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.
Q: Congratulations on the release of your latest book, SWEET KAROLINE. What was your inspiration for it?
A: Thank-you! 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. In addition, one of my children and his wife live 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.
Q: Tell us something interesting about your protagonist.
A: In the first sentence of the book, my protagonist tells use that she killed her best friend. But did she physically murder her? Or is she just feeling guilty about Karoline’s suicide? Anne is a very beautiful woman. She’s part native, white and black. She’s so gorgeous that the attention is actually a problem for her. She builds protective walls around herself. Her world shrinks to two best friends whom she trusts implicitly. She’s very complicated. Sometimes she calls herself the “Ice Queen” because she has a mean side to her; sometimes she’s sweet and loving. I don’t think Anne’s much different from most of us, but she endures some traumatic events that threaten to send her far off course.
Q: How was your creative process like during the writing of this book and how long did it take you to complete it? Did you face any bumps along the way?
A: The hardest part of writing Sweet Karolinewas choosing a path for Anne, my main character. She kept resisting the storylines I gave her! Not surprising, since she’s a complicated, feisty, intelligent woman who is undergoing an enormous trauma. She has an emotional breakdown after the death of her best friend. Anne falls in love for the first time. She discovers a trail of manipulation and betrayal that would send anyone into shock. Naturally she was a little taciturn and resistant to her writer. As a result Sweet Karoline went through several permutations.
The creative process for this one taught me a lot about patience. The novel developed very slowly in comparison to my other four, taking almost three years to complete. It was like the taciturn child after giving birth to several placid babies. I learned to let go. Follow my subconscious muse that was directing me away from the ordinary. When I finally gave in to that mode, it was exhilarating. I believe it has changed my writing forever.
Q: How do you keep your narrative exciting throughout the creation of a novel?
A: Part of what I do is to give out sections of the novel to my daughter as it evolves. She’s a producer/casting director and has a terrific visual sensibility. If the narrative is not exciting, she’ll let me know, but she will also give me some suggestions on how to keep it going. As well, I read parts of it aloud, either to myself or to my critique groups. Reading aloud gives an entirely different dimension to the writing. You can hear the mistakes, as well as the cadence of words that are beautifully arranged.
Q: Do you experience anxiety before sitting down to write? If yes, how do you handle it?
A: 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.
Q: What is your writing schedule like and how do you balance it with your other work and family time?
A: 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. 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. In some ways, I’m fortunate because I didn’t start writing until I retired from my career as an educator. My time is very much my own, so I can build in family and other work without too much trouble. I wasn’t able to write much when I was younger and juggled children and a job. But waiting ‘til now means I’m a little older than many authors.
Q: How do you define success?
A: I equate success with joy. To me, joy is a state of satisfaction, peace and love. In my writing career, success is having a reader like my books. Just one reader who really understands my vision can make my day a success.
Q: What advice would you give to aspiring writers whose spouses or partners don’t support their dreams of becoming an author?
A: Oh my. I could cruelly say that you have the wrong partner. However, if someone is determined enough to keep the relationship as well as pursue the art, s/he must find a way to make compromises in order to fulfill both partners’ needs. Get up very early in the morning, when everyone else is asleep, to write. No one’s time is being intruded upon. Or keep a diary in the bathroom.
Q: George Orwell once wrote: “Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.” Do you agree?
A: I don’t, actually. I’m a pretty selfish person and probably wouldn’t keep doing something that was horrible or like a painful illness. I LOVE writing. I can’t wait to sit down at my laptop and create. I miss it terribly if I’m unable to write for a while, so I’ll even cook scenes in my head. Now that I’m retired, I experience joy pretty much every day because I can imagine I’m standing on a mountain or cuddling a baby all while sitting at my desk.
Q: Anything else you’d like to tell my readers?
A: 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Catherine Astolfo’s Bibliography
The Emily Taylor Mystery Series:
The Bridgeman. Imajin Books, October, 2011
Victim. Imajin Books, November, 2011
Legacy. Imajin Books, April, 2012
Seventh Fire. Imajin Books, July 2012
Winner, Arthur Ellis Best Crime Short Story Award, 2012
Winner, Derrick Murdoch Award, 2012
Winner, Bony Pete Short Story Award, First Prize, 2010
Winner, Bony Pete Short Story Award, Second Prize, 2009
Winner, Brampton Arts Acclaim Award, 2005
Winner, Dufferin-Peel Catholic Elementary Principal of the Year, 2002, the Catholic Principals Council of Ontario.
Winner, Elementary Dufferin-Peel OECTA Award for Outstanding Service, 1998