Interview: CAPA London Professor Katharine Norbury

Mar 16, 2015 9:30:00 AM / by Stephanie Sadler

Katharine Norbury has been teaching creative writing classes to CAPA London students for three years now. Below, she talks about what students can expect from her class, tells us about her new book, The Fish Ladder, recently published by Bloomsbury and a few of the places in London that inspire her in one way or another.
Photo: Kate with daughter Evie

CAPA WORLD: Tell us a bit about yourself.

KATHARINE NORBURY: I was born in Liverpool in the north of England and raised in a Cheshire village about 20 miles from the city. I have been teaching at CAPA International Education for three years. I teach "Writing the City", a creative writing class that explores the relationship between self expression and place.

CW:What can students who take Writing the City expect from the class?

KN: There is an emphasis on peer review through workshop, so the more you put into the class the more you will take from it. The atmosphere is both hard working and relaxed. We look at different kinds of urban narrative, and use the students' own heuristic experience during the study abroad period as the basis for the work. We also explore the city on foot, through a number of field trips, in order to better understand the relationship between story, character and place. In relation to writers like Dickens and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle this ability to match place and character can be very exciting and we also look at the way in which urban myths have evolved.
Photo: Kate with her daughter Evie

CW: Who are your favourite London-based writers? Can you recommend your favorite novel based in London?

KN: There are so many. In terms of the past: Virginia Woolf has had a great influence on my own work. And then there's Ben Johnson, Shakespeare! In recent years there have been an army of writers who have made the city their own: Lionel Shriver, Nicola Barker, Zadie Smith, Hisham Matar, Kazuo Ishiguro. My favorite novel based in London is Rupert Thomson's iconic post punk novel, Dreams of Leaving.

CW: In your class, you ask your students to pay attention to the five senses - sight, smell, sounds, touch, taste. Describe one of your favorite London memories that stimulated a sense other than just sight.

KN: Early in the morning in Battersea you get the acrid smoky reminder that Cafe Nero roast and grind their coffee beans underneath the railway arches for distribution in their London cafes. If you walk through the cobbled streets nearby you also get the rattle of trains thundering overhead. Industrial and reassuring. Even with your eyes shut you can tell its business as usual.

CW: You recently had a book - The Fish Ladder - published by Bloomsbury. Congratulations! Tell us more.
KN: The Fish Ladder combines travelogue, memoir and nature writing. One summer I came up with the idea of following a river from the sea to its source with my 9-year-old daughter, Evie.

A number of obstacles got in the way of this endeavour, not least that I was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of breast cancer. Obtaining a family medical history became significant, as it was vital to know if the cancer was hereditary. But I had been abandoned in a Liverpool convent as a baby, and later adopted, so this history proved challenging to obtain.

Although I eventually traced my birth mother, there was no "fairytale reunion", and many of the unanswered questions of the adoptee  -- questions so very fundamental to human existence and to our ideas about identity -- such as "What is my nationality?", "What is my father's name?" and "Where do I come from?" remain unanswered to this day. The book is, therefore, in addition to being the story of a physical journey, that of sea to source -- is also a psychological and a spiritual journey -- a journey to the source of life itself. 

As to the central metaphor of the book, that of the fish ladder itself? A fish ladder is a man-made device to enable the natural migration of fish around a usually man-made obstacle, such as a dam, in order that they might reach the open waters on the other side and in doing so fulfil their destiny. Human solutions to human-made problems...

CW: Having published a book of your own, what lessons did you learn along the way that you could pass on to students who are interested in one day doing the same?

KN: Samuel Beckett said "writing is rewriting". The greatest lesson is "strive for perfection", because the world is full of mediocre writers with nothing new to say. Ask yourself why you are doing what you are doing. Be aware of your reader, always, and be able and prepared to accept criticism, because if you are going to go anywhere at all with it, you'll hear a lot of criticism - not least from your competitors who may well seek to undermine you! Try not to be defensive, try rather to learn from this, and also learn when to disregard the critics and to stick by your ideas. Be humble; and be strong. You'll need the hide of a rhinoceros to survive as a writer. On a practical note read publishers' and agents' guidelines and if you are submitting work use the type face, font size and format that you know they want to read it in!

Photo: Kate with her family

CW: Which area of London most inspires you to write and why?

KN: I wouldn't say anywhere inspires me to write, as such, as the writing comes from within. However, the physical space in which the work is done can have an astonishing effect on one's ability to write. I find the river enables me to sink into the right mindset. Always changing, always the same. It doesn't inspire as such, the ideas can come from anywhere, but it enables me to sink down faster to that "still quiet place", below language and conscious thought, that is where the writing comes from. The South Bank between Battersea Railway Bridge and Chelsea Bridge, through Battersea Park, is probably the stretch I walk the most.

CW: What is your best advice for students currently on a study abroad program or considering one?

KN: Avail yourself of the opportunities of being in a new place. Think twice before hopping on a plane to somewhere else each weekend, and sink into the city you have chosen. Explore London, walk in the footsteps of those who have gone before you (e.g. by following Charles Dickens' Night Walks). Embrace unexpected opportunities, you can always leave if you don't enjoy something, but you might just learn something by "being there". Be aware of the astonishing exhibitions of fine art and the ground breaking developments in contemporary theatre and music that are all brought together within one city. Be curious!
CW: Top three favourite book shops in London?
KN: Waterstones on King's Road, Daunt Books on Marylebone Road, and John Sandoe on Blacklands Terrace, just off the King's Road in Chelsea. 

Photo: Daunt Books by Stephanie Sadler
CW: Best hidden gem you've discovered in London so far?
KN: The courtyard in the middle of the Victoria and Albert Museum. It's a sun trap (useful in winter), almost always out of the wind, a great place for people watching, and having a cup of tea...
Thanks Katharine!

The Fish Ladder
by Katharine Norbury is published by Bloomsbury.

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Topics: London, England, Interviews, Academics Abroad