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Catherine O'Flynn, author of the prize-winning "What Was Lost", is Birmingham born 
and bred.  Rather than setting her first novel in London, or overseas, she chose to 
set it in Birmingham, and it was published by local firm Tindal Street Press in January  2007. 
Prior to the publication of "What Was Lost" Catherine had a variety of jobs including   deputy manager of a record shop, post woman, web editor, teacher and mystery shopper.  She still lives and works in Birmingham.
"What Was Lost" was long listed for the 2007 Man Booker Prize for Fiction and the
Orange Prize for Fiction, and shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award. It won the Jelf Group First Novel Award at the Guildford Book Festival and the First Novel prize at the Costa Book Awards in January 2008. In April 2008 she was named Newcomer of the Year at the Galaxy British Book Awards. I met Catherine at the Birmingham Book Festival quiz a few years back, but it was only when I went to a talk she did at the University English Department that I plucked up the courage to get my book signed and ask if she'd do an interview. And she said yes!

LB: What inspired you to write "What Was Lost"?

CO’F: I was working at Merry Hill Shopping Centre and became fascinated by the place. Obviously I’d been in many shopping centres over the years as a shopper, but only when I worked in one did I start to see the strangeness – the contrast between the daytime hordes and the nocturnal silence, the differing conditions for workers and shoppers, the feeling of always being watched, the industrial past buried beneath it. It both fascinated and appalled me. One day I heard a story that an image of a child had been seen on the centre’s CCTV monitors in the middle of the night. The child was nowhere to be found – the image was a ghost or a dream or a hallucination on the part of the security guard. Something about that image really resonated with me, it seemed to bring together a lot of the thoughts I’d been having about the centre, about its malevolence, its melancholy and the sense in which people were lost there in quite profound ways. That was the start of writing the novel. 

LB: I *knew* it was Merry Hill!  Have you always wanted to be a writer?

CO’F: No, I don’t think it ever even occurred to me as something real people did. I enjoyed writing and I thought that meant journalism, but after half heartedly trying that for just a couple of years I realised I lacked virtually all the qualities necessary – chief amongst them a sense that there was any point to it (well particularly to the kind of stuff I was doing). I was never very career minded, so I drifted off into various odd jobs, ending up in the shopping centre.

LB: Why Birmingham as a setting? What reaction have you had to your use of the city as a background to the book?

CO’F: Birmingham is the place I know best but it’s also somewhere that fascinates me, in particular the city’s compulsive urge to constantly reinvent itself. To grow up here is to to grow up in a constant state of nostalgia for all the things that have gone or are in the process of vanishing. I wanted to write about the landscape I remembered from my childhood in Nechells –that interim period between the industrial and post-industrial phases when my dad’s shop (which we lived above) was surrounded by wasteland and empty factories. I suppose it was bleak, but I’m very wistful about that landscape – it was a wonderful playground for a child. I wanted to record it.

LB:   How would *you* describe your book?  It doesn’t really fit into any genres, does it!

CO’F: I never really thought about genre when I was writing it. It was one of the many ways in which I was entirely clueless,  I just wanted to tell that particular story. I didn’t realise how important genre was to the book industry.

So I can’t describe it in terms of genre, only in terms of its story, as that’s what it is to me.

LB:  Who is your favourite author?  And your favourite character in a  novel?

CO’F: I’m incapable of picking just one author. Some of my favourites are David Foster Wallace, Kurt Vonnegut, Mervyn Peake, Cormac McCarthy, Gordon Burn, Patricia Highsmith, Toni Morrison, Alice Munroe, Kazuo Ishiguro.

Similarly I don’t have a single favourite character, but I  have a great fondness for Rudy Waltz, Kurt Vonnegut’s narrator in ‘Deadeye Dick’. Vonnegut advised writers to make awful things happen to their characters, and I think poor Rudy bears the brunt of this.

LB:  If you could steal one character from fiction to put into your own books, who would it be?

CO’F: I think there are too many possibilities. Today the answer is Ignatius J. Reilly. 

LB: What is your opinion of book blogs and "word-of-mouth" as opposed to"official" means of marketing and promotion?

CO’F: Everyone knows how easy it is for a book to sink without trace if it doesn’t have a hefty marketing budget behind it or if it fails to make the chain store promotions. Book bloggers who seek out books, who see beyond the big promotions and who can then write clearly and honestly about those books and enthuse other readers about them are a powerful antidote to that. I feel the same way about passionately run independent bookstores. ‘What Was Lost’ really benefitted from the support of members of both those communities who definitely helped bring it to wider notice.

LB: What’s next? Do you have something new in the pipeline?

CO’F: I’m just finishing my second novel. I think I’m obliged to refer to it as the ‘disappointing second novel’ as that tends to be the pattern. I had ridiculous good fortune with the first one so I’m probably due a bit of a kicking with this one. It’s set in Birmingham and it’s concerned primarily with ageing and how we treat old things – both people and buildings.

This answer demonstrates why I should never write back cover blurb.

LB: Don’t believe that for a second! And I’m sure we’re all looking forward to it! Thank you for a great interview!

[sorry about the layout – the interview works OK but LJ is playing around with my line feeds!]