Anne Barwell—the author interview

Q: Anne, after reading through your bio, I had to stand back and shake my head to clear it. What a fascinating and dizzying lot of experiences and interests! Can you talk a little about your interest in music? Does that influence your writing—and in particular did it influence Cat’s Quill?
A: I’ve loved music for as long as I remember. I started out learning piano and then violin a bit later so have been playing both for nearly 40 years now. Although I have played piano as part of a group – both for church and rehearsal pianist for music theatre and gang show – it’s more or a solitary instrument where the violin I enjoy playing as part of a group or orchestra. I tend to listen to music while I write and certain pieces I associate with different characters and relationships. Other pieces breed plot bunnies. I blame Iris by the Goo Goo Dolls for Cat’s Quill. It’s not just the feel of the song, but the words – “I’d give up forever to touch you – I just want to know who I am.” At first I thought it was about Cathal who has to hide who he really is from Tomas but then the more I wrote I realized it really was about both of them, with Tomas trying to come to terms that he’s gay and falling in love with Cathal. When I was writing Cat’s Quill, I was reading about Maori music instruments for a music paper and was fascinated by them and the legends behind them. The flute that Tomas finds by the old oak is in part based on that.

Q: I found myself fascinated by the main characters in Cat’s Quill, and I’m always interested to know how authors populate their stories. Did you have the story in mind and create the characters to fill their roles? Did the characters come to life first and help invent the story? Perhaps you’d just share a little about how these two very different men made their way onto the page.
A: Cat’s Quill started life as a fanfic. It was originally going to be a three chapter story I was going to write during uni break but a few pages in it became very obvious that there was much more to this story than I’d originally intended and that these characters had taken on lives of their own. They also had their own very specific ideas on what was going to happen. I remember arguing with Tomas and telling him that no, he couldn’t follow Cathal into his world – you can see who won that one. I usually write stories with a variety of POVs, but Tomas wanted to tell this one entirely, so the reader doesn’t find out what exactly is going on until he does. Tomas also had a few quirks I hadn’t expected and had more insecurities etc, although he grows as a character quite a bit as the story progresses. Cathal is the first person he’s trusted for a very long time. They fit together and balance each other out although as Christian points out, they’re both pigheaded and stubborn. This story also introduced other characters who were only supposed to have a cameo and now are major characters and in for the duration of the series – Mikey and Will for example, and Christian…he didn’t figure in at all in the original idea.

Q: Cat’s Quill, as the blurb says, shifts between two worlds—clearly fantasy. Is Cathal’s world Faerie, or some similar place, or is it wholly your creation? Are there specific authors or books that influenced you or spurred you to write fantasy fiction?
A: Keats’s poem La belle dame sans merci was a big inspiration for Cat’s Quill. Originally Tomas was going to be sitting under the tree reading it when he meets Cathal, with echoes of the poem in there, but instead Cathal decided to be a big fan of the poetry of the romantic era. I was doing an English Literature paper on the romantic poets at the time and a Music paper on the romantic era so that gave me a lot of knowledge (and inspiration) to draw on too. I’d loved Keats’s poetry even before that though. I’ve always read a lot of science fiction and fantasy, more science fiction to start with, but more fantasy now, mainly because there is more of it about I suspect. I love the idea of alternative worlds where things are different from here; throw in a scenario of a fish out of water and a bit of what appears to be time travel and I’m hooked. So to answer your question, Cathal’s world is a mix of Faerie and medieval fantasy/history and partly my creation.

Authors and books that have stayed with me and inspired me to write include Susan Cooper’s Dark is Rising series, Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time series and Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series.

Q: Obviously, romance is a very strong factor in Cat’s Quill. Would you talk a bit about the idea that a romance might exist between an author and his muse?
A: I like my happy endings, but I also believe that the characters need to do some work in order to achieve it. Anything worthwhile is worth fighting for. I think that muses come in all shapes and forms, and that it’s whatever inspires you to write. In Tomas’s case, he’s lost his way a bit because he’s fighting himself rather than not being true to himself, which is why he has writer’s block. The annoying little voice in his head is part muse, part conscience and partly his struggle between who he really is and the façade of disinterest bordering on rudeness that he hides behind. The attraction between Tomas and Cathal isn’t just physical, it’s two people recognizing, partly subconsciously something they’re missing and need in the other and reaching out for that; it’s a connection on an emotional level. At the point of their story where I am now – just having begun to write the sequel – Cathal is Tomas’s inspiration to write. He’s in a better place, their relationship and the knowledge that he is loved and can love has made Tomas realize his own value, and in being able to be true to himself, he can now reach inside and tell the stories he wants to tell rather than the ones he feels he should. So in that way Cathal is Tomas’s muse and there’s very much a romance between them.

Q: I just have to mention this. In creating Cat’s Quill, you put yourself in the role of a writer writing about a writer writing about a writer. Confusing? Easy? In this case, how similar are the stories—the one you wrote in Cat’s Quill, the one Tomas is writing, and the one Tomas’s character is writing? How does that relate to the magical aspect of the fantasy?
A: I found my original notes for Cat’s Quill a few months ago – the working title for it was Forever. It was an idea that came to me at 2 in the morning and I had to get up and write it down. The first two paragraphs of the three handwritten pages are similar to what happens in Cat’s Quill but beyond that it’s very different. I’ve since come to the conclusion that that version of the story is the one that Tomas is writing – Mark and Deimos’s story. That story is very much more fantasy than Cat’s Quill ended up being in that Deimos ends up giving up his immortality to be with Mark, the man he loves. Cathal’s situation is a little different and not so easily resolved, although there were echoes of one story in the other, and still the fantasy element in Cathal and Tomas’s story although not in the way Tomas was expecting. I enjoyed writing about a writer, and especially the issues that Tomas has with his muse; it’s something I could relate to as mine can be demanding and loud when it suits them to be, and it was a chance to explore that without coming across as totally crazy 😛 Tomas needs to finish writing his story in the sequel. I have the last scene in my head for it, with him in a bookshop signing copies of his new book and Cathal standing a short distance away, leaning against the wall, watching him. I’m not sure about what Mark is writing, exactly, but I’m sure if I need to know I’ll find out in time or as Tomas works on his book. Or maybe he’ll just keep that one to himself.

Q: I love the cover—the misty look, the tree, and of course the cat. Who is the artist? Do you feel the cover does a good job of conveying the atmosphere of the story? Tell us about the way the two characters are posed around the tree. Hanging on and pulling away at the same time?
A: Anne Cain did the artwork for Cat’s Quill. I think she captured the feel of it perfectly. I was blown away by how much input I had towards the cover. The art department at Dreamspinner Press asked me what my ideal cover would look like and Anne’s cover was exactly it except for the fact that she added them holding hands which was just perfect. The oak is the portal between their worlds, and the constant in each. Both Cathal and Tomas don’t ‘fit’ the expectations they or others have put on them; they’re searching for something or someone and in finding each other, find themselves. They can’t just belong to one world or the other; there are ties to each which will constantly draw them back. But I’m getting ahead of myself and the rest of their story which hasn’t been written yet. Oops.

Q: Will Tomas and Cathal be back? Spin-offs? What do you have coming up for your readers?
A: I’ve just finished writing a m/m historical drama called Shadowboxing which is set in Berlin in 1943 so am planning to submit it shortly. It’s also the first of a trilogy (I seem to write those for some reason), and I have learnt a lot more about the time period and WW2 than I ever intended. I’ve done a lot of research for this one as I want the historical detail to be as right as I can get it although of course not at the expense of telling the story. Here’s the blurb for it:
Berlin, 1943. An encounter with an old friend leaves Dr. Kristopher Lehrer, a German physicist, with doubts about the project on which he is working. After a confrontation with his superior goes horribly wrong, Kristopher and Michel, a member of the Resistance, find themselves on the run and hunted for treason, and a murder they did not commit. The Gestapo and the Allies both want the knowledge and plans that Kristopher possess as these have the potential to build a weapon that could be used to win the war.

Michel contacts the Allied team, hoping that they can work together but it is not long before the so called simple mission becomes anything but. With both men realising that they can no longer ignore their growing feelings for each other, they must fight not just for a chance of a future together but their very survival.

Now that Shadowboxing is almost ready to go, I’ve started writing the sequel to Cat’s Quill which is called Magic’s Muse. This one is from Cathal’s POV so as well as moving the story forward it will also fill in a few of the gaps from the first book as the reader only knew as much as Tomas did at the time. Magic’s Muse is set in Tomas’s world, but the third book (it’s a trilogy, unless the muses decide they want more) will be mainly set in Cathal’s world. It’s called Dragon’s Price.

I have several other projects in the pipeline I want to write, one of which is a gothic/SF/time travel/psi powers story set in Wellington, called A Wind of Roses. This one, I suspect, will be the first part of an ongoing series which I am quite excited about. I just need more hours in the day!

Thanks Anne, for sharing your time and your thoughts.

Thanks, Lou, for the opportunity to do so. I’ve enjoyed answering your questions.

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