Author Interview: Catherine Knuttson

Last month, I had the pleasure of reading and reviewing the amazing Shadows Cast by StarsAnd while November/Dystopia Month has passed, it still gives me great joy to be able to present an extensive interview with the lovely author of said amazing novel. Without further ado, Catherine Knutsson, everyone:

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Catherine Knutsson, like Cassandra in SHADOWS CAST BY STARS, is proudly Metis. She lives on Vancouver Island, on which the fictional Island of her novel is based, and divides her time between working with horses, singing, and writing. SHADOWS CAST BY STARS is her first novel. – [X]

Firstly, I would like to thank you for writing such a wonderful book! It is so refreshing to read a dystopia/fantasy with a female protagonist of colour. What kinds of challenges (if any) did you have while writing Cass and the rest of the Band? What kind of research did you find yourself doing?

Thank you so much for your kind words! I’m really glad SHADOWS CAST BY STARS resonated with you – it is a book of my heart, and to know it touched others is really meaningful.

As for challenges–well, can I say the whole book was a challenge? I guess I just did! One of the things I learned along the way is that I am a rewriter, and coming to terms with that  was a big hurdle for me. I set a pretty high standard for myself in everything I do, and realizing that I wasn’t going to get the story right on the first, second, or even the third try took some time to wrap my head around.

In regards to the story itself, the biggest challenge I had was the struggle to get what was in my head onto the page. I often write by “feel” – I know something’s right for the story when I feel a certain way, and trying to find that feeling while going through layers of editorial revisions was a big challenge. At a certain point, I no longer knew what was in the story and what wasn’t! But, I learned a lot about my craft and my process along the way, so it’s all good.

As for research, I confess, I’m a bit of a research fanatic. I can’t help going right to a book’s bibliography to start mining it. The funny thing is, I didn’t actually realize how much research I had done until I sat down and made up a list of my source material. It was pretty long! Most of my reading pertained to archetype in myth and traditional healing modalities in indigenous cultures throughout the world. I read every Raven story I could get my hands on (and discovered that Raven figures as a character in just about every culture in the world), and spent some time refreshing my own knowledge of the traditional use of local plants for medicine. Two books that have really stayed with me that I’d highly recommend are THE SPIRIT CATCHES YOU AND YOU FALL DOWN: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures by Anne Fadiman, and THE EARTH’S BLANKET: Traditional Teachings for Sustainable Living by Nancy J. Turner.

Shadows Cast by Stars is set up to be a dystopian novel but takes a turn for fantasy pretty early in the story. Will you be revisiting the theme of a broken society in your sequel?

You know, it’s interesting what you say about SHADOWS being a dystopian, because I never conceived it that way. If I had to pin it down to a genre, well, maybe futuristic magic realism? Dunno. It is what it is, I guess!

But as for revisiting the broken society theme, I am fascinated by broken things in general: broken people, broken societies, broken cultures, broken worlds. And, more importantly, I can’t help wanting to explore the flip side of that: healing. How do people heal when everything is broken? How do we heal when we’ve known nothing but brokenness? How does that happen when the brokenness has been passed on from generation to generation? I’m not talking about indigenous peoples, specifically. I mean for all people – we all come from somewhere, with our own set of broken baggage, and how to we fix what’s inside that baggage? How do we create healthy, vibrant communities in the face of really challenge circumstances? Honestly, I don’t know. I’m much better at asking questions than providing answers, I’m afraid!

Cass and most members of the Band have a strong connection, not just to the Spirit World, but to the natural world too. Could you elaborate on why you considered this relationship to be an important aspect of your story?

I think that’s due to my own relationship to the natural world. As a kid, I was always happier outside, picking huckleberries and talking to newts than playing dolls or building things out of Lego (not to knock Lego, because, let’s face it: Lego is awesome!). Once upon a time, many of BC’s provincial parks were staffed by biologists, and when my family went camping, I would shadow (read: pester) the staff biologist as much as I could because I wanted to learn everything there was to know about the natural world. I’ve never lost that passion – just ask my husband, who is routinely forced to identity plants and eat strange berries when we go out hiking!

The thing is, the forests and oceans have changed a lot since I was a kid. I remember the beach teeming with life, and now, when I go out to poke around, I’m lucky if I find crabs and starfish, unless the tide is really low. Our forests are disappearing at an alarming rate, and meanwhile I watch massive 5000 square feet houses being built as if that’s the norm. We all talk about climate change, and yet, how much are we willing to give up to arrest it? It’s a balancing act, because who really wants to go back to the days of outhouses and no indoor plumbing? And yet, something has to give. I think that’s why I choose to set the story where I did, in hopes that maybe, if nothing else, my deep love for the natural world would translate onto the page, and maybe, that would inspire others to go for a walk in one of the ancient rain forests of the west coast, and see what it is that will soon be lost. Cass only sees the ‘after’ of that loss. She’s heard stories about what came before, but she’s never seen one of the old growth giants of Carmanah or Cathedral Grove. She doesn’t know what it’s like to watch otters and sea lions surf breaking waves, or the absolute magic of watching eagles in Goldstream Park when they come down to feast on the fall salmon runs.

Especially in a dystopian setting, language is quite an important weapon. By extension, storytelling is a way of preserving cultural heritage and perpetuating  certain truths (or lies). In Shadows Cast by Stars you work with language and motifs from various old cultures. Was it difficult to construct Cass’ world with stories, some of which are new and foreign to her as well as to readers?

It sure was difficult! I mean, part of what makes symbolism strong is that the meaning of a symbol is inherent within a culture, and so, if you’re not part of that culture, the meaning of the symbol may be lost. So, trying to make choices that made sense for the story and yet weren’t completely obscure was a bit tricky. And, I decided to draw on myth from a variety of cultures, and weaving all that together was a bit of a task, especially since I needed to keep protocol in mind. In some cultures, you can’t just go around telling sacred stories – you need permission, or, in the case of some First Nations cultures, you need to be given the story. If you haven’t been given it, you can’t tell it.

That was problematic in the sense that Raven kept on showing up, and I wasn’t quite sure how to approach the stories associated with him – I hadn’t been given, and it didn’t feel right to ask just to use them for my own purposes, and yet, I needed to reference them. So, when it felt right, I made up my own, and when I needed to reference a story in existence, I had to figure out creative ways to do that.

In retrospect, it might not have been the wisest idea to try and tackle all of that in my debut novel, but it’s what showed up, so I did the best I could!

It is a difficult line to walk between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation. I, for one, feel that Shadows Cast by Stars is quite a respectful depiction of the First Nations peoples, their struggles and their triumphs. What advice do have for writers who wish to depict a culture that they have not grown up with? 

To me, the difference between appreciation and appropriation comes down to intent. Not long ago, I happened to catch an interview with Pandit Roopnauth Sharma, a Hindu priest on the CBC radio show ‘Tapestry’. The interviewer asked Mr. Sharma about his thoughts about Om and how it has been appropriate for use in popular culture. His response was that it came down to intent: how did the user intend the symbol to be received and interpreted? If the intent aligned with the sacred meaning behind Om, then, to Mr. Sharma, it was acceptable. But, if he felt the intent didn’t align, then he would (in his words) gently and with an open heart help the user see where he/she had gone wrong, and attempt to bring the intention back into the alignment with the true meaning of Om. Mr. Sharma did say not everyone shared his belief, but his explanation really resonated with me.

Because, I think, it boils down to respect. If a writer wants to write a story from a culture he or she hasn’t grown up with, then do so with a healthy dose of respect. Realize that the anger around cultural appropriation is there for a reason. My own family history is an example of that – I didn’t know about my heritage until I was in my thirties, because the Canadian policy of “educating the Indian out of the child” was so thorough that my grandmother denied her heritage, full stop, and wouldn’t talk about it to any of us, even when we asked. It’s left a really deep grief in our family, because there’s no way to reclaim our past or the stories she might have told us. Those are lost forever. And for many indigenous peoples, it runs even deeper than that–they’ve lost their entire history, their entire culture, even.

That doesn’t mean I think writers should shy away from writing outside of their culture. The world is a diverse place, and I think the way to ensure it stays that way is to share culture, to invite people in and celebrate that diversity. But, it does mean that there will be some growing pains, and some lumps and bumps along the way. So, it’s back to respect and intent, and doing your homework. I was lucky, for my family was very involved in our local Metis community and therefore, I had resources at my fingertips. And, I had a family member working for a local First Nations at the time, so I was able to find a First Nations reader for my story that way. But, for people who don’t have those sorts of cultural connections, I highly recommend the National Association of Friendship Centers as a place to start.

http://www.nafc.ca/

Or, contact one of the national indigenous people’s associations. They’re great places to ask for help!

Assembly of First Nations: http://www.afn.ca/

Metis National Council: http://www.metisnation.ca/

Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami: https://www.itk.ca/

I guess the best advice I can give is: do the best you can. You’ll make mistakes, but that’s part of the learning curve. Keep an open heart, aim high, and make it your intent to do your best work from a place of honour and respect.

Speaking of advice for writers, it is National Novel Writing Month and this year there are about 270, 000 hopeful novelists who are feverishly trying to finish a first draft at the very least. What would you say to writers who feel stuck or blocked? 

First of all, since it’s now December, hats off to everyone who participated in Nanowrimo!

As for blocks and being stuck, well, that’s a two-pronged question, so I will give it a two-pronged answer!

First, being stuck on a project: for me, that almost always happens when I start going in the wrong direction. I can be rather, um, obstinate at times, and one of my real writerly challenges has been to realize that forcing a story to go in a particular direction when it wants to go somewhere else is almost always a terrible idea. If I feel like I’m fighting, something is not working. The clearest sign of when that’s happening is when my inner editor starts to yell. When Ms. Inner Editor begins to get mouthy, it’s time to step back, take a look at what I’m doing, because, odds are, I’m forcing the story in a direction it doesn’t want to go. I’ve learned that if I don’t take that step back, Ms. Inner Editor gets louder and louder, and then, in an exasperated attempt to get me to listen, she gets mean. So, even though it sucks to stop and toss tens of thousands of words, I’ve learned it’s best to do that sooner than later.

As for creative blocks, well, that’s a whole ‘nother ball of wax. I am all too familiar with creative blocks, and for me, they stem from two places: exhaustion and fear. In regards to exhaustion, I believe all artists have creative wells, and if you aren’t replenishing that creative well, sooner or later, it runs dry. Writing is draining, especially when a writer is working close to the marrow of things–soul work, I’d call it. When I start to feel like my soul is running on empty, I know it’s because it’s time to see if I’m exercising, eating healthy, and doing things other than reading and writing. Writing comes from living, and it’s all too easy to shut myself up in my office and forget that there’s a world outside, with real living, breathing people who don’t wear pajamas all day.

Fear, however, can be a bigger bugaboo. Writing is hard. I’d be lying if I said otherwise, and then, add to that marketing, and social media, and worries about agents and editors and houses and sales and e-readers and copyright and huge advances for debuts and other writers getting fourteen book deals, well, it’s crazy-making. It’s hard enough to deal with the vulnerability of being a writer–I mean, that’s my soul right there on the page, worts and all! And then, add everything else on top of it, and it can feel like you’re standing at the bottom of a very big, insurmountable mountain. That’s when I start asking myself, what’s the point? Why I am doing this to myself? Maybe I should give up now.

But, there is a point, and I believe it’s this: we all have a voice, and that voice needs to be heard. If a person is called to write, then, write. It’s the stopping that causes the creative block, the giving in, the giving up. That feeds fear, and the way to work through the block is to recognize the message in that fear: what is the fear telling you? For me, it’s always a message that I’m focussing on the wrong thing, that instead of being where I am, doing the work in front of me, I’m playing with “what if” scenarios, all of which are of the worst case variety. That’s where Anne Lamott’s BIRD BY BIRD advice comes in–bird by bird. Or, for story work, word by word. Turn off the internet (the app FREEDOM is great for that). Write by hand. Dictate a story. Do something. Do anything–just, get moving, in whatever way makes sense. Inertia is a creativity killer. Create momentum. Get the ball rolling, even if it’s a lumpy, ugly, stinky ball covered in muck and gunk. It’s your ball. Roll it. Word by word, get it moving.

And take care of yourself in the process. Goodness knows, the world needs more kindness. Start with your little, writerly self. Because, this too shall pass. Being blocked feels awful, it really does, but it is a phase. There’s something to be learned from it, and the more I step into a block with that perspective, the easier I find my way back to where I need to be. I hope that’s some help to others!

Here at The Book Wars, we are celebrating dystopian novels all this month. What’s your favourite classic dystopian novel? And could you recommend a contemporary one that you enjoyed?

The first dystopian I ever read was THE CHRYSALIDS by John Wyndham. I think it was assigned reading in either grade six or seven, and I remember the entire class eating it up. And, LORD OF THE FLIES – that story got sucked into my soul, and I think, if a person looks closely, she’d find nod or two to it in SHADOWS.

As for contemporary, well, I know THE ROAD is more post-apocalyptic than dystopian, but it’s stuck with me in the same way LORD OF THE FLIES and THE CHRYSALIDS has. And made me want to stockpile canned goods. Even thinking about it brings out the doomsday prepper in me!

And that’s a wrap! I would like to thank Catherine Knutsson for patiently and carefully attending to each of my mad questions. It was a pleasure corresponding with you, Catherine. I can not wait to read more from you. Cheers!

  • Brilliant interview and everything about Ms. Inner Editor is so spot on.

    • Yash

      I know right? I was nodding so much as I read her answers that my head nearly fell off!

    • Yash

      Hmm. Is it too awkward to “Like” an interview that I posted because …

      • Psht, I like my own interviews all the time.