Catch Tilly is an Australian author whose latest book Otherwise Known As Pig is about bullying, the planet-sized blind spots of adults, and learning to accept help. I recently caught her article about bullying in The Guardian (see link below) and knew I had to interview her…

NLK: Have you got a famous quote about writing that you can share with us?

CT: I thought about this, there are some awesome quotes about writing out there including one by Liane Moriarty that just appeared on my screen saver one day (and I don’t know if that’s inspiring or creepy) but the one I want I share is Cathy’s cry to Nelly in Wuthering Heights:

“Nelly, I am Heathcliff! He is always, always in my mind: not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself but as my own being.”

Because that’s what writing is like for me: not always a pleasure but always, always there. I would not be who I am without writing.

NLK: Can you please tell us about your writing journey and how you got started?

CT: Though I have lived in imaginary worlds all my life I didn’t start writing until I was 13. My best friend and I were stuck in French class, and neither of us wanted to learn French. The obvious answer: start writing a book. I don’t have that story now, but the habit stuck and by 15, I had finished my first manuscript.

NLK: Did your MA in Creative Writing change the way you think about literature and writing? In what ways?

CT: Oh yes. Doing an MA changed my writing, both for good and for ill. I think if you don’t emerge changed from spending two years learning and writing with such intensity then what’s the point?

The pro’s:

  • I learnt to look. To always be thinking when I looked at a tree or a beach or a person of how I would write that. How it would look to one of my characters. This can become crazy when you write fantasy and must allow for a world where light comes from all directions and you’re looking through a dragon’s eyes, but it’s helped me enormously as a writer. 
  • I learnt to listen. To take feedback, to discern what I should and shouldn’t take on board. To stop defending my story and learn how it was and wasn’t working for the reader.
  • I learnt skills. Plot, character, story, POV: I had used these instinctively, which meant I had no idea what to do if they failed me. After studying the MA, I didn’t have to rely on what I felt was right but could analyse and improve my stories.
  • I had editors. The joy of having two supervisors who would discuss, correct and help you with your manuscript was wonderful. And both my supervisors were fantastic. I’ve been so lucky. Claire Bell who ‘got’ Pig’s voice so well that despite being a brilliant and pedantic copy editor she knew exactly when I needed to use the ‘wrong English’ to maintain that voice (as well as picking up all the multitude of mistakes I didn’t need to keep). Rosanne Hawke, who had a beautiful instinct on what to cut and what to keep so that the story flowed, and the violent action was balanced with the quieter moments.  And then Margot at Wakefield who gave me the final corrections I needed to create a book I am proud to see on the shelves.

The cons:

  • I learnt to criticise. I lost the ability to write freely without worrying about how good/correct my writing was or read without analysing. It’s taken some years to get that freedom back and I am not sure I will ever be quite as unfettered. So, though I am writing better I am also writing slower.
  • I learnt to rely on assignments. I loved my MA but working to staggered deadlines is a luxury most writers don’t have. It took far too long to get back into writing regularly and every MA student I spoke to had the same problem.   

NLK: Can you please tell us about the story behind Otherwise Known as Pig? Can you tell us more about the workshops you run? 

CT: The story behind Pig can be summed up with one phrase ‘does this really happen?’. Before I wrote the book my husband and I did a series of performance/workshops on bullying. We did our research and made sure every action we presented had happened, but we also chose the worst examples for dramatic effect. We did not expect to hear “this is just like the playground” and ‘this is so true”. When students also commented they found Morgan’s story empowering I knew I had to write it down. I had to give bullied teens a voice they could relate too. I had to present their reality.

So, when people ask me why there is so much violence in this story, why I have focussed on physical bullying rather than online or verbal bullying I tell them because this is the way it feels. The students who told me the violence we presented was ‘just like the playground’ didn’t have bruises and yet they responded as if they did. Because being bullied, whether in person or online, whether physically, verbally or socially is like being punched in the face. It’s a ‘sudden explosion of pain’ or the ‘chronic taste of nausea’ and I think the presentation of that truth is why I have had so many comments on the realism of Morgan’s story.

But about those workshops. When I started writing this response, Australia was recovering from bushfires, the National Day of Action against Bullying was two weeks away and I was preparing interactive workshops on bullying where kids would cover a face with paper mache (depersonalising is an important first step in bullying) or participate in group roleplaying on how easy it is to do nothing. Then Covid-19 struck and most of those were cancelled. Now we are all stuck at home and I am preparing a series of video’s for students, teachers and parents on Otherwise Known as Pig. I’m an ex-teacher and an ex-actor so making resources is actually inside my skill set (unlike social media). The first of them should be up this week. Look for them on my website or on the Wakefield site

NLK: Have you any advice you can share with emerging writers?

CT: Believe in yourself and believe in your story. And write what burns in you to write, don’t worry about what’s publishable, at least not until the second edit.  I wrote Otherwise Known as Pig for my master’s thesis because I didn’t believe it would get published and I needed a justification for the time I would spend on it. But it did get published and it’s garnered some great reviews and a GlamAdelaide Pick of the Year. I think if you truly commit to your story it will happen.

NLK: Does writing screenplays, scripts and being a performer help you to write narratives?

CT: Like with doing a Master’s, yes and no.

  • It helps with the story. There is nothing like doing plays for kids to teach you what does/and does not make a good narrative.
  • It really helps with editing. Once you have cut Hamlet from four hours to 90 minutes (in order to perform in schools) it is much easier to let go of your own favourite scenes.
  • It makes the dialogue more challenging. Playscripts, movies and novels all have different dialogue rhythms. Plays are longer, movies are shorter. But I adore dialogue (of all forms) and I think the practise with different rhythms helps me as a young adult (YA) writer. My granddaughter gave me one of the best compliments I’ve ever received when she told me ‘I want to put everything your characters say on a t-shirt’. I think if you can do that you have captured some good YA dialogue. 

NLK: Why do you write for young people? What do you think are the issues that face young people today?

CT: I write for young people because I love intensity, humour, satire, star-crossed romance and touching scenes where friends save each other, and YA is full of stuff like that. I don’t set out to write issues books, I just fall in love with characters, who have problems. 

So, I’m not sure I really know what are the biggest issues that kids face. I know the fact we are destroying the world is a big one. I know the way the liberty and equality that we grew up with is being killed by greed and fear and hate is a problem. And I can see how the way the postmodern world has turned truth into ‘what I feel today’ has taken certainty from everyone so we no longer have a place to stand.

But what I really know is that kids are still dealing with the problems of growing up. Friends and enemies, bullying and injustice, unrequited love and sexuality, and the question of ‘who the hell am I?’. They are the issues young adults will always face and that’s what I write about.

And dragons. Because when I do write fantasy, I must have dragons.

Catch Tilly’s Books:

Otherwise Known as Pig Wakefield Press 2019 available online and at most bookstores.

Shadowalker Stone Table Books 2017 – available online (but only get it from Booktopia as the rest have doubled the price for bizarre publishing reasons) 

About Catch Tilly

Catch Tilly is an author and scriptwriter. She was formerly a high school teacher with an expertise in schoolyard bullying

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Read Catch Tilly’s article about bullying in schools in The Guardian