An Interview with
Carrie Kabak’s wonderful debut, Cover the Butter, was released in May 2006. I had the pleasure of reading and reviewing this book for
Curled Up With a Good Book when the book came out in hardcover...
Interviewer Marie Hashima Lofton: Carrie, thanks for being part of this interview for Curled Up With a Good Book. I very much enjoyed your debut effort! Before we talk about the book, can you tell me a little about yourself, mainly things about you that influenced the writing of Cover the Butter (your childhood? Characters in your life that showed up in some form in the book, etc)?
Carrie Kabak: I was born in Bolton in Lancashire, in the United Kingdom. I've lived in Cefneithin and Cardiff in South Wales, Bewdley and Tenbury Wells in Worcestershire, Leominster in Herefordshire, Ludlow in Shropshire, Solihull and Sutton Coldfield in the West Midlands. And I spent some time in Southern Ireland, Switzerland and France. I now live in Kansas City, Missouri, with my American husband, and I'm here to stay! We share five sons, two labradors and a couple of cats.
I use the places and homes I've lived in as "backdrops" for my writing. When I was eleven, my cousin let me into a secret. "Parents hide rude books and stuff on top of their dressers," he said. We discovered a copy of Edna O'Brien's novel The Country Girls on top of my father's wardrobe, and we did find a few naughty bits - then I turned back to the first chapter and started reading. And I was hooked. Edna O'Brien's characters, style and dialogue pulled me into a familiar world. Here were the mothers, fathers, shopkeepers, teachers and nuns I knew so well in the many places I'd lived in England, Wales and Ireland. "I want to be an author when I grow up," I told my cousin.
At eighteen, it was time to line up for careers "advice" at High School. The Head Teacher studied our exam results, then pointed to each girl in turn to label them a "Teacher, secretary, nurse, teacher, secretary, nurse..." I was to be a teacher, and encouraged to train for a real job when I objected, saying I'd rather be an artist - or even an author. (Check out Miss Kendrick in Cover the Butter, the head teacher whose one eye has a wobbly will of its own.)
So I went to Cardiff University to train as a French, English and Art teacher.
At college, an English professor pulled me to one side. "Why are you teaching?" he asked. "Why don't you try writing? Send something to BBC Wales Radio!"
"That would not be a proper job," I explained.
"Then make it one," he said.
What spurred you on to writing a novel? How long did it take from that first word of encouragement to your first actual published writing? Could you tell me a little about that first effort?
No, I never did start writing, despite the professor’s cajoling. Many, many years passed before I took the plunge. I left college, married, taught, designed, and raised four children instead. (Proper jobs.) But all the while, I kept notes on the caricatures I met or became involved with, or just observed.
I moved to the United States and began children's book illustrating, always thinking, “One day soon, I’ll write a novel.” I was sure words could be used like a paintbrush.
Thoughts concerning Kate's life swam around in my head for a couple of years, usually when I was illustrating. I'd debate whether I should be writing instead! I let the characters lead the way in Cover the Butter. There was no rigid plan. I was lucky, and so very grateful to receive eleven offers of representation, and the book sold in a few days following a pre-empt offer by Penguin.
And writing is like using a paintbrush, but what's even better is that I can climb inside the picture and actually live in it.
Could you describe the novel-writing process as it pertains to how you felt about it - did you enjoy it? Did you find it a chore? What is your daily routine when you are writing? Were you satisfied with the final product that became Cover the Butter? If you could change one thing about the book, what would it be?
Not a chore, I enjoy writing too much, but I find it exhausting at times. I usually write 3-4 days a week, and start typing after 11:00AM, and often keep going until 4:00AM in the morning, or if I'm on a roll, I'll work through the night, not wanting to lose the thoughts in my head. I change from my desktop computer to my laptop when my husband comes home, so I can follow him around. Otherwise, he feels neglected!
The foreign editions of Cover the Butter are a little different, and I had to edit to suit. For example, the Dutch version was a complete reproduction of the original manuscript, which is a good deal “darker,” and it has a different ending. The American version has one less character, and the ending is left with hope and promise. The British version opens in the 1960s, not ‘90s. Anyway, I’m happy with all versions! It was interesting to see the different cover designs, that is, how each publishing house interpreted the manuscript.
My own thoughts are that the book could have been longer, I wanted to go on and on, but there is word count limit!
How much of Kate Fanshaw is you? Do you wish you had started writing sooner in your life, or did things work out the way you had planned or wished?
A reviewer, psychologist Steven Hendlin, Ph.D. said this: “Kabak could not have written this book in her thirties. This is a story that comes from a woman who has matured—both in age and in experience. Cover the Butter will appeal to those looking for more than just action and adventure in their fiction—those who want to chew on and digest what they are reading, not just swallow it whole.”
I do wish I’d started writing earlier, but perhaps it was best it worked out this way! Some of Kate Fanshaw is me.
Tell me about your grandparents. Did they have much to do with the characters that became Kate’s grandmother, Mamgu, and Mamgu’s husband, Griff?
The characters were very closely based on my own grandparents, Muriel and Griff. The Welsh for grandmother is mamgu. (pronounced mam-gi)
Your writing career began with poetry. Were you able to publish your poetry? What influenced you to write poetry in the first place?
No, nothing was ever submitted. The poetry was purely for self-expression.
How did you get started illustrating children’s books?
I was a designer (interiors), and wanted to break into the publishing world, so I thought this would be a good start! I don’t illustrate children’s books these days, but I do create newsletters, website elements and covers for author PR companies and publishers. All design work is now author or writing-related. I’d like to design my own cover for book number three, which is set in 19th-century Ireland and Chicago, and features Vaudeville and Music Halls and all the poverty and sleaze involved.
How do these two forms (children’s books and poetry) differ for you compared to writing a novel? Do you prefer one over the other?
I much prefer writing novels!
Last but not least: can you tell us a little about a possible sequel to Cover the Butter? I, for one, would love to read it!
Aww, thank you! Yes, a sequel is in the pipeline, as soon as I have finished the Irish/Chicago manuscript and an essay for an anthology for Seal Press.
Tarts and Sinners, my second novel, which is nearly finished, will probably only be available in the UK. It’s British humor, a spoof: The end of one year and the beginning of another in the lives of three women who live in the parish of St. Swithun's in Lower Piddley. Annie Ruddock, the vicar's wife, is in love with a cross-dressing bell ringer. Jayne Frobisher keeps chickens, and is convinced her husband is having an affair. Fiona Wiggins is obsessed with the Fabulous Fifties. She regrets losing her virginity and questions her sexuality. When Annie and Jayne embark on a little extramarital how’s-your-father, and when Fiona goes off her fiancé and looks elsewhere for love, paths cross and the three form the most unlikely friendship. What follows is disastrous and—plain embarrassing. Disillusioned, the women wonder if they should, after all, accept their lot in life. Not bloody likely.
Thank you, Carrie, for giving us some insight into your first novel. It was such a treat reading Cover the Butter, and I am looking forward to reading the sequel.
Thank you so much, Marie. I really enjoyed the interview!
Carrie Kabak is a former children's book illustrator. She lives with her husband and four children. This is her first novel.
Contributing reviewer Marie Hashima Lofton interviewed
Carrie Kabak, author of Cover the Butter (see accompanying review), about
her book via email for curledup.com. Marie Hashima Lofton/2006.