Wednesday 1 September 2010


DARK VALENTINE is a great name for a magazine that is in touch with shadows and also seeks out chinks of light.

For those of you who didn't get to see the first online issue, it's not too late.

Not only will you find writing of a high callibre if you visit, you'll see illustrations that are quite superb.

And today is Dark Valentine Eve, I kid you not. Tomorrow is due date for the birth of their second issue. If you fancy a walk on the wild side, go take a look.

Katherine Tomlinson is one of those responsible for putting DV together. She's not only the publisher of the magazine, but is a writer in her own right.

Here's how she tells it:

What’s the first book you remember reading?

The Poky Little Puppy by Janette Sebring Lowrey. I’m not really sure if I read it myself or if it was read to me—but I remember that I was delighted that the Poky Little Puppy got to eat rice pudding. I was very fond of rice pudding as a child. The book’s been in print constantly since it was published in 1942 (well before my time!) and is said to be the best-selling children’s book ever published in English.

Who was the best story-teller you ever met?

My father. My mother used to say that he “never let the truth get in the way of a good story” which makes him sound like an inveterate liar, but he was a raconteur in the finest tradition. I remember listening to him tell my little sister the story of “Little Red Riding Hood” and he made it a game, asking her what Little Red Riding Hood put in the basket to take to grandma. And they would remember the items from telling to telling so that some nights, just the recitation of what was in that basket would take an hour.

What is the worst book you ever read?

In terms of writing style, I really can’t say. Not because I’ve never read a bad book, I certainly have, but because no one sets out to write a bad book and it doesn’t seem fair to criticize just because I didn’t like it. And what do I know? I thought the first Harry Potter book was pretty ordinary and never read another one. Unlike every other person on the planet.
In terms of subject matter, though, the most harrowing book I’ve ever read is Iris Chang’s The Rape of Nanking. There were things I read in the book, details about the atrocities that are seared into my brain and now reside in its dark folds. Just as you can’t unring a bell, you can’t unread a book. Iris Chang committed suicide in 2004 and who knows how much of her depression was related to her researching that book?

Have you ever practiced writing your signature in case you’re asked to sign a book?

No, but only because I have really nice handwriting thanks to my third grade teacher. Oddly, my brother, who had the same third grade teacher, writes his name as if testing his pens to see if they still have ink in them. His signature is a scribble. I went through a stage where I put little circles over my Is for awhile, but then I noticed my name was symmetrical—Katherine and Tomlinson both have nine letters—so I concentrated on making the K and T really flashy but legible. If I thought I could get away with it, I’d add little flourishes on the bottom like John Hancock did when he signed the Declaration of Independence. Artists can get away with adding little doodles but writers just look like they’re trying too hard when they do something like that.

Did you write as a child?

Yes, and those stories are never, ever going to see the light of day. I admire the child prodigies—I thought it was great that Ally Sheehy wrote a children’s book (She Was Nice to Mice) when she was a child herself. And there are the writers who began their careers in their teens like Jane Gaskell and Francoise Sagan and S. E. Hinton, writing books that held up against their later novels. I didn’t start writing fiction seriously until three years ago although I have dozens of notebooks with story fragments and character sketches and half-baked ideas in them that date back to college.

Do you reread books?

Almost never. And yet, my house is filled with books I can’t quite let go. I know I’ll never read them again but I like having them around like old friends. And then there’s my “to be read” pile which would be more accurately described as my “to be read” bookcase. I joined Paperback Book Swap in an attempt to achieve stasis in my book ownership but somehow, I seem to always have a constant influx of new books no matter how many I give away or mail off to new readers.
I used to love Laurell K. Hamilton’s “Anita Blake” urban fantasies but somewhere in the middle of the series I stopped reading one of the books and now I feel like I have to go back to the beginning to catch up. The idea is so daunting that I’ll probably just start reading one of her later series that doesn’t have so many books in it.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever got about writing?

That you can’t describe snow as “alabaster.” I had shown a story to my mother—I was in my early teens probably—that compared snow to alabaster. My mother explained that I wasn’t using my words precisely and that “snow” was soft and “alabaster” was hard and the way I’d used them together just didn’t work. It was a very useful lesson. Now, I think there are ways you can do it, but the observation made me very aware of the difference between the right word and the almost right word. I was also lucky enough to meet Ray Bradbury once (and yes, it was one of those “I’m not worthy moments” even though he is a lovely, gracious man who could not have been warmer). His advice to me? Three words. Or rather, one word, three times. Write. Write. Write.

What is the silliest thing anyone has ever said to you about writing?

That writing in third person is somehow superior to writing stories in first person. (I guess Herman Melville didn’t get the memo but then, “They called him Ishmael” doesn’t really work, does it?) I’ve had writers earnestly try to convince me that first person stories are “arrogant” and confuse people who might think that a story is actually real because you, the writer, are telling it. I’ve also seen writers’ guidelines that proclaim “first person stories” won’t be accepted. How bizarre is that?

What’s the best compliment you ever got about a piece of writing?

“You made me laugh.” I’d written a memoir piece about a holiday-challenged ex-boyfriend for the St. Martin’s Press anthology, What Was I Thinking? I had told a version of the story to various sympathetic friends and it usually got at least a rueful, “I feel your pain my sister” smirk, but I wasn’t sure how it would play in print on the page. Turns out, other people thought it was funny too and when I read the piece to an audience as part of the book launch, it was really gratifying to hear the chuckles.
I think it’s a lot easier to make people cry. I used to be a journalist and there are some stories you just can’t mess up. If you can get it on the page (or the site, now) and get your facts straight and tell it simply, the power of some stories will do the work for you. You can always tell that kind of a story is coming. As a news consumer, I make it a point to avoid articles that have the word “baby” in the headline because there is never a good reason for a baby to be in the news.

What’s the last really good book you read?

Kevin Brooks’ iBoy. I thought it was brilliant. He does things with POV in that book that were subtle and stunning. It’s a novel that is very much set in the real world and yet it’s a superhero origin story. If I had the money, I’d option it for a movie. I’ve pressed the novel on everyone I know. Read iBoy. You’ll thank me later.



  1. That is very cool that your father is the greatest story-teller. "Never let the truth get in the way of a good story." I won't soon forget that.

    Dark Valentine is essential reading and my fingers are crossed for your continuing success.

  2. I'm also afflicted with your "just can't let 'em go" syndrome regarding old books. I call the folks who make the silly statements you cited "over-workshopped." Good luck with the latest Dark Valentine. I'll be reading.

  3. As David says, Dark Valentine is essential reading. Smashing interview.

  4. This is a great interview, Katherine. I love first-person stories. And props for mentioning Jane Gaskell!

    Don't worry, I know several other people (asides from myself) who thought that Harry Potter was pretty ordinary. So you are totally not alone.