Charlie Jane Anders interviews the pseudonymous author of “The First First Fifteen Lives of Harry August,” which Julie and I both loved.
The author’s real name is Catherine Webb, who write her first book when she was 14, and who wrote seven more successful young-adult novels and a series of fantasy novels for adults using the pseudonym Kate Griffin. Pseudonyms keep a writer from being pigeonholed, but they have their own pitfalls.
Webb made the protagonist of “Harry August” male because a female protagonist would have inevitably made gender more of a focus of the novel than Webb wanted it to be.
The biggest reason for writing a male protagonist was the history of the 20thcentury itself. When Harry August is born, women still don’t have the vote; by the time he dies, the women’s rights movement is a loud voice fighting battles across the world. The change in society in that century is massive, but women were – and are still – discriminated against. Knowing what I do of my own politics, it seemed unlikely that I’d get through the book without being drawn massively into the world of gender politics and the changing battle for women’s rights throughout the century, and while this is vitally important and a story that must be told, the story of the kalachakra didn’t feel like the right way in which to tell it. Writing a male protagonist, therefore, allowed me to focus on the story of the Cronus Club that seemed most appropriate to the narrative.
Webb has training as a historian, and says writing a historical novel requires a mind-trick:
A great deal of the history wasn’t about big events – Harry August spends a lot of time dodging World War Two, for example – but about zooming in on little things that made the time come alive. Thus, 1936 would not be described by someone living in it as ‘a year when war became inevitable’ since in 1936, war wasn’t inevitable and no one without the burden of retrospect would think of it in terms of war, whatever history has to say on the subject now. Rather, it is a year of jazz, economic recovery and the rise of ‘talkie’ movies. A generic knowledge might point to Charlie Chaplin as being active in this era; a quick internet search reveals the movies he made; a look at the movie of the year (Modern Times) shows that by then talkies were well underway; another click through gives the names of rival ‘talkie’ movies and fairly quickly, from just a general sense of what was happening in a decade, you have the kind of details of leading actors and popular musicians that can bring a year to life.