Spotlights tell you more about the people involved in Megaphone: writers, editors and agents.
Catherine Johnson is one of the authors who will be leading a writing masterclass for Megaphone.
In her twenty year career she has written many books for young readers, including Sawbones, which won the Young Quills Best Historical Fiction prize in 2013. Her latest novel for teenagers is The Curious Tale of The Lady Caraboo – a gripping mystery about a girl who is not what she seems. She also writes for film and TV including scripts for Bullet Boy and Holby City. Her radio play has been shortlisted for The Prix Italia and The Imison award. But she is particularly known for her historical fiction, which often tells the stories of non-white children and teenagers in the past – something I think is particularly useful, given that British history has until fairly recently been presented as exclusively white, which does not reflect the reality. I asked her to say something about her writing process: what draws her to a character or a scenario in history and makes her want to turn it into a novel?
Catherine: “It’s usually different every time, Sawbones was triggered by a visit to the Hunterian Museum in London – there was a tumour in a jar, the label read ‘cut off the face of a boy in St Kitts’ and I wrote the whole thing in six weeks. Caraboo came out of being reminded about her in an interview when I had just written Nest Of Vipers (about a gang of confidence tricksters). I was asked who my favourite conman or woman from history was, and I knew I had to write about her. Every book is different. Although being shallow I must admit the first historical fiction I ever wrote was prescribed by fashion. I wanted a book with empire line frocks so it had to be the 1820s…I have to get caught up in the story, a novel takes a long time and it’s sort of a confidence trick in itself. You have to convince yourself your characters are real before you convince any readers!”
Benjamin Zephaniah has recently spoken about how Black History Month ought to be integral to the teaching of history, not just a month. I asked Catherine if she thought historical fiction had a place in teaching parts of history that the curriculum doesn’t reach.
Catherine: “I was so bad at history that I wasn’t allowed to take the O level (they were O levels then). I hated learning about Corn Laws but I loved people. I have learned more reading historical fiction and brilliant non-fiction – like Peter Fryers’ Staying Power. I think it’s so much easier learning stuff if it’s interesting. What I object to is taking exams. It’s hard. You want students to love their topics, maybe making it more about people and less about economics isn’t a bad thing.”
Finally, I asked her: what positive change would you love to see in the children’s book world? What project, initiative or change of approach would really make a difference?
Catherine: “I think writers need proper support; publishing is a business but I don’t know if it’s one I would be able to join if I was starting out now. I had a housing association house, a part time job and tax credits as well as writing books. These days – twenty years on – my advances are not any more than when I started out. It looks bleak – why do it at all? It’s hardly viable…..BUT the only person who loses out if you don’t do it is you. So it’s like a horrible addiction. What positive change would I like to see apart from writers being paid reasonably? More people of colour in the publishing industry for sure, in twenty years I have only ever worked with one Black editor.”
About Megaphone, Catherine has previously said:“I believe the Megaphone project is one that’s needed now more than ever. As a BAME author who has been published for the last twenty years I have seen numbers of non white UK children’s authors stay resolutely low. Young readers need to see modern Britain reflected back at them in their books. New authors need support – support that is no longer available in publishing today.”
Thanks to Catherine for her support!