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Written by JJ Barnes
I interviewed author Catherine Hokin about her latest book, The Secretary, her motivation and experiences with writing it, and the advice she has to inspire others.
Tell me a bit about who you are.
I am from the North of England, which has given me a lifelong love of custard and gravy, and I now live very happily in Glasgow with my American husband. I have two children, both of whom have left home, one to London and one to Berlin. Prior to becoming a full-time author, my career was quite a meandering one involving marketing, teaching and politics, all of which were fun and challenging in different degrees! I am a story lover as well as a story writer and nothing fascinates me more than a strong female protagonist and a quest.
If I’m not at my desk (which is rare) you’ll most probably find me in the cinema, or just follow the sound of very loud music. And, as soon as the world opens up again, I’ll be travelling…
When did you first WANT to write a book?
Although I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t reading, I came to writing in my twenties. When I was a child, I wanted to be a fashion designer, or a character in a book – I was the type who would open wardrobes and really believe I could step into Narnia.
When did you take a step to start writing?
I had my first proper go when my daughter was born. I wrote around her sleeping so I imagine it was all very disjointed. I wrote a novel about Anne Boleyn which has been done far better by many other people and then a children’s novel, a ghost story, which almost got somewhere. I was barely learning my craft at that stage and didn’t have a voice of my own, but I loved it.
How long did it take you to complete your first book from the first idea to release?
My first novel was a medieval one published by a very small independent in 2016. It took about three years to complete because I was writing it in snatched bursts and I found that very frustrating. My first novel for Bookouture (The Fortunate Ones) started life as a short story (I was writing those while the rejections piled up) and that took about eighteen months from its first iteration to its publication as a book in January 2020.
How long did it take you to complete your latest book from the first idea to release?
That’s not as easy a question as it should be because I am never writing one book in isolation. I got the idea for The Secretary while I was writing the previous one, The Lost Mother – that is my usual process and I have notebooks everywhere for tracking ideas. All my books involve intensive research at the start, which usually includes visits to Berlin, and then ongoing work as the story progresses. I am also a detailed planner. So, if I add in Bookouture’s six-month cycle from first draft submission through edits to publication, I would say each book takes a year. Having said that, I’m already jotting down thoughts for what comes after my current four book contract finishes…
Focusing on your latest release. What made you want to write The Secretary?
In some ways The Secretary is a deepening of the story about the end of East Germany which I told in What Only We Know – that is where the idea came out of. My first ever trip abroad, in 1978 at sixteen, was to Germany and I was fascinated by the Wall. I have also had a long-held interest in the Stasi, the East German secret police, and I wanted to explore what it was like for someone to live under both the Third Reich and then the highly controlling East German regime. This is also a novel about resistance, a subject I hadn’t tackled before, and the heavy price that comes with fighting back, in whatever form that takes.
What were your biggest challenges with writing The Secretary?
There is a similar challenge with all my books and that is how to deal with the worst excesses of the Nazi period. All my books deal with persecution and the Holocaust. I do not want, however, to dwell on the terrible suffering which took place in the camps, so I took a decision early on to ‘get in late and leave early.’ This pressure was added to in The Secretary because I also had scenes in Hohenschönhausen prison and Magda, one of the main protagonists, was caught up in Berlin when the Russian soldiers arrived. Again, I decided not to include any of the violence against women during that period. I write dark books, I am aware of that, but I want to write them with respect.
Who or what inspired you when creating your Protagonist?
Magda, the older of the two protagonists, is not a real person but the events she was involved with were. The Holocaust was actually costed, train by train, passenger by passenger, by secretaries and clerks working for Heinrich Himmler. I wanted to put an ordinary girl in a situation where she was resisting the regime while appearing to be complicit with it and then test the tensions in that. That was where much of the resistance to the Nazis came from – ordinary people doing quiet things and I find that fascinating.
Who or what inspired you when creating your Antagonist?
Elsa is an extension of what Inge in my first book The Fortunate Ones could have been if she was completely committed to the Nazi Party she had married into. Elsa is a fanatic and that is what makes her dangerous. I like exploring what ‘monster’ means and it is very interesting to do that through female characters.
What is the inciting incident of The Secretary?
I would rather not give that away!
What is the main conflict of The Secretary?
Appearance and reality. Nothing in the book is what it seems, including the Tower House it revolves around. Everyone has secrets and is trying to walk a very difficult line between what they should do and keeping themselves, or more accurately their loved ones, out of the very real danger anyone resisting the Nazis, and, in different but also life-changing ways, the Stasi faced.
Did you plot The Secretary in advance, or fly by the seat of your pants and write freely?
I am a detailed planner. I write back stories for the key characters, most of which is just for me, and a treatment of the whole book which can run to thirty pages. I do, however, leave room for the story to change – plans are flexible things and around a third of the way into a book my characters start to behave in ways I hadn’t anticipated and they must have room to do that. I always know the final image before I start (I am very visual and can’t begin until I have that) and then it’s a case of getting there.
Did you get support with editing, and how much editing did The Secretary need?
Editing is such a key part of the process. I write forwards and backwards – I edit each chapter as I go and go back to seed/alter earlier chapters while I’m writing later ones as I need to. I can’t do a draft in one go. I probably do three or four complete run throughs, then the manuscript goes to beta readers, then to my agent and only after all that do I submit to my editor. The manuscript then goes through structural and copy edits before it is proof read. It is a very collaborative process and the finished book always benefits massively from that.
What is the first piece of writing advice you would give to anyone inspired to write a story?
I am always hesitant about giving too much advice as the experience is different for everyone and I don’t believe there are a magical set of writing rules – it is essential to find your own way of working. Perhaps the first thing I would say is that it is important to be constantly learning your craft. When I was writing short stories, I always submitted to publications who would offer feedback. I know that isn’t always financially possible for people but I learned so much that way and it prepared me for the ‘letting go’ which editing needs. A trusted critique partner will do the job just as well.
Can you give me a hint about any further books you’re planning to write?
I can! I have been contracted by Bookouture to write a series of four WW2 inspired Berlin set novels featuring the same two characters, a photographer and a detective. They will be stand-alones but the character arcs will run across all four books. The first one will be out in January 2022 and it is very exciting to be embarking on this kind of longer-term project.
And, finally, are your proud of your accomplishment? Was it worth the effort?
I cannot put how proud I am into words. In the last two years I have gone from someone who dreamed of writing to being an author with four best-selling books out in the world. To date two of them will be coming out as mass-market paperbacks in the USA and rights have been sold to Italy, Czechia and the Nordics. It is wildest dreams stuff and yes, it is very hard work and there have been moments of real self-doubt, but I wouldn’t change anything. And I celebrate everything – I know how fortunate I am.
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