Loss and Hope through Magical Realism: The Plankton Collector by Cath Barton

Jan 13, 2023 | Reviews

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if there were benevolent forces around us, helping us cope with difficult times? In The Plankton Collector by Cath Barton, a mysterious ‘everyman’ visits a family to help them come to terms with grief and loss.

Barton takes us into the intricate lives of each family member in this novella. Her matter-of-fact style evokes the difficulties each character has without it being overstated or melodramatic. There’s something so affecting about the way we experience simple things like a garden, a beach, a snack. It gives the characters and their words weight and meaning through all of their interactions.

While the overall subject of the novella is grief, I went away from reading this feeling light and filled with hope for the possibilities of healing, human connection and nature. A delightful book, cleverly crafted with a light touch.

I wanted to find out more about writing and publishing a novella, and how elements of nature and magical realism found their way into the book. Read on to find out more.

Each of the characters in your novella are struggling with loss in different ways. How did this come about as a central idea in the book and why did you want to explore it through many different voices?

It’s always so difficult when people ask how I got such-and-such an idea for a book, because the truth is that I rarely know! It’s a subconscious process. I can tell you that the idea for the The Plankton Collector started with a short piece I wrote (as an exercise) about a boy watching his mother at a grave. This was my way into the family – the little boy, Bunny, and his brother Edgar who has died. This is the grief which afflicts Bunny, his sister Mary and their parents, grief which for the older members of the family recalls other sorrows and losses in their lives. I found I wanted to hear what each of them had to say, and introducing a mysterious stranger helped to elucidate their stories as well as – it turned out – being a way to help them through this time.

Interactions with nature are a central part of the ‘recovery’ process for your characters and the seasons are used to structure the book. How did the natural world influence the writing of this book and is this something that often happens with your writing?

Again, it was something that happened organically in the writing, not a conscious decision. What I do remember is seeing a TV clip about the Victorians collecting plankton – or rather the tiny shells of plankton – and this led me to start writing about a seashore. As for the seasons, they followed on, as they do, inexorably.

A walk in nature often inspires the creative process

The natural world is important to me, that’s true, and I love walking in the countryside. It clears my mind, helps me – without my being able to say exactly how! – with my creative process. My second novella, In the Sweep of the Bay, is also firmly set in the natural world, here literally within the sweep of Morecambe Bay in Lancashire, whereas the world of The Plankton Collector is less specific, though most certainly English.

We started talking about your book from the point of view of speculative fiction. Is this something you write a lot? Why do you think writing in this style suited the subject and style of the novella?

The aspect of speculative fiction that speaks to me most strongly is magical realism, in which speculative elements exist within a recognisably realistic world. My third novella, Between the Virgin and the Sea, is also a piece of magical realism, as is my novel-in-progress, set in the circus, where clowns have their own language and…. but I mustn’t give away too much about that!

Using magical realism in The Plankton Collector by introducing a shape-shifter enabled me to move the action through time and space easily, certainly more easily than an exclusively realistic style would have done. And of course, my plankton collector is everyman, so he can be whoever anyone needs him to be. I didn’t need lots of explanation about different scenes this way.

Using elements of magical realism can free your writing from constraints

You usually write short and flash fiction. How did you find the process of writing a novella compared to a shorter form?

I have written a lot of stand-alone short and flash fiction, though I do so much less nowadays. I used to think I couldn’t write a longer work. Perhaps it was just laziness. Anyway, having first taken on the writing of a novella as a challenge I found it suited me, or rather, that it suited a story I had to tell. That’s the thing – stories have their own length. I found, to my surprise, that I could do it. As for a novel, that’s something I thought I could definitely never do, and would definitely never do, but I’ve found that flash fiction is a route into it, just as it was into the novella.

How did you go about getting your novella published and do you have any advice you’d like to pass on to other writers?

I won a competition (a New Welsh Writing prize) which gave me publication. I count myself lucky, because many very good writers struggle to find a publisher. I’m pleased to say that there are now more opportunities to get novellas published in the UK than there were when I wrote The Plankton Collector.

My advice to other writers is to approach independent publishers as well as agents. And to persevere. Successful writing depends on a mixture skill, determination and luck. We all have times when everything seems to be against us, and sometimes we have to step away and take a break. But if you have something you want to say, come back and put yourself out there. And find people to support you, buddy up with other writers. That’s really helpful, I’ve found.

Cath Barton (she/her) is an English writer and photographer who lives in Wales. She is the author of three novellas: The Plankton Collector (2018, New Welsh Review), Inthe Sweep of the Bay (2020, Louise Walters Books) and Between the Virgin and the Sea (2023, Novella Express, Leamington Books). She is currently working on a novel set in the circus. Read more about her writing on her website https://cathbarton.com, and follow her on Twitter @CathBarton1.

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