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Paul Spalding-Mulcock
Features Writer
9:12 AM 18th December 2020
arts

Interview With Cat Walker - Author Of The Scoop

Cat Walker
Cat Walker
A hackneyed cliché oft trotted out by experienced souls to aspirant literary tyros is, ‘write about what you know’. For debut novelist Cat Walker, the inverse may be equally true, for the creative muse animating her fledging pen was not knowledge, but the absence of it. In Walker’s case, her first novel, The Scoop draws upon a quasi-autobiographical quixotic quest for philosophical, spiritual and emotional knowledge. Stemming from what is not understood or known by its author, this frolicsome yet poignant book seeks to answer the biggest question of them all…what is the meaning of life ?

Quotidian banality and its attendant uncertainty, not its hallowed anthesis, forms the bedrock upon which her road-trip novel journeys from ignorant ennui, towards self-actualisation, understanding and the bitter-sweet fruits gleaned from humanistic truths. The Scoop is the story of one woman’s cathartic confrontation with what she does not know in order to find self-knowledge and life-affirming meaning. Walker’s effervescent gem is therefore the manifestation of an author writing about what she does not ‘know’, and its chief virtue lies in doing so with tenderness, candour and inventive zeal.

Having recently reviewed her uplifting debut, I was eager to find the answers to my own questions, to understand the mind behind a book I found to be an eccentric delight. Walker proved to be wondrously complex, engagingly introspective and rather like her novel’s protagonist…quirky, contemplative and warm-heartedly direct.

Walker was born in Scarborough, North Yorkshire. She is ‘an eternal student’, with a passion for travel which has seen her wandering the globe in search of ‘truth’. Cat also writes poetry and once co-wrote and directed a successful amateur musical (Honeybees: The Musical - the world’s first lesbian field hockey musical) which sold out performances in Brighton, Eastbourne and the West End. With a Ph.D in economic psychology, Walker’s day job is as the Director of her own research consultancy which works exclusively with voluntary and community organisations.

She is the respected author of two textbooks, numerous research reports, and hundreds of articles and blogs. During lockdown Cat unexpectedly became a bestselling poet when she was published in Poems for a Pandemic (Harper Collins) alongside Darren Smith’s powerful ‘You Clap for Me Now’. Cat currently lives in Brighton with her wife and young son.

‘Fiction writing is the creation of alternative worlds. It’s a little bit like playing god for a pastime, and who wouldn’t want to do that? I know it’s a cliché, but I really did always want to be a writer. I wrote little plays and my own little magazines at school. At Uni I joined a drama group and wrote skits and sketches which were performed in local schools and once at the University carol service. When I was fourteen or fifteen I had the audacity (youthful self-belief?) to send off a collection of my teenage angsty poetry to Penguin. They declined to publish but, at that point, it didn’t put me off. As an adult I self-published a book of only slightly less angsty poetry (Holding my breath, to keep the love inside).

‘I haven’t, as many authors have, attended a novel-writing course or done an MA in creative writing. I did attend a formal poetry-writing course in London with the amazingly talented Iranian-born British poet Mimi Khalvati, which taught me a lot about writing in different styles, finding my voice and perseverance. In an ideal world I would definitely write for a living. As it is, I do sort of write for a living, as I’m a professional researcher and have to communicate findings to a variety of audiences. I have two textbooks in print and shelves full of academic articles and work reports’.

So, walker’s academic bent pays her bills, but I wondered what she reads for pleasure. ‘I have a very eclectic taste in books. I read everything from Thomas Hardy to Jo Nesbo. I particularly like books which stretch the imagination like Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, David Michell’s Cloud Atlas, or Julian Barnes’ Flaubert’s Parrot. I love vast, sprawling books by the likes of John Fowles, Louis de Bernières and Hilary Mantel, but I’m not a complete snob, I also love a good Dan Brown or Robert Harris. I guess I just like to be transported to other places and times and realities’.

Lightly tripping over the dubious Dan Brown revelation, I wanted to dig a little deeper into Walker’s literary tastes and hoped they did not include Jack Reacher or at the risk of blasphemy, Jeffrey Archer ! ‘I have two, very different, favourite books, both of which I read about thirty years ago but which have stayed with me over the years and never been superseded. Firstly, The Bone People by New Zealand author Keri Hulme,and secondly, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Enquiry into Values by American writer Robert M. Pirsig’.

‘Both books have in common that the authors struggled to find publishers, and both generally divide readers despite being bestsellers. I imagine that as a student I first read them to appear more intellectual than I was. But I genuinely loved them. Both books are reflected in The Scoop. I owe a lot of the original idea about a travelling philosopher to Zen and the Art, while Ari owes some of his feral charm to the character Simon/Haimona in The Bone People. Also both books are about outsiders struggling with their identities and a sense of belonging – and that’s something I tackle in The Scoop too.

I found Walker’s debut to be distinctly autobiographical in nature. Our feisty author let me know her thoughts on the matter. ‘You know how a lot of Netflix series are prefixed with a disclaimer, something like: “This dramatisation is based on true events. However certain scenes, characters, incidents, locations and events have been fictionalised for dramatic purposes.” Well, it’s like that with The Scoop! The book was inspired by my own personal travels and my own personal search for ‘the meaning of life’, and I have weaved in a lot of personal details in the book’.

My recent review dwelt upon the political, philosophical and humanistic thematic latticework forming The Scoop’s fabric. Its author was to my mind a ‘thinker’, as interested in anthropology as history. ‘I’m a psychologist by training, and also studied a bit of sociology and philosophy at university, and I’m naturally curious by nature. I’m like one of those annoying kids who’s always asking “but why?” My parents raised me to be curious about life and it’s something that I very much hope to pass on to my son as he grows up’.

‘So I went into this writing project knowing that I wanted to tackle a number of fundamental questions about life, chief amongst which was the biggie: the meaning of life – what are we here for? How can we live a ‘good life’? How can we be happy’?

‘I also wanted to explore the dark side of human nature. I wanted to understand human nature by having my characters confront some of the worst atrocities humans have inflicted on other humans. I wanted to explore the nature of good and evil in the world and to confront the religious attitude of a black and white universe when the reality is that there are grey areas everywhere. People aren’t purely good or evil. They do good and bad things, all the time’.

Understanding Walker’s protagonist, Casey, unlocks The Scoop’s emotive resonance. ‘I think Casey is herself conflicted. She’s had to deal with a lot of different situations in her life where her sense of self was challenged. She’s never felt like she totally belonged anywhere, and I think her primary response has been to run away from conflict in case she loses everything. So when she sees how conflict has torn apart different countries and races and religions it kind of gives her a bigger perspective on her own life. A much-needed sense of perspective. It initially seems to make her despair of people, but in the end, she begins to see that alongside the violence and anger and despair there are incredible acts of bravery and kindness and hope. And it ends up somehow renewing her faith in people’.

Categorising Walker’s novel is fraught with danger. It’s an inventive reworking of the classic road-trip genre, however it is not derivative, mimetic or constrained by the prescriptive literary manacles of formulaic convention. In short, it is inventive, original and coruscating. ‘Genres are overrated! They’re just convenient pigeonholes for marketers. That notwithstanding, I probably only got my publishing deal because The Scoop was judged to fit into a genre that is currently trending in books – Uplit – Uplifting Literature. Now I’m not sure if a book can be called uplifting if it talks about concentration camps and genocide and the Chinese treatment of the Uighurs and Tibet, but overall I think the book is uplifting, so I’ll go with that! I was less happy about labelling it “women’s fiction” because, I mean, what is that? Books written by women for women? It’s not just for women!’.

On a roll, our earnest but essentially light-hearted author pinned her message to my interview board like a lepidopterist a moth. ‘I think The Scoop is particularly relevant now. While we’re all observing social distancing measures, it reminds us of that golden age when we were able to travel to foreign lands and encounter new cultures and people. It also reminds us of the importance of family, friendships and relationships’.

Writing her debut was a challenge, getting it published was a nightmare. ‘The biggest challenge for me was getting published. It took me 13 years from the first draft to securing a deal. Writing the book was the easy part, in that respect. I was lucky enough to be able to take a much-needed career break in my thirties, during which I went travelling and then took nearly a year to write The Scoop’.

‘The truth is that I was on the run from some situations in my life which weren’t really going that well – little things like my job, my relationship and having something to aim for in life – that sort of thing. Travelling gave me the headspace I needed to think about what the meaning of life is (a big preoccupation of mine) and to figure out what I wanted to do next. I wrote a blog as I went, which I sent back home to family and friends. Several people commented that I should write a book about it…That idea stuck in my head, and slowly the concept of The Scoop started to form’.

‘I knew that I didn’t want to write a travelogue or a memoir in my own voice, because I’ve always felt that the novel is such a powerful form to get serious ideas over, because it’s fiction. People are happy to entertain fiction, rolling it around in their heads and mulling it over, where a first-hand account, or someone’s memoirs, seem more easily dismissed. I really wanted to get people thinking about the ideas I wanted to convey in The Scoop. They say that everyone has a book in them and this was definitely the one I was meant to write. So I needed to get it right’.

‘Thirteen years later I had re-written and re-edited the book a hundred times and sent it out to every publisher and agent I could think of. I had joined writing groups and reading groups in order to improve my storytelling. Publishing The Scoop was on every New Year’s Resolutions list I’d made throughout all of this time. But as I neared my 50th birthday I was wavering, worn down, and frankly a bit tired of the whole thing’. Fortunately for us, the endless rejections letters did not extinguish Walker’s authorial hopes. Her very last submission to a publisher paid off. ‘The wonderful RedDoor Press, said yes! The moral of this story, of course, is that you should never give up on your dreams, however long it takes’.

So a hill climbed. Battles won. Friends made. Knowledge gained. Life as a published author realised…finally. ‘It’s had less impact than you’d think for something I’ve coveted all my life! But I think Covid-19 and lockdown have a lot to do with this. Not being able to get out and about to events where I can play “the author” means that I’m only a legend in my own living room! Actually probably the place where I feel most like a real author is in our online community of debut authors (@TheD20Authors) which was created for writers publishing their first works during the pandemic’.

Walker may pen another novel, if fate gives her the opportunity. I, for one, sincerely hope that she finds the time to give us another literary gem. Having enjoyed one ‘scoop’ of her delightful, unfettered talent, I am eager to echo a seasonal favourite…‘please Sir, I want some more!’