Cathleen Townsend loves a good tale, especially if it involves history or fantasy. She resides in gold country in California’s beautiful Sierra Nevada foothills, which is fortunate because it encourages her to leave her keyboard and take her dogs for walks. She loves to chat with readers on her blog: cathleentownsend.com.
Cathleen has been published by Raven International Publishing, Thinkerbeat, Everyday Fiction, Fantasia Divinity, Story Emporium, Just a Minor Malfunction, and of course, the terrific folks at Longshot Island. A free digital copy of her first short story collection, Dragon Hoard and Other Tales of Faerie, is available to all comers on her website/blog.
Longshot: What literary pilgrimages have you gone on?
Townsend: I’ve visited Jack London’s house, which is a state park in the Santa Rosa area of northern California. I have fond memories of White Fang and The Call of the Wild from childhood, so I was predisposed to like the place going in. And it turns out the grounds are gorgeous, surrounded by mature oaks festooned with hanging Spanish moss. Inside are all the author’s books, along with the place where he actually wrote some of his work, and pictures and letters from his extensive travels.
The best trip was the Calaveras County fair, also here in northern California. We’ve gone several times. They have a jumping frog contest, a la Mark Twain in The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County. You can actually rent a frog to enter. So of course, I had to try it.
I plunked down my cash and was soon the proud temporary owner of a purportedly competitive amphibian. I christened him Tom Frog after my husband and gave him a kiss as instructed, even though that last bit is really so people can take pictures of you doing something silly.
The frog is allowed three jumps from the center, and the one that leaps the farthest in any direction wins. Sounds simple, right? But I didn’t have it in me to try and scare my frog. I just gave his froggy backside a nudge. Our performance did not even approach that of the champion, Rosie the Ribeter, but it was fun anyway.
Longshot: What are common traps for aspiring writers?
Townsend: In self-publishing I think a common pitfall is publishing too soon. You’ve written this great book, and you love it. Surely others might, too.
And I get that. I think we all live with that hope, no matter which publishing route we take. But a rough draft is usually written for an audience of one. Stories need time to go through beta readers, tough ones who’ll say things like, “I can’t picture this scene,” or “You lost me here,” or “This character’s motivation isn’t making sense to me,” or even “You should cut this entire scene (or chapter).”
And then, at least for me, my work needs more time to sit after critique. I need to go back and revisit it after I’ve beta read a bunch of other people’s stuff, and I can approach my own stories through lessons learned reading other people’s work.
Longshot: Does a big ego help or hurt writers?
Townsend: I think humility is an important virtue because that usually means you’re teachable. It’s very hard to get better at something if you’re not open to feedback.
But we need to develop a strong sense of self to write, especially if we want to publish. We’re never going to please everyone. At some point we need to find the confidence to say, “Yes, this is my work. I hope you like it, but even if you don’t, I still think it’s worthwhile.”
Longshot: What is your writing Kryptonite?
Townsend: I don’t know that it’s a Kryptonite-level problem, but if you came at it from the other direction and offered me a writing superpower, I’d choose the ability to type utterly without typos. I’d be much faster if I avoided those things, and I’d sidestep the occasional humorous mistake to boot.
Longshot: What’s your favorite under-appreciated novel?
Townsend: Red Moon and Black Mountain by Joy Chant. I’d read Tolkien when I picked up Ms. Chant’s work, but I’d thought of his work as a singular experience, not to be repeated. This book showed me that the magic could happen again. I still reread it every few years. The prose is elegant, and the story has lost none if its appeal for me.
Longshot: What does literary success mean to you?
Townsend: The best measure of literary success for me is being read, for people to think their time is well-spent reading my tales. Other than that, someday I’d like to make enough to keep doing it, full-time.
Longshot: Do you hide any secrets in your books that only a few people will find?
Townsend: I don’t know that they’re exactly a secret, but any story titles my characters might be reading have relevance to the struggles ahead for them. So in Snow White and the Civil War (coming in 2018), I have my protagonist, Gwen, reading Sense and Sensibility and Oliver Twist for school, both with protagonists who lost a parent. Gwen soon had to face the death of her mother, followed by the arrival of a new stepmother.
Longshot: What was your hardest scene to write?
Townsend: The worst ever was when I had to kill the father in the first novel I wrote, Hans and Greta. I wracked my brain trying to think of something, anything—grasping at far-fetched straws for any way I could keep him alive. Nothing worked. He had to die, for the sake of the story. I think I went through an entire box of Kleenex.
Longshot: What is your favorite childhood book?
Townsend: When I was an actual child it was Eric Knight’s Lassie Come Home for several years. I possibly remember that one best because it was my last favorite before shifting into adolescence and discovering Tolkien. Early on it was Dr. Seuss (I learned to read on Go, Dog, Go when I was three). In between I read fairy tales—my favorite there was Snow White and Rose Red—and I read history for pleasure at a young age, too, especially biographies of women like Helen Keller and Clara Barton.
Longshot: Do you believe in writer’s block?
Townsend: Sure, although for me that’s usually the result of a confidence block, of thinking that my words can’t possibly be good enough. And everyone’s experienced the feeling of just running dry. You sit down to write x number of words and peter out halfway. There’s simply nothing left inside to write with that day. That one’s less serious. A good break and I’m usually ready to go again.
Longshot: What is the most difficult part of the artistic process?
Townsend: Since I want to self-publish my novels, for me it’s deciding my story is done. I’m still growing as a writer. I write better this year than I did the last. Hopefully, that means my writing will improve in the coming year. I’ve waited on my novels, wanting to be sure they’re good before I publish them. With short stories, I don’t have this angst. A publisher has accepted them. But if I put my work out there myself, how do I really know it’s ready?
You can take this to extremes in either direction. Keep waiting, and you’ll never publish anything. Publish too soon, and you may regret it. Someplace in between there’s got to be a sweet spot. I’m still searching for it.