Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Catching Up with Cathrine Chisnall, author of Descending and Surfacing

One website that is publishing writers I’ve read on-line is Night Reading.  They are making dreams come true.  The first book I bought from Night Publishing was Catherine Chisnall’s Descending, which I started reading on slushpilereader.com. Her book really stuck with me for days after I read it. I wanted to talk to Catherine about it. 

KJ Kron: I think of a romance as a story where the two potential lovers are separated by an obstacle, like Romeo and Juliet’s family’s hate each other. In Descending, Jamie, the student, and Emily, the teacher’s assistant, are separated by many of society’s taboos. But I wouldn’t call this a romance. How would you describe it?

Catherine Chisnall: I would say firstly it’s a cautionary tale. ‘Don’t get involved with students, whatever you do!’
I have read up about cautionary tales.Apparently they are a distinct type of story, passed down in folklore probably from when humans first developed a moral code. Here is Wikipedia’s definition:
‘There are three essential parts to a cautionary tale, though they can be introduced in a large variety of ways.
First, a taboo or prohibition is stated: some act, location, or thing is said to be dangerous. (Emily realising she shouldn’t get involved with a student).
Then, the narrative itself is told: someone disregarded the warning and performed the forbidden act. (Emily, despite her own knowledge and friends’ warnings, has a relationship with Jamie)
Finally, the violator comes to an unpleasant fate, which is frequently related in large and grisly detail. (I won’t say what Emily and Jamie’s fate is, as I don’t want to give the story away, but it is appropriate).
However, when asked to choose a genre from a modern list, there isn’t a ‘cautionary tale’ category, so I have been calling it a ‘contemporary drama’.
My friend, Ruth Francisco (author of Amsterdam 2012, a masterpiece), summed Descending up well. ‘Desperate people doing desperate things.’ I couldn’t put it better myself.

KJ: Like Emily, you’re a teacher assistant. How long have you been working as one and how would you describe the job?

CC: I was a learning support assistant or LSA, (which is what they are called in England) for about ten years. I’m not now.
In 2009, due to health and family problems and being stuck in a college where I felt useless and unnecessary, I decided to call it a day and went back to being a full time mum.
I absolutely loved being a learning support assistant when I started in 1999, but it really depends on the environment you work in. I felt I had done all I could in education, I was drained and exhausted, so it was time to stop. Apparently this sort of burn out is common in the caring sector. You have to be sensitive to do that sort of job, but inevitably being sensitive leads to burn out.
People think we just sit there doing nothing, but apart from helping students with their learning, we are carefully monitoring the atmosphere in the classroom, quelling arguments before they escalate, noticing who needs help with what, when and how, and when to stop helping students who are trying to get you to do the work for them.
We must also reinforce the teacher’s discipline while simultaneously building supportive relationships with the students. They will tell us things they won’t tell the teacher, their mum or girlfriend/boyfriend, so we also have to judge when they are in danger and pass the information on e.g. if they are being abused, or getting in with a bad crowd.
It is a very delicate balance of a job. You are not a teacher, in control and unchallengeable. You are not a student, even though you sit with them and they trust you. You have to walk the line of being firm but fair to all, including when the teacher is being unfair to the student or they are in direct conflict- you have to take the teacher’s side whatever your own feelings about the justice of the situation.

KJ: You really get inside the head of Emily and make her likable even though some of her actions made me want to yell at her. What are her strengths and weaknesses?

CC: I am amazed at the sympathetic reaction to Emily from so many readers. I assumed everyone would condemn and dislike her, as some readers indeed do. Everyone has had a different reaction to her.
Anyway, her strengths, hm… that is a hard question. Maybe doing the job in the first place? As a woman in an entirely male college, she has to be strong because it’s a lonely situation. I have observed that single sex environments are rather unhealthy. All-male places become very competitive, with everyone obsessed with who is Alpha male. All-female places become very bitchy and petty, probably for a similar reason. I think men and women need to live together for harmony. That sounds very hippy-ish! (laughs)
Weaknesses. Giving in to her feelings for Jamie and just thinking ‘sod it, I’ve had enough of being sensible and alone.’ Ignoring the fact that she’s doing the wrong thing, even though she knows she is. Conveniently ignoring the fact that however much she fancies him, he’s still just a kid.

KJ: As a teacher, I’ve run into a few students like Jamie. Why is Emily attracted to him?

CC: I think it’s cos she’s a nice, middle class girl and he’s a bit of rough! I don’t know if you say that in America. She hasn’t gone out with someone like him before, I think her previous boyfriends have been a bit wishy washy.
It’s the old ‘good girl, bad boy’ attraction which probably began with the first humans. She has been the good little girl for so long: helping others, keeping quiet, struggling on alone. Then along comes Jamie, whirling into her life and turning it upside down. She wonders what it would be like to live like he does, not being cautious and careful all the time, just doing what he wants to when he wants to. He is the opposite of her and they say opposites attract.
And the other thing of course is that Jamie is there to look after her in the lift when she is in danger. There’s probably a bit of ‘oh my hero’ in there too, perhaps. I only just thought of that!!

KJ: This is my 15th year as an English teacher and twice I’ve heard of young female teachers who have had affairs with older students in my school district (ten high schools). It’s not very common but it happens. Did you know of a case in the UK that inspired you to write this book?

CC: Yes, there was a case on the news soon after I began working in learning support. A teacher had an affair with a 15 year old boy at her school. I watched a documentary about it, cos I wondered what sort of person she was to do that.
She seemed rather sad and lonely, she had moved into the town to take a new job and didn’t know anyone. It seems the students were the only ones to make friends with her.
Anyway, I wondered how she got involved with the student. She didn’t seem like an evil paedophile abusing an innocent child, because he wasn’t a child, but he obviously wasn’t a man either. I felt sorry for her as it can’t have been one sided, he must have been willing. She went to prison cos he was under 16, the age of consent.In that case, it was straightforward: she was wrong, he was right.
I wondered what would happen if this sort ofrelationshiptook placewith a student over 16, not in a school setting and perhaps with an LSA, not a teacher. It wouldn’t be so clear cut. LSAs are far closer to the students than teachers are. Teachers are in control at the front of the class, while LSAs sit among the students, like their confidantes.
In my job, I heard no end of rumours about relationships and attractions between staff and students, so I wondered what would really happen in such a relationship.It wouldn’t go right, that’s for sure!
Hence Descending.

KJ: The Brits use slightly different terms that what we use in the states. You referred to "college” and I quickly realized you weren’t talking about a “university”. Do American readers have any questions that need clarifying and what are they?

CC: Ah yes. We have ‘secondary schools’ which take children up to 16, or 18 if there is a sixth form college. Schools are very structured and don’t treat pupils as adults.
Then there are ‘Colleges of Further Education’ which take students from 16 up to any age, including adults over 18. They are much less structured and the students are treated like adults from age 16 and expected to behave like them. This is the grey area I wanted to explore.
‘University’ is called ‘Higher Education’ which means the studentsare academically inclined, have ‘A levels’ and are over 18. Therefore they are adults. If they had relationships with lecturers it would be ‘frowned on’ but not illegal.

KJ: As a teacher’s assistant, Emily seems to have a different relationships with different teachers. Would you say that mirrors what you experience?

CC: Definitely. Some teachers are extremely aware of what is going on all round the classroom: which students are having a feud; who has home problems; who is psyching out whom. They know exactly what to do to keep order. In those lessons I could do my job of supporting the students’ learning without having to deal with bad behaviour.
Some teachers do not notice the undercurrents in a class and simply deliver the lesson while the students play up. In those classes I would usually work with a quieter student because if not it meant having to take on discipline and control of the students. I did not have the authority to do this and anyway, it’s not technically my job.
There were also some teachers who knew well what my job was, shared lesson plans and objectives with me and made it straightforward for me to simply work with students’ on their targets.
Other teachers did not understand and thought I was a general dogs body, there to make the tea, or expected me to take on the discipline role with no practice or authority. I learned very early not to do that!
Legally, learning support assistants are not supposed to be left alone in the classroom with students, as we are unqualified. This is in case there is an accident where a child hurts themselves or some other incident which could lead to legal action. I have occasionally been left alone in a classroom by certain teachers.
Teaching is full of different people and there is little consistency, because everyone is human and does things differently. If the government wants everyone to teach in the same way, they should employ robots!

KJ: In a couple of places in your book, the students try to intimidate Emily. Have you ever experienced or witnessed something similar with your students?

CC: Yes, I have. But firstly I must say that even though I’ve worked in some very rough, deprived areas, the vast majority of the time the students have been pleasant and cooperative. Despite the fact that most of them had terrible home lives and problems, such as abusive or absent parents, poverty, or having to be ‘the man of the house’ at age 11 etc.
However, teenagers will always try and intimidate people, I think especially LSAs because they know we are unqualified andnot ‘proper teachers’.They assume we are stupid because we are ‘just LSAs’.
I was shocked when I first started work, because when I was at school 30 years ago no one ever talked back to teachers. These days, answering back is normal. I have been asked all sorts of intimate questions, been pushed and ostracised, especially when I was a new LSA. It got better as the students got to know me: “Miss is alright, don’t talk to her like that!” etc.
When I was younger, I was occasionally sexually propositioned by the older boys. I think most women in education under the age of about 60 have been propositioned by students! One of those times could really have ended badly but luckily another student stepped in. He said ‘you’ve got no chance with her, mate, she’s got a husband.’ Which was sexist and reassuring at the same time!
That was another thing which prompted me to write Descending. What if I wasn’t happily married and didn’t have a husband? Would I have been ‘fair game’? What if I was a different person- young, lonely, unhappy? Would I have been tempted by a man-child like that?
Having grown up in a prim and proper middle class area, I was amazed how much more physically mature kids in working class areas were. There was a girl in year 7 (i.e. 11 years old), who could easily pass for a 16 year old and most of the boys looked like men at age 14. I know people don’t like to talk about the class system, but it still exists in the different maturity rates of children, according to my observations of schools in different areas. Middle class children tend to be far ahead intellectually, while working class children tend to be far ahead physically and emotionally.
Of course if intimidation happens in schools, there is a clear cut ‘chain of command’ to appeal to e.g. Head of Year, who tells the students off and threatens them with dire consequences if they don’t behave. In Further Education colleges, there isn’t this clear cut structure, so it is possible that someone,e.g. Emily, wouldn’t know where to turn.
Whether you are intimidated or not depends on how kindly you treat the students and how well you know them. I was generally kind and didn’t confront them, so they were generally nice to me.

KJ: The humiliation Emily must feel to have her entire situation out in the open but still coming to work. In the states it takes a huge offense to fire an employee. Is the same true in the UK? Is that why they didn’t fire Emily?

CC: I am honestly not sure, I was just guessing at what might happen. I didn’t ask anyone, I speculated. Because Jamie is over 16, the age of consent, it is not legally or technically an offence for her to have a relationship with him. It is just ‘frowned on’ and discouraged.
I think Emily was fired because of the consequences of the relationship i.e. Jamie got into fights and trouble because of her, and there is a 13 year age difference between them. And of course the college management was worried about the college reputation. They didn’t want to appear to condone such a relationship in front of the other colleges in the area, so they had to sack her. I don’t think they could keep Emily employed under those circumstances, but it was not illegal.

KJ: Emily takes Jamie out to a club, isn’t overly worried about STDs, is honest about her relationship with Jamie to her superior, and seems hurt by how others react to her. Would you call her innocent or reckless?

CC: Reckless. She doesn’t care anymore. She’s had enough of being a good little girl, doing the right thing all the time and just getting the reward of being more and more lonely and unhappy. She basically thinks ‘fuck it, I’m going to do something silly for once.’ She’s reached that point of not caring about herself or anything else anymore. I think she is on the verge of a mental breakdown, to be honest.
That is the attraction of Jamie. He couldn’t be a less suitable boyfriend, so she picks him as something different, a change in her life. There is that saying ‘if you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always got.’ So she makes a change and doesn’t do what she’s always done. In fact, she doesn’t even choose, she just lets it all happen really.

KJ: I haven’t read many books like this. Maybe Lolita. What books have you read that are similar and what are your favorite types of books?

CC: I haven’t read any similar books, not even Lolita. I have heard of that book about a teacher having a relationship with a school boy and also an older teacher, Notes on a Scandal. I watched half the film of the book, but realised the story isn’t truly about the teacher’s relationship with the boy. It is about the young teacher’s relationship with the older, possibly lesbian, teacher, so it’s not really comparable to Descending. I don’t mean to sound dismissive, sorry. Now I’ve got Descending published I might read Notes on a Scandal to see what it’s like. I didn’t want to read it and get confused with it and my story.
Descending goes right into the relationship between Emily and Jamie, its right in your face. I wanted to write it in the first person to get more into Emily’s head, so people might understand her better. I hopefully don’t flinch or gloss over anything about the relationship.
Favourite types of books… not sure. I don’t get the time to read these days, I do more writing! I generally read popular psychology books, not novels. I also did a Sociology course last year, so I read those sociology books as well. I have done so much studying of literature in the past, I think it’s put me off reading fiction! (laughs) At the moment I am reading ‘Making a Living without a Job,’ by Barbara Winter. Something for us all to think about!

KJ: It was a pleasure reading your book. I got to experience a world I hope to avoid (smiles). How long did it take you from the time you started writing it until the time it was published?
That is kind of what I thought. Other people apart from me must wonder what sort of person would have an affair with a student, so hopefully they got the same experience as you.
It took me about 6 months from start to finish. I wrote it in December 2009 in a few weeks, it just poured out. Then I put it on various sites: Authonomy, Slush Pile Reader, and Night Reading for critiquing. It was picked up by Night Publishing in May 2010, then finally published in July.
There is a sequel, as you know, called Surfacing, which was published in November 2010. I was amazed that so many people said ‘oh, poor Emily, what happens to her next?’ and wanted me to write a sequel. So I did. Jamie is in it too, cos I wanted to see what happened to him next as well.


  1. Thank you for such an in depth interview :-)

  2. Wow this is really interesting. I have a small library of psychology books academic and pop psych. You are so talented to write your novel in a few months, mine took years :((

    Love to include psych in my writing.

    Karl's book is exciting and so absorbing. I enjoyed it on Slush Pile Reader. It is bright, fresh and yet has a deep sub-text that give one pause to reflect.

    I am inspired to write a sequel my second novel after reading this. Best of luck and congratulations Karl.

    Kathleen Ayres, 'Phobic Dawn.'

  3. Oh thank you Kathleen. Its a novella, so not very long, that's probably why it took a short time! ;-)

  4. And thank you for letting me interview you. Your book is impressive - and I liked the length.