#LoveOzYA Q&A with Cath Moore
Cath Moore is an award-winning screenwriter, teacher and filmmaker whose debut novel, Metal Fish, Falling Snow (Text Publishing) came out in July 2020.
Born in Guyana, Cath is of Irish/Afro-Caribbean heritage. Though raised in Australia she has also lived in Scotland and Belgium. She now lives in Melbourne.
You can read #LoveOzYA Alex Patrikios' chat with Cath below, or check out clips from the interview on the #LoveOzYA YouTube channel.
You’re an established storyteller, but why did you want to write this story as a young adult novel?
That’s a really good question, because originally it wasn’t conceived for a YA audience. I originally wrote this story as a screenplay and in the transition between mediums, the voice has naturally shifted within a prose context to that YA story world.
When I first envisaged this story, it was very much a two-hander between Dylan, the teenage protagonist and Pat, her mother’s boyfriend. When you’re writing prose you have the privilege of being able to step into the character’s heads much more, and explore their interior landscapes. So when I shifted this story world and the narrative into that space, I found a whole other universe, which was Dylan’s way of seeing the world, and her perspective. I just luxuriated in finding her in a different way. When you write for the screen, you have to be economical, reductive, and visually oriented, but writing this story in prose form I found it naturally shifted towards Dylan.
That was a great surprise to me, which I think is one of the lovely things about writing: those story threads that you find along the way.
That’s a great way of illustrating how a story doesn’t necessarily have a ‘perfect’ form, and it can evolve through various iterations. That said, what was the moment like when you were working on the screenplay and realised, ‘Oh crap, I have to write a book’?
That was more a practical lightbulb moment than a creative one. I’d been working on it for a number of years — interestingly enough, talking of YA, I had been working on the screenplay with the director and producer of Looking For Alibrandi, the film. So, in retrospect, it’s interesting that perhaps they already could see it being focused more within a YA context, as Looking For Alibrandi was celebrated so. But it never got up and we never managed to make the film, so it wasn't so much a question of, it’s not necessarily the right medium, it’s just that it wasn’t the right time for the story to be made.
So I put that project in the bottom drawer, and it was a couple of years after that I thought, ‘there’s still something there to say’.
It’s interesting though that there was always something about the ending of the screenplay that didn’t sit right with me, and it wasn’t the conclusion I hoped for, and I only found that conclusion through the process of writing it as a novel. I had to go through a completely different research process — one that really forced me to travel the same emotional road as Dylan in terms of connecting to her mixed heritage, which was never in the screenplay.
I do actually think that it’s serendipity that the story, as it is, was always supposed to be told in prose because I was yet to go on that journey to find the real heart of what the story was about.
Speaking of Dylan — she’s such a gorgeous, original voice. How did you find her?
I think that’s all about process, and time, and allowing that voice to emerge rather than imposing too much upon (it). It’s always that negotiation between you, as the writer, driving that sense of character, but also at some point, allowing for those other observations about life to filter in. And at some point, if you’re lucky like I was with Dylan, she just became her own sense of self, and it wasn’t me — she was really sitting parallel with me, and I was her transcriber after a while! And I think that’s because I’d spent so much time working on her as a character and being in her mindset when I was writing the screenplay, and I don’t think that ever left me.
That research process — which I think is a really important part of craft — means waiting until you feel you have licence to bring that sense of character to the page.
A lot of writing isn’t writing at all. It’s turning your senses on and engaging with the world, and being curious about why you’re telling this story. And it takes a while — it is like trying on a number of different shoes. Sometimes you’ll put something on and it’s just not right for that character, and after a while, if you commit to the character and to the story world, you’ll know what their shoe size is. But you’ve got to take a leap of faith, that you will get there, rather than thinking, ‘I’ve gotta make it happen, and it’s got to happen now’.
If you lock yourself into that kind of process, I think you end up missing those opportunities where something unexpected happens.
Your opening line of Metal Fish, Falling Snow — “I could be anywhere.” — struck me as so clearly about dislocated identity, belonging, and place, and how they all interrelate. And yet, it’s such a simple sentence. Was that what you were going for, and why start with those words?
You’re right. I think as much as this story is grounded in my own experience of unpacking my identity as having mixed heritage, I very much was aware that I wanted this to be a book that people could tap into from their own lived experience, which might not be about mixed heritage, but might also be informed by this sense of being disconnected from the world at large and kind of freefalling, which I think we do.
And I think teenagers especially, a YA audience, are constantly seeking and searching reference points because their world around them is in a state of flux. As a person, you’re in a state of flux and a constant state of becoming as a young adult (and) that can be really alienating. To not know yourself or to feel that there is something yet to be explored is both really exciting and also really terrifying, as a young person.
I had hoped to be able to speak to a wider audience about what those feelings are, and how it is that they can emerge through a disparate set of circumstances.
In that vein, I read your other work where you spoke about wanting to “write yourself out of obscurity” and give other people the tools to do that. For someone who hears that, and wants to do it, too, but isn’t sure how to start — what advice would you give them?
I guess for me, my rite of passage was realising that I wasn’t alone. For a long time, I wrote feeling very isolated, and I think that’s easy to do when you grow up and you see the faces on your screens, and the things that you read, and the things that you see, don’t necessarily reflect who you are, or what your history is.
If I was to say anything, it is that we are with you, and there are myriad possibilities out there yet to be explored. I’m 45, and I feel like I’m just beginning my journey and finding my community. So for people who are emerging into adulthood, don’t wait for permission. Just know that you are enough, and I think bypass this idea that you have to prove yourself, or that there’s some committee of worthiness you need to sit before, before you start writing. Whatever it is that you want to explore and explain on the page, bring a sense of authority and authorship and ownership to your own work, and find people who want to support your journey.
I think when you’re young, sometimes you think any opportunity is great — and sometimes it’s not. Also, make sure that your work is of a standard that you’re comfortable putting out there, to the world.
And when you think you’ve done your last draft, do another two drafts.
Do you think young adult literature, in some regard, should have a moral duty to its readership that maybe adult literature doesn’t need to?
There is this sense of wanting to be a gatekeeper, so there is a sense of responsibility about how it is that you unpack the world on the page, in terms of what it is that you write. It’s interesting, I’ve been on quite a few panels and discussions recently about content, and about subject matter, and what is appropriate to talk through on the page, and I think there's a real yearning from young people to feel like people want to invest in them and their understanding of how difficult life is.
There is a vast spectrum of emotions that I think young adults have to navigate now, more so than ever. So I think acknowledging that, and wanting to shepherd young adult readers through the trials and tribulations — and trials again! — that life provides you is something to always think about when you are trying to qualify your viewpoint.
What was the hardest part of this one, any part of it – the fact that you were transitioning it from a screenplay or something much further, even after it has got its beautiful cover and everything and it’s in the world. What’s been the toughest thing about this process and how have you overcome it?
That’s a really good question. I think when you’re a writer, you’re so behold to other people and processes, and for me, I think the hardest thing was going through the editorial process and waiting to get feedback and to do the next draft, and not really knowing when the end point was going to be.
It is such a leap of faith. Possibly though, stepping back from that, was knowing whether or not this would actually find its place in the world. I sent it out to so many publishers, that three chapter kind of blanket ‘hello, you don’t know me, but I’m hoping you might find this interesting’.
And I think when I first sent out a couple of chapters, it was too soon – that is why I tell all of my students, wait, and really do another edit. Because I don’t think that when I first put it out there, that it was ready. I did take a step back and learnt a big lesson from that, and then just revised and revised, and then sent it out again, and had to wait. It’s the waiting and it’s the not knowing. And finally, got the reply in your email box that you want to get from a publisher – which is my wonderful publishers at Text. So it’s that uncertainty, and feeling like you’ve done all you can, and now you just have to take that leap of faith that someone else is going to come on board and be your advocate.
But don’t lose faith, is what I would say. I would say that this is totally a natural part of the process.