Meet Katie Khan, author of Hold Back the Stars and the third in our literature lovin’ edition of Sunday Girl. We took 10 with Katie to find out all about her journey to becoming a published novelist, imagining utopias in fiction and why you don’t always have to correct people’s cheeky grammar mistakes.
Kindle or paperback? Be honest…
It genuinely depends on the size of the book. I am a swing voter, a flip-flopper of a reader. I adore shorter novels – The Great Gatsby is under 50,000 words long – so I appreciate light paperbacks you can hold in one hand, which can be read while stirring a pan full of baked beans in the kitchen, or while utilising the book as a fly-swat and sun shield on the beach. I recently read both The Power and The Underground Railroad in paperback and they were the perfect size. But if I’m tucking into a long, fantasy epic like the Throne of Glass series, I prefer to read on my Kindle – and I love the handy backlight, particularly if I’m binge reading and can’t stop at bedtime. That way I can read all night and not disturb my partner… That pesky percentage in the corner (‘81% done, 1 hour 15 minutes left in novel’) goads me to carry on until the end, even if it’s getting light outside.
That was a toughy, sorry! The next question’s a little easier. Did you always want to be a writer?
No. Haha! Do most people say yes? As a child I was always making up my own games, writing crazy song lyrics and telling tall tales, but my first career ambition was to be a cook – which, aged seven, I called ‘a cooker’ – in a professional kitchen. I didn’t follow through on that, as my family can certainly attest, because thirty-five-year-old me can barely open that tin of beans.
At fourteen, my second career ambition was to be a forensic scientist (I was reading a lot of Patricia Cornwell at the time) – until the school career advisor told me I’d have to study Chemistry at university and I’d have to look at dead bodies professionally.
I played the violin for many years at music school and then at university, practising for more than six hours a day; I graduated with a degree in Classical Music, and my secret dream – and third career ambition – was to write film music.
That didn’t happen for one reason or another, and after a few years working in the music industry it was really when I started an anonymous blog in 2008 which, for the era, gained quite a large audience, and I started experimenting with voice and style and discovered the thrill when a stranger would email to say ‘you described exactly how I felt’. That type of connection is why we create in any field – music, writing, (cooking?), and without doubt the best part of having a novel published is the readers.
So, Hold Back the Stars – tell us a little about the story?
Hold Back the Stars is the story of Max and Carys, a couple who are falling in space with only ninety minutes of air remaining, intercut with memories of their love affair on a utopian Earth. The novel moves between Earth and space – it has been described as ‘Gravity meets One Day’. Set in the near future, Europe has become a multicultural utopia where individuals must move every three years and live alone. Max and Carys meet and, against the rules, fall in love too young. As they fight to stay together, they also fight to stay alive in space. As their air ticks down, one is offered the chance of salvation – but which?
And what was your inspiration behind the book?
I’ve always been fascinated by space and run outside to watch the International Space Station pass overhead whenever I can. I came up with the idea of a couple falling through the stars in 2012, as I liked the idea of two people set against the backdrop of a vacuum (‘two pointillist specks on an infinitely dark canvas’), but I knew there wasn’t quite enough there for a whole novel, at the time. It was during the London 2012 Olympic Games, when the country took on that special, electric atmosphere, that I decided to write a version of Europe that had that Olympic electric vibrancy all the time. I realised they were two halves of the same story – space, and a future version of Europe – hence Hold Back the Stars alternates between Max and Carys falling in space, fighting to survive, and Max and Carys living in a futuristic version of Europe (‘Europia’), where settling down is discouraged until later on in life. The novel explores individualism, first love, heartbreak, and imagines the removal of social pressure on women to have babies and get married young.
How long did it take to complete – did you have to lock yourself away?
I wrote sporadically at first, sketching out the structure for Hold Back the Stars and working out how to balance two timelines within one novel. As a reader I hate it when I’m just getting into a story and then the author yanks me out and drops me somewhere else – so it was important the Earth and space scenes balanced and felt connected (as well as being equally interesting!). It took a few years to get the whole novel down and in a reasonable shape to send it out into the world – to agents, and then publishers. As I have a day job working in the film industry, I write mainly in the evenings between 9-11pm, and on weekends. It can be pretty gruelling and sometimes I have to force myself to sit down at my desk, but writing is always better if you visit the world of your story each day. That way it stays fresh, and the words consistent.
You’re quite the wordsmith, so do you often find yourself correcting people’s grammar?
I’ve learned the hard way that nobody likes a pedant. Nobody will thank you for correcting them; it often means you weren’t listening, because you were too busy focusing on the order of the words. In place of correcting people, I spent years finding my tribe of fellow grammar pedants, and send them screengrabs of errors that irk me instead, via WhatsApp. I believe that’s the true meaning of the inspirational quote ‘find your tribe’.
We loved spending the day with our authors! What was your favourite item from the shoot?
Thank you very much for having me! It was such a thrill, and I loved some of the details in the bookshop, like the section full of beautiful globes. I tend to dress very casually – my usual daily ‘uniform’ is jeans, a striped top, and trainers – so dressing up was a bit of a revelation. The floral dress I’m wearing is so comfortable and easy to wear! I love a long sleeve, and the midi length means you could probably wear it with any shoe going – maybe even with my favourite trainers.
Which literary heroine do you admire?
Gosh, where to even start? As I’m writing novels in the speculative genre, I’ve recently been re-reading and watching the excellent The Handmaid’s Tale. I was struck by how prescient it was, despite being written in the Eighties; I read an interview with Margaret Atwood where she said she didn’t call on anything that didn’t exist somewhere in history for the story. That’s why it feels so real. Just when you think ‘that could never happen’, she quotes the Bible or plucks something from our murky history to show that it already did… a masterclass in how to write futurism.
If you had to pick a book title to sum up your personality, what would it be?
Oooh, this is a good question. And a hard one. I don’t know, it depends on the day of the week, or what mood I’m in… I wish I could pick something funny – but I can’t! I think writing s revealed that I’m a fan of love stories and more emotional than I thought. I hate schmaltzy romance, but I adore stories where characters fight for the people they love. I didn’t know that about myself, before I wrote it. I used to turn my nose up at it. So I think I’d have to choose What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, by Raymond Carver. Because I didn’t know for all these years that every good book, and every brilliant story, whether it’s set against the backdrop of war or in a fantasy world, is really talking about love. Without it, there are no stakes, and no heart.
And finally… text speak – yay or nay?
I like the way language evolves across time and generations. It isn’t static – it’s fluid. Abbreviations smooth the rhythm, they make language faster to read. But text speak makes it harder to read; we stumble over the harsh, truncated words, trying to decipher their meaning, sounding out a number that has replaced a letter (which I h8). So it’s a nay for text speak, because it’s terrible and user-unfriendly, but a yay for the lols and the baes and all the words we think are stupid, because the generations older than us laughed when we said ‘cool’ was good and ‘wicked’ was good, too.
Besotted by Katie’s bestselling blooms? Snap up your own and SO much more here.