Catherine Menon graduated from the MA in 2018. Her debut novel, Fragile Monsters, is published by Viking on the day of the reading itself. A spellbinding story set between World War II and contemporary Malaysia, it has been described as “supple, artful, skilful storytelling” by Hilary Mantel, while Colm Toíbín called it “a brilliant novel about homecoming and the layered unstable pat that haunts and hurts”. Catherine is Australian-British with Malaysian heritage. As well as holding her MA in Creative Writing from City, she holds a PhD in Pure Mathematics and lectures in robotics.
Can you tell me about your time at City?
I was in the 2016 – 2018 literary fiction cohort, which meant the course was structured slightly differently to how it runs now. For the first semester we had shorter, week-by-week assignments, which were brilliant in terms of getting us to write regularly! There’s nothing like a four-day deadline to wholly concentrate the mind. I didn’t start writing my novel until around mid-2017, which in hindsight I’m very glad of. In the first year we had a lot of exposure to different forms of writing and different theories of structure and plot, which turned out to be truly helpful when I did begin to write. I was part of a fantastic cohort, and we used to meet in smaller groups to critique work – or just to encourage each other to keep going! Most of us are still in contact now, and it’s been truly amazing to watch all these brilliant novels take shape.
What happened after you graduated?
The first thing I did was to revise my manuscript again! The final feedback from tutors was invaluable, as this was the first time anyone had read the whole thing from start to finish. I was lucky enough to win the annual prize, which gave me enough motivation to work on for another month or so, polishing and editing. I then sent it off to my absolute top choice agent, Zoe Waldie from Rogers, Coleridge & White. She asked me to come and have a chat with her, and by November I had my dream agent. It was a whirlwind, and I was very lucky in everything coming together at just the right time.
Describe your book in a sentence.
Fragile Monsters is a novel of mathematics and folklore, tracing one family’s story through Malaysia’s turbulent history.
What is the opening line?
“A slap. A cry. Distress, which seems a poor enough start to things.”
How did the idea for your book come about?
The genesis of Fragile Monsters was in the stories my own father used to tell me about his childhood in Pahang, Malaysia, during the war. It was only as an adult that I began to understand the context of these stories. Kuala Lipis, where he grew up, was the headquarters of the Japanese army in Pahang during the occupation. I began to read interviews and memoirs of other Malaysians who had lived through that time, and I was struck by the by the different ways in which each of the speakers described the same events. There was a very significant and personal context underlying each of these recollections: these people were, quite simply, describing the emotional truth of what had happened to them. I was fascinated by this idea, and wanted to explore the gaps between each of these accounts; the story under the story.
What has been the biggest challenge with regard to writing your book?
Finding time to write! I have a full-time day job (I’m a lecturer in robotics), and I’ve found the best way to make time for writing is to get to it early in the morning. I usually start at 5am, before my mind’s become muddied with words and administration and emails. I think this is probably something all writers can relate to: however much you might truly want to write, life keeps getting in the way!
What has been the most rewarding aspect of the experience?
Finishing that first draft felt utterly amazing. I think it was extra-special because everyone from the City cohort was finishing up at the same time in order to submit. It felt as though we were all crossing some momentous finish line together.
Do you have any advice for anyone looking to follow in your footsteps?
Keep reading! Sometimes reading can feel like wasted effort: you worry you’re not reading the “right” books, or you’re not reading them well enough. Don’t give in to that worry: whatever you read and however you read it, those words will plunge into your brain and enrich your own writing just when you least expect it.