Saturday, October 2, 2010

Interview with Catherine Chisnall author of "Descending"

Welcome Catherine, I am delighted you can join us.

Nice to be here!

First up a little background, where were you born and raised?

I was born in the Midlands of England. We moved when I was a baby to the North East, then when I was four, down to Southern England, where I have spent the rest of my life.

Where are you currently living?

In a small country village in the South of England. I’ve also lived in Wales and London, so I feel like I’ve seen a lot of the country.

You have a young family. How do you manage your time: is it scheduled or a case of grab time whenever you can?

I ‘schedule’ time when my daughter was at nursery and now at school, it’s only a few hours a day. Sometimes I can write when she has gone to bed, but only if I’m not too tired. But often its ‘grab time when I can’. As you know, sometimes you get an idea for a story and just have to write it there and then! I feel quite selfish because I should be valuing every minute with her but I’ve been a full time mum for 5 years and now I need to do something for myself or my brain will turn into a cabbage!

Your novel is controversial, covering as it does a sexual relationship between a woman ‘Emily’ and ‘Jamie’ a seventeen-year-old student. What type of feedback have you been receiving from readers?

I can honestly say I've had a different reaction from every reader, which is more than I‘d hoped for.

I've had:

'Emily is wrong, she should go to prison.'

'But who is abusing who here? Isn't it mutual?'

'What an unlikely, boring story.'

‘I was rooting for them all the way through.’

Some have said Jamie is smooth and knows exactly what he's doing.

Some have said Emily is a horrible person with no redeeming features.

I suppose the majority of readers have been sorry for Emily, however, and related to her situation. I don't mean they want to have affairs with 17 year olds! But she seems to be a character that women, especially, can sympathise with. I didn't expect that. I thought everyone would say she was wrong and should go to prison.

Has it been a balanced response?

I suppose so. There hasn't been a general view of Descending, there just seems to be different camps of opinions. People both like and dislike Emily and Jamie. I’m surprised by that. I thought everyone would say ‘she is abusing him, its black and white.’ I’m glad it wasn’t as clear as that though.

Emily appears to have lost her capacity to reason things through. You have developed an interesting characterization here, she appears to allow things to happen around her, rather than decide on a course of action. Is she intended to appear as an abused person?

I don't think it comes through too strongly, its only mentioned once, but her past relationships were borderline abusive i.e. when she was a school girl she had a relationship with a member of school staff, then her manager at work, then her therapist at a therapy centre. All these showed very unprofessional behaviour from the men involved. I think Emily was so desperate for attention and support after her father left, that she turned to anyone. I wonder if Jamie is the least abusive relationship she's had, actually. He’s not in power over her.

I didn't set out to show her as ‘an abused person‘, but it would explain her confusion over proper roles and appropriate behaviour. I also think that people who have suffered problems in their life often think they are the best to help others because they can relate to them. Its debatable whether they can help though, due to their own damage.

I think Emily is just exhausted by life, she's given up. Some people see this as a character fault, I think it’s just that she has been battered and beaten by life, and can't take any more.

What {apart from sex} does she get out of this relationship?

She gets companionship at home; she gets a bit of excitement cos she never knows what Jamie's going to do next; maybe she gets someone to look after. He is a bit like a son to her, in a warped, twisted way. He does look after her a bit, such as mending her stuff (when he's not breaking it!) He's more like her pet actually!

What does Jamie get from the relationship?

Sex on tap, of course, the goal of the teenage boy; a comfortable, clean, safe home away from his uncaring father; good food; he probably gets respect from his mates, although I don't go into that too much. Maybe he gets a bit of the excitement of doing something he knows he shouldn’t.

There is a weird code among teenage boys, they seem to rate each other according to how many girls they've had sex with, what type of girls etc. 'She's a slag, she isn't' etc.

I overheard one student, I think he was 17, talking to his friend about a 40 year old married woman he was having some kind of relationship with. The friend seemed impressed...! The student was a very strange boy: so many of them have had terrible family lives which have twisted them.

Jamie’s character isn’t unsympathetic, he appears to be in need of whatever it is Emily does for him. They are both damaged by their association, yet Emily is the one that is punished. Is that intended to reflect the current laws affecting minors?

I wanted to explore that area: Jamie isn't legally a child but he isn't legally an adult, so the relationship is actually not illegal, but makes everyone feel queasy. Emily isn't a teacher, so not strictly 'in loco parentis'.

I was surprised to find that the idea of staff and students having relationships in colleges (i.e. not in schools) is just 'frowned upon', not illegal. But I think the reaction of Emily's colleagues is realistic: surely staff wouldn't approve of such a relationship? Even if it wasn’t illegal.

I also wanted to make Emily just a bit too old to be having a relationship with a seventeen year old. If she was twenty, or even twenty five, people would be more lenient on her- a three year- or even at a stretch an eight year age gap- would be more acceptable. But a thirteen year age gap is too much.

Learning support assistants (teaching assistants) are in a grey area too. Students tell them things they won't tell their teachers, mothers or girlfriends. Learning support assistants' actual job description is to form supportive relationships with students so they can help them with their studies. Its more likely that they would get too close to the students, than a teacher would. Teachers are removed, in control at the front of the class, they have power that support assistants don’t.

Obviously, 'normal' adults instinctively know it would be wrong to have a relationship with a college student like Jamie, but what if someone was lonely, unhappy, vulnerable? I wondered if I should have made Jamie more predatory? But if he was like that, readers would not see why Emily liked him.

Jamie appears to gain more from the relationship than “Emily”. Do you think that is a correct assessment?

Yes, he does, now I think about it. The main thing she gets is excitement and the thought of doing something naughty, which she feels she hasn’t done enough of in her life.

I think Jamie is a lot tougher and more knowing than people think. I don’t think he agonises about the relationship as much as Emily. I think he’d just say ‘my dad chucked me out, so I shacked up with that Emily bird. Result!’

It’s also a class thing. Emily is a ‘nice middle class girl’ who worries about what is correct. Subconsciously knows she is doing the wrong thing but does it anyway. Her ‘nice middle class friends’ are the same: worrying about what she is doing and knowing its wrong.

Jamie is a working class boy who does things today because he might not get the chance tomorrow. He doesn’t worry too much about things, he’s more out for what he can get right now.

People don’t like talking about or acknowledging the class system but it is still here, both socially and physically.

The disrespect that Emily is treated with within the education system is undesirable in itself. Is this a true reflection of what you have observed during your career as an Educator?

Firstly, I must say that I have enjoyed 95% of my learning support career. Once the students got to know me and realised I was kind and non-judgemental, the vast majority were friendly and polite. I think I learned as much from them as they did from me. Often they would defend me against attacks: ‘don’t say that to Miss!’

I have had such a lot of laughs and funny times with students, I’ve never been a strict disciplinarian and don’t like students to be afraid to speak to me. Obviously there were also terribly sad moments (when they told me about their past, or the occasional one died), scary situations (when they threatened me), and moments when I thought ‘yes! This is what it’s all about!’

But it is unbelievably draining, and I can’t work in education anymore.

I’m afraid there is a lot of disrespect too. As I said above, teachers have the power and get the respect from the students. If students did well at school, they remember their teachers, but not their support assistants. We are invisible.

Many times students have said to me: ‘you’re not a proper teacher, why should we listen to you?’ Some think that support assistants are failed teachers. They don’t think we have any intelligence or qualifications, whereas I, like a lot of support assistants, have a university degree.

I didn’t want to be a teacher, I prefer supporting rather to leading, and teaching in Britain today is a disrespected, virtually impossible job with vast amounts of paperwork. Teachers get blamed for most problems in society (such as illiteracy, disaffected youth, unemployment), children and parents don’t appreciate education and the goalposts are constantly shifting.

I’m glad I’m out of it.

The older man-younger woman topic is more visible in today’s world than ever before. The older woman-younger man is not raised as often. Why do you think that is?

I suppose the older man/ younger woman is seen as more acceptable. All men can understand the attraction of a young, blonde bimbo girlfriend, but fewer men can understand the attraction of an older woman. Men run society of course, so what they think dominates the media. Looks are the most important thing in today’s world, so the young woman is the prize, the older woman is invisible and unwanted.

Although Emily is hardly old, at thirty!

Apparently in different cultures, however, older women are seen as sexier because they have more experience. I think I’ve read that this is so in parts of Africa. But the modern world of course concentrates on the developed world.

One of my favourite films is White Palace, about a man of 27 (James Spader) having a relationship with a 43 year old woman (Susan Sarandon). It is about the age difference of course but also the class difference of the middle class Jewish man and the working class Catholic woman. I think this film had some influence on me writing Descending as there are similar themes in it. White Palace is set in America which is supposed to be class less, but it is obvious what is being portrayed.

Its based on a book, but the book is very different, I liked the film better.

Have your readers been sympathetic more with one character than the other?

Probably Emily. As I said, that was a great surprise to me, I thought everyone would sympathise with Jamie! Women tend to sympathise more with Emily, but some men as well.

You have been working very hard to build a platform for both your book and yourself. Is marketing in your opinion a large part of how a writer needs to spend their time?

I didn’t think I’d been working that hard actually, due to lack of time. I don’t see the point of sitting around waiting, life’s too short. Better to look for things to help me.

I don’t like marketing and promoting myself though. I just want to go off and write my books. All the marketing has made me very grumpy and my family are fed up with me, I would like to take a break.

But I suppose in this exciting climate for publishing we have at present, it’s the norm to market yourself. You used to send your novel off to the publisher, wait around for them to reply, then send it to another one. I suppose they did the marketing for you. But these days it’s all very much ‘do it yourself’ isn’t it?

Traditional methods of Publishing are undergoing a huge change, do you see E Books as the way of the future?

Most reviewers I’ve asked about reviewing Descending have said a straight no to an e book, they mainly want a paperback copy in their hands or get eyestrain from reading from a computer. I feel the same actually.

I think e-books probably are the future in that people like gadgets and obviously reading from a screen saves chopping down trees for paper. But the eye strain factor will have to be dealt with, or scores of people won’t change to e-books.

The end of the book leaves a tantalizing question mark. Do you intend on writing a sequel?

I have written a sequel already. Quite a few people said ‘oh, poor Emily. What happens to her next?’ So I wrote one. I don’t think it’s as good as Descending, it didn’t come flowing out as quickly, if you know what I mean. but people like it. Night Publishing has said they will publish it in due course. Jamie is in it too, I wanted to see what happened to him next as well.

What else is in the works for you as a writer?

I’m currently waiting (im)patiently for Descending to reach Amazon UK. So many of my friends and family members are waiting to buy it! The sequel to Descending  called "Surfacing" is currently available in E Book, and will be released shortly in paperback.  I have also just finished another novella which has been put away in a drawer so I can get some distance from it. I will go back and read it after a month and either think ‘wow!’ or ‘what a load of rubbish!’ I hate that part of writing, but its too difficult to be objective about your own work unless you put it away for a while.

I am also going to start a Feature and Freelance writing course and write articles for magazines. I got distracted by my new novella, but I will start the course soon. I’ve had articles published in magazines already but I need to know more about the nuts and bolts of feature writing.


REVIEW BY Michael Brooks on Jun. 20, 2010 :

So, if you were wondering what happened to Emily after Descending, here's your chance to find out the answer.An unexpected gift that Jamie left behind turns her life upside down and forces her to reassess her priorities.

This story shares the large cast of supporting characters that its predecessor had, as although Emily is no longer working at the college she gains a host of other acquaintances, including a group of old school friends she gets back in touch with.Surprisingly, the other characters from the previous book don't appear as much as you might be expecting but this works to pleasing effect.

Surfacing perhaps lacks the focus of Descending, seeming more like an overview of a few months of Emily's life than the story of a specific incident.It does however triumph in the exploration of the supporting characters, who are given subtle arcs of their own.The ending is nicely underplayed and lets the reader make their own mind up about events.


Suzannah Burke said...

Forbidden relationships are the stuff of good fiction, when written well and thought through carefully. This book is both. Author Catherine Chisnall didn't in my opinion set out to make this a comfortable or light reading experience. She provides us with Characterizations that provoke a reaction. Emily, in her need to feel needed can be irritatingly marvelous to find an author that presents her main character; her narrator in fact, as a refreshingly non comfortable and somewhat challenging persona. This reader wanted to slap and hug Emily all in the space of one paragraph. Emily has always been an observer in her own life. One of those non-descript yet necessary individuals who people the majority of our lives..we all have conversations in our lives that include the sentence "Oh, you know who I mean! He/she was that quite girl/ know...the one whose name nobody could ever remember." Into Emily's restricted little world comes a sudden adrenaline rush...a lift plummeting downward, and a young student of her aquaintance on hand to share that survivor high. A kiss was what began it. A simple unprovoked reaction to a potentionaly lethal situation. Jamie, the student on the other end of that kiss, is a teenager, not cliche written. he is typical in many respects yet has depths and needs not at first apparent. I will not right a synopsis, this is a review, and as such should leave the reader either curious about the book in question...or not. The situation and the way it affects the lives of both central figures is woven extremely well. Do not read this expecting easy resolutions, there are none. That is a huge part of what makes this a damned fine read. Expect the unexpected. I have no hesitation in recommending this book. Catherine Chisnall is an author worthy of the title.

Review by: Cathy B on Aug. 19, 2010 :

Emily is an ordinary but lonely 30 year old teaching assistant at a Further Education College. On January 20th, ending another typical day at work she finds herself in an uncomfortable position when she gets stuck in the school lift with 17 year old, unpredictable rebel Jamie Norton. As things could not get any worse the lift start acting up and risks the lives of Jamie and Emily, as an act of desperation, They Kiss. What was supposed to be a one time act of passion ended to be more than Emily expected. Emily's once ordinary life is now interrupted with unexpected feelings and she is left starring down a road that she never saw coming.

My Thoughts: This is one of those books that are a quick but enjoyable read. Emily is a character a lot of women could probably relate too, Although most women would not resort to the things she did, she was just a woman that wanted to break out of her shell a little bit. The book brought out some anger in me, the way Emily was treated by some of the students were horrible. I couldn't help feeling sorry for Emily and Jamie, they were both in different stages of life but had more in common than either of them thought, they were both at a stand still in life, in a way they needed one another. The book did a great job rising some emotion out of me. I ended up surprising myself, in the end I was rooting for Jamie and Emily, I wanted them to be together. Descending has a little bit of everything, drama, romance and quick witted humour. This is a perfect summertime book. It may be a quick read but it is an edgy one, it will definitely leave you satisfied.

Review by: Michael Brooks on Jul. 05, 2010 :

A chance encounter in a lift develops into a forbidden romance.This book really succeeds in getting inside the head of its central character, showing her loneliness and the strong attraction she feels for someone she should really be staying away from.The object of her desires comes across as equally lonely and you find yourselves rooting for them even though you know there are good reasons why they shouldn't be involved. There are a large number of supporting characters, although keeping track of them all does require a lot of concentration at times.

The ending may not perhaps be to everyone's taste, being somewhat bittersweet, but I found it appropriate. Recommended.

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  1. I loved Descending and I eagerly await Surfacing. I found Emily to be a pathetic sort, but nonetheless, I felt sorry for her. The book is peppered with bits of the unexpected and is quite a page turner. I loved it!

  2. An absolutely fascinating interview featuring two of my favourite people. I was particularly interested to read the varying reviews that Descending has received; thankfully, intelligent readers will forego any preset moral position and treat Descending as it actually is: a very fine and accomplished story.

  3. A very indepth interview followed by captivating answers from Catherine
    Tee x

  4. Great in depth interview. I too like the fact that Emily is not always the most lovable of characters.

  5. I really enjoyed reading the interview. I haven't read the book - not my sort of thing but I was very interested in the author's experiences and how she has handled this situation.


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