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INTERVIEW: KATHRYN BARKER, author of In The Skin of a Monster

| 4 August 2015 | 2 Replies

INTERVIEW: KATHRYN BARKER, author of In The Skin of a Monster
By Steph O’Connell


Kathryn Barker was born in Canberra, but growing up involved plenty of travel. She started primary school in Tokyo (the only kid with a sandwich in her lunchbox) and finished high school in the woods outside Olympia, Washington State, USA (aka that rainy place where Twilight was set). In the years that followed she went to university, became a lawyer, changed her mind, re-trained as a film producer and worked in television. Kathryn currently lives in Syndey with her family. In the Skin of a Monster is her first novel.



BOOK REVIEW: In the Skin of a Monster by Kathryn Barker

Steph: Kathryn, thank you so much for taking time out of your busy schedule to discuss In The Skin of a Monster with me!
Are you a Planner or a Pantser when it comes to writing?

Kathryn: Pantser, all the way… but when I grow up I’d like to be a Planner. It seems so much more responsible, don’t you think? Having said that, ‘Pantser’ does sound far more inviting…

Steph: It was very clear throughout your novel who was speaking at any given time. What are your tricks when it comes to developing unique character voices?

Kathryn: I was about to write ‘the voices in my head are clear’, but then I realized that sounded a tad crazy-pants. It’s true, though. I find that if you spend enough time thinking about a character you eventually get to the point where you know what they’d say and how they’d say it. That naturally tends to keep the voices that you’re writing distinct and unique.

Steph: Where do you find a lot of your inspiration?

Kathryn: I find myself spending a lot of time wondering ‘What if…?’ Not in a productive way – I’m not trying to generate story ideas or anything useful, that’s just how my brain works. I’ll be walking down the street or doing something utterly mundane when an esoteric ‘What if…?’ question pops into my head. They’re almost always just dead-end hypotheticals, but occasionally something gets me wondering. And keeps me wondering. And sooner or later that ‘wondering’ finds its way into my writing.

Also, I find that the things that bother me end up inspiring me. Social issues, perspectives, opinions, prejudices – if there’s something that really gets under my skin (so to speak) chances are I’ll end up fleshing it out in my stories. I suppose it’s my way of trying to understand the things that don’t make sense to me.

Steph: Do you ever suffer writer’s block? How do you defeat those demons?

Kathryn: Back when I had more time on my hands there were days when the writing just wasn’t working. I’d put it down to writer’s block and give myself a break – do something else, decide to come back to it later etcetera. These days I have a very limited amount of time to write – sometimes an hour, sometimes far less. When you’re that curtailed, you have to make every minute count. Even if you’re not ‘feeling it’. Even if you’re not ‘in the mood’. I absolutely get writer’s ‘wrote something embarrassingly average today’, but I always write something.

Steph: What are some of your favourite books and authors?

Kathryn: I always find choosing favourites really tough, but here goes. In no particular order, authors that I love include Melina Marchetta, Philip Pullman, Philip K Dick, Isaac Asimov, John Green, Garth Nix, Markus Zusak, JK Rowling and William Gibson. Are you detecting a bit of a Young Adult/ Sci-Fi theme?

Books that I recently read (or re-read) and just adored include… On The Jellicoe Road (Melina Marchetta), We Were Liars (E.Lockhart), City of Bones (Cassandra Clare) and Where She Went (Gayle Forman).

Steph: A book that sticks with you from your childhood?

Kathryn: When I was little I spent a few years growing up in Japan. While I was there I saw the Japanese anime film of The Little Mermaid. Spoiler alert… Not. Like. Disney’s. Version. The whole ‘tragic ending’ thing had me a bit concerned, so I insisted on being read the story. Great idea… except that Hans Christian Andersen wasn’t exactly into happy endings either. It’s fair to say that The Little Mermaid definitely stuck with me, but I don’t think that was necessarily a bad thing. I like stories that have a little bit of darkness to them.

Steph: Three words to describe you?

Kathryn: Better in person.

Steph: Tea or coffee?

Kathryn: COFFEE. Many, many cups every single day.

Steph: Favourite word(s)?

Kathryn: Onomatopoeia. Spork. Ramshackle. Nefarious. Filibuster. Cellar. Felafel.

Steph: Least favourite word(s)?
Kathryn: Bulbous.

Steph: Where did the inspiration for In the Skin of a Monster come from? What was the ‘spark’?

Kathryn: I wish I could point to a single light-bulb moment, but it wasn’t like that. All of the different elements of the story kind of evolved over time, little by little. One thing I can say, though, is that the first sentence came to me very early on – before I even knew who or what the story was going to be about. Looking back, that first sentence was the key to everything… so who knows, maybe it was the so-called ‘spark’ after all.

Steph: I absolutely devoured this book in a day, of which eight hours were spent at work. Is this in any way a reflection of how it felt to write it? Was it a story that poured out of you, or did it need a little helping along the way?

Kathryn: The book I’m writing at the moment just poured out of me – I had a first draft in 3 months, which was infinitely faster than my usual pace. In the Skin of a Monster was a bit more of a journey. Every aspect of the book came about through a lot of love sweat and tears… but in a weird way I’m almost glad of that. Given the subject matter, it’s not the kind of book that I would have felt right about hurrying.

Steph: You’ve travelled around the world, and school shootings aren’t anywhere near as frequent here in Australia when compared to a lot of other places. What made you decide to set this in Australia, and why a school shooting?

Kathryn: Although we’ve thankfully been spared the horrors of school shootings here in Australia, they still affect us. They’re on the news, they’re part of the conversation, they’re in our psyche – as such, I think that the issues they raise are still very relevant here. I felt it was important to present those issues to an Australian readership in an Australian context… because whether or not it’s happening on our soil, it’s still our problem. I think it’s also worth pointing out that, regardless of the ‘type’ of tragedy that set events in motion, the themes at the heart of the novel are universal.

Steph: What was the hardest part about writing In the Skin of a Monster?

Kathryn: Trying to give serious subject matter the care and sensitivity it deserved while still delivering a page-turner. It was a very delicate balance and I invested a lot of time trying to get exactly right.

Steph: And your favourite part?

Kathryn: There are a lot of mysteries and hidden secrets at the heart of the story, and I loved the challenge of weaving them together so that everything paid off at the end. Another favourite part for me was Ivan. I loved creating a character who looked like a monster but, beneath the skin, was profoundly humane… and the fact that there’s so much more to him than meets the eye was a really fun aspect to tease out.

Steph: Aside from the main character’s name, it felt like there were other elements that hinted at Through the Looking Glass, with the mirror image of our world and bizarre beings within. Was this intentional, perhaps to show parallels between Alice Liddell’s reluctance to grow up and enter society, and your Alice’s struggles to come to terms with what her sister did and move beyond it into her own person, or was this something that you discovered in the telling?

Kathryn: I can certainly see the parallels… and you must be onto something because the Teacher’s Notes for In the Skin of a Monster draw this angle out too. Truth be told I haven’t read Through the Looking Glass since I was in school, but who knows what’s buried in my subconscious!

Steph: What was Alice’s sister’s name, and what was the reason behind not naming her in the novel? (I can keep the name off the record if you like, I just need to know!)

Kathryn: Not naming Alice’s sister was partly functional – it felt more intimate and natural that, in writing to her sister, Alice wouldn’t spell-out her name. There was, however, a deeper reason. I wanted the focus to stay on the victims of the shootings – the people who died and the people who were still suffering. Keeping her name out of the pages felt like a way of respecting that – of denying all undeserved glory. And because of that… sorry, her name stays with me!

Steph: Anything in development that your fans should keep their eyes peeled for? What can we look forward to in your next novel?

Kathryn: The young adult novel that I’m currently working on is a gritty love story that involves Shakespeare, the end of the world and time-travel. It’s been so much fun to write – I can’t wait to share it.

Steph: And anything you would like to say to your new fans?

Kathryn: I hope you like my book – I tried really hard to make it honest and thoughtful and good.

Steph: Once again, thank you for taking time out to answer some questions, and I can’t wait to get my hands on that time travelling Shakespearean apocalypse of yours! 

Category: Interviews

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