Catherine Barter's We Played with Fire has won the Young Quill's Award for historical fiction for her novel, We Played with Fire, which is based on a true story.
Catherine grew up in Stratford-on-Avon - Shakespeare's birthplace - in the West Midlands. She studied American literature at UEA and lived in Norwich for ten years, before moving to London. These days she co-manages an independent bookshop in King's Cross, Housmans, which specialises in radical politics - things like feminism, socialism, anti-fascism, anarchism and LGBTQIA politics. She also helps to organise the Little Rebels Award for Radical Children's Fiction, with Letterbox Library.
She lives in North London with her partner and a lot of books, guitars and half-dead plants, and loves horror movies, music and reading. Her first YA novel, Troublemakers (Andersen Press), was shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize and was longlisted for the Branford Boase Award.
We Played with Fire (Andersen Press)
We Played with Fire, an atmospheric YA novel by Catherine Barter, is inspired by the true story of the Fox Sisters in the mid 1900's. Weaving the nascent Spiritualist movement with themes of radicalism and stirrings of feminism, Catherine Barter explores what might have driven the Fox Sisters' interest in the supernatural. The novel has won the YA category of the Young Quills Award for historical fiction, and we asked her to tell us more about it.
Catherine introduces We Played with Fire in this video - but seems to have attracted some strange energies.... (Warning: the video includes static effects that can affect some viewers)
Q&A with Catherine Barter
1. When did you start to write for teen and young adult readers? And what kinds of work do you do when you're not writing?
I started writing YA in about 2014, when I had just finished a PhD and wanted to write the complete opposite of an academic thesis! Writing from a teenage perspective clicked for me immediately, I loved it. When I'm not writing I work as a co-manager and bookseller at Housmans Bookshop, a radical independent bookshop in London. I'm very lucky to have two jobs I love.
2. Your previous YA novel, Troublemakers (Andersen Press), is very contemporary. Why did you decide to step back in time and write historical fiction with We Played With Fire?
At first I wasn't quite sure where I wanted to go after Troublemakers. I started another contemporary but it wasn't really working and I was struggling for inspiration. Experimenting with something completely different seemed like a good way to break the writers' block, and as soon as I started writing about the Fox sisters I couldn't stop.
But despite the historical setting, I still feel like there are similarities between these two books; they're both about families, siblings in particular, they're set against political backdrops, the central characters are the same age and they're both girls trying to find their voices and their place in the world.
3. The book is based around the real story of the Fox sisters, when did you find out about them and why did you want to revisit their story?
I'd come across them a few times over the years, but they were usually being dismissed as frauds. As a lover of ghost stories I couldn't help wondering if there could have been more to their story, and the idea of exploring that was irresistible.
So I was drawn to the spooky possibilities, but also the historical period. The Fox sisters lived in a time of rapid social change and turmoil, and they played a small role in that upheaval by kick-starting the Spiritualist movement - while they were still teenagers. I knew there needed to be a YA novel about them.
4. Where did you go to research them and also the setting, in the US?
I read a lot of books and articles about the Fox sisters and the Spiritualist movement in general, including Leah Fox's own memoir of their careers, which is highly unreliable but still fascinating. And I had a bit of a background in American history - I did a master's degree in American Studies and a PhD in American literature, and I'd lived in Upstate New York for a year as well. So that gave me a good foundation for learning more about the culture and politics of the period.
5. If you could step back in time to visit the setting in this story, where would you want to go?
I would love to visit the city of Rochester in the middle of the nineteenth century - it was a thriving centre of intellectual history and radical politics. The antislavery campaigner Frederick Douglass founded his newspaper there in 1847, and a lot of abolitionist organising took place there. Rochester hosted a major women's rights convention in 1848, and the city was home to iconic feminist figures like Susan B. Anthony.
6. The burgeoning Spiritualist movement has a large role to play in this story; during your research of it, did you find out anything that surprised you?
The most surprising discovery in my research was the connection between Spiritualism and radical politics. A lot of Spiritualists were also involved with - or at least sympathetic to - women's rights, abolition, and other progressive social movements. I found this really interesting: what was the connection between spirit-talking and activism?
I think it's partly because Spiritualism rejected traditional authority - it was a non-hierarchical, DIY religious movement dominated by women that could be practised at the kitchen table and offered everybody equal access to the divine. I loved learning about that aspect of it.
7. You give the Fox sisters' story a strong feminist angle. Do you feel the spiritualist movement was driven by women?
I think the Spiritualist movement definitely had a feminist heart. The majority of mediums were women and a lot of Spiritualist gatherings took place in the home, the space traditionally associated with women. There was no need for churches, ministers or male voices of authority - in fact the movement had no real hierarchy or central organisation at all. So on the surface it did give women a kind of voice they might not otherwise have had - but you can also argue that their voices were primarily being 'heard' only as conductors of messages from the spirit world, so that's quite an ambiguous kind of power - which I find very interesting in itself.
8. In We Played With Fire, you are sympathetic to the idea that the Fox sisters might indeed have been having strange, supernatural experiences. Why did you decide to make this a possibility?
I've always been a fan of ghost stories so I couldn't help including a little bit of the supernatural. This is a novel, after all, and their story is much more fun when you reintroduce the ghosts. But it also seems very plausible to me that the Fox sisters did experience strange phenomena, and did believe that they were having ghostly encounters - at least some of the time. If their entire careers were based on deception, they were remarkably successful at it.
9. Have you ever had any strange, possibly supernatural experiences with people or places yourself?
I'm very susceptible to the notion that places are haunted, and I often scare myself in to thinking I've experienced something supernatural, but I don't have any really good ghost stories myself. There are a couple of people close to me, though, who have had very specific and very spooky experiences - including one with a Ouija board! - which I find very unsettling and which are really hard to explain, so...
10. What would you like your readers to take from We Played With Fire?
I like to think that what we take away from a book depends on what we brought to it with us when we started, so I would hope that different readers would have different responses. I try not to write with too much of a message in mind, but I'd definitely like to think that some people will be introduced to a really fascinating period of history and will want to learn more and make up their own minds about the Fox sisters.
11. Do you plan to write more historical fiction? What are you writing currently?
I'm not sure if I'll write historical fiction again - I'd like to but I think I'm drawn first of all to characters rather than time periods, so the right story would have to present itself. I have a few tentative things on the go including another YA contemporary. I write very slowly though!
12. Are there other YA writers you'd like to recommend?
I've recently loved YA novels by Sue Cheung, Dean Atta, Alex Wheatle and Kiran Milwood Hargrave, and some of my longer-standing favourites are Louise O'Neill, Marcus Sedgwick, Patrice Lawrence, Sally Nicholls, Keren David and Patrick Ness.
13. What are your favourite escapes from your desk?
I actually love my job as a bookseller! And as that's very active and social (well, usually - not in a lockdown) it makes a nice break from the solitary activity of writing. I like playing tennis, too, although I'm not very good at it. And I love visiting and exploring old cemeteries - not sure what that says about me...