Cat Hellisen is an author of fantasy for adults and young adults. Born in 1977 in Cape Town, South Africa, she has also lived in Johannesburg, Knysna, and Nottingham.
She originally studied graphic design at Technikon Witwatersrand, before realising that she had no interest at all in the world of advertising. She began writing seriously at age twenty-five but it was not until 2010 that she sold her first full-length novel, When the Sea is Rising Red. Her children’s book, Beastkeeper, a retelling of Beauty and the Beast, is due out 2014. (source)
While many YA novels mention it superficially, The Sea is Rising Red deals intimately with issues of class and social status. As someone born in South Africa and perhaps more aware of the extreme differences in social status, when reading YA novels originating in North America, do you notice differences in attitudes about social classes that are foreign to your perceptions of it? Does it seem to you that North American YA novels feature characters who evince self-entitlement?
I grew up in a country that is still very much divided by class and race and money and power. Not to say that other countries don’t have this, but I lived through a change in a racist regime. I grew up being aware that only white people went to my school, or caught the same train coaches as me, and also aware that it was something We Didn’t Talk About. Television, newspaper and media were government-controlled, and asking questions about Why? was discouraged.
Perhaps because of this, I do feel like there is more of an awareness of class and race-struggles in South African writing than there is in modern US writing (though there are authors tackling this, of course). I think North American YA in general tends to deal with these divisions in a fairly superficial way. Not perhaps out of malice as much as it doesn’t feel like a thing that is still important to American youth. I’d like to see more diverse fiction coming out of the US – diverse in culture, diverse in class, diverse in gender – but I think those novels have a smaller audience and will probably always see fewer sales than a YA that perhaps deals with easier issues.
As for self-entitlement, there are novels with main characters who are selfish, spoiled brats in loads of YA books. It’s hardly a US-only thing. With Felicita in When the Sea is Rising Red, I wanted to create exactly that – a character so unaware of her own privilege that her choices, her struggles (even if they are huge ones to her) are seen as minor in the grand scheme of things. I wanted to use her as a foil, and I wanted to see how much she’d change. I tried to make it believable because I think prejudices are hard to break, but I don’t think self-entitlement in necessarily a bad thing – unless that’s all there is to the narrative.
I found the portrayal of vampires in The Sea is Rising Red to be a welcome departure from the seductive creatures more common to literature. While they are still fascinating, your vampires retain a strong sense of otherness that is a bit unsettling. Did you intentionally set out to subvert the stereotype? Do you have a favourite vampire tale?
I cheated. I wanted to write about the way we treat people of an ethnicity or culture different to our own without using specific real-world cultures (yeah, it’s a cop-out, I am fully aware of this, it’s also what science fiction and fantasy loves to do.) I’ve always been drawn to the otherness of vampires – and in the past they’ve stood in as symbols of the other quite handily (other sexualities, other classes – take a good reread of Bram Stoker’s Dracula to get an idea). I wanted my vampires to be something that revolted the other classes, and the blood-drinking thing was handy. It just seemed natural for me to play with the diet and culture of another group of people who are then maligned and forced into a role as “less-than” human.
As for favourite vampire tale, I don’t really have one. I tend to find the bogey-man version of vampire as boring as the hawt seducer vampire. I’m more interested in cultural uses of vampires in stories and mythology – as explanations for the unknown and the feared.
Felicita flees from a situation where she has barely any agency to a place where she may have personal freedom but no economic liberty, prisoner as she is to the demands of her workplace. When constructing your female protagonists, do you give them all any one quality? Beverley Pennell, a theorist, states that traditional femininity is defined by patriarchy. Would you say that Felicita is defined by the society she lives or her rebelliousness against the society she lives in?
Ooh interesting. She (and the other non-vampire female characters in WtSiRR) are definitely framed by the patriarchy of their society. Theirs is a world run on the whims of men. Even though Felicita is powerful in her own right, she’s still kept hobbled and bridled. So Felicita’s rebelliousness is a reaction to that patriarchy – though she tries to escape it, it blocks her at every turn. Of course, it’s that refusal to just give in that makes her the person she is.
And of course, the thing she’s running from is only “small” if you’re in a position of power. She’s trying to escape an arranged marriage – from what is essentially society-approved rape. To her brother, she’s not running from something terrible, she’s instead choosing to bring shame on their family rather than “do her duty”. (And though I write about this in a fantasy novel, it’s not fantasy to a great many people, if you have either time or money to donate to a rape crisis centre near you, you’re making that much more of a difference in someone’s world.)
Was the House of Sand and Secrets a planned sequel or did you decide to write it after the completion of the first novel? From the synopsis, it seems that Felicita will be facing many more difficult decisions and events. Will there be a skein of magic, as in The Sea is Rising Red, in the novel? What should we look forward to most in the sequel?
When The Sea is Rising Red was actually written on a whim after I wrote another book called Bones Like Bridges (originally titled Hob an Lam,) In Bones, a much older Felicita plays a part in the story as a side-character, and I got to wondering about how this woman from an extremely privileged background ended up where she did, and what led her there. So I wrote it, basically. I like to write stand-alone novels within the Hob an Lam universe, and so it was just as natural for me to eventually go back to her story because I still hadn’t solved the question of Why. And House of Sand and Secrets was born. Hmm. Maybe I get a little too invested in fictional people….
The thing that I hope people enjoy about House is Felicita emotionally stripped down. She’s forced to acknowledge all the awful (and some not-so awful) things about herself and about the people she loves. It’s a love story, really. Really really.
Beastkeeper, which is going to be released next year, is a reimagining of The Beauty and the Beast. What made you decide to retell the fairytale? What elements of the original tale did you not like or perhaps wanted to elaborate on?
I have no idea how that book happened. I really don’t. One day I sat down to write about a girl whose mother walked out on their family and then all this stuff came pouring out. Stuff about being cursed, about becoming a teenager and falling in love and turning into a beast and realising your parents are just as broken and useless as everyone else in the world and they’re never going to save you.
I never set out to reconstruct the original Beauty and the Beast. I was reading a lot of Angela Carter and Diana Wynne Jones at the time, and I think they turned into this weird soup of imagery in my head. I loved the idea of a girl turning into a beast the moment she fell in love, and having to break the curse to save herself, because her “prince” is well… yeah. But I also wanted everything to be awful and broken.
Wow, I am really not selling this book here, am I? I promise it’s happier than I’m making it sound. I think.
I read in your biography that you were in the middle of studying graphic design when you had an epiphany. What made you turn to writing and did you decide consciously to write children’s literature or did it just begin as a story you wanted to tell that incidentally had young characters? What has the experience been like so far? What is the best thing about being a writer? And what is the most frustrating thing about being a children’s lit writer?
I’m a classic “oh I’ve always wanted to be a writer” writer. All talk, no action. When I had my first daughter, Noa, it became a case of be a stay-home mom, or DO SOMETHING. So I wrote. And it was good to really suck at something, and have people tell me how much I sucked, because it made me work harder and harder.
I’ve never set out to write specifically for children and very little of what I have written is YA or MG. I write the stories I’m interested in and sometimes those stories appeal more to one demographic than another, but I love all literature – children’s, teens’ or adults’ – so I hate drawing lines and saying “This, and This Only.” That’s too constrictive. I’ve also recently started writing short stories again, and am loving it so much.
The best thing about being a writer is that reading and napping are totally work. The most frustrating thing about being a children’s lit writer is being asked if your book is “like Twilight.” I’ve nothing against Twilight, but if that is your sole understanding of what YA has to offer, I will cry.