After the announcement of the award on Wednesday morning last week, we managed to catch up with the winner of the Green Carnation Prize 2011, to discuss the winning title ‘The Proof of Love’ and winning the award itself, LGBT writing and what is coming in the future.
Firstly Catherine congratulations, how does it feel to have won The Green Carnation Prize 2011?
Wonderful! I had a baby a month before The Proof of Love was published, so couldn’t do much publicity for it, and I thought it might just vanish unnoticed, so to win a prize for it is just brilliant. I’m sitting in the library feeling a warm sort of glow.
Tell us about the story of The Proof of Love, without of course giving too much away…
It’s set in the summer heat-wave of 1976, and is the story of what happens when Spencer, a young Cambridge mathematician, goes to work on a remote sheep farm in the Lake District, and forms a number of unlikely relationships, setting off a chain of events that ultimately end in tragedy. That’s probably the best way of putting it without giving too much away.
Where did the story originate from and was it an instant story or did it take it’s time to develop?
Well, I grew up on a farm in the 70s in a remote part of the Lake District, so it’s a setting that I know very well. My family was always viewed with a certain amount of suspicion because my father, who’d also been brought up on a Lake District farm, had ended up going to Oxford to study maths – a very unusual thing for someone of his background to do at that time. This made him mistrusted by the other farmers in the valley, and so the feeling of being an outsider was always there, and so was maths.
There were always odd characters who ended up in our valley, staying for a while and then moving on, and I suppose that filtered down to me somehow. I wanted to explore the reasons behind why someone might choose to come to a place that felt to me like the end of the earth. I guess The Proof of Love was my attempt at delving behind the beauty of a rural landscape, and looking at how the most idyllic-seeming places have their dark sides.
The story took its time to develop – it started with Spencer as a character and the setting and built up slowly. But once it did get going, it galloped!
There is a really touching friendship which runs through The Proof of Love between Spencer, the outsider, and a ten year old girl called Alice. Where did that relationship come from and how did you stop it becoming over sentimental or possibly concerning?
I guess some of it comes from myself – I was a bit like Alice when I was a child, and I would have loved to have known someone like Spencer. And partly it came from thinking about Charles Dodgson, or Lewis Carroll, the author of Alice in Wonderland, who used to spend quite a lot of time in the Lakes, was a mathematician and who had close relationships with little girls. A child’s logic, requiring answers that mean stripping things right down to their elements, can be appealing to a mathematician, making a relationship between them psychologically realistic.
I tried very hard not to make the relationship between Spencer and Alice sentimental, because I think little girls can actually be quite brutal when they want to be, so it was a case of going over and over what happens between them, and their conversations, and being ruthless about cutting what might stray into that territory. Having an ace editor helped! As for raising concerns, I wanted to tread a line where at first the reader might wonder about it, then make clear that it wasn’t, and that meant a lot of tricky editing too.
The novel simmers and broods did you always want the book to have a sense of underlying tension and slight unease?
Absolutely. I wanted to get across that feeling that you get when it’s been too hot for too long, and everything feels a bit heavy, like the moment before a thunderstorm. I think that’s when interesting things start to happen.
Secrets, which we won’t give away, are at the heart of The Proof of Love. How hard was it to keep things hidden and slowly reveal them before finding the perfect time to pull the rug from under the readers feet?
It was hard for me to work out at first for myself what exactly those secrets were. I knew they existed, and that they were the reason for how people behave in the book, but it took me a while to figure the out. I experimented a lot with how and where to reveal them. Again, my editor was a massive help with doing that.
When did you first know you wanted to write?
I first announced it to my grandmother when I was eleven. It was the only thing I ever wanted to do – to sit in the library with no-one bothering me and just write. My grandmother made it happen twenty years later by giving me my inheritance early, before she actually died, so I could leave my job and get on with it.
Was writing your second novel easier or harder than writing your first?
Well, it was very different because my publisher bought it on the strength of a synopsis and gave me the deadline of a year, which certainly focused the mind. My first novel had taken about three years to write, partly because I went over and over it as I was writing. With the second I just sat down and wrote a draft from beginning to end, then went back to edit. That made the whole process much easier. And I think you learn things along the way, about plotting, and what to put in and leave out.
The Green Carnation Prize has been labelled in some quarters as an unnecessary prize and of only being relevant to a niche audience. There has even been surprise that authors allow themselves to be put forward. What are your thoughts? Why do we need such a prize?
The fact that some say it’s only relevant to a niche audience is precisely why it’s necessary. We all know that the publishing industry’s competitive. It’s really hard to get your book out there and heard about so people buy it and read it. And I think it’s often still harder for gay writers, precisely because some people think if a book’s by a gay writer and about gay themes then it’s only for gay readers, which is rubbish, but unfortunately still sometimes the case. That’s probably why some authors don’t allow themselves to be put forward, or their publishers don’t want to submit them. Prizes help because -whether you’re on the longlist, or shortlist, or win – more people will hear about your work. Even if it’s a niche prize, it will get your work known beyond a niche audience, because it’ll be seen in the mainstream press.
I remember being a teenager, in a remote part of Cumbria, knowing I was gay and thinking oh god, what am I going to do? I went on a school trip to London and sneaked into the Silver Moon women’s bookshop and saw Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, which I noticed because it was had won an award and was on a little stand. I bought a copy, took it home and devoured it, and it made me think it’s ok to be gay, and it’s alright to write about it, and that was really a turning point for me. I think a lot of gay people first figure out their sexuality by reading. It’s such a relief to find out other people are like you. So anything that gets those books more widely known is a good thing. I also think that in a world where one of the biggest playground insults is to call someone gay, if you can have a prize for LGBT writers, you’re going to get those young gay people looking and thinking well that’s gay and that’s good – and that has to be helpful.
Which LGBT authors did you look up to in the past, are there any books that would have undoubtedly won the Green Carnation before it was started?
There’s so many, including the aforementioned Jeanette, who really changed the way I thought about words and what they could do. I’d nominate The Passion for the Green Carnation prize any day. And Sarah Waters’ Tipping the Velvet was such a brilliant read I’m sure it would have won that year. I reckon Rita Mae Brown would have got it in 1973 for Rubyfruit Jungle because of the fabulous bounciness of her heroine. Other writers that I love are Edmund White, mostly for his memoirs, and Alan Hollinghurst, because they don’t shy away from describing exactly what gay men get up to in bed, Armistead Maupin for the humanity and humour of his Tales of the City series, and Patricia Highsmith, because she’s so deadpan and dark. I could go on for hours, so I’d better stop there…
What is next for Catherine Hall?
My baby’s big enough to leave with other people now, so I’m back in the library two-and-a-half days a week. It’s great to be using my brain again. I’m just at the beginning of researching my next novel, or at least, trying to work out if my idea has legs. I feel an odd combination of excitement and trepidation, but that’s one of my favourite states to be in, so it’s all good.
If you would like to hear Catherine in conversation with Chair of Judges Simon Savidge and Gavin Pugh you can visit the book podcast The Readers here.