Katy Darby: Novelist & Former Editor of Litro

Katy Darby is a writer, teacher, and former editor of Litro (now contributing editor). Her first novel, previously published as The Whores’ Asylum, is out in Penguin paperback today as The Unpierced Heart (read about why the title was changed). In her spare time, she runs Liars League, the monthly live short fiction night, which has also recently released its first anthology: London Liesyou can meet Katy at upcoming readings: 20 September at Clapham Books, and 27 September at Kilburn Library. Follow her at www.katydarby.com and @katydarbywriter.

What is your earliest childhood memory?
Trying to do up a pair of laces on a green and white board with a picture of a shoe on it (to train kids to tie their own shoelaces, obviously). I must have been about four because the bedroom was in our house in Holland—my family lived there for a few years in the early 80s.

What is the first book you ever loved? Why?
The Pirate picture books we had at primary school, because I fancied the Blue Pirate. He was the good guy and had blond hair and blue eyes. I still get crushes on fictional heroes. The first grown-up book I adored was Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake—it’s so rich and strange, and the characterisation is extraordinary.

Describe the first time you realised that the world is not as it seems.
Isn’t it? Oh dear… I think I’m still waiting for that revelation. I think the sort of shock to the system that you mean might be covered by the first time I encountered the reality of death: when I was five my pet gerbil died and I didn’t quite believe it couldn’t be made better. I wouldn’t let my parents bury it until I’d seen it. As soon as I touched its body I knew they were right, and I let it go. 

What has been the most formative place in your life and how has it changed you?
It’s a close call between Oxford and the University of East Anglia, but given the immediate and lasting impact the latter had on my writing and my career—not to mention the friends I made there—it’s got to be UEA, where I did my MA in Creative Writing in 2005-06. It was amazing fun, extremely educational, and it opened so many doors.

If you could be any literary character, who would you be? Why?
Becky Sharp had a lot of fun but didn’t end too well… Jane Eyre had a truly horrible childhood before finding happiness… Heroines tend to suffer too much, so I think I’d be a sidekick: Doctor Watson. He’s a well-to-do Victorian gent with a fascinating life full of incident and adventure, and his best mate is Sherlock Holmes: what’s not to like? 

Which literary character could you fall in love with and why? How would you win him/her over?
Apart from the Blue Pirate, I’ve had literary crushes on Mr. Rochester and also Steerpike from Gormenghast (which is pretty wrong, as he’s a psychopathic murderer, but he’s also the most fascinating character by miles). I don’t think either of them could be won over, in a seductive sense, though: they’d have to want you first, for whatever reason, and then pursue you. I’d play hard to get, I expect, and finally allow myself to be won over. 

If you could time-travel and teleport, which literary world would you want to live in? Why?
Nineteenth-century England, at either end of the century: that is to say the world of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes or Thackeray’s Vanity Fair. Or maybe a world in which magic exists: I’d love to wander about in Diana Wynne Jones’s Chrestomanci books, or else Susanna Clarke’s brilliantly imagined Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, which combines the Georgian setting with a magical alternate history of England.

What do you do when you’re not reading or writing?
Workwise, I teach (I run three evening courses in creative writing at City University); I organise Liars’ League, a monthly short story event at the Phoenix Pub in Oxford Circus; and I do research—in person or online—for my next book. In my leisure time I play online Scrabble, bake cakes with random ingredients, and watch Deal or No Deal: it’s my guilty pleasure and crucially, can be understood with half an eye on it and the sound down.

What is the worst job you’ve ever had?
Probably the month or so I spent as a PR minion for Phyllis Walters: it was like AbFab without the laughs. I also stuck out three months in a call centre for the Woolwich just after leaving university: it was truly awful. People would ring up in tears because someone had misfiled their mortgage papers, and I spent the first three weeks working on a filing cabinet because there were no desks. The incompetence was astonishing and morale was below zero. Luckily both were temp jobs :)

What is your attitude towards money?
I’m always afraid of having too little, so I can be a bit weird about it—I’m trying to cure myself of my more miserly habits! For example, I’ll always wait for a night bus rather than take a black cab, even if it’s four in the morning, because taxis are just so expensive. Generally speaking though, I just want to have enough money to buy the normal, day-to-day stuff I need: I don’t have expensive tastes and I love bargain-hunting in charity shops.

What is your greatest extravagance?
My biggest non-essential expenditure is probably books: I buy far too many and love vintage editions. And cigarettes, I suppose: the “sin tax” keeps getting steeper … 

Being a writer is a strange brand of celebrity. Tell us about your most memorable encounter.
Being met by a bagpiper and champagne at the station when I was a guest author at the King’s Lynn Fiction Festival back in March. It wasn’t just for me, it was for all the authors on the train, but it was lovely and a bit bonkers and made me feel very special. That whole weekend was great, actually: I got to meet authors I really admire (like Carol Birch, author of Jamrach’s Menagerie) and share a stage with them. I love doing literary festivals: reading from and talking about books (not necessarily my own) is one of my favourite things to do.

If you were to write yourself as a character, what would be your most defining characteristic or mannerism?
My addiction to Mini Babybels… my twisted sense of humour… the fact that I wear my watch on my right wrist even though I’m right-handed… my love of ellipses, perhaps? I sometimes ask students to think of some quirk that’s unique to them or someone they know, and build a character out from that: our tiniest habits speak eloquently of our personalities in general—though I don’t know what the Babybel thing says about me.

If you were to write a novel about an anti-hero/-heroine, what would his/her central flaw be?
Madness or self-deception. I’m fascinated by characters who don’t fully know themselves: that way, even a first-person narrative can still retain mystery. Human beings are all ultimately mysterious to one another, and in some ways I think that’s why we read books: to enter someone else’s alien world.

What is the most important piece of life advice you would give a young person?
Know what you want to do and start doing it as soon as humanly possible. It nearly always takes a long time and a lot of work to get where you want to be (e.g. on bookshelves, to the Olympics, on stage at Stratford, into space), so the earlier you start working on that goal, the better. Don’t go into accountancy if you really want to be a dancer: dance. And vice-versa. Only you know what will really make you happy.

What’s next for you (work- and life-wise)?
I’m doing a few readings and festivals to promote the paperback of my first novel, The Unpierced Heart, which is out today. And then it’s back to finishing up my second novel. Life-wise, I’m writing this on board a plane from San Francisco to New York, where I’m going to spend the last few days of a trip I’ve been taking across America with my fantastic (and fantastically organised) sister Bex. It’s been amazing so far—not least the fact that we got caught up in Hurricane Isaac when we were in New Orleans. I’ve blogged the whole thing at www.katydarby.blogspot.com. It’s been quite a ride, but I’m looking forward to getting home!

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