Interview with Catherine Therese

Being understanding even in the most challenging circumstances.

By Louise Sapphira

There is not one emotion to explain how a reader can feel, because it can be based on the perspective taken.

One way to describe Catherine Therese’s fictional novel Things She Would Have Said Herself is that it gives so many layers to the characters. The novel is about the Bird family but also the painful experiences that people go through. Leslie Bird, the main protagonist, was born in the 1930s. The novel shows how Leslie’s youth has influenced her today and those around her. Furthermore, the characters and the events that surround them in this novel have a sense of reality. The reactions of the characters to behaviours illuminate their many different perspectives. Whilst, the audience is thrown into a world they might not always relate to, they can at least start to reflect on judgements often made and instead begin the road to understanding.

When I spoke with Catherine, we discussed the motivation behind why she wrote Things She Would Have Said Herself.

She said, ‘I’ve written a novel about a bunch of pretty crazy people who are living at the limits of their own understanding and what life has offered them.’ She added, ‘In much the same way I think that’s why I’m a writer, because I’m living at the limits of my understanding, and writing allows me to progress past that by placing myself inside of other characters to try to understand them.’ Catherine discussed her obsessions as a writer which is ‘understanding others, and particularly this generation that I’ve written about who was born in the 1930s, and dwindling…and they’re taking their language and their life experiences with them.’ She added, ‘I was trying to create a space to hold some of that generation’s essence, the kind of people that I have experienced and observed throughout my life.’ Catherine explained, ‘There’s a lot of really challenging characters in this book, but…understanding each other allows us to change the way we feel about things and our own behaviours and live with more empathy towards one another.’

Her obsession with family dynamics is another reason Catherine wrote this novel. She added, ‘Our families are our first world experience…when you’re a child, your first experience of the world is the people around you…then the second and third worlds are your internal world and…the [external] world outside.’ Woven within the narrative is ‘trying to reconcile those three worlds’.

The exploration of a particular generation is done through the character Leslie Bird. Catherine said, ‘She’s a composite of many women, that I’ve observed over my life. I should say upfront it is vital that we’re looking at women who haven’t had the same opportunities that we have.’ Leslie grew up during the depression and a ‘time [that] promised her that motherhood and marriage would bring her great fulfillment.’ The novel is about, ‘What would it be like to be of that generation. And now being judged by future generations who never know the times that you lived through.’ She added, ‘It’s more implicit in the book than explicit.’ With Leslie, ‘I was hoping to write about someone who stockpiled all of those ideas without any cognizance.’

Martha ‘another cantankerous older woman’ who is Leslie Bird’s older sister in the novel, also connects with what this story is about. Catherine explained, ‘There’s a line at the beginning of the book. It’s actually a Muriel Rukeyser’s quote which I have had with me for years, which is:

‘What would happen if one woman told the truth of her life? The world would split open.’

She added this is ‘very much what the book’s about.’ That is, women ‘daring to talk about their disappointments.’ Catherine continued, ‘These are women who are standing in judgement of everybody else around them in quite awful ways…and yet they’re also capable of kindness and generosity, and looking after one another and exploring that aspect of their humanity.’

Catherine discussed the ‘love-hate relationship between’ Martha and Leslie, a result of having a mother who was not always able to look after the both of them. She continued, ‘The two sisters made a pact in life, that how they would care for each other’s bodies if the unthinkable happened, and one of them should die.’ In line with the theme of understanding, she said there is ‘so often such a gap between our intentions and our actions…I really wanted to play with that in this book. The ideas that people have of themselves, and then what they actually do in response to when they’re placed in a difficult situation.’

Catherine continued discussing this relationship and connecting with the themes of the novel. ‘One way to describe Things She Would Have Said Herself, isthis is a book about a woman who will go to any lengths to ignore her own and other people’s pain. And this is a family in a lot of pain.’

Earlier in the interview, Catherine discussed how she is at the limits of her understanding. ‘I grew up in a household where there was a lot of pain…and I think writing became a way of confirming reality to myself.’ She continued, ‘My other life outside of writing is design, and I think that plays into my work as well…All the things that I use in my design work are really inherent in my writing.’

The events in the novel are just as shocking whilst also truthful as the personalities portrayed in Things She Would Have Said Herself. Depression and its impact are reflected in more than one scenario, including suicide. The tormenting experience of a baby’s death is written about in such a thought-provoking way, that will make your hands tremble whilst holding the book. Again this is done in more than one scene. Leslie’s husband Wallace is explored through how he shows his love in these circumstances. The relationships that Leslie has outside of the marriage are also woven within these stories. Catherine said, ‘I kind of almost felt like it was a circle of stories, [with] losses at the centre of the book and these people’s lives.’ This brings us back to the notion of understanding, the underlying theme of the novel.

When reading Things She Would Have Said Herself, Catherine explained, ‘I would love if it…gave people a different perspective on that, on loss.’ She continued, ‘I’m hoping to inspire and encourage thought about those things, about the family dynamic. Who are we within the first world.’ She added, ‘I guess it’s asking a lot of readers…to ask them to lean in and go on this ride with this bunch of crazy people…to encourage understanding.’

Catherine commented it took more than ten years to write the book about the Bird family and explained the grief from stepping back from the novel. ‘I lived with these imaginary characters for more than a decade…and then when you’re no longer with them, there’s an incredible…grief.’ We discussed the characters she related to most, and Catherine said ‘All of them are me, and none of them are me.’

The next book Catherine is currently working on is ‘something completely different.’ She explained, ‘It’s about Obama’s dog trainer, a Sammy Davis Jr. impersonator, and an Australian writer, all meeting up together in San Francisco in a bar and spending the night together…and only two of them make it out alive…it has the potential to be quite a political book.’ She added, ‘I don’t know where it’s going…it excites me when I don’t know what I’m doing…there’s a liberation in that, don’t you think?’ This sense of cathartic writing is present in Things She Would Have Said Herself. However, I feel it is not only about having the words on a page but giving the reader moments to either cry, laugh, or perhaps be shocked. The audience might walk away at times, but be encouraged to come back to a shared understanding.