Interview with Cat Hellisen, author of “When the Sea is Rising Red” and a Contest!
Happy New Year! It’s Jamie K. Schmidt filling in for Vivienne Ylang. It’s the third day of the New Year and so far I’m keeping all of my resolutions. How about you guys? One of my resolutions is to try and do something crafty every day. I found some really sexy charms and made a stylin’ pair of vampire earrings that I’m giving away to a random commenter on this post.
Today, I’m chatting with an old friend of mine, Cat Hellisen. Her YA book “When the Sea is Rising Red” is coming out February 28th.
This is a fun story that I’ve been waiting a long time to read. It’s got wild magic, a vampire, and a heroine fleeing her arranged marriage while mourning her best friend’s suicide. Cat’s writing is dark and rich like good chocolate and her settings and characters grip you and make your gut hurt in fear for them — and sometimes fear of them.
Tell us a little bit about how When the Sea is Rising Red came about. What was that spark that made you write Felicita’s story? What was the hardest part to write?
A good while back I wrote a book focusing on a very different set of characters, and a much older (and perhaps wiser) Felicita and her husband were two of the side characters. There was something about this woman from a family of immense power, who had seemingly thrown it all away and totally reinvented her world view, and I wanted to find out why she had. So I went back in time and started with a teenage Felicita running away from home and meeting one of the people who would force her to think outside her racist and classist upbringing, and really see the world as it is, and not as she’d been conditioned to believe it was.
At the end of When the Sea is Rising Red, she’s still not that person I met in that original book, but she’s taken her first steps to becoming her.
You’re repped by the fabulous Suzie Townsend from Nancy Coffey Literary Agency Tell us about your query letter and “the phone call”. I know Suzie says that “synopses are evil”, did you write one anyway?
The Suzie-Story is one I love. I’d just parted ways from my former agent and was feeling hopelessly down – no matter what happens in a writer’s career, I think there’s always a part going “you’re a failure, no one is ever going to rep you/read your book/offer a contract” Even if it’s happened once, that insidious voice tells you it’s a fluke, and you’re a fake. Or…maybe that’s just me. Heh.
Anyway, I was back to the query mill, feeling sorry for myself, when my friend Hannah Moskowitz’s agent left to go into editorial, and she got shifted onto Suzie’s client list. So obviously, Hannah was having a crisis (because, let’s face it – what writer wouldn’t be? We’re neurotic beasts.) Our writers group was trying to encourage her and tell her everything was going to be okay, and google-stalking poor Suzie (who at that stage was pretty new). And everything I read about what she was looking for and what she liked made me go….this woman – I need to query her.
I have a terrible memory so I went to go pull up my original query, and it seems I sent her a 380-word query, and the first 10 pages included in the body of the email. I’m pretty sure I wrote a synopsis at some point, but I’m with Suzie on this – synopses are the devil.
Suzie was interested and she asked to see the full, and eventually she called me, as did another agent. They were both really cool to talk to, and both got what I was going for with When the Sea is Rising Red, but if I learned one thing from my previous agent experience, it’s “go with your gut” so I accepted Suzie’s offer of representation. Which is great because she’s pretty awesome.
How long did it take to hear back from Farrar, Straus and Giroux? I know there were a few title changes, did they ask for a lot of editorial changes also?
I signed with Suzie somewhere in February of 2010, and the book sold to FSG about three months later. Wait, that can’t be right. It felt like forever. Oh, impatient past-me, I must laugh at you.
Yes, the title went through a few changes, and the last third of the book changed pretty much completely. I think I did three rounds of structural revisions with editor Beth, and then a host of other small changes, including shifting my English to American English – lots of “what *is* this word?”. Anyone who says editors no longer edit have presumably never worked with my editor. And she was amazing – at first I was all “OH MY GOD WHAT IS THIS?” until I realised the value of having an editor who not only gets what you are doing but also reads differently to you, so requires a different set of information and explanation to come through in the text.
You live in Cape Town, South Africa. From reading your blog (http://www.cathellisen.com/ ), Cape Town itself seems like a character in a novel. How has she (Cape Town would have to be a she) influenced your writing? Do you find it a challenge to be so far away from your publishing house and agent or does the miracle of e-mail/twitter/etc. make it a non-issue?
Oh massively. Pelimburg is a coastal town, like Cape Town, and there are elements there taken from the weather, the landscape, the flora, and the architecture. But that and the racial history of my country were really only the seeds used. You will not recognise any particular place or person, because all of that grew organically from the mud of my home town. Pelimburg is its own place.
As for the challenge of being so far from my publishing house and agent – it has been a little tricksy at times, but yeah, the internet generally flattens that molehill. I’d say the biggest thing for me is feeling isolated from my contemporaries in the fantasy and YA fields. There are writers in South Africa of course – very good ones – but it feels to me that they’re moving in one circle, and I’m paddling around by myself. Possibly an issue only in my head, but that does tend to make me feel a little lonely at times. Luckily I have an amazing group of online writer friends – the Musers, who are among my closest friends now in the world, and I’ve only met one of them in Real Life. Hooray for technology!
Thanks for the cover love! The scene on the cover is not actually one from the book – it was meant to capture something of the ominous mystery of the magic that will come rising out of the sea.
Felicita’s best friend’s suicide starts a chain reaction, if you will, calling a sea witch from the deep – one that the Hob rebel Dash plans to harness to his own ends. Like all old magics, it is governed by a set of rules and he needs to mark one person for death with the right implement, and the sea witch will take the sacrifice and return to the deep. Of course, things like that never go well.
Cat’s book will be out February 28th. Check it out here at Amazon or your favorite bookstore: http://www.amazon.com/When-Sea-Rising-Red-Hellisen/dp/0374364753
Comment below to be entered to win a pair of vampire earrings I made, inspired by Cat’s vampire Jannik. I’ll announce the winners here around noon Thursday, January 5th.