I used to irritate my mother by telling everyone I was born in the Graig workhouse. She was quick to add I was born on the maternity ward and as it was a few months before the introduction of the NHS she had to pay for her care. My father’s mother (who died when I was three) was Katherine (Kitty) Jones nee John who nursed in the Graig hospital from the late twenties, to the early forties. Many of the stories in my “Hearts of Gold” series were related to me by my father when I asked him about her. Fascinated by the history of the workhouse and Pontypridd it seemed logical to draw on both when I was commissioned to write a book set in the thirties because “If you don’t write it now no one ever will.
My mother was born in Allenstein East Prussia in 1926. Like most surviving East Prussians she lost everything except the clothes she was wearing when the Russians invaded in January 1945. She was fortunate to escape with her life. My father, Glyn Jones, was a Welsh soldier serving in the British sector in Germany when he met Gerda who sought refuge there in 1946. They fell in love and married in Cardiff in July 1947. I was born in and grew up in Pontypridd, but remained close to my Prussian grandmother who resettled in West Germany. I spent as much of my free time with her as I could and promised my mother that if it were ever possible for her to revisit her homeland, I would take her there.
We returned in 1994, and although I had no intention of writing about East Prussia, after my mother gave me the diaries she and my grandmother kept during the war I found myself drafting “One Last Summer”. A book that spent ten years in my “unpublished” drawer, which is now recommended reading by the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust. It became a worldwide bestseller and resulted in invitations from the Polish Libraries to tour Poland. A wonderful experience that enabled me to return to my mother’s home town now renamed Olsztyn and speaking in the town’s magnificent libraries.
Pontypridd and Olsztyn have been generous and kind to me. In 2003 Ty Catrin, an adult education centre in Pontypridd, was named for Catrin Collier and my name is inscribed on the Ponty Proud board along with that of Elaine Morgan – a writer who was my inspiration and role model during my schooldays and later a friend, and Stuart Burrows, Tom Jones, and Beverley Humphreys among others.
Becoming a full time writer and working on a film set were the fulfilment of lifetime dreams. Now, I can consider all the jobs I took before as “research” not aimless drifting. At 14 I was a Saturday waitress in an Italian owned cafe in Pontypridd. I still call in “Princes” whenever I’m in Pontypridd, and recommend their cakes and savouries. My warm-hearted employers and co-workers became the templates for my characters in the Hearts of Gold series .
I went to Maesycoed Primary, (where a wonderful teacher, Mrs Absalom introduced me to the Iliad. I lived for Friday afternoons when she’d read the “next episode.) I attended Pontypridd Girls’ Grammar school and trained as a teacher in Swansea College of Education. In 1968 I went on a student exchange to the USA which resulted in “Bobby’s Girl”. In it I revisited some characters from Hearts of Gold and recalled the protests of the 1960’s – against the Vietnam War and for Civil Rights. I’ve worked as a Drama and English teacher, social worker, management and business consultant, human resources director, barmaid, and a few other positions, most resulted in new friends, skills and background for a short story if not a book.
After chequered attempts to write for publication which resulted in a few short stories and articles surfacing in various magazines, but many many more rejections, I joined Swansea Writers’ Circle in 1977 – I’m still a member. There I found scores of like-minded people who dreamed of publication, and learned a crucial lesson. To become published you have to write for markets. Obvious? Not to me. I assumed I could sit in my attic (metaphorical I worked in a garage) and when I finished my masterpiece the world would beat a path to my door.
Thanks to the wonderful people in the circle, some of whom became close, lifelong friends, I was published by magazines such as Secret Photo Love. I was in good company Alexander Cordell confided he began his career writing for Red Star and Iris Gower was writing for Loving magazine. I wandered into theatrical play writing until one of my plays was banned the night before it went “on the road”.
Every month we had visiting speakers, including a Mills and Boon author who’d made a million. Within twenty-four hours ninety per cent of the circle were attempting their first Mills and Boon. I wrote 17 – A Touch of Fire . . . A Touch of Class . . . I was working full time and had three children under five. The only time I could write was between midnight and four in the morning because my children never slept. One morning I faced the truth. I couldn’t and never would be able to write romance. The following night, I disinfected my study of romance, sat before my typewriter (yes I’m that old) and created a tall, handsome black haired, blue-eyed incredibly good-looking character (I based him on a Hollywood actor) and “disappeared” him in the first chapter. When I brought in the police officers, including my detective, then Sergeant Trevor Joseph to investigate the vanishing some were short – some fat – some thin, all had character flaws.
Six months later I finished “Without Trace”. In May 1987 I found an agent prepared to look at my book. In December 1987 he signed me to the agency. In December 1988 he sold the book to an editor at Random House. While “Without Trace” was being prepared for publication I was a consultant interviewing long term unemployed clients with health problems who wanted to return to work. My editor telephoned me, during one interview. She was furious because I’d killed Trevor Joseph in the last chapter. We had a heated argument, which ended with me saying. “If I can’t kill Trevor Joseph I’ll severely maim him”. I slammed the telephone down to see a white faced client staring at me.
It was the first but not the last time an editor proved me wrong. I’m glad Trevor Joseph survived. I’ve not long finished penning my ninth Trevor Joseph book, The Vanished. “Without Trace” was published by Century at Random House as a Katherine John medical chiller, the paperback rights were bought by Headline who offered me a contract to write more crime novels. After publication my agent asked if I had completed any other novels. I asked how many would he like?
I sent him a novel I’d been working on for ten years set in the first world war in Mesopotamia, (modern Iraq). My editor loved the plot and characters but hated the setting and asked if I could move it to Wales in the 1930’s. Slight problem, no desert, no Arabs, no war, in 1930’s Wales. She offered me a contract to write a single novel set in Wales in the 1930’s. I was reluctant. My father was born in Tonypandy in 1920 and remembered the 1926 strike. He rarely spoke of the hardships he and our family endured in common with all Valley mining families of the time. I didn’t want to re-open old wounds but told him about the project and we talked – really talked about life in the Valleys and Pontypridd between the wars for the first time. The result was a research file that became Hearts of Gold.
Four hundred pages of plot, characterisations, historical facts, and old photographs, Hearts of Gold was intended to be one book. My editor told me I had amassed enough material for ten. She was right. Neither of us thought the series would become a success, or continue to depict life in Pontypridd from the 1930’s through the decade of the 1940’s to the 1950’s or lead to a BBC worldwide dramatisation in 2003.
I continue to produce one historical novel as Catrin Collier a year, my Katherine John crime books are intermittent because I’ve often been sidetracked on to other projects. I’ve novelised TV series as Katherine Hardy, ghosted crime and novelised films as K A John, and after one champagne fuelled publishing party accepted an offer to write “raunch” as Caro French. (that year I produced 5 books and finally gave up work to realise my ambition of becoming a full time writer) I’ve also written a few scripts, some based on my novels, some original, some which may be filmed, and some that won’t.
I’m often asked which I prefer writing, historical fiction or crime, my answer – “the book or script I’m working on has to be my absolute favourite and deserves all the attention I can give it.” I try not to work on more than one project at a time, but deadlines intrude and projects overlap. And although I am a Welsh writer I don’t only, or always, look to Wales for inspiration.
If there’s any advice in this brief biography it’s never give up, never lose faith in yourself, keep your sense of humour and NEVER take professional criticism as personal. Remember an editor’s professional reputation is linked to yours. Yes, they are human and occasionally they can be wrong but they only want the best for your work and if my experience is typical, their advice is always well meant and sincere. So, when you get your next rejection (and of course I still do) it could be that your work REALLY doesn’t fit the list – or the editor is about to change publishing houses.
Catrin Collier Amazon Page
Katherine John Amazon page
Catrin Collier – Wikipedia
Catrin Collier – IMDb
Catrin Collier – Calibre Audio Library – Free audiobooks for people who experience difficulty reading print
Catrin Collier – Fantastic Fiction
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BBC Drama Pack Hearts Of Gold