Catherine Forde – ‘Ask a bad question!’

Catherine Forde is too pretty and seems too nice to be one for killing her main character, but she says that she really wanted Cloddy in Sugarcoated to die. Her editor didn’t think it was a good idea, so you can make your own mind up when you read Cathy’s latest teen novel Sugarcoated. My young co-interviewer Amelia loved the book, apart from the end, whereas I don’t think it bothered Helen, my other interview companion. We are talking at Simply Books over cups of tea and hot chocolate. Cathy has called in on her way south from her home city of Glasgow, at the start of a week’s book tour.

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Sugarcoated is an interestingly different book, and Cathy is new to me. The book comes with a warning that it contains violence, and I’d say the warning is necessary in this case. Cloddy witnesses a violent crime, and immediately afterwards the most attractive young man she’s ever met, chats her up. Warning bells ought to start ringing at this point, but 17-year-old Cloddy lets herself be swept off her feet in a big way. She’s incredibly naive, but not having had lots of success with the opposite sex, she wants this to be for real.

Cloddy displays a good sense of humour, which almost jars when you consider the violence and her desperate predicament with the handsome suitor. He’s rich and experienced, and violent. In the typical pattern of fiction, Cloddy’s family is removed from her, and she lets herself sink deeper and deeper into danger. There’s some almost farcical police officers and a nice and decent shop security man, but for the most part Cloddy is on her own.

The initial crime happens outside Cloddy’s father’s optician’s shop, and I had heard that Cathy’s husband is, in fact, an optician. It turns out that not only is this the case, but the shop in Sugarcoated is based on his shop, and the crime happened in much the same way in real life as well. Cathy says she just added some extra blood. And the ghastly optician’s jokes that the tedious customers repeat endlessly, are straight from life too. “A hundred times a day people pretend to be blind and walk into the shop”. Apparently it’s old people who are the worst, believing they are both witty and original.

Having been somewhat alarmed over both the violence and Cloddy’s possible fate, I ask what age she wrote the book for, but Cathy says “I don’t aim them at any age; I never have.” She describes Sugarcoated as a thriller, and if Cloddy wasn’t so clueless, I’d say that the book has something of the hardboiled crime novel about it. I wonder if Cathy felt the plot should provide young readers with a warning of what not to do, but “that would be preaching” and “I don’t write books to be warnings, I just write stories”.

Her Scottish accent is comforting to listen to and I’d almost forgotten about the Glaswegian sense of humour that Cathy likes using. “There’s black humour in all my books”, she says. “Glaswegians see the funny side in everything, even in the darkest and gloomiest situation”. Before our meeting I’d wanted to know more about Cathy, so had pumped her colleague, Glasgow author Julie Bertagna, for information. The two of them usually meet up for coffee and gossip. According to Julie they talk about “kids, life, books and everything” in their “therapy” sessions.

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At this point in our conversation Margaret, another Scot, comes to force some cake on us, and it’s reassuring to find Cathy helping herself to a cake from the selection put in front of us, refusing to share a cookie with Egmont’s Vicky.

Cathy has written over ten books. It takes her a year on average to write a book, and she has to write in one place only, or she feels uncomfortable. She writes first thing every day, and doesn’t go out until the day’s job is done. Unlike many authors she openly puts friends and family in her books, and gets inspiration from her two sons. “I feel comfortable with boys”. Cathy says she was always a tomboy and laughs as she says she would quite have liked to be a boy.

Her other source of inspiration seems to be her toilet, as she gets lots of good ideas when she cleans it. Cathy reckons it’s the unconscious mind that makes the creative mind come alive. Driving to the supermarket is good, too, and she’s been known to stop the car to write an idea down.

Cathy always liked writing, and wrote short stories and poetry while at school. Then she returned to writing in her mid-thirties. She loves it when people tell her stories, and she likes imagining what people are thinking. Her next book is in its first draft now, and is about a teenage boy with an embarrassing dad, a kind of wannabe Bob Dylan. She has another two or three definite ideas for books waiting, so her inspiration probably won’t be drying up anytime soon.

One of the girls wants to know if she writes poetry now, and Cathy says she did, sort of, for the songs in Skarrs. She kept thinking up lyrics while doing the house cleaning and having to take the rubber gloves off so she could go and write it down on a piece of paper. Not toilet paper, she adds. Her suggestion to the girls is for them to clean their rooms, and literary ideas will come to them.

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Before her teen books for Egmont, Cathy had written a couple of younger, more conventional books, published by a small Scottish publisher. Her first book was Think Me Back, about the Clydebank Blitz, which gets used in schools. Cathy has another early, but as yet unpublished, adult ghost story waiting in a drawer, which has something to do with Wilfred Owen, and sounds very promising. She has also written a book with Kevin Brooks.

Amelia wants to know if Cathy is planning a sequel to Sugarcoated, but she says she has never considered sequels. If she did, it’s most likely to be of Fat Boy Swim, her best known book, because people are always asking what happens to him. In that case, she thinks he’d be a lot older, around 22, and different from the first book.

I can’t help harking back to the violence in Sugarcoated, and Cathy points out that she actually toned it down a bit. She was “trying to be realistic”, but without the violence becoming gratuitous, and she’s sure her book is less violent than a typical 15 film. It’s a good comparison, and Cathy is probably right.

So, I move on to sex instead, which there isn’t any of in Sugarcoated. “I don’t like reading about sex”, Cathy says, “I find it embarrassing to read”. It’s better if you have to imagine things yourself, and anyway “what if my Mum read it?” She giggles as she says “I’ve never been asked about sex before!”, and “I don’t like to put too much swearing in”. “Book clubs don’t buy books with swearing in it… and I have to find ways round it, be creative.”

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When Cathy wrote Skarrs she didn’t feel it was a children’s book at all. “I write books with young people in them”, she says. “And I don’t plan for the voice of the character to come out in a certain way. I like older teenagers”. You shouldn’t have to “make a concession because it’s a children’s book”. I want to know whether she has more girls or boys reading her books, but this seems to be another thing Cathy hasn’t thought about all that much. Though she says that when she gives talks in schools “boys tend to ask all the questions”. And if you want to know, Cathy would have made more money working as a teacher.

When we meet Cathy is pleased because she has noticed that Derek Landy is coming to Simply Books the day after her visit, and she needs to send him a thank you card, but she doesn’t have his address. She buys a card and writes it while we talk, and asks if I can deliver it to Derek. It turns out that for her son’s school she organised a signed book auction for charity, and was overwhelmed by the response to her plea for signed books. The auction made a lot of money, and Cathy has had her work cut out thanking everyone involved, and now Derek was the only one left. Fate, I’d say.

As she and Vicky get up to leave, Cathy says to Amelia that next time she will try and write a five star book, referring to Amelia’s four stars for Sugarcoated, and all because Cathy was feeling so murderous towards poor Cloddy.

Photos by H Giles and V Gordon

2 responses to “Catherine Forde – ‘Ask a bad question!’

  1. Interesting source of inspiration, cleaning the toilet. But not so unusual – I always gleaned inspiration from bouts of housework, though I was never so organised as to write down my ideas as I went along. Nothing wrong with writing notes on toilet paper – I like to pad out the atmosphere in my books by using details of memories of our family life during WW2 (yes, I am that old). I can remember how difficult it was, during times of rationing and shortages to obtain toilet paper that wasn’t hard and scratchy and lumpy. (Often so difficult that we used torn up square of newspaper, which drove our grandpa mad as it always blocked the toilet. As for the link to writing notes on toilet paper? I can remember begging my grandma to give me one of the packets of some particularly scratchy stuff to use for writing my homework compostions on, as nobody wanted to use it for…well, you know. Was I the only one of you who was driven to such measures in order to write?

  2. what do you like to do do in your spear time

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