Nick Green is one of my most favourite authors. He has not had anywhere near as many books published as he should have, and I don’t understand why. After Faber published the first of his three Cat Kin books, they dropped out before the second book. Luckily, Strident Publishing have picked up the gauntlet, and The Cat Kin was re-published by them in 2010, followed by Cat’s Paw in 2011. Cat’s Cradle is to be published in the next few weeks.
I was introduced to Nick and his books by a friend. Linda is as big a fan as I am, and we both get to read his books as and when he finishes writing them. Four years after first reading The Cat Kin, I felt an interview with Nick was more than overdue, so we arrange to meet in London on a day when he’s not at work.
Because Nick has child care arrangements to consider, we meet at a hotel near Euston. And as I start my recording device, Nick points out that ‘you could record someone you didn’t mean to, using a dictaphone in a public place…’
‘You mean something in the background?’
‘Yes, you get some secret agent go through it with a fine-tooth comb.’ He talks like a character in an old film.
‘Well, I was just waiting for you to be indiscreet.’
The photographer mumbles something about the light not being too good, and Nick offers to ‘stand against a different background.’
‘We could always do a few photos here and then take you out and shoot you.’
‘Take him outside and shoot him,’ he laughs nervously.
I mention the tube station opposite the hotel and how I had always thought of ‘his’ Cat Kin station as looking like that.
‘In my mental image it was like Seven Sisters, but derelict. It had to be big, so I thought it had to be intended to be quite a large exchange, but not used.’
‘I was vaguely thinking Camden, perhaps, and a bit like this as well. Anyway, I need to ask you my most important question first.’
‘I would like to know all about your film career!’
‘Your film career. Acting.’
‘Oh,’ he sounds relieved and embarrassed, ‘well there’s nothing really to tell. I was at a public school, and one day Granada TV came round, looking for people to audition for a part in an adaptation of After the War, by Frederic Raphael. The first episode was all the characters as children, so they needed people who looked right, and a lot of us auditioned and for some unknown reason they chose me.’ We laugh. ‘Out of that school, I was the only one who was picked. They wanted posh boys, people who “talk proper.”
And so we went off and filmed for six weeks. Initially I wanted to be an actor, but by the end of it I was thinking “this is really hard work, and it’s really boring.”’ We laugh.
‘Because you only get like five minutes of interesting stuff happening every day and the rest of the time you’re hanging round the catering van, and eating not particularly nice fried sandwiches, and getting really, really cold and wet, and having to do things over and over and over again. So possibly it put me off the idea of acting, but I still to this day don’t know why they chose me.’
‘I looked at the cast list for that first episode, and it was Nicholas This and Nicholas That and Nicholas Something else.’
‘There were three Nicholases, yeah.’
‘Did you meet the famous people on the cast list?”
‘Patrick Malahide, who was really nice. He was well known at the time, in a series called Minder. And Susanna York. Orlando Wells. It was quite good fun, an interesting experience.’
‘How do you manage to work, commute, actually spend time with your family and still write books? How do you find the energy?’
‘Energy and time; yeah, pretty difficult, actually. I find time in the gaps between other things, like time on the train, making notes, time while something’s on TV in the background. The laptop’s very useful in that regard. I often wonder whether I would be a much better writer if I could write full time. I wonder whether maybe it’s the very nature of the way I write, whether my books are exciting because I have to make them exciting for my own sake. Just sifting time from the gaps between the other things I do…’
‘You have them printed on Lulu, so you must do a lot of self-editing…’
‘Well The Cat Kin, the only one I have completely self-published; it was on Amazon and it got picked up almost immediately by Faber. So that one I really edited carefully myself. But even then, once it got picked up by Faber it went through quite a lot of edits. I think there’s a limit to how much you can do yourself. At the end of the day you need someone else’s input. I do try and make my books as readable and as flaw-free as possible, because if I get hit by a bus and somebody goes through my stuff and realises how rubbish I really am…’ Nick is as self-deprecating as ever.
‘I’m just struck by how well your books read. It seems that you’ve got time to write, and then you have time to edit.’
‘Editing I quite like. I am doing an edit at the moment, of the second book of my new series, which no one has picked up yet. I like it because it is much easier than coming up with stuff from nothing.’
‘Even if it’s rubbish, you can do something and change something, and I read things through, grinding my teeth.’
‘We’ve all read bad books, and we think “oh why did you do that, edit it like that?” With the exception that I can change it. When I get the compulsion to stop changing, I feel like it’s kind of ready to be sent to an agent. They must go through about twenty re-writes.’ He says this as though it’s nothing.
‘So much rubbish is being published; I read it and think, well maybe you should have edited this a bit.’
‘People aren’t as ruthless as they could be. I tend to overwrite quite extensively and then cross it out. So you you are taking out everything that isn’t absolutely essential. You avoid all that waffle, cut out all the little bits and pieces of skiff.’
‘Yes, I had to return to where you removed the polecats (in Cat’s Cradle). I had to go back to see what I thought about that. If we could do without it. And in a way it’s all right. But what happened to those people?’
‘It was one of those things. The way I see it, it could almost be there, almost like a director’s cuts. One day I might put that old chapter on the side, about the polecats. As Keith (Charters) pointed out, it wasn’t directly relevant to the story. So that got rid of a nice number of words, but it’s still much longer than the other two, even after losing 10,000 words.’
‘It was all the adverbs, too, wasn’t it?
‘Yeah, well, it is. The new version, I’m very pleased with it. Keith said we really need it to be 10,000 words shorter if it is going to look right on the shelves, with the other two. He had better reasons than that, but that was the bottom line. I do sympathise with the idea of getting things out, as much as possible. It’s a challenge sometimes. Can I get 10,000 words out of this thing and still make it work?’
‘What age do you have in mind for Cat Kin? 10 +?’
‘I don’t really have a conscious… I don’t think everyone’s the same. Some kids at eight are reading books that others would only pick up and read at twelve. So I don’t think of ages. I just write what I would like to write, and then don’t make it too violent.’
‘Well it mentions suicide and sex, and there is an undercurrent, older woman younger man, that kind of thing.’
‘Yes, it’s what you get away with.’
‘Linda described The Cat Kin as middle grade.’
‘That’s an American age frame.’
‘They tend to say middle grade, I think, because when you get into YA – I mean, it’s not true of the best fiction – but books get less interesting the older you get. Once you get to commercial adult fiction, a lot of it tends to be quite boring. All about the same thing, about relationships or that same old eternal triangle, people falling in love, falling out of love. Deadly boring, deadly simple relationships.
YA is almost like a code word that is saying, we’ve got the teenagers and they’re falling in love, and some of them might be vampires. But at the end of the day we know with children’s fiction, you can go in any direction. You don’t get barred in in science fiction, or fantasy. They are all together, and to get stories with books like Michael Morpurgo’s Private Peaceful next to a fantasy by someone whose name begins with M, is wonderful.
I love the absolutely level playing field of children’s fiction, which I think is why I’m writing that. But if I wrote for adults I’d be in the fantasy section, or the science fiction section. And people would have certain expectations, that they don’t have at the moment.’
‘So, it’s a cliché, but I write for myself,’ he laughs, sounding embarrassed, ‘I write for the 12-year-old I remember myself being.’
‘I read that you started writing because you were doing book reviews. Why were you doing book reviews?’
‘Erm, it’s probably a simplified lie. I was writing before that. I wanted to write novels at least from the age of 15, and obviously made the usual attempts. I’d written a full-length novel by the age of 18, which was rubbish. I mean really, really bad, and another one by 19, which I thought was good at the time, but now I can see it isn’t.’ He laughs.
‘And so I thought reviewing books for a job, or rather writing snarky comments on books, was a plan. A desperate plan after being made redundant, so I went for it. And it was great fun and it was while I was with Books for Children that I thought I should get the writing thing going again. I was looking at the books going past and I thought I can do better than that…’
‘It was a great job. A fantastic job. I got to read Northern Lights and that’s where I discovered Philip Pullman. I could sit at my desk and read Northern Lights and say “I’m working.”’
‘So, about Cat Kin; you said you put it on Amazon, and it was picked up by Faber. Was that how Amanda Craig heard about it?’
‘I sent her a copy if I remember right, and to my absolute amazement she replied saying “yes, I like it and I will give it a review.” It was an amazing favour. It’s not the review that’s the favour, but the fact that she opened it, that was a big favour. And so I am certainly grateful to her, and she did give me a fantastic review, and literally two weeks after Faber picked it up.’
‘It gives you an insight to how the publishing industry works. Faber had the book for months and they’d not reacted to it, but the first week of an independent success, jumping on it. Interestingly, I knew exactly how many copies were being bought at any one time, and as a result of that review, exactly one more book was bought…’ We laugh.
‘By Jackie Morris, the author illustrator, whose daughter went on to be my first big fan. I have a character named after her in Cat’s Paw.’
‘Of course, she’s into cats, isn’t she?’
‘Do you have a cat?’
‘I have two, yeah. They’re lovely.’
‘Somebody at Strident Publishing mentioned that their interest in The Cat Kin started after my blog about you in the Guardian.’
‘I didn’t know that. Yes, I think it was Strident who first got in touch with me and said they’d heard about my unfortunate experience at Faber, and said if you’re looking for someone else, give us a call.’
‘It was only afterwards I heard but I thought that was quite nice. Until then I believed it was only the agent I was responsible for. You went for drinks with someone, didn’t you?’
‘Oh yes, I went for a meeting with an agent who had a big reputation at the time, and nothing came of that.’
‘I keep seeing him everywhere. And I feel like giving him a look.’
‘His initial approach was the classic kind of rock impresario; I’m going to make you a millionnaire, kind of thing. Not in those exact words, but that kind of attitude. “Meet me at my club.” It was a lunch time meeting, so I went along fully expecting to get lunch. I found him drinking green tea, and he said “will you have something,” and I assumed this was an aperitif kind of thing, so I said “I’ll have one as well,” and after, he said “well, thank you very much, and that was that.”’ We laugh at the story of the hungry Nick. ‘I went to the pub down the road and got a hamburger.’
‘I have felt bad about that ever since.’
‘Of course I never heard from him again.’
‘So you put Cat Kin in Greater London House?’
‘There are 12 black cats outside, and I wonder whether that’s where I got the idea? I used to walk past them every day. I like them because I like cats and I thought “what a wonderful building,” but the idea was an independent one and I didn’t consciously think that they were connected with the building. The whole place is like an Egyptian temple. And Mornington Crescent, which as everyone knows was derelict for a long time.’
‘Oh, was it?’
‘They were renovating it for about ten years. It was a famous empty station. That got me thinking about other stations and there are loads of them around, still. You can go to them sometimes and see them. It’s like the Titanic; subterranean train station. So that was interesting.’
‘In the books the house is derelict.’
‘Greater London House isn’t in the books.’
‘Oh, so it’s not..?’
‘It’s just where I was working, and it’s just the cats outside it. There is a big factory in the first book though, which is based upon a warehouse outside my flat in Newington. I just imagined Ben’s flat more or less where mine was. There was an old warehouse that was empty, and you know when you wonder “what could be going on in there?”’
‘Because we thought we might be meeting at the Tate Modern today, which features in the third book, I was so relieved you weren’t thinking of the roof of St Paul’s.’
‘Are you consciously picking tourist attractions, thinking of the film?’
‘I suppose I’d be lying if I didn’t think what would be a spectacular place to have things set in. It’s important to have a visual idea, because otherwise you’re going to end up setting every single scene inside a house, and if you’ve got characters who can jump over walls and cross rooftops, you’ve got to get them into places where these powers become useful and interesting. St Paul’s I do have a particular fondness for, because my Dad used to work there, in the choir. He was a tenor for thirty years.’
‘And I worked there one summer as a steward. A tourist steward, who of course appear in the Cat’s Cradle. It was quite a nice close community. We kept in touch with walkie talkies in the days before mobile phones were commonplace, and it was quite a treat to be able to have that network of correspondents. And what if we’d been a criminal network or something? It was a very mixed bunch of people.’
‘I used to spend a lot of time every day up in the dome, so obviously those scenes are written very much from life.’
‘Yes, it felt as though you knew more about it than the average tourist would, even after a few visits.’
‘You use what you’ve got.’
‘Now I’ll have to worry about staff there… To change the subject, do you come across your readers at all?’
‘Not by chance, but at events obviously. I don’t tend to run into people. I don’t have thousands and thousands of readers. I’ve just got a few. I’m a cult,’ he says defiantly. ‘They drop by quite regularly to my website. I set up a discussion board and there are several Pashki groups formed at schools. Mainly in the north, and they do their own little Pashki club, and they really get into it, and believe that it’s true, and you hear them talk about it; “oh, I fell out of a tree the other day, and I managed to land on my feet.” And I think “oh god, I’ll really get into trouble one day!” They do take themselves very seriously, and I’m torn between wanting to reign them in and wanting to encourage them.’
‘They are only doing what children are supposed to do.’
‘Yeah, it’s what I used to do as a kid. Writing fiction is just a way of doing that legitimately as an adult, fantasies about having special powers and fighting crime.’ He laughs, sounding a bit embarrassed.
‘Did you run around fighting?’
‘Oh yes, you had to have the right friends, who are also into it. We didn’t have the computer games, that people have now. If you run around pretending to be a spy or whatever, people look at you oddly. The only difference is people can see you when you do it for real.’
‘Who were you?’
‘Thor. Because we had a sledgehammer at home. And my friends came round, to see my Thor hammer. I could just about lift it. I’d lift this hammer and chuck it about two feet.’
‘You mention going into schools. Does that mean you actually do events?’
‘Occasionally. Not as often as a lot of children’s writers, but there’s a few local schools near to me where I’ve been a couple of times, and there’s some in London.’
‘If you only do one or two a year, you really want them to be good.’
‘Mm, as I said, I don’t really have the time. Every time I do an author event I have to take a half or full day off work, and you run out of those when you have to take a half day to look after kids and so forth. My time is absolutely gold dust. Normally I work at home on Thursdays. Today I’ve taken the day off. It was my younger son’s first day at nursery school.’
‘How old are the boys now?’
‘One is six and the other three.’
‘He’ll be Y3?’
‘Going into Y3. He’s going on about me reading my books to him. But I tell him he is too young. I think I’ll wait until he’s eight, because I think he’d get bored. His attention span is not great.’
‘Do you read other things?’
‘I’ve been reading the Narnia books to him. I’ve been waiting years to read him Narnia, because I do think they are wonderful.’
‘Does he read himself, as well?’
‘At school but not for pleasure yet. It’s still a chore.’
‘Do you have a typical day, or a typical week?’
‘I probably have the least structured writing regime of any writer I’ve ever met. It’s literally… I work into my phone sometimes. Send them to myself as emails. The first draft is pretty messy and the real writing gets done in the second and third drafts. I’ve got a whole file. On the way to work, gaps and breaks in lunchtime. It all powers up like a snowfall; one snowflake never looks like very much, but eventually it piles up.’
‘What sort of time do you go to work in the morning?’
‘I leave the house at seven, get home at half past six. I do have a nice long train journey; it’s one of the highlights of the day.’
‘Do you get to sit down then?’
‘Oh yeah, I’m at the end of the line.’
‘Do you make any money from your books?’
‘It’s a nice sort of background pocket money. Most of the money was when I first got The Cat Kin taken on by Faber, when they were still giving reasonable advances. I’ve discovered I don’t really mind about the money so much.’
‘What about research? Visiting places.’
‘We try to do research as well as doing other things. One of my unpublished books, as you know, is set in Bermuda. I didn’t go there deliberately; my family live out there, and so one time I thought I should really set a book in Bermuda, because not many people come here, and it’s a nice beach. Shame to waste the whole thing.
So the dolphin idea came along, even though you never really see dolphins from the shore in Bermuda. Which actually became part of the story and I wondered why don’t dolphins come to Bermuda, what is it they stay away from? The real reason is they don’t like shallow water, but in the book it becomes they’re actually afraid of the place.’
‘So it comes out of that; you turn the disadvantages into source material.’
‘The book was available for free download, how long? One day?’
‘Yeah,’ he laughs, ‘I changed my mind.’
‘Why did you put it up in the first place?’
‘I think just a general boredom of having it sitting on my hard-drive not doing anything. Because it’s my favourite of the books I’ve written. If I was only allowed to save one book from a fire, that is the book I’d save. It’s the book I’ve written so much more from the heart. It just came from nowhere. My agent Laura Cecil is bemused [‘baffled and frustrated’ apparently] why no one wants it.’
‘It’s a shame.’
‘It’s kind of weird, because it seems to cross all the boxes. It’s an adventure story, it’s magic realism, it’s got interesting animals in it, but it’s not a clichéd animal story. It’s a human story. Sometimes I don’t know whether people might be fed up with the fact that it’s Bermuda, but then Bermuda is well known as a centre of mystery and everyone knows about the triangle, and there’s elements of that in the book.’
‘I was going to point out that Liz Kessler went to Bermuda, especially to do research for Emily Windsnap. If you can have mermaids, why not a few dolphins?’
‘The end came from real life. We went to visit the dolphins at the dockyard, and they were saying how the dolphins didn’t move from their previous place, which had been broken up in a hurricane, and the dolphins had escaped. That found its way into the book.’
‘You obviously changed your mind very, very quickly about it being available online.’
My photographer points out that at least I got there in time. ‘I did! Are you happy talking this freely about your unpublished books? Because it’s not as if you have a publication date for a set time in the future.’
‘I find I can just write them and… I have a friend who plays the guitar and he’s extraordinarily happy to make CDs of his music. He sends a few copies to family and he sends me a copy and to a couple of friends, and then he just forgets about them, and goes on to the next one. I say “why don’t you put them on Spotify? Why don’t you put them on YouTube?”
I feel people would enjoy reading the books. It’s not something that consumes me with frustration. It’s the pleasure of writing them. But at the same time I never think, well that will do, because I’m just writing for myself. I still try and think of this imaginary reader. I write for a few specific people. You know Linda, she’s a very harsh critic, and I always send her a copy of my books. And I think “would Linda like this?”’ We laugh.
‘I think “I know she won’t like this, but I’m going to do it anyway.” I run it past my internal critic. It is a tough industry. I would very much like the books to be taken on, but there is a commercial reality. People may be wrong, but that’s their prerogative; to be wrong.’
‘But you don’t object to bringing the books out into the open?’
‘I love to mention them. Maybe a publisher will see this and think “I want to see one of these.”’
‘Next is Project Firebird. Is it the second book you’ve just finished?’
‘Yeah, I’m in the process of writing. I never say I’m finished until I’ve done my own run of editing. Yes, that’s shaping up. It’s expanded in my head into a tetralogy. It was going to be three, but the second book just grew too much and I found a natural break. I know you don’t like cliffhangers, but it will be less resolved than some of them.’
‘As long as you keep writing it.’
‘Yes,’ Nick laughs. ‘That’s shaping up into an exciting project. It’ll be the biggest scale book that I’ve done. A lot of my books have been quite a sealed system, a closed environment. This is stretching over several years and lots of different places and lots of characters.’
‘I know you said that your agent made you make changes.’
‘Is that because it was good advice, or because she thought she might be able to take it somewhere?’
‘I think Laura’s general feeling is that she wants to get things in as good a shape as possible before submitting it. If I’ve got a gut feeling she could be right, then I’ll generally go with it. There was one particular change she wanted to make, and it shows I don’t just roll over when someone says, and I fought tooth and nail. It was something to do with the ending, and a decision that was made by the character. She said “actually, they wouldn’t make that decision” and I said “yes they would,” and by pushing it backwards and forwards, several times, we finally found a resolution whereby I could do it the way I wanted, and it made her happy.’
‘Is she taking it to people then?’
‘She’s shown it to quite a few. She called me the other week, and said there’s no news, but she’s still sending it out and still felt confident about it. And she’s sending out The Storm Bottle as well. That’s her favourite. She likes that one even more than Firebird, and she’s quite puzzled by the fact that people aren’t taking it on.’
‘I used to think it should be possible to persuade a publisher.’
‘The publishing world is changing so much. There are so many people writing, and the industry so much in turmoil. They worry about how many people are buying books and they really won’t go with anything unless they feel they can make a hit with it.’
‘Yeah, but what about that seven-book deal for a 20-year-old?’
‘I haven’t read about that. It’s a good story isn’t it? Thing is, the very fact they have taken it will make people interested. They are hoping to generate another bubble. It’s hardly coincidence that the Harry Potter phenomenon coincided exactly with the boom years. It’s a weird zeitgeist thing, the New Labour boom, the optimism, everyone buying one thing, it comes to an end, and it’s a natural cycle.’
I’m amazed that Nick has analysed Potter and politics so thoroughly, but why not? I say we’d better finish, so he can walk to St Pancras and get home in time, but it turns out he got the tube to Euston, so he’s fine and he doesn’t have to walk all that way. But we still finish. There are children to pick up, and hopefully more great books to write.