th century. It's really worth finding out more just about where you live...

In fact, historical YA isn't something that I know a great deal about, do you have any recommendations or suggestions? 

YES! Lots. I belong to a brilliant joint blog called the History Girls which features writers like Celia Rees (Witch Child, Pirates!), Mary Hoffman (David, Stravaganza) Penny Dolan (A Boy Called Mouse) Tanya Landman (Apache, Buffalo Soldier) and Lydia Syson (Liberty's Fire, A World Between Us) - there are many more on there too. Another one I would recommend is Jamila Gavin's classic Coram Boy or any of Mary Hooper's work - Newes From The Dead, The House of The Magician, Poppy. Every one of those books is utterly brilliant.

I kind of love the fact that Mary creates Princess Caraboo into a person that she'd like to be and makes her own sort of Princess Rules. What would at the top of your own list of Princess rules?

Princess rules! What a great idea... 

1. Everyone to have their own pony and/or swimming pool although not a pony in a swimming pool....

2. I would like my own dedicated wool shop just like the new one in Stoke Newington High Street. I am a demon knitter. I used to have a stall in Portobello market when I was a student.

All libraries to have extended opening hours and all the books I want in whenever I visit.

4. Plenty of custard. I am partial to custard.

There are so many lying liars in your book! Do you have any favourite literary liars?

Lies make stories -and I love a good unreliable narrator like Cadence in E. Lockhart's We Were Liars too. But I'm going to recommend an absolutely stunning non fiction book here stuffed full of the most professional liars of the 19th and twentieth century. I love stories of Con men and grifters - The Sting is a brilliant film, do watch it - and that film was based on a really fascinating book - a non fiction academic study by a linguist in 20th century America who was studying criminal slang. That sounds dry but the book really isn't. David Maurer, the author, interviewed all of the con men of the late 19th and early 20th century for his book, The Big Con, and it is totally absorbing.

And finally, The Curious Tale of Lady Caraboo was one of my most anticipated UKYA reads in 2015. What are you most looking forward to reading? 

That's so blush making! I hope it didn't disappoint.... I am a big fan of Sarra Manning's books, YA and adult. I think she's doing a historical next, set in  WW2, and I cannot wait. And I am looking forward to the next Malorie Blackman. Now she's retired from laureating I do hope she'll have plenty of writing time to finish the sequel to Boys Don't Cry...

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