I’ve been lucky enough to chat to the lovely Katarina West this week, who released her debut novel, Witchcraft Couture, on the 19th November 2014. If you haven’t checked out Katarina’s amazing novel then you must do so NOW. I’m hugely excited about reading this book and I must admit it sounds amazing just from the synopsis – I’m hooked already! For now it’s over to Katarina as we talk fashion, our mutual love for Sophie Kinsella and magical costume-transforming machines…
Thanks Holly; I’m happy to be here! Bookaholic Confessions seem like a perfect escape, all bubbly and cosy, and it makes me want to curl up under a blanket with a little bit of chocolate and the latest Sophie Kinsella… Very dangerous.
But a few words about me. I’m a novelist and a journalist. I was born in Helsinki, Finland, studied in London, and I currently live in an old isolated farmhouse in Chianti with my husband and son, a hairy mop of a shepherd dog – and a German ghost. (Which means that you might hear some German murmured on a moonlit November night…) Nowadays I work as a full-time novelist, and when not writing, I’m fully immersed in Tuscan country life, from jam-making and olive-picking to tractor maintenance.
Can you tell us a bit about your debut novel, Witchcraft Couture (released 20th November 2014)?
It’s a story of a talented yet insecure fashion designer who in the midst of his umpteenth creative block finds a magical machine that transforms even the most ordinary clothes into sartorial triumphs. He starts to use it, secretly… and before he knows it, he has become a celebrity and one of the Big Names of Italian fashion. But instead of living happily ever after as the new Giorgio Armani or Miuccia Prada, he finds himself living in the darkness of his own secret and fighting for his sanity.
Witchcraft Couture is about the age-old question of whether there is a short-cut to glory and success. Sooner or later, you must pay a price.
I love the synopsis for Witchcraft Couture, it sounds like brilliant read. What inspired you to come up with the story and what gave you the idea of a magical machine that transforms outfits?
Maybe because in the past I’ve suffered from creative blocks and destroyed my texts because a self-censor told me that they weren’t good enough. And then one day I started to think creative blocks in a larger context and ask myself what would happen if a creative person – an artist or a writer or a composer – had a guaranteed Midas touch so that anything he or she touched would turn to gold. And it was such a fascinating premise for a story I just had to go on. I had to create a fictional world around that idea.
As far as the Sampo – the magical machine in Witchcraft Couture – is concerned, that’s not my invention at all. It’s actually the heart of the Finnish national epic called the Kalevala. Of course in the epic the Sampo isn’t a dress-making machine but a money-spinner, or simply an occult tool, and whoever possesses it, is the richest and most powerful person in the world. It’s a little like Tolkien’s Ring. Actually, Tolkien was a great fan of the Kalevala, and taught himself some Finnish so that he could read the Kalevala in its original language.
How did you go about doing your research into the fashion industry?
Reading, reading, and reading. I read plenty about twentieth century fashion, which I absolutely love, because it’s full of strange destinies, colourful collections and larger-than-life characters. (One of my favourite books in this category is Elsa Schiaparelli’s Shocking Life. It’s her autobiography, and a great read because her life was just so astonishing.) I even studied manuals for aspiring fashion designers and the latest research on textile technology and at times I was so excited about my discoveries that I nearly forgot that I was just doing research for a novel.
And I interviewed fashion designers, which was fairly easy to organise, because I live in Italy and fashion is a huge business here. This was one of the most inspiring parts of the research, and I can’t help but feel deep admiration for fashion designers, because the pace of their work is just so ruthless. It’s one thing to publish a book every year, or even every two years. But trying to churn out as many as eight collections per year, and not lose your creativity.
I am, not the least because here in Italy fashion is such a big thing: during the Milan fashion week the big names of Italian fashion are interviewed on television, and if a collection does well, you’re bound to hear about it.
Yet when I started writing Witchcraft Couture I began to follow fashion more closely (what has happened and when, and who has designed what), and now that the novel is finished, I can’t get rid of that old habit! Maybe that’s because the fashion world is so mesmerising; glamorous and fickle and… yes, magical.
Can you tell us a bit about your journey to publication?
Many novelists start a new story by first imagining the main character. For me it was the other way round: it was the idea that came first, and the protagonist – Oscar Pellegrini – came only later on. This meant that I had to go through quite a number of drafts before Oscar had the shape and soul I had initially intended. So Oscar and I have been through many changes and revisions, and it almost feels nostalgic now to say goodbye to him.
How does it feel to have your book out in the big, wide world?
Honestly? It’s like when my son started nursery school for the first time! You’re proud and happy and thrilled that that big day has finally arrived, but at the same time, also a tiny bit worried that something might happen to him, that he might get sick or not eat anything at all or not close the zipper of his coat when everyone goes to play outside! The excitement and the fear is something nearly parental: you’ve been nursing your novel for such a long time, and now it’s time to let go.
What do you think you would be doing if you weren’t a writer?
I have a doctorate in humanitarian studies and was actually already doing an internship at the International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva when Life decided differently – decided that I wasn’t meant to be an aid worker in a war zone but a novelist in an old farmhouse in Chianti. (But that’s a different story for a different day.) Another big dream of mine has been architecture. I used to paint and in my teens debated with myself which comes first, art or books. (Books won.) That probably explains why it was fairly easy for me to put myself into the shoes of a fashion designer, and see the world from the point of view of a thoroughly aesthetic person.
Who are your favourite authors and what kind of books do you enjoy reading?
If there’s one word to describe me as a reader, that’s… bookaholic. (Which is why I feel so much at home here!) But truly, I am omnivorous when it comes to reading. If the story is well-written, it’s for me. It doesn’t matter if it’s commercial or literary fiction or suspense or chick lit or an old brick of a classic. That’s why I love dozens and dozens of authors, and they all make me laugh and cry and think, and they all have something to teach me as a novelist.
And you know, going back to the metaphor of chocolate, books are a little bit like food. Just as you must have comfort food and healthy food and posh-Sunday-dinner food, you’ve got to have comfort reading and inspiring reading and once-in-a-lifetime-kind-of reading. Each category is important.
And finally – can you tell us a bit about what you’re working on at the moment?
Yes, certainly – my next novel is called Absolute Truth, for Beginners and it will be out next year. At the same time I’m blogging about the same truth-seeking subject in my website http://katarinawest.com, and trying to put down every truth I know about life, no matter how big or small.
Absolute Truth, for Beginners is a coming-of-age story of a young graduate who desperately – and disastrously! – falls in love with a famous scientist, and that roller-coaster of a love affair helps her to find her own voice in life. She really is such a likable character, with a bubbly and funny narrative voice, and every time I think that I can spend the entire winter and spring in her company, I feel like the most privileged person in the world.
Thank you so much for participating in this interview, Katarina, it’s greatly appreciated and I’m really excited to have you on my blog!
Thank you for you! Wish you all some great bookaholic moments!
Don’t forget to get your copy of Katarina’s debut novel, Withcraft Couture.