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PARROT Talks to: Catherine Menon

April 9, 2021 | PARROT Talks

I am totally floored by how cool I think Catherine Menon is! I didn’t know much about Catherine before interviewing her for this issue of PARROT Talks but now I am pretty keen to be her friend.

As someone else who juggles full time work with a side-hustle/passion project/second job (call it what you will!), I am full of admiration for someone who can manage both side by side, and so successfully too.

Published author by the early hours (that’s my favourite time to work too, no one else is on their phone yet and it’s bliss), and lecturer in robotics by day – Catherine Menon is hugely inspirational. I really hope you enjoy reading this interview and learning more about Catherine.

Fragile Monsters is published now and is available to buy (I’ve always wanted to say this) from all good bookshops! Buy Fragile Monsters here.

In these beautiful images Catherine took with @paul.emberson, she is wearing the PARROT London Malachite Planet Charms in recycled Sterling Silver, with matching hoops. Available here.

Hi Catherine, thank you so much for taking the time to be a part of PARROT Talks! Could you tell us a bit about who you are, where you’re based and what you do? 

Thank you, and it’s great to be talking with you! I’m Catherine, an author based in north London. Fragile Monsters is my debut novel, and I’m so excited to share it with everyone. I’m also a lecturer in robotics, so my days at the moment are very full!

How did you get into being an author? Is it something you always saw yourself doing? 

As a child I loved reading – and scribbling my own stories in the back of my homework diary – but it wasn’t ever something that I thought I could do as a career. Nobody I knew was an author, and it seemed like some kind of impossible, glamorous pastime. It wasn’t until I moved from Australia to London that I started to take my first steps into writing, with an evening-class short story course. I began writing more short stories and submitting them to competitions, and after a few years was lucky enough to get an offer from the amazing Dahlia Books to publish my collection, Subjunctive Moods. That was so motivating, and really helped me make my mind up to begin studying for a creative writing MA, which was where I wrote Fragile Monsters.

PARROT Talks champions small businesses and creatives and one of the things I am most interested in is how people who work for themselves structure their day and time. Can you tell us a bit about your day to day? 

Because my day job is fairly full-on, I do all my writing in the morning. I set my alarm for five o’clock so that I can get to it before my brain becomes muddied with emails and administration. It’s a beautiful time of day because everything’s so still – the only creatures are me, pigeons and foxes! Working so early really helps me focus, and I like to mark the end of “writing time” by going out for a run. Lecturing and research takes up all my day, and then in the evenings I like to spend a few hours reading.

When did you first start working on Fragile Monsters? The process of writing a novel seems gargantuan to someone who has never attempted it but I’d love to understand more about how you went about it. 

The story had been bubbling in my head for a while, but it wasn’t until I began studying for the creative writing MA at City University that it really took shape. I started reading lots of fiction and non-fiction set in 20th century Malaysia, and the characters of Durga and Mary slowly stepped out from that background. I like to “write myself into” each chapter, so there are a lot of words that don’t make it onto the final page. It’s really helpful to get to know your characters and to figure out what they’d do in different scenarios. I write longhand for the first draft because it feels more natural. Something about the computer stifles my fiction creativity! It’s great for editing, but for the first draft I think it’s important to have that stillness and focus that you get with writing by hand.

Could you tell us in your own words a bit about Fragile Monsters? Why was this the story you felt so compelled to write? 

The initial inspiration for Fragile Monsters came from the bedtime stories my father used to tell me about his own childhood in Pahang. It was only as an adult that I began to understand the context of these stories. Kuala Lipis, where he grew up, was the headquarters of the Japanese army in Pahang during the occupation. I began reading interviews and memoirs with other Malaysians who’d lived through that time period, and I was struck by the extent to which all of these speakers were taking ownership of their own pasts. Their stories reflected the landscape of their families, their neighbourhoods, their societies. I very much wanted to reflect this imperative – this need to own your own history – in the characters of Durga and Mary. They’re both searching for the truth about themselves, although Durga tries to get at it with mathematics and Mary relies on stories.

You dedicate the book to your own grand mothers, but Mary (Durga’s grandmother in your novel) can be a rather tricky character (to say the least!). Are there any references from people you know in real life entwined in the characters of the book? 

Not at all! It’s a really good question, because I was worried that people might think they saw parts of themselves in the characters, but everyone in the book is wholly fictional. Of course, subconsciously all authors borrow from real life, but I would never make a character based on someone I really knew. There wouldn’t be – as Anne of Green Gables would say – any scope for imagination.

Malaysia in the Second World War is a fascinating and vital part of 20th century history. What effect did the real historical backdrop have on your writing of the novel? 

It was really important to me to try and reflect what the experience must really have been like, particularly for Malaysian Indians – which Mary and her family are. I think that in general there’s a tendency for history books, education and popular media about WW2 to focus primarily on the war in Europe. Most people don’t even know that the Japanese invasion of Kota Bharu took place before the attack on Pearl Harbour. This is a shame, because it does a disservice to the unique stories of Malaysians living through the Occupation at the time, and subsumes their identities and narratives into a global, Eurocentric perspective. In particular, I was fascinated by the interviews and memoirs I read from women. Womens’ stories largely don’t figure in most historical research and it’s such an obvious omission that I felt I had to explore it.  

What’s next for you? I’m sure you are extremely busy right now with the publication of Fragile Monsters but do you have plans for your next? We can’t wait to hear more from you! 

I do! I’m currently drafting my next novel, which deals again with themes of relationships, science and coming of age. I love exploring place and people, and tracing how our own pasts shape our current selves. 

Who are your literary inspirations and favourites authors, either growing up or today? 

I love Elif Shafak – she writes such glorious prose and has really carved out her own path. I’m also such a fan of Jhumpa Lahiri, who writes these fascinating, intricate short stories that convey so much in just a few pages. And one of my favourite authors while I was growing up was Diana Wynne Jones! Her characters are so brave and flawed and real. She was probably one of my first inspirations to start writing.

PARROT Talks is all about sharing the love of small businesses and creatives, could you tell us your hit list of small businesses, books and local hotspots for us? I will link them all in the blog post!

Absolutely! I love the following indies and small businesses:

Dahlia Books – http://www.dahliapublishing.co.uk/

Owl Bookshop – @owl.bookshop

Pretty Shiny Shop – @prettyshinyshop

Ink84 Bookshop – @ink84books

Pages of Hackney – @pagesofhackney

Park Theatre – @parktheatrelondon

Book Bar – @bookbaruk

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