Catriona Silvey has been writing fiction ever since she can remember. Here, she tells The Courier about the road to the publication of her first novel, Meet Me in Another Life.
Reading and writing have always been important to Catriona, who was born in Glasgow and grew up in Perthshire. “I’ve been writing fiction ever since I can remember;” she explains. “I started writing seriously for publication in 2008, so it took me about 11 years to get from there to selling a book. In the meantime, I worked in scientific publishing, did a Masters and PhD in language evolution, and worked as an academic researcher for a while. I now work four days a week for a software company and spend the other day writing.”
Catriona’s mum was a primary school teacher who taught her children to read very early and the author recalls that: “Even before I could read, I would memorise my favourite books – Angelina Ballerina is one that springs to mind – and pretend to ‘read’ them out loud as my parents turned the pages.
“For a long time, I was only interested in books about animals: I found people very boring! Then my mum picked up Charmed Life by Diana Wynne Jones from the library, thinking it was about a cat. When I found out it was actually about a boy whose nickname was Cat, I was sceptical! But within a few pages, I knew that fantasy and science fiction were what I wanted to read, and what I wanted (some day) to write.”
Her love of books and passion for writing led in turn to a fascination with language itself. “I always loved writing, but until my mid-twenties,” says Catriona. “I hadn’t really stepped back to think about the raw material for writing, which is language. When you think about it, it’s completely bizarre that we are able to move each other to tears or laughter, or invent entire worlds that don’t exist, just by making noises with our mouths (or movements with our hands, if we use sign language). It’s also fundamentally weird that humans are the only species with this ability.
“When I realised I wanted to study the origins of language, I applied to do a Masters and then a PhD at what is now the Centre for Language Evolution at the University of Edinburgh. I had an amazing time there with fantastic supervisors and colleagues. In the course of my studies, I also met my husband, who luckily shares my fascination with language and will happily argue theories with me for hours on end!”
With this grounding behind her, Catriona has been able to focus her writing on two themes that come up again and again in her work, as she explains; “I love the idea of time travel, both literally and in the sense that we’re always mentally time travelling: going over and over events that happened in the past, or dreaming about who we want to be in the future.
“I also love writing about characters who have a strong connection or spark – not necessarily romantic, but that balance of similarity and difference that draws two people together. Meet Me in Another Life is about both of those themes, and also their combination: how two people with complementary perspectives can learn from each other and change each other over time.”
With Robin Hobb and Douglas Adams counted amongst her formative influences, she also cites science fiction and fantasy authors Rivers Solomon, Amal El-Mohtar and Susanna Clarke as favourite authors. However, “My favourite books tend to be those that fall between genres, or stretch an existing genre in interesting ways,” she says. “I’m also influenced by the different kinds of storytelling that are possible through music, films and television.
“Like many writers, my work started out very derivative. As time has passed, it’s not so much that I’ve become more original, but that the range of influences is hopefully now wide enough to make the individual ones less obvious!”
Meet Me In Another Life is a story that explores the idea that we know other people in a partial, limited way: “If you’re a parent, you see your child as your child, even when they’re an adult; their friends know a very different person, and their work colleagues, a different person again. I started thinking about whether it would be possible for two people to know each other completely. It seemed to me that they would have to somehow be all those different things to each other. From there came the idea of two people living multiple lives, gradually figuring out this weird, complicated relationship at the same time as they unravel the mystery of what is really happening to them.
“I wrote the beginning of a novel featuring Thora and Santi when I was living in Edinburgh in 2014, but the story wasn’t right and it never went anywhere. The essentials of the characters were there, though: opposites in some ways and very similar in others, with a strange, fond, shifting relationship that made them the perfect protagonists for Meet Me in Another Life.
“I don’t have a lot of insight into where my characters come from or how they develop – it doesn’t really feel like I make them up, more like I discover them.”
With her first novel published, Catriona is now working on a “time-travel romantic comedy set in Cambridge. After that, who knows! At the last count, I had at least six other books at various stages from idea to finished manuscript, so I hope I get the chance to do something with them.”
Meet Me In Another Life by Catriona Silvey is published by Harper Collins, £14.99.