Half an hour with Katherine Stansfield: Aber alumna and published author

Photo by Keith Morris

Photo by Keith Morris

KATHERINE Stansfield is a lecturer at the Department of English and Creative Writing, and a former Aberystwyth student. She has just published her first novel, The Visitor – a poignant historical romance set in Cornwall. Set in both the 19th and 20th century via two separate but importantly linked narratives, it provides both a fascinating view of the sweeping effects that tourism has had on the region and a heartfelt tale of love and loss.


In this interview she talks to Marianne Lehnis about the process of writing and publishing the book, gives some background information of her time as a student at Aberystwyth, and offers some words of advice to aspiring novelists.

ML: Did you always know that you wanted to be a writer and a lecturer, or did one come after the other?

KS: Well, they’re quite separate things, although now they seem to be very much two sides of the same coin. I didn’t know anything about lecturing or even university when I was young, but I think I always knew that I wanted to write and that I wanted to have a book with my name on. I used to write a lot when I was at school and whilst doing my A-levels, and then I came to university here in Aber to study English and Creative Writing. Having discovered that I wasn’t bad at it, I showed my work to a few people in the Department and was later encouraged to stay on for postgraduate study. I did an MA and then a PhD, during which I wrote. When you do a PhD you often get the opportunity to teach, gaining some experience lecturing whilst you’re still a student. I finished my PhD in 2010 but I’d been teaching since 2008 and enjoyed that immensely – it’s a way to spend your day talking about writing and books whilst still earning a living.

ML: What made you choose to come to Aberystwyth for university?

KS: I took a gap year in which I wrote more than I’d ever done before. That made me want to do a course in Creative Writing as opposed to just straight English Literature. At that time Aberystwyth was one of the few places that offered Creative Writing and English. I came to an open day and it was wonderful; everyone was so nice and friendly and I knew that I’d love to live here and work with these amazing people. So it was a combination of the place and the people. I thought I’d be happy here and I was right.

ML: How did the idea for writing The Visitor come to you?

KS: I studied Virginia Woolf’s work as an undergraduate and read her autobiography, which details her childhood experiences on holiday in Cornwall in the early 20th century. She writes of a very specific incident in St Ives, Cornwall, where the fishermen had been waiting weeks for a shoal of pilchard fish to come in so that they could catch them. It’s a very dramatic moment when the fish arrive; a bell is rung and everybody races down to the shore. The whole village sort of decamps and it’s this massive event. I lived in Cornwall at the time yet had never heard of this story. It fascinated me so I started reading more about the industry, the folk tales and magical elements associated with it. I decided that this was a fantastic piece of history from my area that nobody really knew about, and that was really the inspiration for The Visitor.

ML: Did the story develop and divert from the original idea as you wrote it?

KS: Some things stayed the same throughout. I knew that there would be an elderly woman who felt tormented by not knowing what had happened to her love, to the person she hadn’t married, and I knew that the novel would have a tragic ending. The concept of an elderly couple living in a coastal community came from a short story I wrote as an undergraduate that stuck in my head. Then, when I came across Woolf’s account of the pilchard fishing, I put the two together to form a premise.

ML: The protagonist Pearl is a character who readers can sympathise with from the start because she seems so helplessly frail and lost. What techniques did you use for depicting the character adequately?

KS: I’m pleased she came across so vividly; she’s the only character in the book who’s based on a real person. She’s based on my great-aunt who lived in the same house as me. One morning she woke up in floods of tears convinced that her mother had just died; she was utterly inconsolable. Her mother had been dead for about 50 years at that point, but she believed it to be true. It’s cruel to say to somebody that what they believe isn’t true – if they feel it, then it’s true. The novel really focuses on this idea: Pearl believes that what’s happening is true and so for her it is true. It’s a novel about perspective and the power of emotional truth in that sense – your reality forms itself around you.

ML: What parts of the book are you most proud of, and is there anything you’d go back and change?

KS: I’m proud of the ending because it was quite hard to write. I reworked it many times in order to show what Pearl believes whilst at the same time undermining it. I’m pleased at how that worked out, at how you can show two versions of reality at once. Intellectually I can’t undo the book; it’s set in stone. If I could, I would get rid of the childhood section altogether and I would just have two narrative strands. The plot really develops in the teenage section and that’s where the drive is. It’s so interwoven that I can’t mentally separate it, but that’s what I would change.

ML: How did approaching novel-writing from an academic background help you, and what sort of writing techniques helped you the most?

KS: Although I’m an academic who’s a writer as well, I was a writer long before I was an academic. I always thought of myself as a writing student rather than a student of writing, so I suppose that’s where the emphasis lies. My time here as a student from undergraduate to postgraduate level gave me a really solid grounding in the technical aspects of writing; the nuance of point of view, for instance, and using different tenses and narrative time in different ways. We had to write critical commentaries and to show our research. The academic side of things really made me reflect on my writing, and the research training I had whilst studying meant that I was able to research and write this novel.

ML: Can you take us through what the publication process was like for you?

KS: The MA I did at Aberystwyth had a module in writing and publication, and that was very helpful in giving me some key hallmarks of the industry and the technical aspects of how it all works. I feel that my MA really primed me for that. Then I went the traditional route; I wanted to have an agent, I wanted the agent to sell my book to a publisher and I wanted it to be in print-form. Self-publishing as a lecturer is not an option because it doesn’t count in terms of what you have to produce, so for me it had to be in print and it had to be with a publisher. I went through the list of all of the UK agents and I sent the book off to try to get one – over two years I think I sent it to 65 different ones.

That was the hardest part; sending it out constantly. Some people would be interested but then would ultimately say no, so I didn’t get an agent and I sort of gave up with it. I told myself that I had a PhD, that I wouldn’t write another novel. I’d decided that if nobody wanted to read this one, then that would be it, I would do something else.

Then there was a new editor at Parthian Books who I’d worked with in the past. I had done an internship whilst I was an MA student, and then I went on to work for the New Welsh Review in a paid capacity in a variety of roles which is where I had met and worked with this editor. She contacted me because she’d heard I’d written a book and asked if she could have a look it. She ended up saying that she’d take it, so that was a fantastic moment. If she hadn’t I probably would have given up entirely, so it was a great relief at the time. It is one of those examples of the importance of who you know, I’m afraid to say. But those networks were laid down whilst a student here, so it shows how doing things like internships can be helpful in more way than one.

ML: A lot of your students will want to read this book. Is the prospect of them reading and possibly critiquing your books daunting?

KS: It’s utterly terrifying, but you know what? You’ve got to put yourself out there. You can’t stand at the front of the class and tell students that their creative writing isn’t working if you don’t practice what you preach. I would actually encourage to take my book to task, because I think it’s very worrying when people exalt lecturers; I think that’s inherently wrong. Ideally I think more equality in the classroom is desirable, the opportunity to have a discussion rather than a lecture. I believe that and so if any students read it then they should express what they honestly think about it.

ML: Writing a novel is an aspiration shared by many people. Can you give any words of advice to people who’d like to write a book in the future?

the_visitor_coverKS: There are two aspects really. I’m a great believer in planning, because a lot of people get through the first third of the novel and it’s flying away but then after that they hit a wall. After that point you need something to change, you need to shift up a gear, but if you don’t know where you’re going then you can’t do that. Planning is absolutely crucial. I’m also a big believer in positive mental attitude. I used to go to the S section in bookshops and imagine my book there. I used to stand there and look like a right idiot, just staring intensely at the shelf in an attempt to will the book into being. That got me through some very difficult periods.

Katherine’s collection of poetry, entitled Playing House, will be published in October by Seren. She is currently working on a historical crime novel set in the moors of Cornwall. She can be found online at @K_Stansfield on Twitter, or at her website.