Author Spotlight with Graham Marks
Kate O’Hearn is a larger-than-life author who was born in Toronto, Canada, but has since travelled the world – as well as working in the fashion and film industries - before making her home in England. Here she talks to Graham Marks about childhood adventures, both good and bad, and how she eventually became a writer of acclaimed fantasy novels. Prepare yourself…
Your early life sounds fascinating…it reads like the script for the most fantastic road trip movie.
There are so many stories!
What was the reason for all the many, many moves you made?
My father’s business took him around a lot, but another thing is that my parents were, and my dad still is, very unconventional…they weren’t quite hippies or flower children, but they believed that education came from experience as well from a classroom. So at one point in time they decided to take us out of school for two years and we just travelled round the country; me and my three brothers were home-schooled in a mini-bus.
I assume that, as this was the way you lived, it must have seemed normal to you – or did you ever yearn to stay put in one place?
Oh no, just the opposite - I didn’t want it to stop!
When did it stop?
When I was fifteen or sixteen, I think, as I finished most of my education in New York.
You started to write, you say, during your time touring England and Europe - when was that?
The first time, I was in my early twenties. But this is a dark tale that I’ve finally come out of my shell and been telling…I’ve been writing, not with intent to ever get published – I always wanted to either be in the film industry or fashion – but I was writing since I was about ten. One of the problems with being a bohemian traveller – not like a gypsy, and no disrespect to gypsies – just that, coming from a family where you’re always a stranger wherever you are, we tended to get picked on a lot.
I was rather viciously bullied at some of the schools. And as I had three brothers, and as we were tough as nails, I used to get into a lot of fist fights, I mean a lot of them; after one particularly bad one I remember going home to Mom and Dad – this was in New York – and saying I’m not going back to school, and them saying it wasn’t like we were travelling and I had to go. So I remember that night, I was ten or eleven years old, instead of doing my Geography homework, I picked up a pen and paper and started to write a short story.
In this short story I invited my bully out to lunch, a picnic lunch at the top of the Empire State Building, on the [then unfenced ]observation deck…we laid out the picnic and I peered over the side and looked down at 5th Avenue, invited the bully come and look, and yes, I threw her off the building. On subsequent nights, whenever this girl would bother me, I’d write another story where I killed her gruesomely…instead of internalising my rage, I wrote about it, and I wrote about it in great detail.
Did you know then that you were going to become a writer, or were you just doing it to get things off your chest?
It was therapy. I had no idea whatsoever that I would be a writer.
So what did you want to be in fashion, and in the film industry?
But my mother was a designer in New York City, so I was raised around the fashion industry and I got jobs working for Calvin Klein, Oleg Cassini and a couple of other designers; I always thought it would a thrilling thing to do, and it wasn’t. It was anything but thrilling, and I really couldn’t stand it. So I left and moved on, and I really desperately wanted to get into the film industry, I wanted to be a producer…I’m not really a very shy person – one thing about being bullied at school is you either become introverted or the loudest, meanest extrovert, and I took the latter route.
With enough determination you can get what you want, and I worked on a couple of movies as an extra – you’ve probably seen some of them, do you remember there was a TV series called Perry Mason?
I grew up on Perry Mason!
Well they did made-for-TV Perry Mason movies, and I worked on a couple of those, as an extra, but I managed to get in with the producers, which is where the really interesting things were going on, and it’s what I thought I wanted to do. In the end I didn’t, and it was the second industry I walked away from.
[Anyone who hasn’t a clue what we’re talking about, visit: wikipedia.org/wiki/Perry_Mason]
Have you ever written any contemporary fiction, or do you think you ever will? The story from your childhood about an abandoned funfair in Galveston, Texas, is a cracker…
That was a child’s dream come true – I still have the photographs. The carnival was shut down, and none of the rides worked, because there’d been a hurricane; my dad, being the coolest dad in the world, put us all on a ride – called, I think, either The Spider or The Octopus - which had buckets on arms that went up and down, and he pushed the ride round.
Then us four kids decided to do a tour around the Haunted House in this abandoned amusement park. Nothing was locked in the place, which was so freaky, it was just like somebody had erased everyone; so we got in, with one flashlight between four kids, trying to feel our way round, when, half way through there was this horrible screaming and pounding, and it was awful! Somehow, even though my little brother and I had been pushed in first, we were the last out, and we had to find our way out on our own; when we did, our Mother and Father were on the ground in fits of laughter, cos they’d seen us all go in and had been pounding on the sides of the place.
So have you ever written any contemporary fiction?
No, I actually haven’t…you know I have tried to write quote/unquote normal, without throwing a ghost or a monster or something in, and just it seems so dry to me and if I don't get pleasure out of writing it, I can’t imagine anyone else getting pleasure out of reading it.
With such a rich, story-filled background, why did you choose the worlds of myth and fantasy to write about?
Because they stimulate me…if I’m not careful I could come across sounding like an absolute loony-tune, but I’m mostly not crazy. Though, if you asked me, hand on my heart I’d have to say I believe there are mermaids out there - just because we haven’t caught them and dissected them, doesn’t mean they’re not out there.
So what drew you to Olympus?
The truth of the matter is, I have always loved Pegasus. I just think he’s the ultimate, he can run really fast and he can fly if you want to get anywhere.
So was Mobil your favourite petrol station brand as a kid?
Yes! I suppose that was probably where I first became aware of him, on the red Mobil logo, the amount of times we must’ve pulled into a Mobil gas station when we were on the road.
After dragons, and then visiting ancient, mystical Greece in the Pegasus books, was Valhalla the natural place to go?
It wasn’t that. There’s a film called Sin City [based on the Frank Miller comic book of the same name], and in it there’s a scene where Clive Owen has just been given a machine gun and he’s standing next to a woman and he says the line ‘This Valkyrie by my side, this warrior woman’. When he said the word ‘Valkyrie’ I knew I knew it, but I didn’t know what one actually was. When I got home from the cinema I looked it up and when I read the character description of the Valkyries and some of the myths I thought ‘There’s another hero I can write about!’. I proposed the idea for Valkyrie before Pegasus, but the publisher picked up Pegasus first.
Norse mythology is very male-oriented, with no female heroes, except the Valkyries; when I was a kid it used to cheese me off that there were no girl heroes in the books, so I that’s why I write girl heroes, because to me they’re underrepresented, except in all the books about relationships. I’d rather have a character draw a sword and take someone on.
I think Jack Kirby – who co-created the Thor comic book character - taught me all I know about Norse mythology – did you have to do a lot of actual research?
Oh yes, and do you know what the worst part is? There’s not actually an awful lot out there. Because the Norse didn’t have a formal, written language a lot of their tales were either sung or performed. Even though I’m a practicing Catholic, I think Christianity has a lot to answer for when it comes to destroying cultures, because when Christianity got involved, all of those stories were lost, and very little is known. I have bought every book there is out there, and there aren’t many - in other words, someone has given us writers the ingredients to a cake, but we are the ones choosing what portions of which ingredients we want to use. We are just interpreting.
Which must have given you, presumably, a huge amount of freedom…
A lot of freedom, because one of the differences between Norse and Greek mythology is monsters – the Greeks have some amazing monsters and the Norse don’t. They have very human creatures, like trolls, elves, dwarves and frost giants; you get the occasional dragon, if you’re lucky, and then wolves. And that’s it. Basically, their mythology was built around what you get in the real world, what they had around them.
With the Pegasus books, I stick with the mythology…I respect it. I don't create monsters that don’t exist in the Greek myths; I did create one species, but I made sure I had them coming from another world and weren’t a part of the Greek myths. I am a truist.
With the Norse, I’m having to make up creatures, like the Dark Searchers, and insert them in to make the stories broader and richer. Because, after everything I read, Odin didn’t have any hit men, no enforcers!
You tread quite a difficult path in Valkyrie, taking Freya from Valhalla, the place she was born to inhabit, to the most alien of worlds - from her point of view - where her very touch can kill and she can’t even admit her name. Was that juxtaposition hard to handle?
In a way, yes…but one of my biggest fears was duplicating the success of Pegasus by reworking it but just changing the characters. So with Pegasus I had the extraordinary world invade an ordinary girl’s life, and I wanted to make sure that with whatever series I did next it was going to be the ordinary world meeting an extraordinary character.
I wanted to make sure it was completely opposite, so any time I felt myself slipping into anything that could happen in Pegasus, I had to stop myself and almost do a mirror image, the reverse of it. What I was writing had to be as adventurous as Pegasus, but so far different that there could be no comparisons.
Why set the story in America?
I think it’s true to some extent that American kids only care about things which happen in a world they can associate with. And most kids in middle America think England is another planet, so they wouldn’t necessarily empathise with English characters. Because this magnificent island that we live on is filled with people who love to travel, most of the kids I know have been to America, and they can more easily accept a story set in the States than any American reader can accept a story set over here. So, to be blunt, it’s economics.
Freya is quite a kickass character, more often than not solving her problems with a little bit of what might be described as Clockwork Orange–style ultra-violence; how as that been received, was it a difficult thing to sell?
[Laughs] Do you know what, and I swear this is the honest-to-God truth, girls love it! I know this for a fact, because I do an awful lot of school visits. I’m writing Valkyrie II right now, and I decided in the book, instead of having ‘safe’ Olympic-style games, I was going to have the Nine Realms Challenge, as anti-Olympic Games as possible. So I said to the kids [at a couple of girls’ schools I went to on my last book tour] that if they came up with some good ideas, I’d use them in the book; I gave them some examples of my own ideas, some of which made some of the teachers look a little aghast, and asked them if they had any other ones. Most of them were so gross I wouldn’t be comfortable putting them in a book, and they were all gruesome, but I have put one of them into Book 2.
So, contrary to girls being all sugar and spice and all things nice, they’re infinitely more gruesome than boys. I see this all the time, they come up with infinitely worse scenarios than boys do.
[At this point there is an odd whistling noise in the background; on asking what it is, I’m told it’s one of Kate’s thirty parrots. She then adds that she also has three dogs, and chickens in the garden, but the chickens aren’t allowed in the house.]
Can you tell us what your plans are for Freya and Archie?
Bigger adventure – and I am very sensitive to what reviewers write, and some have said they would like to have seen more mythology in the first book. So Book 2 will be no-holds-barred, lots more mythology, starting with the Nine Realms Challenge, and, to give you a teaser, the Dark Searchers will be explained…