Sunday Times Books LIVE Community Sign up

Login to Sunday Times Books LIVE

Forgotten password?

Forgotten your password?

Enter your username or email address and we'll send you reset instructions

Sunday Times Books LIVE

Cat Hellisen

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

game of twenty-one questions

 (It’s like Game of Thrones but with less incest.)

So for Short Story Day Africa, we’re doing some fun little questions. Nothing I say in here can be used against me, okay?

  1. Do you actually enjoy writing, or do you write because you like the finished product?

 I like the finished product. I’m quite happy to dream all my stories, but there’s a hugely egotistical part of me that goes, “Hey, other people should totally read this!” So I make myself write.

  1. What are you reading right now? And are you enjoying it? (No cheating and saying something that makes you sound like the intelligensia).

 Catherynne M. Valente’s In the Night Garden, which I’m quite enjoying. It’s a Scheherazade-ish nesting of tales within tales, and quite lovely, if a little cluttered in style for my tastes.

  1. Have you ever killed off a character and regretted it?

 Never. I love killing characters.

  1. If you could have any of your characters over for dinner, which would it be and why?

Probably none of them. I’d quite like to have them all in one room eating each other for dinner, while I watched.

  1. Which one of your characters would you never invite into your home and why?

 A man named Shoom. You can never trust anyone called Shoom.

  1. Ernest Hemingway said: write drunk, edit sober. For or against?

 My typing is bad enough. If I had to write drunk I’d just be setting myself up for the trauma of trying to work out what I was saying.

  1. If against, are you for any other mind altering drug?

Ha! I think the answer might be in my books.

  1. Our adult competition theme if Feast, Famine and Potluck. Have you ever put food in your fiction? If so, what part did it play in the story?

I always end up mentioning food but generally not for any deep purposes. I was hungry.

  1. What’s the most annoying question anyone’s ever asked you in an interview?

 I think S.A. Partridge nailed it in her interview – any variation on “Where do you get your inspiration from?” But I also hate questions like…icecream or pizza? Like what? I don’t give a shit, ask me something relevant.

  1. If you could be any author other than yourself, who would you be?

 I would like to be the unholy and deranged test-tube child of Margaret Atwood and Clive Barker.

  1. If you could go back in time and erase one thing you had written from your writing history, what would it be and why?

 Eh…even the really crap stuff was just stepping stones. Maybe my dodgy Harry Potter/Snape fanfic, which I can’t access to delete because I have lost my password.

  1. What’s the most blatant lie you’ve ever told?

 I lie for a living, so it all gets confusing after a while.

  1. If someone reviews you badly, do you write them into your next book/story and kill them?

 Haha no.

  1. What’s your favourite bad reviewer revenge fantasy?

 I’ve already lived it. I looked at their writing.


  1. What’s the most frustrating thing about being a writer in Africa?

 Being so far away from the big cons and not having that connection with editors/agents/publishers that other overseas writers seem to be able to build up. Oh, and certain expectations that overseas readers will have about your themes and stories.

  1. Have you ever written naked?

 I have written naked, but discreetly covered in glitter. Also, see #12.

  1. Does writing sex scenes make you blush?

 Not blush….but I can squick myself out with all the finger violence.

  1. Who would play you in the film of your life?

 Someone really good at making dull movies interesting.

  1. If you won the Caine Prize for African Fiction, what would you do with the money?

I’d roll around in it for a bit, then probably order pizza. Beyond that would require thought.

  1. What do you consider your best piece of work to date?

 A little book about a person and a memory of a person falling in love after the world ends.

  1. What are you doing on 21 June 2013, to celebrate Short Story Day Africa?

 I think I shall write a little drabble, just to get into the spirit of things. It will be about when Harry Potter and Severus Snape first realised the true depth of their love for each other. (Also, see #12.)

seven hundred and fifty reasons to join

Yesterday on twitter I decided to resurrect the old 750 words a day practice so I would stop slacking with this novel.

I first came across it on LJ a few years back, when Elizabeth Bear had an lj comm where people would track their goals and encourage each other. I don’t even know if that comm still functions, and if it does, I felt it would be a little weird to just barrel in there now.

Instead I was going to track on twitter and the goal was really to get people to join in, to foster that camaraderie and community that comes with sharing our goals and applauding the efforts of others, but then…poor twitterfeed. Hahaha.

So I’ve decided to make a small bare-bones forum where people can track their progress with their 750 words a day, and get imaginary gin after.

it’s here: sevenfifty. if you’d like to join in. I’m looking forward to it.

two-tone shoes

I’m working on two tonally very different books at the moment, which makes dreaming weird. The stories keep folding into each other in the small hours and I’m left wondering about curiosities and art and clockwork and charm.

The one book is a young adult urban fantasy. I guess. I mean, it doesn’t have vampires or angels or fairies in it. It does have a (maybe) dead man in a leather trench-coat and a girl with serious issues in the crush-department. Also, rats. Lots of rats. And the other is adult set in a secondary world, and much more traditional fantasy, whatever that means. (It means it has dragons, I suppose.)

I find it easier to work on the YA in the morning when I’m feeling bitter and filled with hate for the world. Angry Cat likes to lash out. In the afternoon, once the coffee has soothed me, I can tackle the more intricate world of the other book.

It’s kind interesting seeing how my mood affects what I’m working on.


So the morning voice:


Rain sits close, and leans back on the palms of his hands, relaxed. “Sit, he won’t bite you,” he says.

“I’ll start at the beginning,” Caleb says.

Well, I guess we have time enough. “What’s that – Genesis?”

“I have the art,” he says, simply. Like I’m supposed to know what that means.

“Great,” I say. “Good for you.”

“There are very few of us who can use the art and charm people and things with magic and music.” His face is very serious. “And not all of us are nice.”

“Tell me about it.” I hope my sarcasm is showing because, really.

“Some of us are dangerous.” He sighs, leans back. “All you need to know is that one of those dangerous and not-nice people is in Joburg right now, and that’s why I’m here. He has something I want. I was in Egypt when I heard the rumour that he had risen here again and that he was looking for someone, and I came down. For a while, I had his scent, and then I lost it.”

“What happened?” The room feels unreal.

Caleb shifts, the smoke clouding around him, obscuring his face. “The most prosaic of endings,” he says. “I’d been back here a week when I was hit by a taxi.”

It was him. He surprises a choked laugh out of me. “I thought you have this art thing; couldn’t use it to step out of the way of a hurtling mini-bus?”

He draws on his cig and says nothing.

“So you were dead,” I prompt. Under my shirt, the icy pendant seems to be sinking right into my skin, burning a cold hole all the way to my breastbone. “That must have put a damper on your plans. What are you now – a zombie? Let me guess, you ate Rain’s brains and now he’s a zombie too. Except,” I glare at Rain, “slim pickings.”

Rain just flicks his middle finger at me, lazy, unconcerned.

And the afternoon voice:

“I cannot rule you with a name like Tet-Nanak,” she says sourly, “and you know it.”

“And I have no name to give you in exchange for my soul.”

“Then we have no bargain.” She drops her hand and turns to look at me. Her eyes are slanted and large, her eyebrows like the wings of birds. Her nose is long and narrow. She is a handsome woman despite the pale skin.

“Then I will die.” I’m desperate. She must give me my soul back. All she can do with it is torture me to a slow nameless death. Perhaps she is petty enough to think that fitting. “I cannot tell you my name, but I can promise to help you retrieve the breastplate Shoom is paying you for.”

“You think you know everything, Tet-Nanak,” she says softly, and her breath is cold and her hair is fragrant as seven-petals. “You would be wrong.”

“Give me my soul.” It is close enough to grab, and casting all instinct aside, I reach up and close my hand around it, willing the magic out from the stone and back into me.

Kani laughs and catches my wrist with her right hand. It is very cold and hard, and she crushes my grip easily, She is stronger than I could ever have realised. “It will not work until it rests around your own neck.” I can’t see the wards on her skin, not now, but I can feel myself being shifted back, pushed away. She lets go of my hand and uses her magic to send me backward.

“Please,” I say, broken. I will beg, if I have to. I have no pride left, just the empty prospect of my approaching end.

Kani turns to hold the fur at Nanak’s neck, and swings herself back onto her mount. “I’ll think about it,” and for a moment her voice is not the haughty, throaty voice of the princess. Pal-em-Rasha’s market accent flickers below it like a fish in a muddy stream. She is losing her grip on her fiction as she spreads out her magic to keep me away from her.

Actually, now they feel more similar… hahaha who knows.



Confusion is confusion, or; a progress update.

I’m pretty much always working on something, so to clear up confusion:


House of Sand and Secrets is a sort-of sequel to When the Sea is Rising Red. That’s coming out soon(ish)

Beastkeeper is a middle grade fantasy, coming out near the end of 2014 (I believe)

Charm is an urban fantasy YA, doing revisions for my agent.

Three Dog Dreaming is an adult stand-alone fantasy – I’m 3/4 of the way through the first draft.

Ghost Song is an urban second-world fantasy YA, also about 3/4 through.

Nulled and Void is a stand-alone secondary world fantasy for adults. In revisions for my agent.

There’s another book on sub, so no talking about that.




there you have it?


Can you do the twist….

I cut my teeth on fairy tales, I devoured them, and as I grew older, those pretty enamelled surfaces started to flake away to show the iron bones and the rusted blood underneath.

Fairy tales fascinate me. Their simplicity lends them to being ripped apart and reconstructed. They speak to us in garish images, in reds and blacks and whites, in sly winks and sharpened teeth.


 I’m certain that quite a few of you grew up on Hans Christian Andersen’s stories, or the Brothers Grimm, or will have read retellings like Marissa Meyer’s Cinder, and Jackson’ Pierce’s Sisters Red.

sisters red

Some of you may have even read the wonderful and utterly disturbing collection of retellings put together by Karen Berheimer, My Mother She Killed me, My Father He Ate Me. (And if you haven’t, go read. Absolutely wonderful and disturbing.)


So why exactly am I going on about fairy tale retellings? If you’re a South African between the ages of 14 and 17, I want to see your retellings. Along with the wonderful S.A. Partridge and Byron Loker, I’ll be judging the entries for Short Story Day Africa. (All details at the link.) If you know anything about me, you know I’m all for twisty and dark, so hit me with your weird, and we’re looking forward to seeing what you put together for us.

Write an original reimagined fairy tale, myth, legend or fable and you could win fantastic fiction titles from NB Publishers for yourself and your school library. Word limit between 500 – 1200 words.


This weekend was Franschhoek Literary Festival, and not only was it my first time at the fest, it was also the first time in Franschhoek itself, so I spent most of the time I was there saying, “Oh my god how beautiful is this place?”

I travelled with writer S.A. Partridge, photographer Warren Talmarkes, and women24‘s resident Book Diva Tammy February, which was probably the best way I could have done this inaugural toe-dipping into the SA book world. Fabulous people.

The first thing up was Thursday’s school talks with S.A. Partridge. We spoke to the matrics at Bridge House and Franschhoek High, and I gotta say – if these guys are any indication, the future is looking bright. They were friendly, funny, and asked great questions. I can only hope we entertained them a bit (or at least gave them a break from regular class-schedules.)

Because everything looks like this - the drive into our guesthouse

Because everything looks like this - the drive into our guesthouse

After that, and way, way too many coffees, we checked into the beautiful Knorhoek wine farm in Stellenbosch, where Carol made us feel very welcome. The whole place feels like home on a grander scale – fireplaces and a wall of old cameras and a fridge full of wine. We were staying in the bed and breakfast which I believe was the converted stables and blacksmith. I don’t know how thick those old buildings’ walls were, but I can say that while it was freezing outside at night, I was a Very Warm and Snuggly Cat.

this was my room that I had all to myself, be a little jealous.

this was my room that I had all to myself, be a little jealous.

That evening we drove through to join everyone at the official welcoming meet and greet thing in the town hall, then grabbed ourselves some poppers and chicken strips from the little pub in the converted train station. This weekend was awash in wine and food, so I am pretty sure I came back about five kilograms heavier. When one of the events sponsors is Porcupine Ridge (the other was Sunday Times) and knowing what happens when you put writers and vast quantities of free wine together, the weekend certainly turned out to be interesting.

Friday was rather busy (for me – I’m used to hiding in my little house in Muizenberg and not really interacting with humans), and we decided that since I had my Very First Panel Thing happening that morning, we should start the day with a brisk walk followed by a wine tasting. (This is the problem with staying on a wine farm…)

Yes. Damn those wine tastings. I was quite content to just sample, but ended up buying more wine than I normally do. Ever. I’m not even a fan of white wine, but I pretty much adored the Knorhoek Chenin Blanc. We had a moment.

On to Franschhoek and the panel. I was a little star-struck, being on a Dystopian Fiction panel with Sarah Lotz, Karen Jayes, Lauren Beukes, and Rachel Zadok, but it seemed to go well by my understanding of these things. The venue was packed, and we soon rambled off-topic so if you were there to learn something about dystopia….hah. I have no idea what I said because I was in a state of terror, and I kept feeling like I was going to burp into the microphone (weird…fear?) but luckily the seasoned pros were there being generally awesome and articulate.

LindsayCal took this pic of all the panellists:

L-R: Sarah Lotz, Karen Jayes, Lauren Beukes, Rachel Zadok, Me.

L-R: Sarah Lotz, Karen Jayes, Lauren Beukes, Rachel Zadok, Me.

The rest of the weekend might have devolved into me wandering around and gate-crashing parties, eating masses of ice-cream and chocolate, and having lunches with fantastic people, which is code for Having A Grand Old Time.  The only downside of the whole thing was that Anthony Horowitz unfortunately was very ill and had to be flown back to the UK, so I never go to meet him or hear any of his talks.

Look at me, hanging out with all the cool people. Amanda Coetzee, S.A. Partridge, Tammy February in the front, and me hanging on to a wine glass for support.

Look at me, hanging out with all the cool people. Amanda Coetzee, S.A. Partridge, Tammy February in the front, and me hanging on to a wine glass for support.

On the very last morning, the farm’s bull terrier Merlot came to give me a little farewell head-on-the-knee snuffle and grunt, and it was the perfect goodbye under the oak trees turning pink and gold in the crisp autumn air.










I can be the most ridiculous fangirl

And one of those people who get me all ridiculous under the collar is the amazing Amanda Palmer.


A bunch of Capetonians are trying to organise an AFP House Party right here in the mother city, so if you’re a fan, and you’re keen on getting involved, we need at least 50 people who can put in $100. (And yes, money where my mouth is, I am one)


The details are here: Amanda Palmer House Party Cape Town and for those who don’t know the score, it’s all part of her massive kickstarter project.



image from wikipedia




Compiling an epic list of epic

Or rather, I am making a list of (modernish) secondary world fantasy novels which are also marketed at Young Adult readers. (I don’t always agree with the classification, I’m afraid, hah.)


Thanks to people tweeting, blogging and facebooking me titles, this list has become pretty epic, and is still growing. So I thought I’d share it here as it could be a good resource for those writing and reading fantasy and who want new titles.


Fantasy Books Also Marketed to Young Adults

A post-release post

I suppose, if I were better at this, I would have done a nice shiny post on release day.

Instead I’m doing one now ( because the kindle issue has been sorted on Amazon’s site – for some reason it originally only listed the ebook for sale in the US.)

So my book, When the Sea is Rising Red, came out about two weeks ago. There have been people who loved it, people who hated, people who have been more than a little confused by it.

Here’s a spoilerific review on Tor  that pretty much explains why the varied reactions.

If spoilers make you sad, then we have these:

Kirkus says, “Moody, in the spirit of Carrie Ryan’s The Forest of Hands and Teeth (2009), but with a much more likable heroine.”

while Publisher’s Weekly felt that “Debut author Hellisen’s style features evocative descriptions and unflinching detail, drawing readers into the unusual and intriguing elements that make up Felicita’s socially complex world.”

Voya says “Hellisen creates an interesting world where magic and superstition rule, but it has many elements that are difficult to follow. “ This is possibly the biggest issue that critics seem to have – that it’s not quick or easy, but rewards a closer, slower read. So definitely not for everyone. :D

and this last from School Library Journal: “Her world is exquisitely rendered, from the harsh beauty of Old Town to the splendor of Jannik’s existence, and characters leap from the pages. Saturating every element of the story is the salt-tinged aura of the sea. Hellisen’s captivating debut will haunt readers”


Right, I think I have now sufficiently review-spammed you, so here are some links if you decide that When the Sea is Rising Red sounds like your kind of read.

The hardcover is available on Amazon, Takealot, Kalahari, and Book Depository. I believe The Book Lounge in Cape Town has ordered in some copies, and PanMacmillan will be shipping the hardcover locally (should be here in May).


If you’re of the kindle persuasion (like me, I have no patience, and sadly no space left in my house) then here ya go.


Whew, I’m off to read books written by other people now. :D



A Short Story

People have been asking me if I’m getting all excited yet, and I know the answer should be yes, but it’s not.


Don’t get me wrong, I’m amazed and happy, but not really excited. I’m not scared either. Just . . . interested.


Less than a week before When the Sea is Rising Red hits shelves (in the US at least, not sure about SA dates) and there’s a feeling of release. This thing is really out of my hands now. Mistakes will have to go uncorrected, clunky lines left to clunk. People will hate it, or they’ll love it, or they’ll be meh on it (and they’ve been all these things, that’s because they’re readers, and this is just a book – as much as I love Tender is the Night, for example, I can’t make everyone give it five stars. Sadly.)


But I am excited about other things – opportunities that have been placed before me, waiting for me to find the courage to reach out for them; potential good news whispers; new books to read.


And this: my companion piece/prequel to my novel. It’s a short story called Mother, Crone, Maiden, and it’s up at It’s about how seeing the future isn’t enough to make you choose the right path. Pretty much. It also is illustrated with unbelievably gorgeous artwork from Goni Montes, and I adore that picture so so so much.