Reading Hackers from Accrington Library interviewed Catherine Barter about her debut novel, Troublemakers
Is there any reason why you set this book in London? Is it because there have been a lot of terror attacks in London recently so people can relate to it being realistic?
There are a few reasons. I live in London, so it’s familiar to me. I knew I wanted to have a character who was a politician standing in an election, and campaigning to be Mayor of London seemed more exciting than campaigning to be a local MP. And yes, like you say, because London has experienced a lot of terror attacks and I knew I wanted to write about the way people’s fear of terrorism affects their lives.
Is Jacob Carlisle your interpretation of an average, dedicated and proactive politician? To me he comes across as insensitive, untrustworthy & corrupt. Did you want this to come across to the reader?
The word I’d use for Jacob Carlisle is ‘opportunistic’! He recognises that people in London are feeling afraid, and uses that fear to try and win an election – he promises that only he can keep people safe. I don’t think that all politicians are like him, but I do think that in recent years a lot of politicians have made use of people’s fear when it suits their purposes. I don’t think Jacob Carlisle is a super-evil villain, but he’s definitely untrustworthy.
What are the shards supposed to represent on the front of the book? Is it destruction that the trouble makers have spread?
The wonderful cover artists could probably give the best answer (Nathan Burton and Kate Grove), but the shards represent broken glass. There’s a few important incidents of glass breaking in the book – Alena smashing a glass on the floor when she’s arguing with Danny, the coffee shop windows getting smashed – and something else important towards the end which I won’t say as it’s a spoiler! So I think it’s a great image for troublemaking in general, but also very relevant to some specific parts of the book.
Did any of the names or plots come from real life people? If not, how did you get inspiration to write about them in the story?
There was one real-life story that partly inspired the plot – google ‘a good day to bury bad news’ and you’ll find the one I’m talking about. In a way all of the characters and stories are inspired by real events and by people I’ve known, but I wouldn’t point to anything specific – it’s more like a big mash-up of ideas and inspiration that all amount to something (hopefully!) original.
Why does Danny act traumatised around anything relating to his mother? He is always trying to avoid questions, especially when Alena asks him about her.
You find out a more specific answer to this question towards the end of the book, but in general it’s that his mother dies suddenly when he’s still quite young, and he’s so worried about taking care of his sister that he doesn’t give himself time to deal with it properly and grieve. That means his trauma is still very fresh all these years later, and talking about his mother has become too painful.
A lot of these characters in this book are unconventional, such as Danny and Ollie. Why did you choose for them to be this way?
I suppose I just see that as reflecting reality! Lots of people are gay, and I know plenty of people – like Ollie – who like playing around with ‘conventional’ ways to dress and behave. Characters in books should be just as rich and diverse as people in real life.
The postcard that Alena discovers in the story was inspired by a postcard you found of women protesting at Greenham Common. Can you explain further how it came in your possession? Is there a story behind this?
I found the postcard in the basement of a bookshop called Housmans, which is in King’s Cross in London. I’m one of the managers of Housmans, and it’s a radical bookshop which specialises in politics and activism. Housmans is very old – it’s been around since 1945 – and in the eighties they distributed a whole series of postcards celebrating women’s peace activism. It turns out we still had a lot of these postcards lying around in various cupboards and hidden corners. The one featuring women at Greenham Common is one of my favourite images.
Alena has sorted the relationship between herself and her brother. Will there be a sequel where Jacob Carlisle is a failure because of Alena’s actions would he find a way to get his revenge?
I don’t have plans to write a sequel but I agree that this would make a very interesting story! It sounds like more of a political thriller than Troublemakers. Maybe you should write it??
Do you have any experience in the world of politics? Were you ever on the school council (like I am) or a prefect or head girl?
I was much too shy when I was at school to be anything like prefect or head girl, but I’ve had some experience since then. I’ve done a bit of volunteering on political campaigns, and I work in a political bookshop where I meet lots of activists every day. I also volunteered and then worked for a campaigning organisation called ‘Labour behind the Label’ for a few years. I wish I’d done more at school though – being on the school council sounds like great experience.