Cheltenham Q & A – Cathy Rentzenbrink

Posted on 29th September 2015 by Cathy Rentzenbrink
Waterstones exclusive: Cathy Rentzenbrink answers our seven questions.

The Cheltenham Literature Festival begins on Friday (it runs until the 11th) and looks set to be a corker this year. Jonathan Franzen, Kate Atkinson, Reginald D. Hunter, Caitlin Moran, and Alastair Campbell are just a few on the stellar list of attendees.

So...What could we do to bring a little of the magic forward, we wondered?

Well, we here at Waterstones have put our heads together and come up with a list of seven questions we hope will get the literary ideas flowing. And we have already put them to the authors, ahead of the event, just because we can.

We will release their inspiring answers in a series, over the next few days.

First up? Cathy Rentzenbrink.

Cathy Rentzenbrink grew up in Yorkshire and now lives in London. A former Waterstones bookseller, she is now Project Director of the charity Quick Reads and Books Editor of The Bookseller magazine. Her astonishing memoir, The Last Act of Love, is out now. Join her on Friday 2 October, 4.15-5.15pm in Literature Of Loss.


What book do you wish that you had written?

I can’t really get my head around this as I think all books could only ever belong to the person who has written them. I admire and envy writers who are prolific and who manage complex structures. I suppose Elena Ferrante is the writer who I most look to for the way she puts rage on the page. I’m thinking a lot at the moment about how society teaches women that anger is transgressive. If I do as good a job as Ferrante does with my angry women I’ll be pleased.

Just as your books inspire readers, what authors inspired you to write?

Enid Blyton and Agatha Christie were my first loves. I remember telling my teacher that I wanted to be an author or a detective. When I was writing my memoir I felt inspired and encouraged by Nina Stibbe, Satnam Sanghera and Damian Barr. They all write from a place of being an outsider and show the rest of us that it can do done.

Once you've had the initial idea for a book, do you create the plot first or do you begin writing straight away, looking to discover the story and characters along the way?

Elizabeth Jane Howard said she writes to find out about herself. I definitely use writing to find out what I think rather than think of something and then write it down. The act of writing dislodges thoughts better than anything else. Starting a book is a bit like lobbing a hand grenade into your brain – you’re not quite sure how the fall out will land.

Do you read your reviews? How do you respond to them, good or bad? Any advice on how to deal with the bad?

Yes I do and I think it would be difficult not to if you are engaged in the world and on twitter. It’s tricky, though. It’s a great privilege to have people read and comment on your work and I rather like being questioned on narrative decisions I’ve made. I loved getting my first stinker Amazon review because I realised I’d been bracing myself for it. It was a great relief to get one and see that I couldn’t care less. It’s that old chestnut about fearing fear. To stay sane you have to surrender ownership of your story once it is out in the world. I think of it as though my book is now in a rowing boat on the high seas and what happens to it now has not much to do with me. Easier said than done, obviously, but that’s my aim.

If you were trapped on a desert island, which two books would you want to have with you and why?

I’d want something comforting and non-scary so I’d pick I Capture the Castle and The Pursuit of Love.

Who else do you wish to see while at the Cheltenham festival?

It’s such a good programme. I’m looking forward to interviewing Kate Atkinson and Pat Barker as I’ve been admiring their novels for years. I’m in the mood for some medical non-fiction and will be going to see Atul Gawande and Suzanne O’Sullivan on mortality and somatic illnesses, respectively.

What was the last book you read?

I read the excellent We That Are Left by Clare Clark yesterday because I’m interviewing her along with Kate Williams in an event about the First World War.


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