The MWF Interview: Cath Moore

Introduction by Wai Chim

Metal Fish, Falling Snow is a triumph of a novel. Cath Moore has created a whimsical story full of grit and heart. The novel introduces us to 14-year-old Dylan who grieves her mother’s recent passing. Her mother’s boyfriend, Pat, blames her for the tragedy and frankly she thinks it’s her fault too. But the ever-unique Dylan believes there’s a way for things to be alright again. The story unfolds as this unusual pair travel through remote Australia and re-learn how they see family and, more importantly, how they see themselves. Moore’s touching and nuanced narrative draws heavily on her own experiences of growing up with mixed heritage and her journey to belong as a young adult.

I read the book and I also read your open letter to readers. So much of the work and your message is addressing how the main character, Dylan, feels like she doesn’t belong in her own skin. It’s heartbreaking and moving. Can you talk more about this and what you hope readers will take away from these conversations of skin colour and race?

Australia’s settler narrative has always been built around the idea of multiculturalism. Implicit in this story is a sense of inclusivity and acceptance. This is not always the case for people with mixed heritage, and so you do begin to question your own identity and belonging to both self and place. It’s a complex space to inhabit, having cultural reference points that extend beyond an Anglo context, and this often forces you to constantly locate yourself in the world at large.

I’d like people to recognise that we must challenge a cultural ideology that positions whiteness as the status quo, and recognise that people from diverse backgrounds haven’t always had the platform to speak up about how race has often been imposed upon them. I hope readers see this book as both a personal memoir of sorts but also as a potential talking point, one that generates conversations about how we see each other through the prism of race—emotionally, socially, politically and personally.

Dylan is such a character! She’s a teenager, a soothsayer, a psychic and a revolutionary rebel! She’s hardly ordinary and you do a brilliant job of taking us through her neurodivergent mind and thought processes. Tell us a bit more about your inspiration and how you came about creating her as a character.

Dylan is an amalgam of my teenage self and other people I’ve known, all of whom have had their own struggles with identity. We all sit at the intersection of such complex markers of self, and that is something I was keen to explore. While Dylan is challenged by her own Blackness, she must also contend with how people react to her personality and behaviour, which suggests a very unique way of processing the world. Her neurodivergent mind is further complicated by a psychic ability, so while she often misses social cues or can be unintentionally provocative, she also has the ability to understand people’s sense of loss and grief because she has access to their memories.

I am highly aware that people are othered for a whole lot of reasons apart from race, and my intention was to write a multi-layered character with lots of reference points to the complexities of being human. People are often located through their perceived deficits. I didn’t want to explain what was ‘wrong’ with Dylan because she is perfectly whole and natural just as she is.

Dreams are such a powerful motif throughout the book. I felt that they served as a crossover between reality and magic. Do you think there’s real power and significance in dreams?

Yes! I’m obsessed with our dream lives and what they enable us to explore, reconcile and project. It’s such an important part of the human condition to sleep and to dream, and the dramatic utility of dreams in this story was to soften the boundary between reality and fantasy. In doing so, I hoped that Dylan would become even more engaging as an agent of magic, able to transcend the everyday realities of life (like death and loneliness) and find ways to travel through or transcend grief by stepping into other realities. I think there’s real power in dreams, as a mysterious, elusive and healing phenomenon.

The adults in this book are particularly fascinating. Especially Pat—he’s such a flawed and astonishing human being. Can you talk a bit more about how you have chosen to portray adults through the eyes of a teen?

The child’s gaze is another preoccupation of mine. I seem to write a lot about boundary characters: those who can inhibit more than one space, such as childhood and adulthood. I think it’s such a complex and emotional rite of passage, travelling into adulthood, and I was keen to use Dylan as a means to draw upon this time and experience we all must pass through. I think Dylan is very perceptive; she’s able to understand how fragile and burdensome adult life can be. In some ways, I think children are far more adventurous and brave and curious, something that’s often tempered in adulthood.

Since becoming a mother, I have also understood how much of a compromise life becomes – you are constantly navigating the needs of others as well as negotiating relationships and real-world issues. Dylan also sees the world weariness of the adult characters, bruised by life’s hardships, and she often demonstrates more compassion towards the adult characters than she offers herself.

I’m particularly taken by Dylan’s recollection of her mother whom she’s recently lost and how it contrasts with the memories of her father, who has largely been absent. Through so much of the book, Dylan grieves for both of them. How do you think grief shapes memories and our relationships?

I think memories are inherently fallible and subject to change as one’s own relationships and life circumstances shift. For Dylan, she has lost someone she loves, so she grieves for the security and sense of belonging her mother provided. She also grieves for the father she could never understand or get close to. The idea that too much time has gone by for anything to be rectified is also a loss for her. However, through her access to his memories, she also sees her father as his child self, damaged as she has been by the actions of adults.

She feels her own father’s pain at having been abandoned himself. This is another reflection of how child and adult spaces intersect in the book. Grief ultimately allows Dylan to bond with her Grandfather and understand his own sense of loss and regret. Grief offers Pat, Dylan and William the opportunity to redeem themselves and in doing so, changes the value attributed to memories of past events and relationships.

The book focuses a lot on family. Dylan starts the novel with one ideal of family, and then discovers another tentative fragile family through her journey with Pat, and finally has that idea transformed as well. How do you define family and what do you hope readers will learn?

Family is less about who and what you are born into, but more so a wide array of relationships that we choose to incorporate into our life. I have mended relationships and lost others. I have third cousins who I consider to be my sisters and brothers. I have friends who my child calls Aunty and Uncle. I have skin sisters and brothers, brown and Black friends who also understand the challenges of sitting outside the Anglo status quo.

Each one of them reflects a different sense of myself back to me. My flaws, weaknesses, strengths, skills and hopes. I hope readers will understand that the dimensions of family are expansive; the more you open yourself up to others and the more you show compassion and reconcile what’s worth saving, the more meaningful relationships can be. Families are tough work! But then, everything worth fostering and protecting takes time and love.

This book is really such an achievement, and while this is a debut novel, you are of course not new to the writing world. What did you find surprising about writing a novel for young adults compared to other forms?

Freedom! I’m used to writing in screenplay form, which is very reductive and economical. You have to be both succinct and detailed, which is a real discipline. Writing in prose form was so liberating; I could let my mind wander, explore a tangent, and eventually find my way back to the main path again. There was a lot more time spent on interiority—really sitting within a character’s headspace and trying to articulate a different set of details; documenting subtle shifts in relationships, moments of personal insight. Trying to evoke a sense of place was also much more of a contemplative experience.

Writing for the screen, you focus on a limited amount of behavioural and visual cues. You have to be acute in your execution. The dimensions of writing in prose form are more expansive; the pace, at least for this story, was tempered by Dylan’s preoccupation with commenting on the world as it passes by. Writing for print media is also much more restrained; you have a brief and a specific word count that you are working towards and the approach to language is both informal and concise. It’s less labour intensive of course, but doesn’t allow you to interrogate an issue with depth or indulge in a long-term relationship with the characters.

The year 2020 has certainly been a very interesting year. With all of the discussions that have been happening around the world on systemic racism, how do you think your work contributes to this ongoing dialogue?

I am hopeful that this book offers one of many perspectives on dealing with racism; the disconnect between how we see ourselves and who we really are. I think we are still bound by a fear of really interrogating the culture in which we live, one that has enabled racism to persist in a multitude of contexts. I hope this book allows people to understand that while I’m informed by my heritage, it is not a singularly defining component of my identity. I think there’s an assumption that people of colour only write about the experience of being coloured. This book is also about love and loss and the importance of family and finding your place in the world. Whatever is written, I think exposure and visibility is important in establishing a creative landscape that broadens our cultural identity beyond the white, male gaze.

Final thoughts and comments about what you hope for Metal Fish, Falling Snow and its readers?

I hope that readers find joy in travelling with Dylan as I have. I think she’s an Aussie battler that we haven’t really seen before, feisty and fragile, full of whimsy and heartache. I hope people of mixed heritage take heart that their experiences do matter, that you can find deliverance from burdens imposed upon you, and reimagine yourself every day if that is your wish, until you find solid ground and a sense of certainty on who you are. I also hope readers know that we are all in the process of becoming—kinder, wiser, calmer, louder, bolder. Life is a journey forwards and I hope this book offers a sense that we are all travelling it together.

Metal Fish, Falling Snow is out now through Text Publishing.

Born in Guyana, Cath Moore is of Irish/Afro-Caribbean heritage. Though raised in Australia, she has also lived in Scotland and Belgium. Cath is also an award-winning screenwriter, teacher and filmmaker. She holds an MA in screenwriting and a PhD in Danish screenwriting practices. Metal Fish, Falling Snow is Cath’s first novel. She lives in Melbourne.

Wai Chim is the award-winning author of The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling. She is a first generation Chinese-American from New York City. Her previous books include Freedom Swimmer, the Chook Chook series and Shaozhen, part of the Through My Eyes: Natural Disaster Zone series. She lives in Sydney with her husband and cat.