AUTHOR INTERVIEW: Katherine Blessan

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How long have you been writing and how did you get started?
I’ve been writing on and off since I was a child (mostly angsty poetry and bad plays!). I wanted to be a writer when I was young, but I don’t think I was taught the skills of writing well, being at school during a time when it was politically correct to allow children to write free-flow imaginative stories with very little structural guidance. As a young adult, I studied literature at university and always loved stories, but I didn’t really have any good ideas of my own. This all changed at the beginning of 2006, when the whole plot idea for Lydia’s Song came to me in one go whilst lying on a hammock in Ratanakiri province in Cambodia. It gripped me and refused to let me go, despite the novel being 8 years in the making. In between I was working as an English teacher, two years of which I spent in Cambodia, marrying cross-culturally and having two children!

In your debut novel, Lydia’s Song, you write about the difficult topic of child-sex trafficking. Why did you want to write about this subject, and what were the challenges?
I’ve had a heart for issues of social justice since I was a university student. Actually, the story premise came to me before anything else -ie. what would happen if a British expat living out in Cambodia got involved in the life of a child who was sold into sex-slavery? I didn’t really ‘want’ to write about the subject. The power of the story idea compelled me forward, and the more I researched and spent time in Cambodia, the more I understood how important it was to present the reality of the situation that girls and young women face when being trafficked. The challenges were how to bring light into a dark situation and how to present the brutal reality without making the writing gratuitous. One thing I didn’t want to do was shoehorn my story into a typical ‘salvation’ story, but essentially that narrative aspect shaped itself.

What sort of research did you do to write this book?
I interviewed a couple of people working in anti-trafficking NGOs in Cambodia and read a few books on the subject including the powerful book by the founder of IJM, Gary Haughen, Terrify No More. Some of my research involved just living and experiencing life in Cambodia, where I worked as a teacher for two and a half years between 2006 and 2009, the experience of which brought flesh to the bones of my story.

What was your hardest scene to write?
For me the hardest scene to write was the one where Radha tells some of his backstory. It was difficult as it involved a careful threading together of my research into the history of the period with what was happening in my own story. The scene when Song is first raped in a hotel room was also hard in an emotional sense, but the narrative force of the story was so strong at that point that I found my writing flowed out of me easily.

What is the main thing you want readers to take away from Lydia’s Song?
That there is redemptive hope in even the darkest of situations. That there but for the grace of God any of us could go; we could be the antagonist in someone else’s story or experience the oppression of someone else’s antagonism, but in the midst of that God is at work weaving His own story web.

How did your faith influence your writing?
Massively. I would have found it impossible and even naïve to write about child-sex trafficking without my faith perspective. For me, nothing but the Christian worldview makes complete sense of the problem of suffering.

Did publishing your first book change your writing process?
Indeed. I felt validated as a writer in the sense that someone thought that my story was good enough to publish. This encouraged me that it was worth putting more emphasis on the pursuit of writing and led me to quit my school teaching job to focus more on tutoring and writing. Prior to that I had written ad hoc, ie occasionally during the school holidays or when my babies were asleep at night, but I didn’t have much of a system. Since being published, I’ve written more frequently, eg. at least once a week, and even more often since September last year and try to get away on my own writing retreats at least once a year.

What are you working on now?
I am researching and writing a 3-part TV serial set at the time of Emperor Nero, which I’m working on for my MFA in Creative Writing. I’m also half way through my second novel, and have just finished my first ghost-writing assignment! As well as writing, I’m 6 lessons of the way through teaching a 10 week course in Creative Writing to refugees and asylum seekers, and am planning a Christian writing retreat for in May 2019.

What has been one of your most rewarding experiences as an author?
Talking to a group of teenagers at the University of Hull about Indie publishing as a guest writer, and being told by one of my husband’s young relatives that reading Lydia’s Song encouraged her to be more ‘real’ about her own struggles.

What one piece of advice would you want to give to new writers?
Think outside of the box. Don’t expect your experience of writing and publishing to replicate anyone else’s. Don’t be afraid of failure as it’s all part of the territory and helps you to grow in both gifting and character. Sorry, that’s two pieces of advice!

Katherine’s creative writing retreat, Writing Outside the Box, from Monday 27th – Friday 31st May, near Huddersfield: https://christcentralchurches.org//events/55/writing-outside-the-box/

Check out this video to learn more about last year’s retreat:

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  • Katherine Blessan

    Katherine lives in Sheffield and is married to Blessan, from Kerala, India, and they have two young children. As well as writing stories that touch on social issues and explore the space where cultures cross, Katherine is an English and Creative Writing tutor.

  • Lydia's Song

    Katherine Blessan

    Lydia's quiet expat life in Cambodia is dramatically turned upside down by the sudden arrival of Song, a young & vulnerable Vietnamese girl, and the flattering romantic attentions of a handsome, dashing local man.