I had the recent pleasure of interviewing Cait Duggan – read her answers to my questions below:
Are you a daydreamer too?
Yes! I remember my mother getting cross with me on more than one occasion as a child, telling me to get my head out of the clouds. Not much has changed since then: one of my favourite pastimes is gazing into the middle distance, and I find myself doing this a lot! I’m a card-carrying introvert so I think it’s fair to say that I have a rich inner life.
Have you always wanted to be a writer?
Yes, but I’m afraid I got sidetracked for quite a few years. As a kid I loved creative writing and was an avid reader. When I went to university in my mid-twenties, after spending a few years travelling, I was planning to become a journalist. Towards the end of my Mass Communications degree I started to get a bit nervous about my job prospects as I was a too old for a cadetship, so decided to take a first year Law subject and ended up really enjoying it. I stayed on and finished the Law degree. I’ve been working as a solicitor for quite a while now, but it can be the sort of career that doesn’t leave room for much else, especially in the early years. Before I started my first writing course with The Writers’ Studio in Sydney, I’d been doing corporate and commercial legal work for so long that I was worried I no longer had a functioning imagination! It’s been a long pathway since then to getting my first novel published, but I can honestly say it’s a dream come true.
Tell me about your novel:
The Last Balfour is about a 14 year-old-girl called Iona Balfour who’s from a family of witches at a time when witches were being persecuted in Scotland. It’s set during the reign of James VI, who’s sometimes called ‘the witch hunter king’. Iona is given a mission by her aunt, to take a magical object called the bloodstone and give it to a stranger who lives on the other side of the country. The bloodstone carries all the magic of the Balfour bloodline and Iona discovers that there are others who want to get their hands on the stone. As soon as she sets off, she finds there’s a witch hunter on her trail. The journey is hard, but she also finds allies along the way and starts to come into her own magical powers.
For me, the novel is about that time in your life when you’re leaving childhood behind and becoming an adult, and you’re really starting to think about existential questions such as, ‘What am I going to be? How am I going to make a living?’ I like to think of this as finding your own personal magic.
How did you get the first flash of inspiration for this book?
I’d had this kernel of an idea for a long time, about a witch being pursued by a witch hunter. I can’t remember where it came from, but I tried to sit down and write it a number of times, but it just wasn’t coming together. When I started the novel-writing course at The Writers’ Studio, I decided to write a legal thriller, because I thought it would be relatively easy, being a world I knew. Actually, the opposite was true, because I’ve never been into legal thrillers – I’m a fan of historical biography, historical fiction and magical realism. About halfway through the novel-writing course I found that the witch tale kept nagging at me, so I abandoned the legal thriller and started writing the story that eventually became The Last Balfour.
How extensively do you plan your novels?
I did a lot of planning and had a fairly clear outline of The Last Balfour before I started writing the scenes. I’m doing the same thing for my current novel. The narrative arc is written down as a plan before I start the writing. This doesn’t mean the story is set in stone, but it’s helpful as it provides a sort of road map, so I know where I’m headed. I like to know the big picture, and where the major turning points of the story will be. I’m sure this method wouldn’t work for everyone, but it works pretty well for me.
Do you ever use dreams as a source of inspiration?
As Freud said, dreams are the royal road to the unconscious, and I’ve been writing down my dreams for a few years now. A lot of what we’re doing as writers is excavating our unconscious minds and memories, so I find that recording dreams works in very well with the writing. I have at least one dream reference in The Last Balfour, and in the story I’m currently working on there’s a whole concept in there that’s based on a vivid dream I had a couple of years ago.
Where do you write, and when?
I write an awful lot on public transport. When I first started writing The Last Balfour, the only time I had in my day was on my morning train commute, which was about 45 minutes from home to work. So, I started writing in an A5 exercise book in the mornings on the train, five days a week. After almost a year of this, I had a really solid first draft. Then in 2014 I moved from Sydney to the Blue Mountains, so I had an even longer commute. I use this time productively, for both writing and editing. I tend to write more in the mornings as I find I’m much fresher then, and my left-brain thinking mind hasn’t taken over yet.
What is your favourite part of writing?
I like seeing the story come together over a period of time. I’ve found you need a lot of patience to write fiction, both for yourself and the story. Sadly, perfectly formed sentences do not tumble out of me and onto the page. Both writing and editing take up a lot of time, at least for me. But it’s like anything, if you’re patient and keep doing the work, you eventually start to see results. The other thing that I really love is when I’m not even thinking about my story but I’m out for a walk or vacuuming or whatever, and suddenly I get a great idea out of nowhere. It’s as if my unconscious is always thinking about the story, even when my conscious mind isn’t.
What do you do when you get blocked?
I tend to put the manuscript aside for a little while and do something else that’s creative. I like to take art classes occasionally. I’d love to be a visual artist but unfortunately can’t draw or paint to save myself. Having a ‘left-brain’ job, I think it’s important to force myself to make things, even though this doesn’t feel particularly comfortable. I’ve recently started doing ceramics classes which is challenging but a lot of fun. I also enjoy doing crochet, particularly in the cooler months. There’s something rather magical about crochet! Somehow it helps to untangle my overthinking mind. I find it’s great for daydreaming and, weirdly, for accessing deep memories.
How do you keep your well of inspiration full?
Over the past few years I’ve been inspired by authors who write about Celtic folklore and the western mystery tradition. I am now the proud owner of an extensive library of books about magic, witchcraft and folklore, from Scotland and elsewhere. I also like to travel, and while writing The Last Balfour I went to Scotland three times. I particularly love the tiny Hebridean island of Iona, off the west coast of Scotland, which my main character is named after. There’s a lot of myth and mystery associated with the island. It’s said that the first Christian missionary who settled there, St Columba, used magic to defeat the resident druids. It’s still a place of pilgrimage, for Christians and non-Christians alike.
Do you have any rituals that help you to write?
No, not particularly. I find I write well on the train because there’s no internet access and there are quiet carriages, so I don’t get too distracted. When I’m at home I often get sucked down rabbit-holes that I like to call ‘research’ but in truth what I’m doing is just procrastinating on social media and news websites!
Who are ten of your favourite writers?
This is such a hard question and my answer would probably be completely different if you asked me in a month’s time. I read a lot of non-fiction, so the list includes some of my favourite non-fiction authors, including some books I used for research.
Hilary Mantel – Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies
Philip Pullman – His Dark Materials trilogy (I can’t wait for the TV series) and The Book of Dust
Charlotte Wood – The Natural Way of Things
Madeline Miller – Circe and The Song of Achilles
Paulo Coehlo – The Pilgrimage and Brida
Caitlín and John Matthews – Walking the Western Way and Caitlín’s Singing the Soul Back Home
Antonia Fraser – The Six Wives of Henry VIII and Mary Queen of Scots
Jane Meredith – Journey to the Dark Goddess and Aspecting the Goddess
Mara Freeman – Kindling the Celtic Spirit and Grail Alchemy
I thank Cait for her time to answer my questions this month and I hope it gives you a great insight into her world as an author.
Read my review of Cait’s Book here: