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March 9, 2023

Katherine Livesey: Girls in Love

Katherine Livesey: Girls in Love

Where in all the fantasy worlds is the best place to be a lighthouse keeper?

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Katherine Livesey, writer of the Sisters of Shadow trilogy, got her first deal at 26. Hear about her steps to becoming an author and how her search for stories about female romantic love prompted her to write her own young adult fantasy. Katherine also recommends some other titles dealing with same sex relationships. We discuss the importance of real landscapes in fantasy worldbuilding – and then decide where it is best to be a lighthouse keeper, in honour of the central image in her first novel.

[Music] Hello and welcome to Myth Makers. Myth Makers is the podcast for fantasy fans and fantasy creatives brought to you by the Oxford Centre for Fantasy. My name is Julia Golding, I'm an author but also director of the Centre and today I am joined by a young writer of fantasy, Katherine Livesey, who has written a very exciting trilogy, about which we will hear more later. But first of all, let's say hello to Katherine and hear a little bit about your journey to being an author, Katherine. Hi, yeah, thank you so much for having me, first and foremost. I love talking about fantasy books, so this is heaven as a conversation for me. I write sort of cozy young adult fantasy adventure fiction. It's the genre I have always loved and when I started writing it was what I felt was missing on my bookshelf so I thought I'd best pick up a pen and fill the gap myself. - That is so often the the spur to being a writer isn't it? It's maybe you find one book in your genre and then there's nothing and you think, "Well, I better go off and write something then." So yeah, absolutely. So tell us a little bit about what the young Catherine was thinking when she was a teenager looking at these bookshelves and how that then became, you know, the steps you took to being a writer. You were saying to me earlier that you also have a full-time job so you're one of the writers who do the two things at the same time. Yeah, so I had the idea for a long time that I wanted to be an author. And for a while, sort of throughout high school and college, they didn't really get much further than this romanticised idea of sitting in a nice garden writing shed, writing and looking at chickens. And that was what I wanted my life to be. And it sort of grew from this romanticised idea into realising that I loved spending my time writing and perhaps it was something worthwhile pursuing. It wasn't just something that should have stayed as a daydream. So I started to think of what I wanted to write, what I was reading at the time. I was reading sort of a lot of Maggie Stiefvater and Victoria Schwab in that peak of young adult fiction that happened six, seven years ago now. Yeah, end of 2000, beginning of 2010. Yeah. Exactly, exactly that time. And a lot of what I was reading was incredible and really exciting. There wasn't an awful lot of diversity or representations of different kinds of people in those books. And I was sort of coming to terms with who I was as a person, realised I wasn't sort of a straight person. And I didn't have that kind of representation to read. I didn't know where to find it except for sort of the big coming out stories that again were having a sort of a popular moment in fiction at the time. And I didn't want a coming out story, that's not what I wanted. I just wanted to see queer characters having a daily life and going about doing stuff, having swords and having magic and going on adventures and it just being another part of of them, like their hair colour. And I didn't see that, I couldn't find it. And so I was really struggling to see myself in the books I was reading. And that's sort of what triggered this journey for me to take it seriously, is that I thought, you know, if there's a teenager out there, like me, that needs this, and I can write and I love writing, then it's my responsibility to bring that to other people who are also missing that representation in what they're reading. So it grew from there really. So I've put pen to paper properly for the first time when I was, I think, 19, still in university. And then I got the publishing deal when I was 26. So it took a little bit of time. That is not a little bit of time. That is very fast. And there'll be a lot of people out there who'll say, "Oh no, I've missed the boat." You can get published at all different decades of their life. So don't worry, folks, if you're still waiting for your deal. So let's go into the actual nature of the book, or the first of the series, Sisters of Shadow. Was this your first fantasy book that you've written? Was this where you started? Or were there drafts in a drawer somewhere that haven't seen the light of day? So it was my first, but the way that it came about was such a slow process that I didn't really have a chance to write other drafts and put them in drawers. My sole focus was the story, it always was. And so I'd pick it up and put it down, pick it up and put it down over the years until it grew into something that I actually wanted it to be. So there are previous drafts, many, many of the same story, but it was always this story that I wanted to tell. Yeah, basically. So tell us a little bit about the world of the Sisters of Shadow, so people get an idea of the story. So sort of as a classic fantasy style, it is in a historical feeling environment, although So it's deliberately impossible to pinpoint an exact time, but it's definitely not modern day. There's no technology in the world. There's a lot of nature and landscape, and that's something that's really, really important to me. And so I wanted to make my characters walk through as many different landscapes that felt British. You recognize sort of like Yorkshire Moors and Scottish mountains in there without having that sort of pinpoint location so that I play with those environments as much as I wanted to without having to stick to a real map. Do you need anything? - No, no, tell me. - I've lost my train of thought. - No, it's fine. I was just actually going to come in on that, which is, as you know, that a lot of the listeners to this are Tolkien fans and what you're doing is exactly what he did. So when you read "Lord of the Rings," you know you're walking through an English landscape and you can see the exact trees, but you're not. You're also in Middle Earth. So somehow by choosing something that's really real is the best thing for fantasy. - For sure, and linked to that, I grew up in Lancashire. I know every county, I feel like in England, has some link to Tolkien or claims something to Tolkien. have Stonyhurst College and there is a Tolkien trail around Stonyhurst College that really takes in the sort of Hobbiton style landscape of the Rolling Hills. And that was one of the things that I've got really strong memories of growing up, of that link of landscape and author being something that was really important. And it was not even deliberately an influence I couldn't escape. It's something that was the most logical thing for me as a writer to include in how I wrote. - And so tell us about your characters. You've got, I was going to say sisters, they're not actually literally sisters, but they're friends who are as close as two close sisters, Lily and Alice. Tell us a little bit about both of them. Yeah, so I liked to work with the idea of this two sides of the same coin idea. So these two people who are the antithesis of each other and that's what makes their relationship so strong. So Lily is sort of the bright light, positive character. She is happy where she She likes her life. She doesn't really want to change where she is. She's got ambitions in her very small sort of country village. She wants to be the first female business owner in her village. That's what she's aiming for and that is her life and she's thrilled with it. She doesn't need or want anything else. And then her best friend is the exact opposite of that. So she is reclusive. She's angry. She's shy. She lives in a cabin up in the mountains in the woods, not necessarily out of choice, but because she's a bit of an outcast. The village are suspicious of her. They don't really like having her around. And Lily is really the only person that trusted her in the first place. And their relationship grew from being children who understood each other on a level that I think only children can understand each other. It doesn't matter if you've got interests in common or anything like that. It's that sort of instant soul connection. And their friendship grew from that. and the story is pinned on the strength of that friendship through adversity. Yeah, absolutely. And then, um, you go on from that, as you were mentioning, to look at different forms of relationships. So we get romantic relationships, and then you get another set of pairings. I don't think it's giving too much away, is it? I don't wanna-- But anyway, there's two more sets. They kind of all grow. They realize, or at least Lily realizes, is that Alice has grown-- Their friendship has taken Alice to the point where she's able to make connections -with other people, shall we say. -Yeah. And that's where we get the same-sex attraction love story and then a heterosexual one as well for-- I won't say who does what, because you can find that-- (LAUGHS) But you're-- I like the way that you're building up the different forms of love. So there's friendship love, there's romantic love, there's familial love, there's... -Mm-hmm. -Um... And people are making these relationships... So, though there is like a parental relationship going on between, um, there's a character called Jem who lives in a lighthouse who's adopted some children. He's a young kind of father to them, so... But they're not his children. So, there's people who assume roles because, um, you can be a father without actually being literally the father. You can be a sister without literally being a sister. That's one of the things I took away from reading your story. Hopefully that was intentional. It was, absolutely. And I think I really, really wanted to make sure there was all different kinds of that love represented as well. Because again, what I was reading was these books were so focused on this, the character that you're following falls in love and is that, that becomes the point of the story. the story. That's what pushes the plot along so often with young adult books. It was when I was first getting the idea and I wanted to have something deeper and sort of wider ranging than that to say, you know, if romantic love isn't your cup of tea, if that's not what you want, there is so many other kinds of connections and characters to connect to in these books. It's not just about romantic love as life isn't. Yeah, yeah. The sort of Bella and Edward, Twilight, Breathless romance has its place, you know, there are. But yeah, it can be also a bit of a trap. Yes, definitely. So, there's lots to talk about in terms of the books and the series and how it unfolds. You might want to think about what teasers you can give to where it goes after the first part. But I was interested in the way you saw magic? Because magic seemed to me, everybody who has fantasy that includes magic needs like a magic economy, a magic budget. How much planning did you put into your magic? And what kind of magic is it? Is it a finite resource? Is it wave your wand and it just comes? How did you think about this? Or is it attached to something in the self, in the soul? It's sort of a combination of all of the things that you just mentioned. So for a long time I didn't have a structure to it. I knew I wanted to include magic, I knew I wanted to build from it, but I didn't know what that looked like. So my first draft of the book simply just had magic peppered throughout it in a convenient way because I knew I wanted to include it. And then as I started to build that, that's when I started to bring in what it actually means to have magic in this world as a character. And one of the really key, or two of the really key parts of this book is when two characters we find have this magic, and they've got different kinds of magic. And that was really, really important to me because their type of magic reflects who they are as a person. And it pulls upon the resources of the earth. So So I knew I really wanted to go for the sort of earth, wind, fire, water, elemental magic. I knew I wanted from the get go, I knew I wanted it to be that because so much else of the book is based on landscape and nature and earth. That was just the most logical thing. Like of course magic also pulls its strength from nature as we do. having each of them sort of have that connection to a specific element meant that we could create some really interesting dynamics with sort of battles and fights because fire and water are opposites, right? So it meant that I could have a lot of fun with that magic as a really key part of the books. But I was also conscious that I didn't want it to be a super epic deep fantasy where magic was everything. And so I wanted to keep it fairly pared back as well. And that once these characters gain their magic, that isn't all they are as people, they're still people. And that was another sort of really strong focus for me. - Yeah, I think what you were saying about how your magic had to be organic because your context is a world of nature. actually a very good point to anyone who's listening to this and is planning a book with magic in it. One way of answering that question is to step back and say, "What kind of world are you working in?" So if you're in some kind of steampunk place with lots of technology, you need to work out how the magic fits in there. It probably wouldn't be an organic magic like yours. It would be something else. Or if it was more of a sci-fi universe, then again, you've got to think. My mind immediately went to Jedi knights and things, but you've got to think in another way. So connecting your magic to its environment is really, really important. Or else it just feels, I don't know, unconvincing. So another thing that I wanted to ask you about is the elements of this touch on. There's a lot of children in here who've been abandoned or damaged or there's even a sort of like child snatcher aspect going on with the sort of bad people in the book. And there's one, there's a couple of characters in particular who were really damaged by it. I was thinking of the little character Glenn, for example. What was your thinking about the sort of how you handle the violence, the torture aspect of those which people see parallels to real life experiences of children who are abused in other contexts. How do you think about that as you're writing it and the sort of care of the reader style that you're approaching? - Yeah, so the first thing I'll say about this is the reason why that was an important path for me to go down is because when growing up and then when I was at university, I spent a lot of time studying fairy tales. And I've always loved fairy tales. And the first moment you realize that fairy tales aren't Disney, they're dark, like it's a real moment. And for me, it was anyway, a real awakening. I spent a lot of time going through old fairy tales and realizing how much sort of darkness there is in there and trauma there is, and no one really touches on the impact that has on either the people reading it in the first place and the characters in those books. Initially when I started writing these books, it built from this sort of fairy tale idea of the band of witches going across the moors and snatching children. That was a real strong initial element before I even had a full story. That was something that really interested me about this story. And so I knew that I had to have that element of darkness that those really like original fairy tales had, but I wanted to draw attention to the fact that you can't have that darkness without impacting people. And I think fantasy is a really interesting place to play with those emotions because people read books, or I read fantasy books, to escape. It's a real escapism. And so to be able to deal with difficult subjects in a space that feels safe for you to be able to explore those feelings felt like a really logical way to approach it for me. and Glenn's a really nice example because his story is bleak, it's sad, and as we go through you, you go on this journey with him and he is sort of like the kid that you would have read about in a fairy tale that, you know, didn't end up having the best time, you know, he wasn't the Cinderella in the story. And I really just wanted to look at what that would look like for a character? What would they look like? How would they deal with life and people around them? How would they deal with love and relationships, had they been through something so awful? It's a really interesting place to explore while still being able to be really sensitive to the fact that it is a book for young people. Young people deal with trauma and it's a safe place for them to explore those emotions within the escapism of what is otherwise a fairly cozy fantasy series. Like, I want it to be an escapist thing, you know, to pick up and disappear into. So that's the motivation why I wanted to have that darkness in there. I think-- I-- I'm interested you used the word "cozy." I-- I think it feels quite, um... I think it feels quite dangerous, the world. Maybe it's cosy in the way that there's an element of homeliness to it. Yes. So there's a real sense of home and who makes your home and that's what you come back to. Maybe that's, yeah. Yeah. The world outside the home. Yeah, slightly less cosy. Slightly less cosy, yeah. So you've already mentioned a little bit about, well a lot about how, where you live and the places you've grown up, Lancashire, Yorkshire, gets into Scotland, gets into the books. Do you have a particular way, is it like all retrospect, you're sitting at home and you think about places or are you the kind of writer who goes out with your notebook, your phone or whatever it is, and records things thinking I will use this in a book. So you're out there with your notebook, noting down the sounds and how the wind was. I wish I had that romantic way of working. I'd love to be that person, but I'm just not. I like to be really present when I'm in a landscape, so I very rarely have notebooks or anything out. I'll take photos. I really like having a camera there to capture images and moods and feelings that I then collect together to then, if I am writing and I need to know how I want to describe a specific landscape, I will then pull up photos to help that process. But I have always been really, really inspired by landscapes. I love being in really wild places. And so I take myself there and I just am there without thinking about whether I would use it or what I would use it for. And often landscapes creep into the books that I I don't even remember putting them there. So for example, the lighthouse, I thought I'd just plucked that out of my imagination. And then a year after I'd really solidified it, I went back to a place in Cornwall that I'd been to a few years previously, saw the lighthouse and went, that's where it came from. I'd just forgotten or I'd stored it somewhere for use and pulled it out without realizing where I'd pulled it from. So it's a little bit less sort of conventional than it could be, yeah. - No, I think that's the idea of actually being really present when you're there is I think really, really true to, it makes the, I suppose what it does is it gives the genuineness of an experience of a place. It's like, I often wonder about people at a concert who are all filming the concert rather than watching the concert, or are you actually present when you're filming? I don't know, discuss. It's one of those things, isn't it? - Yeah. - If we're always gonna look at it through a lens or a note and actually remembering it. So you devised this novel, you wrote this novel. Tell us a little bit about the experience of getting published. I've got to know you because you're published by HarperCollins. - Yeah. And so tell us a little bit about the experience of being taken on by one of the big bigans. Yeah, so I, when I realised I needed to just stop editing and editing and editing and put it out in the world, which was a big enough step in the first place to admit that it was as good as I was going to get it and I needed someone else to be involved at that point, I started to reach out to agents primarily because I've read an awful lot that that is the conventional way to go. If you want a big five publisher, you get an agent and then the agent gets the deal. So I spent a lot of time writing to agents and reaching out to them. And then a couple of indie publishers as well I reached out to. And over the course of a few months, I just wasn't getting anywhere, which is a really common story for a lot of people. I was getting rejection after rejection after rejection. I saw on... So, One More Chapter is an imprint of HarperCollins that published me. And I'd followed them on Instagram because they published a comedy novel of one of my friends, so one of my writer friends I'd made through the shared joy of writing. She had recently been published by them. So, I followed them on Instagram. I was just keeping an eye on things, of being aware of them. And they posted a post asking for submissions for anyone who'd written anything that contained a lesbian storyline. And I was like, well, they haven't published any fantasy or young adult currently. They're mainly publishing romance and crime, but I have what they're asking for. So I'll submit it and see what happens. It'll probably be nothing. And that was in the April. And I sort of forgot about it, carried on sending to agents, carried on saying to indie publishers, and was sort of getting a little bit fatigued by the constant rejections, and I wasn't doing much writing at the time. I realized what I was really missing was the creative outlet, and I needed to be creating in order to be able to deal with the rejections, otherwise it was just relentless. So I think I woke up one day and I was like, "You know what, I'm not gonna send out anything else for a while. I've got this other idea, I'm gonna start writing it, and we'll see what happens." And the day after I made that decision, got the email from the woman who became my editor to say that they wanted to sign a full trilogy at one more chapter and that they were making waves into the young adult fantasy genre and that's where they wanted to go. So that's how it happened and I never got an agent in the end. - That's a lovely story, the almost giving up. Well not giving up, it's the turning to something else. It's very healthy, really healthy because as you say, you get stuck in a loop. I was talking to somebody just yesterday at a speaking event I was doing who'd written a story based on her own autobiography and had been rejected. I was saying to her, "The thing is, it's not the story that's being rejected. You mustn't take it personally. It's the not right for them now. But it is hard not to think, "They don't like me." We all take it. It's getting a bit of a carapace, a bit of a shell around you to protect your creativity, I think, in that whole rejection thing. So just going on to this issue about same-sex relationships, I had the impression, I don't know if this is right, that maybe there's more male same-sex relationships in novels than there are female. Am I right or is that just... That's also the impression I've got. I don't have statistics but it's always been a lot easier to find male same-sex relationships for sure. I'm thinking of some of the big fantasy, like the vampire series and things like that, the sort of Christine Finn and type books. I'm thinking, yeah, I'm sure that they do that along the way and it's just, that's just, but I can't think of a female one in those big series. So, have you come across good books for any listener out there who's looking for these kind of stories? Perhaps they are same-sex attraction themselves and looking for these stories. Are there, other than your own books, of course, are there any that you have found that treat this whole subject well? So I haven't read any fantasy ones, unfortunately. I'm sure they're out there, I just haven't found them yet. But I have read some really, really good female-led same-sex stories of sort of many genres. So Infamous by Lex Crouch is a really, really good one. I really, really enjoyed that she writes Regency rom-coms with sort of a modern twist. Oh right, that is surprising. That's really, really great. Yeah, so that's, I love all of her books. I'm a really big fan of hers and that Infamous is a really, really good one. Then there's the obvious sort of Sarah Waters, Always, or not Always, but quite often features same-sex women in in a mixture of ways, not always happily, unfortunately, and for a long time that's what you had to deal with. If you wanted the representation you had to also deal with the sad ending and I'm happily part of hopefully a movement that that is no longer the case and we're allowed nice happy endings as well. And then for modern sort of contemporary books there is a writer called Alexandria Belfler who does rom-coms again, but in the contemporary sphere, and Kat Sebastian as well does historical, another historical sort of romantic comedy style. So if anyone has any fantasy recommendations, you can throw them my way as well. Yeah, okay. I was interviewing just recently one of your fellow HarperCollins authors called Jennifer Hayashi-Duns, who's done a fantasy, very different, really different from yours. It's, it's like a prehistory kind, but that does have a variety of queer relationships in it. So you might enjoy that, just seeing how she's handled, handled that. It starts with, in a world where they don't have a he and she pronoun, but it's like a sort of, of starts as everybody being conceived as just people. And so you don't know what the relationships are until there's a moment where they start to say, they sort of laugh like a fool, I suppose, and they become he and she. I think, oh, okay. So that's amazing. Yeah, it must be so hard to write that though. I mean, I'll take my hat off. If I was wearing a hat, I would take it off. Because you know, it's a technical challenge that one. So thank Thank you for sharing that with us. We have two regular segments on the podcast. One is just a fun one about where in all the fantasy world is the best place for something. I just sort of dream them up. I think, "Oh, where's the best library? Where's the best shop?" You know, that sort of thing. And because the lighthouse is a kind of central image in your story, I thought, "Well, let's about lighthouses and they don't have to be on land, they can be in space, you know, they can be anywhere that's like a beacon for voyages. Where do you think in all the fantasy world has the best lighthouse? So has the best lighthouse or where I would put a lighthouse? Well, I'm thinking of where's the best lighthouse actually, you know, where would you like to go and and be a lighthouse keeper? - Ooh, okay. So I was thinking where would I put a lighthouse? - Oh, well tell us that. I mean, we are allowed to reinterpret this. Where would you like to put a lighthouse? - I would put a lighthouse on Numenor pre-full because I just think visually it's the most beautiful place. I think there's a lot to be said, negatively and positive about the Rings of Power, but the way that they created Numenor was incredible. So I'd put a lighthouse slap bang there. - There might well have been one because they're a seafaring nation. I reckon there is one. - Exactly. I reckon there is one. Yeah, so that's the one I would choose. - If you stop the thing and sort of expand the screen, I bet there is. - I'm sure there would be. - Yeah. - Yeah. - By the entrance to the harbor. - Of course, there must be. Yeah. - But actually, on the Lord of the Rings world, that is actually one of the places where I think it's the most amusing lighthouse. Do you remember in the Peter Jackson Return of the King, the wonderful, wonderful beacons scene where they...I mean, I think he's made a little line in the book into this mammoth, wonderful set piece with the fantastic soaring music. But every time we watch it as a family, you think, "Those little guys have been sitting at the top of that mountain for decades, waiting for this bit, and there's nothing around them at all but a pile of wood and a flaming torch." So in a way, that's a pretty rough place to be on a lighthouse, I think. So if I was, um, I think I would have, if I was going to be a lighthouse keeper. I would be a lighthouse keeper in, um, is it, have I allowed it to be fantasy, but in Swallows and Amazon? It is kind of fantasy, kids going up in boats. But that whole kind of, that idea of just being able to go off sailing, um, we didn't mean to go to sea. The jolly ripping adventures with tea. There's always going to be tea and jam sandwiches involved. involved. Doesn't seem too dangerous being a lighthouse keeper in that world. That's where I'd go. Okay, and the other thing we always ask guests is if they have a fantasy tip and this could be a writing tip or it could be something to read or watch that's helped you in your own journey in writing fantasy. Yeah, so I think in terms of a film, so my favourite film of all time is the 2007 film Stardust made from the Neil Gaiman book. It's nothing like Neil Gaiman's book. They're two completely separate entities in my head and you can enjoy them both as separate things. But working from the fairy tale inspired story, it was always a massive inspiration for me. and just everything about it I adore. I love how the world looks, I love the relationships between the characters, I love how they've set it in history and it is just an awful lot of fun as a film when you put it on and you disappear for two hours and the time disappears and that's what I wanted to replicate in books to come out the end of it and be like wow that was fun. I really enjoyed those moments in that story with those characters on that journey. So that is what I would recommend. That's a great recommendation. Actually, it made me think of what mine would be on this, which is a similar thing where the book and the film are miles apart. So Blade Runner, the film, and the original short story it's drawn from, which is called 'Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?' I'm trying to think who wrote that. I should know. >>ALICE: I want to say Philip K Dick. >>JAMES: Yes, that sounds right. You've got a younger brain than me. Thank you for being here. But the story, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, is a wonderful story and funny. Really funny. It's more in the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy feel to it. It's absurd things like people having a premium on having a real animal rather than android. I mean it's very, very funny. But the story is the same story as what becomes Blade Runner. So if you're thinking how does somebody treat or adapt a work, you can just look at that and think, wow, okay, that's a different way of interpreting that story. So those two, Stardust in the Neil Gaiman book and the Philip K. Dick, thank you, do androids dream of electric sheep and then watch Blade Runner would be a very, very interesting little exercise to for sure ideas. So thank you so much for joining us, Catherine, and we wish you all the best. So you are working on something else now, Have you got some plans going ahead? Not at the moment. So the third book in the trilogy came out last November. Okay, so you're... So I'm currently still soaking up the joy of having the trilogy out in the world and being able to talk to people about it. So I'm going to give myself a few months recovery time before I plough into the next idea. Onto the next thing, that's right. Thank you so much. Well, thank you. It's been an absolute pleasure to talk to you. Thanks for listening to Myth Makers Podcast. Brought to you by the Oxford Centre for Fantasy. Visit to join in the fun. Find out about our online courses, in-person stays in Oxford, plus visit our shop for great gifts. Tell a friend and subscribe wherever you find your favourite podcasts worldwide. (upbeat music)