Meet Cate Touryan, Second Place Winner in the Spring 2017 Flash Fiction Contest

Tuesday, September 26, 2017
Like many others, Cate always wanted to be a writer when she grew up—and a writer she became. Except not the kind of writer she’d envisioned. With an MA in English and a JD in law, she built a career as a technical writer, editor, university instructor, and business owner. Five years ago, she moved back to her hometown of San Luis Obispo, California, from a long stint in Sacramento, leaving her career (mostly) behind and returning to fiction.

When she’s not editing engineering reports or teaching technical writing for forensic scientists in the crime labs, she is working on short stories, creative nonfiction, and a second novel. She lives with her husband and daughter a stone’s throw from her childhood home (and her mom), and recently secured an agent for her first novel. She has found that the best way to live each day is by taking walks with her dog (and her mom) and by faith.

To connect with Cate, please find her here...


interview by Renee Roberson

WOW:  Cate, congratulations on placing in the contest and welcome! On your website you discussed how your winning entry, " A Note in the Margin," was inspired by a dear friend and neighbor of yours who suffered from progressive aphasia. Was this a difficult piece to write being so close to home?

Cate: If there’s an authentic way to write about things that aren’t close to home, I’d like to know about it! Yes, it was close to home, both because “Maggie” (Theresa) was my friend and neighbor for almost 20 years and also because she was a writer, a fellow artist. So, yes, on several levels, it was difficult, but what was far more difficult was watching a brutal disease rob a gifted, accomplished poet of her words and a remarkable woman of herself—as well as to watch a son lose his mother, a husband his wife. I intended the story as a tribute to her and to them, to the way she lived and to the way she died. And, of course, I very much wanted not just to write but to share her story—her strength, her beauty, her sorrow. A story is not as good as its number of readers, but a good story only finds completion when read. Thus, my immense gratitude to WOW for the opportunity to give the story readers.

When I learned that the story had made it through the first round, I emailed Theresa’s husband to tell him I’d written a piece dedicated to his wife and telling a fictionalized version of her story, concerned that its publication might pain him. He responded with gratitude, saying, “The story honors her and the outward humility and dignity with which she faced her illness,” which was exactly what I’d hoped.

He also asked if I’d attended the poetry reading I describe in the story. I hadn’t, but she had told me about it, about her words disappearing, slurring. She was surprisingly open with me about her diagnosis, and while I tried to remain encouraging and sympathetic, I recoiled with every detail she shared, stunned that she, a poet, writer, and a speaker, of all people, would lose her words. And as a fellow writer, I couldn't think of a worse fate. The least I could do was honor her with the very thing she’d lost.

Writing this story was my gathering and laying of flowers for a friend. But it was also more than that: it was a way to work through my own heartache. Writing often takes both the writer and the reader on a redemptive journey, and that journey, I find, compels much of my writing.

WOW: What a fitting tribute to Theresa's life, and something for her family to also cherish in her absence. Switching gears, you also work as a writing consultant and have edited many technical, business and scientific documents. How do you separate writing and editing technical documents from your creative writing endeavors? They are so vastly different!

Cate: Yes, well, one must resist the urge to wax poetic while discussing strategies to minimize business interruption risks from cable tray fires in power plants. My master’s degree is in English, with my emphasis in creative writing, so I fell into technical writing quite by accident. In some ways, technical writing is much easier than fiction writing. It’s factual, straightforward, efficient, concise, relies on common sense, plain English, and a solid understanding of grammar and style. You do need to be creative, but not in conceiving ideas, rather in presenting them most effectively to the intended audience. Creative writing, on the other hand, requires you to partner with God. I say that only somewhat facetiously, echoing Madeleine L’Engle’s sentiments in Walking on Water: “God is constantly creating, in us, through us, with us, and to co-create with God is our human calling.”

As far as how I separate technical writing and editing from my creative writing endeavors, the answer is “very poorly.” It’s a hopeless affair. I simply do the one when deadlines loom at the engineering firm or crime lab and do the other when I can procrastinate just a bit longer. But the shifting of gears can be heard several blocks away, I assure you.

WOW: I love that. So honest! We'd also love to hear about your work designing a program teaching technical writing for forensic scientists. What did that entail?

Cate: After I earned my MA in English, I taught academic writing for the Sacramento community colleges part-time for ten years. At 35, I entered law school, graduated at 38, took and passed the California bar, and then six weeks shy of my 40th birthday had my second daughter.
Instead of practicing law or returning to the college campus, I found myself given an unexpected opportunity: teaching business writing to employees of government agencies. Living in the state capital with its hub of government agencies, I was in the right place at the right time. One of these agencies was the Sacramento County Crime Lab, which sought an instructor with education in both English and law. Voila, my career in forensic science was born! Eventually, I was asked to develop a writing course for the California Criminalistics Institute, which I’ve taught now for almost 20 years and which I’ve taken to many crime labs throughout the state. After many years teaching that course, I was invited to develop a course for the newly instated Master of Forensic Science program at the University of California, Davis, Extension. No one has been more surprised at how my career path evolved than I!

WOW:  Please tell us more about your upcoming novel, "Turning Toward Eden." Is it a young adult book?

Cate: Quite possibly! But I hope it’s more and crosses ages and genders. It’s for anyone who ever descended into adolescence and resurfaced (questionable for some perhaps), for anyone who loves a coming-of-age story or just a good story. Set in a small California beach town in 1971, it’s a little bit mystery, a little bit adventure, a little bit teenage angst, a little bit xenophobia, a lot bit redemption, and dedicated to my brother who is severely disabled and who inspired one of the characters. The tagline is “When chasing another is easier than facing yourself.”

(And the logline is “After her father walks out, a resentful 14-year-old finds herself burdened with a secret shame and trapped in a family she no longer wants. When an elusive stranger is rumored to be behind a series of disturbing events that rattle the town, she sets out to discover the stranger’s secret only to find that the enemy she chases is herself and the secret her own.”)

As exciting as the novel is (of course I’m going to say that!), the story behind the novel is worth telling for the encouragement I hope it offers other writers. I began writing the novel 20 years ago, but worked on it only sporadically over the next two decades, my time devoted to caring for my family and building my business as an editor and writing instructor—a tale familiar to many working mothers, I think. In late summer 2015, six of my high school friends gathered in my home for a weekend of reminiscing and girl fun, kayaking, shopping coastal boutiques, sitting by the firepit under the stars. Eight weeks later, one of these friends was diagnosed with kidney cancer, and three weeks later, she was gone.

As we’d sat around the firepit, she had shared so many hopes and dreams for her upcoming year, taking ballroom dancing classes, writing songs, flying to Paris in the spring with her mother. So many of us live for that day “when.” That’s what I was doing, waiting for that day when I could devote myself to writing and finish that languishing novel.

Reeling from her unexpected death, I took a page from Alice (in Wonderland) and boxed my own ears, determining that before my 60th birthday the next year, I’d complete the novel, never mind whether it was good or not—and by then I was pretty sure it wasn’t. It would be a gift to myself and a tribute to my childhood friend. My resolve got a huge boost when a couple months later an excerpt won the Grand Prize at the 2016 San Francisco Writing Contest. If I wanted to back out now, I couldn’t. Expectations were running high that I finish the story. And finish the story I did. Anything beyond that—securing an agent, finding a publisher, entertaining readers—is icing on the cake. Of course, some of us prefer icing to cake, but the truth is that doing what you set out to do is its own very sweet success. And yes, it can happen even at 60. But don’t wait for the “when.”

WOW: Thank you so much for this interview, Cate! Before you go, can you share with us what you are writing these days?

Cate: I’ve just finished a creative nonfiction piece (and thus I’m very glad to see that category added to the WOW contests), a category new to me, much like flash fiction, which I learned about only in the last two years—my head’s been buried too long in tech writing obviously. I also have a middle grade novel I’m sketching out—two, actually. As much fun as I think writing those will be, I think they might be delay tactics for another adult novel that’s been brewing for a while. Then again, until we try, I don’t think we really know what our strongest suit is. That’s one of the wonderful things about writing—discovering how best to say what it is we want to say.


Angela Mackintosh said...

Wow, this is one of the most inspirational interviews I've read in a while! Thanks, ladies!

Cate ~ I loved hearing the story behind "A Note in the Margin." Writing and reading IS a redemptive journey! What a beautiful tribute and gift you've given Theresa's family.

Your novel sounds magical and I'm looking forward to reading a copy when it publishes. The story behind it makes me want to start writing right now.

Sioux Roslawski said...

Renee--Thanks for this interview. I agree with Angela. It nudged me and inspired me.

Cate--I hope that photo of you is an old one. If not, I am going to have to find your address, hunt you down and slash your tires. (You don't look even close to 60. ;)

Theresa lives on via your story. What a wonderful thing to do.

And I'm at an age where I'm wondering how many bucket list things I can do before I run out of time. Thanks for the nudges...

Mary Horner said...

Great interview, thanks for sharing her story, it touched my heart.

Amanda Loduca said...

I hadn't read your flash fiction piece when I started reading your interview. I liked the way you presented yourself here and was moved by your story, so I went back to read it. Heartbreakingly beautiful. Your writing style reminds me of Anthony Doerr's.

Ann said...

Thanks so much for these comments! Somehow I completely missed that my interview had been published. I actually went hunting for it tonight, thinking, hmmm, seems an awful long wait. Golly, how did I miss it?

I so appreciate hearing all your thoughts and very much hope you feel inspired! Thank you!

Oh--to the lovely person who asked about my photo. It was taken in March of this year. The lighting was kind to me, and the photographer even kinder. And there's a certain beauty in age if we're kind to ourselves too! Cate

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