Cat Hellisen won the 2015 Short Story Day Africa Prize with her story, "The Worme Bridge". Her latest novel, Beastkeeper, a fairy tale for the loveless, has received high praise in the mainstream media and on the blogosphere, and has just been released in paperback.
Rachel: Congratulations on winning the 2015 Short Story Day Africa Prize. Mary Watson, Billy Kahora and Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, our judging panel, were unanimous in selecting “The Worme Bridge” as the winner.
All three are well-respected literary-writers who have shortlisted or won The Caine Prize for African Writing. You yourself received a letter from last year’s Caine Prize chair commending your story, "Mouse Teeth", published in Terra Incognita. It was also praised in a review of the anthology in the L.A. Review of Books. You’re basically getting big kudos from the so-called “literary" community. Do you think the barriers between genre fiction and literary fiction are breaking down? Should these categories even exist or are they harming literature, and by literature I mean all writing, irrespective of category?
CAT: Thank you! As you know, when you're a writer you cling to these moments where people say nice things about your art because a lot of the time it can feel like screaming into the void, so hearing that the decision was unanimous gave me extra incentive to put down the gin & arsenic bespoke cocktail (I call it Writer's Tears, and it tastes like suffering through bad acting) and pick up the old fountain pen and parchment. (Actually, it made me open up a new document on my laptop but writers are professional liars for a reason.)
On to the "literary" debate. I come from a solid genre background, both as a reader and a writer. And sometimes writers like me feel that other writers, and some readers, assume that genre is lesser, stupider and whatever other ers you care to think of. It's reductive and insular, and cuts readers off from a wealth of amazing fiction lurking on those SFF and Horror shelves in their local bookstore, and it denies writers a potential audience.
I write stories of the fantastical. That's my jam, baby. It's what makes me happy. If people decide my work has literary value, that's all well and good, but in the end, I write stories. I make shit up. That's what I do. I like weird things, I like the bones and blood of fantasy - dragons and vampires and ghosts and elves and other worlds and journeys to the stars. I'm never going to stop writing about those things in order to chase down the readers and writers who will only take me seriously if I write about the things they deem "proper writing."
And that's good. Writers writing what makes them happy allows for the artificial and manufactured boundaries of "literary" and fantasy to be blurred. Our first stories were about gods and monsters and heroes. We will always go back to them.
Tiah: So is it really that much of a stretch to say, "I'm a writer of literary speculative fiction"? What is keeping you from owning it? Imposter syndrome? A stance on what makes fiction literary?
CAT: Eh. Not imposter syndrome at all. I know what I write. I know what I love. My work is neither mainstream genre, nor LitSpec (or whatever made-up name we'll use today.) On both sides of the Fantasy/Literary divide there are readers who believe (or want to believe) that all fantasy is Elves and Farm Boy Heroes and Evil Dragons and Dark Lords, and certainly, if you come to my work looking for those things you will find them, just perhaps not in the way you want or expect. That's what I mean by saying I'm neither one nor the other.
If you go look at what is happening in the small SpecFic presses like Small Beer or Chizine or Apex, you'll get a much better idea of where I might fit in one day. My favourite books tend to come from these smaller presses, mainly because the current trend in Fantasy at the big presses seems to be strongly Grimdark and epic-heavy and seven-million-in-a-series books, and I'm just not overly interested. I'm far more invested in the stories that fall between cracks because they're the wrong shape—writers like Kathe Koja, Beth Bernobich, Karen Lord, Kelly Link, Greer Gilman, Kari Sperring, Claude Lalumiere... and so on. Sadly, you don't see much of their work in South African book stores.
When forced to pigeonhole myself, I tell people I write fiction of the fantastical.
Tiah: "Serein" the original story you wrote for Water didn't meet SSDA's submission's guidelines for length, so you sold it Shimmer. You then penned "The Worme Bridge" which took the coveted $1000 (R10 000) prize. What was it like trying to write a second entry after you'd already invested so much energy into "Serein"? Did you consider quitting after it fell short of our entry rules? Or are you one of those people with a multitude of stories whirling around in your head?
CAT: "Serein" came about because I find the non-endings of the stories of vanishing people, people who go missing intentionally, so delightfully and horrifyingly fascinating. After I was done, and realised that it was too short for SSDA, I sent it off to Shimmer because that's what you do - never stop submitting stories. I needed something new for SSDA but I wasn't too stressed because water is a pretty open-ended theme and I think it's clear from my fiction that I am obsessed with people who live in the liminal zones of human community. And water is a perfect metaphor for that—it's even in the clichéd phrase, "a fish out of water". Which is essentially what "The Worme Bridge" is about. Once I started playing with that and I had the voice of the character in my head, the initial draft came out very quickly.
Read "The Worme Bridge" on Books Live this Friday.
Tiah: You have two self-published novels, Charm and House of Sands and Secrets, the sequel to When the Sea is Rising Red. Later, you serialised Charm on your blog and are now in the process of doing the same with House of Sands and Secrets. What have you taken away from both self-publishing and serialising your work?
CAT: Mostly that if you think it's hard for your book to be noticed in a book store, imagine how much worse it is outside the book store, huddled in the cold with all the other self-published books, and where everyone assumes your work is self-published because you're illiterate and stupid.
Having said that, I believe there are genres where self-pub work does very well—especially erotica and romance, but for SFF, I think the general view of readers is "Well, it must be a load of rubbish if a real publisher didn't want it." Which rather sadly doesn't take into account how narrow mainstream SFF publishing is, and how hard it is to find a place for more niche work.
Serialising is weird. I do it because I can. The books are already finished and edited, and I don't have to deal with the horror of writing and posting without knowing how the story works or ends. I do it as a gift to those readers who have supported me. If you go into it thinking, "Ooh I bet this is how I get noticed by a Big NY editor and get a 12 book deal!" then you're heading down Disappointment Alley into Pointless Rage cul-de-sac.
Tiah: Last year, you challenged yourself to write one story a month. How did that experiment go? What have you taken away from the challenge?
CAT: Oh, well, yes. Hmm.
On one hand, I most definitely failed as I think I ran out of steam somewhere in August last year. On the other, I wrote short fiction, and some of it was even good, and a smaller percentage of that got published by really great magazines or anthologies. I used WATER as one of my monthly prompts and that got me two short stories in one month, both of which sold to excellent venues. So overall we're going with Massive Win on that challenge.
Tiah: You illustrated SSDA's anthology of children's writing, Rapunzel is Dead. Since then, you have dedicated more time to your art – from taking part in InkTober to painting. Have you toyed with the idea of combining your talents? A graphic novel, perhaps?
CAT: I have actually sat down before to start scripting a graphic novel before I realised how much work that would be and how far from ready my artistic talents are. A few doodles here and there are not going to cut it when it comes to an entire graphic novel.
I have one particular novel that I would love to produce as a mixed media art piece—a novel with illustrations, paintings, links to songs, chapters done as sequential art. That would be glorious. But I also have no idea where to begin on a project like that. And of course, the usual fear of being utterly awful.
Rachel: Tell us what’s happening on the ground in your writing community, i.e. Cape Town’s SpecFic scene.
CAT: "Your community" makes it sound like I run it.... I do. I have a throne made out of the skulls of fallen literary writers. Roving packs of SpecFic writers under my command go out to book launches at The Book Lounge, and when our prey is drunk (The Kimberley is a great hunting ground) and vulnerable we lure them into our unmarked van with promises of good reviews, then we eat them alive.
Wait, none of that is true. I promise.
There are loads of writers in Cape Town and Joburg writing speculative fiction of all stripes. The SpecFic community tends to be quite close because we often end up feeling a bit "us against the world" in the South African writing scene, where many publishers close doors to genre and YA fiction. Which is why it's wonderful that anthologies like Short Story Day Africa have embraced us and invited us in. When so often it can feel as though the Welcome Mat is yanked up the moment SA publishing hears the words "fantasy" or "science fiction", making it clear to us that we are welcome is actually a far bigger thing to our community than you may realise.
SA genre writers often go to overseas markets to find their publishing niche, so we work together to beta-read rough work, give editorial feedback, and let others know of new markets or open anthologies. Because of the tendency to head overseas, quite often their names don't get bandied about on the local scene, unfortunately: writers like Nerine Dorman, who has been a stalwart of the Cape Town genre scene, even creating a speculative fiction writer's group that meets once a month (Adamastor Writer's Guild) is one. There are a host of writers slowly making names for themselves: Dave de Burgh, Angela Meadon, and Abigail Godsell spring to mind, but the SpecFic community is vast and writers like Diane Awerbuck, Alex Latimer, and yourself [Rachel Zadok] are also part of it, as far as I see it.
SpecFic is a very wide parasol and we're happy to share our shade with those happy to play on our beach.
We make the best sandcastles though, sorry.
On Cat's Bedside Table
I've been reading a lot of Sherlock fanfic. Especially really filthy ones with Moriarty and Sherlock. Having said that, I've just started Iain S. Thomas's Intentional Dissonance and it's pretty nifty. Sadly lacking in Sherlock but one can't have everything.