Catherine Astolfo retired in 2002 after a very successful 34 years in education. She can recall writing fantasy stories for her classmates in Grade Three, so she started finishing her books the day after her retirement became official. Her short stories and poems have been published in a number of Canadian literary presses. Her story, “What Kelly Did”, won the prestigious Arthur Ellis Award for Best Short Crime Story in 2012.
In the fall of 2011, she was thrilled to be awarded a four-book contract by Imajin Books for her Emily Taylor Mystery series (previously self-published), and has never been happier with this burgeoning second career!
Catherine’s books are gritty, yet portray gorgeous surroundings; they deal with sensitive social issues, but always include love and hope. They’re not thrillers, but rather literary mysteries with loads of character and setting. And justice always prevails.
Congratulations on the release of your latest book, Sweet Karoline. When did you start writing and what got you into mystery?
Thank you! I’m very excited about Sweet Karoline. I think I was born with the urge to put words on paper. When I was in Grade Three, I wrote fairy tales for the kids in my class. I can’t ever remember not being interested in language, people, ideas and stories. I read John Steinbeck and Margaret Laurence when I was a young teen. I fell in love with the idea of being an author, of having others read my work. When I was twelve, my grandfather bought me my first typewriter, and that was it! As for the mystery/psychological suspense genre, I have always loved a puzzle. I’m of the opinion that all novels have some kind of mystery attached to it, even if it’s simply figuring out where the character will go, what they will do, or what led them do the things they did if it’s non-fiction.
Did you have a mentor who encouraged you?
I’ve had a few mentors, from a teacher in high school, to a professor in university, to writer colleagues. Louise Penny, for instance, helped me gain confidence and make connections when I first entered the mystery field. I believe a mentor is anyone who has given you the keys to opening other doors. I am very grateful for the many people in my life who’ve done that – and continue to do so – for me.
The biggest struggle was getting published. When I retired from my first career in education to pursue this second profession, I came very close to attaining a big publisher. However, as they say, close only counts in horseshoes. I was very fortunate to be picked up by Imajin Books, a small independent Canadian publisher, because the acquisitions editor, Cheryl Tardif, is an author herself. She understands what works, how to market, and that some reading/writing risks are worth taking. She took a chance on the Emily Taylor Mysteries and now on Sweet Karoline and I don’t think I’ve disappointed her.
What was your inspiration for Sweet Karoline?
Sweet Karoline explores the mindset of a psychologically fragile character throughout a journey of self-discovery that involves universal themes of beauty, racism, love, treachery, family history, and crime. There were several points of inspiration for Sweet Karoline. The first one is a theme that runs through all my books. I am fascinated by evil, by the psychopathology that leads people to harm others. How is a monster created? Are they born or developed? How can we recognize them? For Sweet Karoline, I explored that theme through the complicated relationship between two women. My second inspiration, which I have to admit also runs through my other books, is my children’s background. They are a combination of white, black and native ancestry. I find the history unique and intriguing, in particular the family’s undocumented connection to Joseph Brant. As for Anne, the main character, she was very strong and inserted her personality into the book right from the beginning. One of my children lives in Los Angeles, so I am somewhat familiar with that area and was inspired to place Anne in the film industry, as my children are filmmakers.
Do you have any plotting secrets? Do you use index cards or special software?
I usually employ a stream of consciousness first, do an outline to guide my thoughts, and return to streaming. I also cook many scenes in my head. My plot outlines are always fluid. Often the characters (like Anne, in Sweet Karoline) like to take a different fork in the road from the one I originally envisioned. I do use index cards to keep the facts straight. For instance, the color of a character’s hair, his/her height, birth date, and so on. I’ve tried special software, but for some reason I feel constricted by the structure, so I prefer my written notes. Besides my cards, I always have a journal devoted to the novel being developed. I’ll have a plotline with tons of arrows and x’s and “no, do this”, or “go here”. I love the creative flow, the fluidity of the process, yet with a kind of map to take me forward. As long as the map allows me to go off road or explore different landscapes, I’m happy.
What do you tell your muse when she refuses to collaborate?
I learned a technique years ago from another author. Just do it! I sit down at my laptop and start. I often write absolute garbage for the first few sentences, but soon the blockage breaks up under the sheer volume of words and the flow starts up again. My muse has no choice but to wake up and pay attention!
Many writers experience a vague anxiety before they sit down to write. Can you relate to this?
I don’t usually feel anxious until I’m part way through the novel. The anxiety sets in when I’m afraid it’s not good or I won’t have the inspiration to keep going. I try very hard to soothe my tension by rereading particularly good sections. Sometimes I even allow myself to edit. Lots of my writer colleagues tell me that editing causes their anxiety, but for me, the process often alleviates it.
Do you have a writing schedule? Do you set yourself weekly goals for your writing?
I don’t have a set schedule, though I try to set a goal of 500 words a day. Some days I’ll get a lot more than 500 completed and the next day, maybe none. So I guess my weekly goal is around 3500, but I hate saying that: 500 sounds so much more achievable. I write when and where I can, whether I’m sitting in a waiting room, out in my backyard or in my office. That’s why I love the freedom of the laptop! Bless you, little MAC.
How do you celebrate the completion of a novel?
The first thing I do is send or give it to my daughter and my husband. They are my first readers, my inspiration and cheerleaders. The next thing I do is to sit down with a glass of particularly good red wine. I try hard not to complete a novel before noon.
What do you love most about the writer’s life?
For me, there are two aspects to the rewards of the writing life. One happens during the process. When I have an idea, cook it in my head, let it flow onto the page, rework it and suddenly realize just how well it’s shaping up, I get the most amazing thrill. The only thing I can compare it to is looking at your child’s face and thinking how gorgeous s/he is. I read over what I’ve created and am immensely satisfied and happy. The second reward comes when someone else reads it and comes to the same conclusion. What a joy when a reader says, “I LOVED your book!”
Anything else you’d like to tell my readers?
Since one of the greatest joys for a writer is feedback, I encourage your readers to write reviews for their favorite authors. As a writer, I’m interested in your reaction to my novel. This is your opportunity to write two or three sentences giving your opinion. You are not bound by the old rules of book reviews that you might have learned in school. You are relieved of the summary task! You don’t have to prove any expert literary skill to anyone, although you may want to demonstrate correct spelling and grammar to be taken seriously. Your only goal is to tell other readers what you thought of, reacted to or how you felt about this particular book. I’d also love emails from my fans! My email address is [email protected]