Meet the author

Meet Impress Prize contender Catherine Bell

The Impress Prize is a celebration of new fiction and non-fiction writing talent. The author who manages to impress the judges the most (pun intended) will bag a contract with Impress and have their book published in the year. Not bad, eh?

Impress has given me access to three of the shortlisted authors and I’ll be talking to them about their books.

First up, it’s Catherine Bell who is shortlisted for her novel They Came to the Oak. 

Hey Catherine. Welcome to Book and Brew. To start, can you summarise your novel in two sentences.

A noble old oak sits at the heart of the park, an imposing creature bearing silent witness to all who pass below its branches. Over two weeks of summer this oak tree plays an integral part in events unfolding in the lives of five unconnected individuals, each with their own special relationship to this majestic tree.

What was the initial inspiration for your novel?

One summer, home from travelling and at a loose end, I started taking my friend’s baby to a local park. I found I could lull her to sleep under the boughs of a huge oak tree there. While she slept, I leant against the trunk and watched the park.

I began to notice the meetings taking place, random or otherwise, the regular arrivals of the dog walkers and the runners, the armies of prams rolling through, and the homeless claiming a bench to rest. I realised then, that for many, the park in summertime becomes an extended back garden. I was convinced there was a novel I could write about this. I went home and wrote a short story about a desolate nomad who discovers the oak is a place of healing, and somewhere he can finally rest. From there, the other characters, each with their own bond with the oak, started to arrive in my head.

How long have you been working on the book? Did it involve any special research?

I spent about 18 months working on this. The first six months I worked part-time and on my days off, went to the park to watch and write. In September that year, I spent a month camping in a meadow in south west France. Watching nature unfolding so closely there helped and inspired me to write the natural world of the park, and really try to capture the incredible growth of summer.

At one point I had (what I thought was) a wild notion, that if you put your ear to the oak’s trunk you might be able to hear it working – like holding a shell to your ear. And so I Googled it and a wonderful thing happened. I found an article in the Guardian about an artist called Alex Metcalf and his installation called ‘Tree Listening’. I wrote him an email telling him about my book, and he replied almost immediately, attaching MP3s of the internal soundtrack of a tree.

What was the most difficult thing about writing your novel?

Making sure the science and nature was factually correct. Especially the work of the oak in summer. Also, the tiny caterpillar’s treacherous journey up the oak’s trunk to become a butterfly. I had to write these first from my imagination and then go back and fact check.

Trying to strip back my overwritten passages in the edit was challenging. I was really attached to some of it. But actually my writing is better lean. Hardest of all though was listening to my heart when considering some differing advice from readers.

Which authors do you admire and why?

Anita Brookner, Elizabeth Jane Howard and Jean Rhys because they write so beautifully and honestly about heartbreak and loneliness.

Peter Hoeg for the way he weaves science into stories.
John Steinbeck because his books are cinematic feasts.
Jane Austen, because of her understanding of humanity, and her pragmatism and humour.
Muriel Barberry for her loveable characters.
Ann Tyler for her comforting depictions of dysfunctional families.
Carson McCullers for inspirational brevity and poignancy.

What is your favourite genre and why?

I love literary fiction for the richness of the characters. Also, a decent murder mystery. I don’t really have a favourite though – after my law exams I just read Jilly Cooper for a month and loved it.

List 5 fun facts about you

  1. I trained as a contemporary dancer.
  2. I always read before I sleep at night.
  3. I own 100 vintage dresses.
  4. I lived on a Colombian beach for a month.
  5. I never, ever lose my keys.

Do you have any hints or tips for people who want to start writing?

Don’t be afraid. Imposter syndrome is pure fear. Just do it – then keep on doing it. And carry a notebook with you at all times.

The Impress Prize will be announced on 28 September. Good luck to Catherine and all of the other shortlisted authors.

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