Please welcome Catherine Chanter to The Qwillery as part of the 2015 Debut Author Challenge Interviews. The Well was published on May 19th by Atria Books.
TQ: Welcome to The Qwillery. When and why did you start writing?
Catherine: I started keeping a diary when I was very young and kept going until having three children meant I was so tired at night, I could never stay awake. Looking back at the teenage entries now, I can’t pretend they are of great literary merit, but I have always kept writing, mostly poetry and some short stories. As to why, who knows? I recently made contact with my birth mother for the first time, only to discover that she too is a poet, so maybe it is in the genes.
TQ: Are you a plotter or a pantser?
Catherine: Pants, every time, although writing The Well made me wonder who was wearing the pants! Ruth, the narrator, was a very strong voice in my head from the beginning and at times she took the story in directions I had not consciously thought of.
TQ: What is the most challenging thing for you about writing?
Catherine: Staying off the internet. I write on a laptop and have a terrible habit of flicking between sites whenever the going gets tough. For that reason, I now tend to choose places to write where I have no internet connection.
TQ: Who are some of your literary influences? Favorite authors?
Catherine: I think poets have probably had a stronger influence on me than writers of fiction. T S Eliot, Yeats, Heaney, Houseman and so many more. Having said that, novels such as Never Let Me Go by Ishiguro and Flight Behaviour by Barbara Kingsolver have been very interesting for me in the way they combine psychological realism with extra-ordinary situations. Penelope Lively’s Moon Tiger and John Banville’s The Untouchables were influential in terms of narrative structure.
TQ: Describe The Well in 140 characters or less.
Catherine: In a time of drought, a couple purchase their dream farm only to find that it rains, but only their land. What happens when you have what everyone else needs? And does that make Ruth a witch, a murderer or a saint?
TQ: Tell us something about The Well that is not in the book description.
Catherine: For me, every time a reader engages with the book, they make the story their own, so it is what readers say that fascinate me, for instance: ‘it is a book not about what happens if there is no rain, but what happens when you have all the rain, which is different.’ That is a great angle.
TQ: What inspired you to write The Well? Into which genre classifications does The Well fit?
Catherine: Two disparate thoughts came together; I often think that is how creativity works. The first came as a result of research I was doing for a series of poems. I was studying paintings through the ages which depicted The Annunciation and I wondered, what would it be like to be a ‘chosen one’ nowadays? The second question arose from spending time in an isolated cottage where the water came from a well. By UK standards it was a very dry summer and I began to ask what it would be like in a rain-soaked country like England, if it all started to dry up.
As for genre, I think this is a difficult question. There are elements of dystopic and apocalyptic fiction and in that the novel asks questions about faith and religion, there is, perhaps, a supernatural element. I suppose the all-embracing genre would be literary fiction/suspense, but I know that is a pretty big umbrella.
TQ: What sort of research did you do for The Well?
Catherine: I researched women who chose to become nuns, both now and historically, including the writings of the mediaeval mystics in Europe such as Hildegard of Bingen and Julian of Norwich. These early female writers exemplify the thin lines between religious devotion, sexual ecstasy and madness, grey areas which fascinate me: one century’s saint is another century’s psychotic in need of medication. I also explored the world of online worship.
Then of course, there was research in drought conditions for which I drew upon real examples such as California, but also Government papers modeling possible scenarios in the UK.
TQ: Who was the easiest character to write and why? The hardest and why?
Catherine: Ruth, the protagonist was probably both the easiest and the hardest. I was able to write in her voice fluently and quickly, but she was unreliable in more ways than one! Writing Sister Amelia was great fun, in a dark sort of way, whereas I found real solace in the character of Hugh, the visiting priest.
TQ: Which question about The Well do you wish someone would ask? Ask it and answer it!
Catherine: I wish they’d ask more about the rural tradition in which I hope this novel sits. I think that the rural setting has recently been overlooked in favour of urban fiction. The arrival of the internet has meant that rural stories can have all the claustrophia, tension and beauty of Thomas Hardy’s novels, whilst being connected to the whole world beyond in one click on a keyboard.
TQ: Give us one or two of your favorite non-spoilery lines from The Well.
Catherine: One of them is when Ruth and Mark first go to view The Well, which is a breathtakingly idyllic smallholding.
“The track ahead of us was a dotted line awaiting our signature…..We signed up the moment we stepped out of the car, but we did not know what for.”
TQ: What's next?
Catherine: I have given up the day job – as Head of Education in an adolescent in-patient psychiatric ward – but find myself missing it, so I am slowly finding ways of continuing my work with children whilst making the most of having more time to write. The next novel is finished, in as much as a I’ve got to the end, but if I’ve learned anything from writing The Well, it’s that this is where the real work starts.
TQ: Thank you for joining us at The Qwillery.
Atria Books, May 19, 2015
Hardcover and eBook, 400 pages
From the winner of the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize, a brilliantly haunting and suspenseful debut set in modern-day Britain where water is running out everywhere except at The Well—the farm of one seemingly ordinary family whose mysterious good fortune leads to suspicion, chaos, and ultimately a shocking act of violence.
Ruth Ardingly has just been released from prison to serve out a sentence of house arrest for arson and suspected murder at her farm, The Well. Beyond its borders, some people whisper she is a witch; others a messiah. For as soon as Ruth returns to The Well, rain begins to fall on the farm. And it has not rained anywhere else in the country in over three years.
Ruth and her husband Mark had moved years before from London to this ancient idyll in the hopes of starting their lives over. But then the drought began, and as the surrounding land dried up and died, and The Well grew lush and full of life, they came to see their fortune would come at a price. From the envy of their neighbors to the mandates of the government, from the fanaticism of a religious order called the Sisters of the Rose to the everyday difficulties of staying close as husband and wife, mother and child—all these forces led to a horrifying crime: the death of their seven-year-old grandson, drowned with cruel irony in one of the few ponds left in the countryside.
Now back at The Well, Ruth must piece together the tragedy that shattered her marriage, her family, and her dream. For she believes her grandson’s death was no accident, and that the murderer is among the people she trusted most. Alone except for her guards on a tiny green jewel in a world rapidly turning to dust, Ruth begins to confront her worst fears and learns what really happened in the dark heart of The Well.
A tour de force about ordinary people caught in the tide of an extraordinary situation, Catherine Chanter’s The Well is a haunting, beautifully written, and utterly believable novel that probes the fragility of our personal relationships and the mystical connection between people and the places they call home.
Catherine Chanter is a teacher, poet, and short story writer. She is the winner of the Yeovil Poetry Prize and the Lucy Cavendish Prize awarded by Cambridge University. She grew up in the West Country before attending Oxford. The Well is her first novel.