Stonyhurst teacher Catherine Robinson’s debut novel is up for comedy award

Teacher Catherine Robinson with horses
Teacher Catherine Robinson with horses
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Catherine Robinson worked for decades as a teacher before her first book, a comic novel, was published. She tells Fiona Finch of her joy at being shortlisted for a top award and why she has never lost her love of teaching

It is no laughing matter, but then again it is.

Catherine's book 'Forging On'

Catherine's book 'Forging On'

While writing may be a serious business, for Lancashire based novelist Catherine Robinson it pays to see the funny side of life too.

The part-time teacher at Stonyhurst College at Hurst Green, near Preston, was delighted to learn that her first published novel Forging On had been longlisted for the national Comedy Women In Print award.

The shortlisting puts Catherine, full title Dr Catherine Robinson, in the company of some acclaimed writers including Gail Honeyman, author of Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine and AJ Pearce, longlisted for Dear Mrs Bird.

She says: “I’m among some very respected names in writing so I’m thoroughly delighted to be nominated, I’m honoured and humbled to be in their company.”

Teacher and author  Catherine Robinson

Teacher and author Catherine Robinson

The new literary award was created by actress and comic Helen Lederer to bring exposure and recognition for women’s comedy fiction.

Catherine’s novel, published by Orion, has been described as “the perfect holiday poolside read” and Catherine believes there is a lot of unnecessary ”sniffiness “about writing and a good read is just that.

It was her son’s experience as a young farrier which provided the inspiration for the novel. She says: “My son trained as an apprentice farrier in Yorkshire.”

His stories of his fledgling career entertained the family and Catherine realised he was working with an absolute cross section of society from all income groups and backgrounds: “When he came and told us these stories they were not to entertain us but a way of expiating his trauma.”

Catherine noted them down so they were not forgotten. By the time he qualified there were five years of often humorous anecdotes, kept purely as a record of her son’s first steps into the working world, with no initial intention they provide fodder for a comic novel.

She gained a PhD in Creative Writing at Lancaster University, combining her studies with teaching part-time: “I started about 12 years ago - it took me three and a half years.”

The PhD was, she says, helpful in gaining an appreciation of how best to write. She recalls her tutor “could spot blind alleys” before she did: “It meant my work became less trial and error.”

For her PhD she had written a book on a more serious subject, using research materials which were also close to home in the Stonyhurst archives, about the explorer, naturalist and conservationist Charles Waterton who was educated at Stonyhurst.

She has, she says, tried to retire once, but missed the buzz of the classroom and the joys of teaching young people.

What going part-time has provided her with is time to write: “I still really do enjoy teaching. I tried to give it up completely and realised I missed the pupils. What teachers don’t necessarily realise is when they leave the classroom is how much their youthful outlook and energy rubs off on them.”

She says she also values seeing things through young eyes as teenagers discover ideas.

Catherine snatches time to write when she can. In term time this can be an hour a day, in school holidays more like three hours: “I think I probably write slower than a lot of my agent’s other clients.”

She can be mucking out her horses or gardening at her Ribble Valley home as she mulls storylines in her mind and how to structure and link her story: “It ticks over ... a lot of whirring in the background, when I pick up a pen I can rattle it down.”

The first draft is always written in longhand: “I’m probably a bit of a fossil. I like to be able to see what I’ve crossed out. I think that ability to turn something into a story was something I learned from childhood. My grandmother was a great storyteller. It’s simply a way of looking at the world.”

She has always had horses and bred them and also at one time had a small flock of Derbyshire Gritstone sheep who kept the land grazed by her horses in better condition.

A Lancashire lass, Catherine was educated at a convent school in Accrington before gaining a BEd at Christ’s College, Liverpool. With three decades of teaching English and drama in schools and colleges behind her she taught at a comprehensive in Manchester, a sixth form in Stockport, and high schools in Accrington and Oswaldtwisle, before teaching at Stonyhurst.

She is looking forward to speaking at the first Stonyhurst Literature and Film Festival on August 16/17 at Stonyhurst College on turning fact into fiction.

After 'Forging On' she turned her attention to another book on a more serious topic, which she says, had been a long time in the making, but adds: “There is sometimes wit and humour and energy in places you don’t expect it. It’s one of the ways people cope in dark situations in their life.”

She has not found a publisher for the original Waterton book yet: “I’m quite used to rejection letters. You send off (a manuscript) quite expecting to be rejected...it goes with the territory. It’s so different from the last two I’ve written which are very light. That’s more literary fiction. A novel adaptation of his life.

“It could be if by chance I were to win this award and my name became more known I would revisit it and look at it. There’s probably something I’ve missed which is what has stopped publishers picking this up previously.”

The success of getting shortlisted has she says brought her to the recognition yes, she is a writer: “It’s a female thing, an imposter syndrome. I still feel I’m pretending to be a writer. But this award is the first validation and maybe I should take myself a tad more seriously as (it) being a real career.”

* There are 12 novels on the Comedy Women in Print longlist. The shortlist will be announced on May 30. The winner will be announced on July 10.

* Catherine’s son Joe, whom she says she placed on a pony as soon as he could stand up, now works as a farrier on the A59 corridor through Lancashire and Yorkshire, travelling further afield as work demands.