A Conversation with Katharine Norbury

Katharine Norbury trained as a film editor with the BBC and has worked extensively in film and television drama. She is a graduate of the Creative Writing MA programme at UEA. The Fish Ladder was her first book. It was longlisted for the Guardian First Book Award and was a book of the year in the Telegraph, Independent and Guardian. Katharine was chosen by the Observer as their Rising Star in non-fiction for 2015. The book was longlisted for the 2016 Wainwright Prize for nature and UK travel writing and nominated as a National Reading Group Day 2016 real life read. She lives in London with her family.


Katharine Norbury was abandoned as a baby in a Liverpool convent. Raised by loving adoptive parents, she grew into a wanderer, drawn by the beauty of the British countryside. One summer, following the miscarriage of a much-longed-for child, Katharine sets out – accompanied by her nine-year-old daughter, Evie – with the idea of following a river from the sea to its source. The luminously observed landscape provides both a constant and a context to their expeditions. But what begins as a diversion from grief soon evolves into a journey to the source of life itself, when a chance circumstance forces Katharine to the door of the woman who gave her up all those years ago.

“What a delight! The Fish Ladder is a luminous sort of book, beautifully written, darting here and there like a kingfisher over a stream. A beautiful, strange, intoxicating and utterly unique story ” –  Philip Pullman

Combining travelogue, memoir, exquisite nature writing, fragments of poetry and tales from Celtic mythology, The Fish Ladder has a rare emotional resonance. A portrait of motherhood, of a literary marriage and a hymn to the adoptive family, this captivating story of self-discovery is, most of all, an exploration of the extraordinary majesty of the natural world. Imbued with a keen and joyful intelligence, this original and life-affirming book is set to become a classic of its genre.

“There is much to learn from The Fish Ladder about how the memoir can tell a story as well as be a meditation; how language can be both profound and sensuous. It’s an unsentimental but extraordinary exploration of how we use narrative to understand our place in the world” –  Amit Chaudhuri

(A Conversation with Katherine Norbury first appeared on Greenacre Writers in 2016.)

Tell us of your journey as a writer

To be honest, I don’t think of myself as a writer. I have written – one book, published when I was 50. I am writing. But I don’t define myself by the medium. Rather, I am interested in certain things, and in communicating thoughts and ideas. In the case of The Fish Ladder, creating a work of prose/life-writing seemed to be the best way of realising what was happening at that time. It began as a very private project, an account of one summer spent with my young daughter in Wales but, as the summer progressed, it became apparent that the story might have a wider “reach” than that of my immediate family. The reason I was keeping a notebook that year was because I find digital photography difficult to master, believe it or not, and so when pharmacists stopped developing photographs I was obliged to find another way to “capture the moment”. Moments of joy – when a cloud passes over the sun, or a fish leaps out of the water. Or moments of transcendence – when your child smiles at you from a rock pool, bucket and net in hand, an orange crab wriggling on a nylon line. And so it was that I picked up a pen. The Fish Ladder is an “origins” story borne out of the notion of following a river from the sea to its source and this journey eventually became a metaphor for a more personal quest to discover who my natural family are and to contemplate the role of the adoptive family, with the landscape providing a counterpoint to the human story.

How do you see your role as a writer and what do you like most about it?

To bear witness? To explore the world. To ask questions. And I wouldn’t necessarily say I like the role though I find it rewarding and consider it essential.

Anything written has the potential to withstand millennia – the clay tablets of the Epic of Gilgamesh, Homer’s Odyssey, Beowulf. More recently, witness accounts such as Anne Frank’s diary have adjusted the moral compass of whole nations. There is an inherent moral weight on the writer.

Much of what we, as a reading public, know about environmental debate comes to us not through scientists or politicians but through writers such as Bill McKibben and Al Gore in the United States; Tim Winton, Verity Burgmann, Tim Flannery in Australia; Mark Cocker, Rob Cowen, Melissa Harrison, Kathleen Jamie, Robert Macfarlane, Michael McCarthy, Richard Kerridge and George Monbiot in the UK. So writers are at the forefront of disseminating knowledge.

Freedom of expression is important to me and I have watched it being enthusiastically and voluntarily forfeited – in university “safe spaces” and in ideas about “cultural appropriation” to name but a couple of recent examples. The writer must therefore be robust, with a rhinoceros skin, and they must reserve the right to offend in order to articulate the ideas that motivate them. And we must all trust our readers to be the judge of whether what is written has any value or not, and not forget to disentangle the views of the writer with those expressed by their characters. And accept that, as with Pandora’s box, this position opens the lid on all kinds of demons!

The role of the storyteller has been central to human experience since we first sat around the fire entertaining and reassuring ourselves through the long dark nights, questioning our actions, and learning from them. It is with good reason that stories have been elevated and safeguarded throughout the ages by librarians, parents, teachers, priests and shamans. However, it is important that we don’t lose sight of the true role of those guardians of “story”. The stories are there so we can learn from the experiences of those who have gone before us, so we can think about complex moral issues in a truly safe environment, and also, to be entertained. That isn’t necessarily the impression that you get when you look at the atrocities committed in the name of certain books today and throughout the ages.

Have you ever created a character who you dislike but find yourself empathising with?

This question had been crossed out although I think it is relevant to the life writer. There is no imperative for the reader to like a character in a work of memoir or biography. Some readers have loved the “I” of The Fish Ladder, others have taken against her/me. But I don’t think it matters. One of the least likeable characters in literature is Emma Bovary, but who among those of us who have met her hasn’t put their fingers to their lips, and read through tears and gasps as Emma stuffs her mouth full of arsenic powder after reducing her family to penury over curtains she couldn’t afford and the bills of her student lover? (I think it was the draper’s bill that finally tipped her over the edge!). It’s the human condition that we empathise with – the “there but for the grace of God go I”.

What has been your experience of writing about diverse characters?

The Fish Ladder is, at one level, a travelogue and there is a tradition in travel writing to respect the privacy of your fellow traveller. The people I met along the way ranged in age, class, religion, race, nationality and I simply presented them all as they appeared to me, while respecting their relative privacy. (So I didn’t say so-and-so had a nose like a melon, for example!) As a rule of thumb I don’t say anything about anyone that I wouldn’t be prepared to say to their face and in company! This is obviously a very different state of affairs to that of the fiction writer – think of Dickens’ character studies for example – where the writer can wallow in characterisation.

If you could be transported instantly, anywhere in the world, where would you most like to spend your time writing? And why?

Oh. That’s two different questions. If I could go anywhere in the world I’d very much like to go to Australia. But as to where I would like to write? Proximity to mountains and the sea are ideal, as I think best when I am either swimming or walking. The Llyn Peninsula, the English Lakes, Catalonia. But I agree with Tim Winton who says that because he spends so much of his time outside, he writes in an austere room that doesn’t even have a picture on the wall, because a picture is a kind of window. Writing, for me, is an interior experience and the less distractions the better. But I do need to walk and swim in the gaps between writing so London (where I am now) isn’t the best place for me to work as it is packed with distractions!

What is the one book you wish you had written?

My goodness. That is impossible, forgive me.  Wishing you had written something by someone else implies a desire to get the credit for having done it! I think any kind of artistic endeavour is about paring down the ego, not inflating it. I’m just glad there’s a wealth of good stuff out there to enjoy! The book I read the most is the Odyssey of Homer translated by Richmond Lattimore, and it is always at my bedside, but I have no desire to lay claim to it!

What advice do you have for would be writers?

To work hard. To heed the lived experience of writers you admire. To listen to Samuel Beckett, on failure, for example: “No matter, fail again. Fail better.” Or Hemingway: “The only kind of writing is rewriting”. To learn to accept criticism and see it for what it is. Your work can always be better. And your critics can be wrong. So don’t ask a member of your family to give you notes! Find someone you trust, a former school teacher, not your friends who are simply going to say: darling it’s marvellous! It probably isn’t! And also, to know when to walk away, and when something is finished.

Exciting news, Katharine’s new book WOMEN ON NATURE is finished. It is a landmark anthology which collects together the work of women, over the centuries and up to the present day, who have written about the natural world in Britain, Ireland and the outlying islands of our archipelago. Alongside the traditional forms of the travelogue, the walking guide, books on birds, plants and wildlife, Women on Nature embraces alternative modes of seeing and recording that turn the genre on its head.

Katharine has sifted through the pages of women s fiction, poetry, household planners, gardening diaries and recipe books to show the multitude of ways in which they have observed the natural world about them, from the fourteenth-century writing of the anchorite nun Julian of Norwich to the seventeenth-century travel journal of Celia Fiennes; from the keen observations of Emily Brontë to a host of brilliant contemporary voices.

Women on Nature presents a groundbreaking vision of the natural world which, in addition to being a rich and scintillating anthology that shines a light on many unjustly overlooked writers, is of unique importance in terms of women s history and the history of writing about nature. It is available in Waterstones and on Amazon for pre-orders (as the copies on Unbound’s site are sold out) Hopefully the indy bookstores will look out for it! Published: 13th May 2021

You can follow Katharine on Twitter: @KJNorbury


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