On The Table Read “The Best Book Reader Magazine in the UK“, author Cathy Gunn discusses her career, what inspires her, and her new book, Felix Unbound.
Written by JJ Barnes
I interviewed Cathy Gunn about her life in career, what inspired her to write her new book, Felix Unbound, and her creative writing process.
Tell me a bit about who you are.
I’m an arts-loving, cat-loving but also dog-owning, former financial journalist and editor. After a long career in writing about stock markets and businesses and how they behave, plus raising two children, I treated myself to a spell in arts fundraising, mainly for theatres – completing one long-held intention – and then turned my full attention to the elephant in the room: the novel I’d been developing all the time.
When did you first WANT to write a book?
Easily distracted early in life, I’d been meaning to write a novel since my teens but didn’t really have enough material to work with back then. I wrote a few stories and poems, lots of letters and journals entries, and went off to university – where essays loomed largest.
I sidetracked myself again, into a postgrad business diploma, and a job in the City of London, but the ambition to write was strong and my City training opened the doors to journalism, via the financial pages. That was fun – and also led to my first full-length, but non-fiction, books.
When did you take a step to start writing?
When I was about 8 years old my teacher told my mother that I’d be a journalist one day. I was always writing little stories about the world around me.
How long did it take you to complete your first book from the first idea to release?
There are two answers to this! My first non-fiction book was co-written with a journalist colleague and prolific writer of books, Mihir Bose. We’d been reporting on a major financial fraud, and his literary agent got us a deal to write a book together about several major frauds of the time. From commission to completion of that first book was less than a year.
I wrote two more non-fiction books of my own after that, also about financial dramas and aimed at a general reader, within what seemed (from memory!) even shorter time-frames. But – answer two – the novel was a very different story and, with life’s many interruptions and no set deadlines, many years quietly in the making.
How long did it take you to complete your latest book from the first idea to release?
So that would be my novel, ‘Felix Unbound’ and the answer is… about thirty years – on and off – from first idea to final version (How shaming is that?)! There were very long gaps when versions of the book sat in a drawer, or migrated from computer to computer. Sometimes it ventured out to a trusted reader for feedback, followed by further drafts. It was always in the back of my mind, like an old friend that you catch up with from time-to-time, and never really lose touch with, as life careens madly on.
Focusing on your latest release. What made you want to write Felix Unbound?
I had a feisty tabby cat whose attitude led a friend to joke about what a challenging human being he’d make. I decided to find out; and the character that became Felix Unbound, the circumstances that could make him possible, and the effects he had on others, began to form.
What were your biggest challenges with writing Felix Unbound?
One draft of the book had to be completely re-scanned in, after an irrecoverable technological catastrophe. That goodness for paper printouts back then; at least I had a pretty recent one, and got professional help to scan it into an editable format.
After this ‘existential’ drama I emailed myself the whole book, and did the same with any chapter I’d just revised, so that I could always access the freshest version of the book that way, whatever happened to my own computer … just in case. Until then, the biggest challenge had been completing the first draft. I loved researching my themes and really enjoyed the revising and rewriting processes but, back then, if I hadn’t kept a printout the task of re-writing the whole book from scratch would have been truly daunting.
Who or what inspired you when creating your Protagonist?
My challenging tabby cat’s personality, and then working out not just what sort of a person he might become if ‘transmogrified’. What would he need to carry that off for any length of time? Who might help him; how well or badly would he adapt; how might he scratch a living; and what effect might he have on the lives of the people around him?
First, though, how does he suddenly become outwardly human; and why? He had to be more troubling than just a moggy-turned-man and unlike the gentler, person-to-cat stories I’d enjoyed as a kid like Paul Gallico’s ‘Thomasina’, and ‘Jenny’.
I’d enjoyed Muriel Spark’s novel ‘The Ballad of Peckahm Rye’, and her devilish arrival Dougal Douglas; but my Felix is from a different tradition and lineage, and steadily works out – or recalls – his origins himself. So, he needed a catalyst, someone who might be tempted to play along with his claims and enjoy becoming his co-conspirator… at first.
Step forward feisty cat-owner, Tiffany, with a family history that unlocks Felix’s transformation and emerges within the fabric of the book. She isn’t me, by the way; and ‘Felix’ has travelled a long, long way.
Who or what inspired you when creating your Antagonist?
My main antagonist is Ozzy – a set designer, and uncle to Tiffany’s cousin Emma – with a lifetime’s knowledge of Egyptian myth and a hawk-like and, ultimately, intimidating interest in others’ motives. I read a lot of Egyptian mythology in creating him, and his commanding sister Iris, but they definitely have a history – and agendas – of their own in this world.
What is the inciting incident of Felix Unbound?
Tiffany loses her temper on the phone with boyfriend Anthony, who’s stood her up in order to rush off to Cairo where a building project he’s designed, has hit problems. She hurls her mobile phone across the room in a fit of pique, startling the cat and knocking over some ancient figurines inherited from her Egyptologist grandfather. She tells the cat that she wishes some men were more like him, but he’s not placated and stalks off outside. Tiffany leaves the room, with a whisky and without bothering to rescue the tumbled deities from their undignified heap. As she runs a bath, the weather’s changing, the air’s electric and the cat is still out there, on the path…
What is the main conflict of Felix Unbound?
The pivotal conflict is a growing enmity between Felix, the cat-turned-man, and Tiffany’s ex-boyfriend Anthony who can’t stand him – and it’s used, by watchful set designer Ozzy and his sister Iris who have long memories and questionable motives.
Increasingly suspicious of Felix and his past, they can’t resist scheming to use the two men’s mutual dislike – both to manipulate Anthony into resolving some awkward unfinished family history that needs ‘closure’; and to box in Felix’s increasingly destabilising influence upon things, now, and perhaps upon the future. While they play the two men against each other, Iris’s and Ozzy’s own agendas for Felix’s future secretly differ. Tiffany begins to suspect some of what’s afoot – and that she can choose whether to thwart them. Felix, running out of time, will seize whatever opportunity he gets.
Did you plot Felix Unbound in advance, or fly by the seat of your pants and write freely?
I had an outline plot in my mind – a general framework – and then gradually wove in the details as I wrote, with breaks for research, thinking time, and real life in general. Although the story begins with a crazy idea – a cat turning into a man – I wanted the world I was creating to be as credible as possible.
I wasn’t 100% sure at the beginning of exactly how I would engineer the resolution that I had in mind, for example, and finally resolved the details in a much later draft. I wrote my first draft in stages, over quite a long time, and then revised it several times – trying to make sure that I had all the threads I wanted in the right places, to make the overall ‘weave’ of the narrative work.
I really enjoyed that process, and found myself thinking of the book as a tapestry that tells a story – with some of the colours used lightly in one part returning more strongly in other sections – although I’ve never made a real one, and hadn’t sewn much since my schooldays, other than replacing the occasional button.
Sometimes I’d go off on a writing tangent that wasn’t really needed for the story, and that’s where showing the book to an experienced trusted reader was so helpful. I took out or adjusted bits that they felt weren’t quite in tune with the overall book, and tightened up sections up that seemed a bit too long-drawn out and worked much better, kept shorter.
Did you get support with editing, and how much editing did Felix Unbound need?
I got support in stages, from different and immensely helpful sources. I’d emailed an early draft of the book to a friend with masses of publishing experience, who gave me some free, vital advice and pointers that I took on board for the next draft, which involved quite a lot of rewriting, in various stages. I found I enjoyed the revising and rewriting process more than getting all of the first draft completed; it was fun working with, and remodeling, material that already existed in full length.
Inspired by this process, I signed up on a 10-week evening course in rewriting the novel, which I found through the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook and was great for making us all think more technically about our work. I gradually re-read and edited my book, again in stages and quite slowly. I took some short courses too, in things like how to find an agent, whether to approach a publisher direct; and joined a small local group of writers who read parts of each other’s books-in-progress.
We also wrote and exchanged short stories; and I went to some events and short story sessions run by The Word Factory. It was great to meet and chat with other writers. Then I sent the latest complete draft of the book to an editor via The Literary Consultancy’s manuscript assessment and editorial advice service, who fed back with further good advice, and encouragement – which was great.
I followed the advice, doing another edit/rewrite of two to three sections of the book, once again in stages. Then the publisher of a friend’s novella offered to take a look at my book, and give feedback and guidance about what genre of publisher it ‘fitted’. The feedback was very positive, and precise, and a real boost to my confidence.
So, I started to research and contact a few agents – and then Covid came, bringing lockdowns. I decided not to risk the waits involved in approaching agents, or publishers direct, in case Covid carried me off suddenly, leaving the book still in the drawer and laptop after all this work on it! So, I did one more light edit and polish of the text, working rather faster than before, and decided to publish it independently to get the book out there.
What is the first piece of writing advice you would give to anyone inspired to write a story?
Plunge in. Don’t stare at a blank screen or page – you don’t have to begin at the beginning. Get something down from, or some notes about, any part of the story and go from there. Once you have words down you can always reposition that section to where you feel it belongs in the unfolding structure of the story, later on.
If you feel stuck somewhere, maybe there’s something you don’t yet know about one of your characters, so think about them a bit more. Daydream them, and see what happens. Maybe take them with you to walk the dog. Or maybe the setting they’re in is a bit too vague – do a little more research on the place they’re in, or the job they do, or the food they’re eating, the drinks they like, the colours they would prefer to wear – and see what kicks off from that.
If you get carried away and write too much for one part of the story, that’s fine. You can trim it later.
Keep up-to-date copies! And be sure that you can access them from somewhere else… don’t have everything just in the one laptop, or whatever you write on. Technical glitches can be horrible and it’s reassuring to have an up-to-date, back-up copy, somewhere handy.
Can you give me a hint about any further books you’re planning to write?
I have started work on an idea that I think will work best as a novella. I’m a few draft chapters in. It’s very different from ‘Felix Unbound’ – but still quirky. Lately I’ve also been working quite hard on learning to write poetry, in various forms, and enjoying that process a lot. It’s very different from novel-writing, of course. I might try submitting some of them, to see what happens. I’d also written a few short stories in the last few years but think they probably still need a bit more editing. They’re great resource of ideas, though, and all writing is good practice.
And, finally, are you proud of your accomplishment? Was it worth the effort?
I love seeing my book out there! And getting feedback. Yes, definitely worth the effort.
Pop all your book, website and social media links here so the readers can find you:
Website (goes live immently) www.cathygunn.co.uk
Twitter Cathy Gunn @cathyghut
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