Catherine Chanter’s debut book is tipped for international success. Jaine Blackman discovers more about The Well and its writer

Aged 56, Oxford author Catherine Chanter is on the verge of having an international best-seller on her hands with her first novel.

“I am a great believer that everything has its time and somehow, when the idea for The Well came to me, I knew very quickly that it was too big for a short story,” says Catherine, who lives in Jericho.

“So it wasn’t so much that I waited fifty years to write a novel, it was more that it took that long for a novel to come to me.”

The book, which comes out in Britain on Thursday, has also been snapped up by publishers in Australia. the US, Germany, The Netherlands, Sweden, Norway, Spain, France, Italy, Japan and Turkey.

When it was chosen as the winner of the 2013 Lucy Cavendish Prize for Unpublished Fiction Allison Pearson, one of the judges, said: “The Well was so astoundingly assured that we wondered if AS Byatt had adopted a pseudonym to see if the judges would overlook a brilliant writer. But we didn’t.

“This riveting story has the pulse of a thriller combined with a futuristic evocation of a Big Brother society and a fable of humans faced with limited resources.”

It may be Catherine’s first full-length book but she has always written.

“I have shelves full of diaries completed daily throughout my childhood and adolescence, full of utterly dull and inconsequential information about school lunches and maths lessons,” she says.

She graduated to poetry but didn’t consider writing for an audience until about ten years ago when she submitted a poem to a competition and it was published.

“From poetry, I branched out to short stories and had a collection, Rooms of the Mind, published by Cinnamon Press.

“Throughout all this time, however, my day job as a teacher, mostly in schools or NHS settings for young people with emotional, behavioural or mental health issues has always been enormously important to me and up until recently, it always came first.”

Now, although she does not work full time, she is still engaged in training teachers across the country to recognise the signs of mental ill health in adolescents and know what to do next.

“To me, this is vital work at a time when rates of mental illness amongst children are rising inexorably,” says Catherine, who has three grown-up children.

Her novel tells the story of a modern day Britain where it has not rained for three years except on a piece of farmland known as The Well.

At the beginning, Ruth, the owner of the land who with her husband Mark moved there looking for a sanctuary, is alone, hated, and under house arrest.

In flashback, the story of how they dealt with the blessing and curse of rain in the face of a nationwide drought and the devastating effect it had is told.

Catherine was inspired by time she spent at “at a little rural hideaway on the Welsh border”.

“The cottage had no mains water, it was a dry summer and every time you turned on the tap, you literally heard the pump summoning water from the well beneath the cottage. It made me realize how much we take it for granted,” she says.

“I was also interested in the fact that so much contemporary fiction is urban and our rural communities are under represented. The advent of the internet has meant that villages can now be both isolated and connected to the wider world at the same time and this provides a rich vein of stories.”

Another inspiration was poetry.

“I was writing based on the different ways artists have portrayed the visit of the Angel Gabriel to The Virgin Mary. I wondered what it would be like to be a ‘chosen’ woman in contemporary Britain,” says Catherine.

Although she didn’t see it at the time, she thinks it was probably no co-incidence that this fascinated her.

“Like all children in the UK adopted in the late 1950s or early 1960s, ‘chosen’ was the word used to account for where we came from.

“Being a chosen one brings with it expectations, something to live up, maybe even a sense that there is a debt to be paid and that is certainly the case for Ruth, the protagonist of The Well.

“The novel is not autobiographical, but I have always known that for me writing is a sort of therapy and there are probably links and explorations that even I don’t recognize or understand.

“One of the characters in The Well says ‘I do not think for one moment it would be easy, to be the chosen one,’ although for me, my experience with my adoptive family was nothing but positive. I have traced my Irish birth mother now and made rather a remarkable discovery: she too is a poet.”

Other aspects of her life have also contributed to her writing.

“Through my work, I have met girls who have become mothers at a young age, many of them loving and competent. For some who were struggling and in danger of losing their babies, it was often grandparents who stepped up to help and I am full of respect for them; this is a challenging role,” says Catherine.

“Our family structures nowadays are very complex and the relationship difficulties faced by Ruth and Mark are in many ways no different from those tackled by ordinary people all over the country.”

Catherine started The Well in 2011 and it took her a couple of years, while also working full time and completing a Masters in Creative Writing at Oxford Brookes.

“It was always a question of grabbing hours, minutes and seconds when I could,” she says. “Routine does not come naturally to me. However, I have become a little more disciplined and now tend to write every morning. St Anne’s, my old Oxford college, have been kind enough to let me use their library so I turn off my phone, have no internet signal and deliberately choose to sit in a little room full of foreign language publications so I can’t be distracted by the books.”

Catherine and husband Simon, works for the charity The Royal Forestry Society, moved to Oxford about four years ago and live near Port Meadow.

“Having previously lived in the countryside our priority was to make sure we could reach open space, sky and water within five minutes walk in order to stay sane.

“I love the area, the local shops and pubs right around the corner, the rowdy students on a Friday night, the friendly families down our street. It has a bit of everything.”

Catherine has just finished her next book but says it won’t be ready any time soon.

“What I never realized with The Well is that this is where the work really begins, the revising, redrafting, re-writing, hacking away at the dead wood,” she says.

And her advice for anyone considering writing a book?

“Write because you have to, write because you love it – and sometimes hate it,” she says.

“Write because it helps you make sense of the world. But if you decide to write only because you want to be published, then I think that is very perilous.

“Someone once told me you needed three things: talent, the ability to work very hard and most of all, a lot of luck.

“I have had more than my fair share of luck.”

BACKING AN INDEPENDENT BOOKSHOP

There were two reasons that made Catherine Chanter decide to launch The Well at Woodstock Bookshop.

“The first is that I wanted a local occasion where I could feel comfortable inviting all sorts of local friends and colleagues, including some of the wonderful staff at The Oxfordshire Hospital School and The Highfield Unit where I worked, tutors from Oxford Brookes and fellow writers,” she says. “They have all given me a lot of support and I thought the least I could do would be to read a bit of the book to them and share a drink afterwards.

“The second reason was the list of past speakers at The Woodstock Bookshop reads like a who’s who of literary celebrities and I couldn’t see when else in my life my name might appear in such company.”

Catherine met the bookshop’s owner Rachel Phipps when they were both studying English at Oxford. 

“I was full of admiration for her knowledge about books then and I still am. The Woodstock Bookshop epitomises all that is good about independent bookshops – a thought provoking stock, intelligent staff, great events. I consider it my privilege to be able to do a local launch for The Well there.”

* Catherine Chanter will be reading from The Well at its launch on Tuesday March 10, at 7pm, at Woodstock Methodist Church. Entry £5; book in advance from info@woodstockbookshop.co.uk; 01993 812760.

* Further events include Thursday March 19, at Waterstone’s Oxford, and Saturday March 28 at Blackwell’s Festival Marquee.