21 Questions

‘I knew I was a writer at 17’: 21 Questions with Kateryna Babkina

The author of Cappy and the Whale on her love for fairy tales, crocheting, and an embarrassing encounter at a swimming pool.

Following the russian invasion of Ukraine back in February 2022, Ukrainian writer Kateryna Babkina reluctantly had to leave her home country to settle in the UK. But despite the unsurprisingly turbulent year she has had, one good thing that happened is the release of her children’s book, Cappy and the Whale, in English for the very first time.

Back in 2015, Kateryna was involved in activities with Tabletochki, a charity that helps Ukrainian children with cancer. She saw how much fear and misunderstanding revolves around the subject of cancer, and how often someone’s illness can eclipse their identity. So, Kateryna decided to write Cappy and the Whale – a touching tale about an eight-year-old boy with leukaemia who tries to live his best life with the help of his new whale friend.

To celebrate the release of her book, we caught up with Kateryna to ask her our 21 Questions about life and literature. Below, she shares her ideal writing scenario, her love of reading in the bath, and how she would let J. D. Salinger choose the cocktails if they shared a dinner.

Which writer do you most admire and why?

Obviously, I admire a lot of writers for many different reasons. You could ask me this question again and again and get a different answer each day. Charles Dickens, Edith Eger, Orchan Pamuk, Jane Austen, John Irving, James Baldwin or W. H. Auden. But today I’ll tell you about Ukrainian writer Taras Prokhasko, just so more people hear about him. His writing is shrill and vivid, he pays special attention to the smallest cracks and details, and he is ingenious in his simplicity.

What was the first book you remember loving as a child?

What was your favourite book when you were a teenager?

Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell.

Tell us about a book that changed your life’s path

That was definitely St. Elmo’s Fire – the first book of poetry I had published when I was 17 in 2002. That is how I knew I was a writer.

What’s the strangest job you’ve had outside of being an author?

Teaching people how to drive. 

What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever been given?

'You can ask me which writer I most admire and why but you'll get a different answer each day.'

To write a book you need to sit down and write the book.

Tell us about a book you’ve reread many times (and why)

The Three Musketeers by Alexander Dumas. It's just so dynamic and romantic and adventurous and I don’t even know what else to say. I could just finish it and restart it again.

What’s the one popular children’s book you’ve never got round to reading?

Pollyanna by Eleanor H. Porter.

If I didn’t become an author, I would be ______

I was a good journalist and effective communication strategist. I do love and enjoy teaching, but there is no other career for me.

What makes you happiest?

The feeling of freedom, safety, and belonging. Also hugging my daughter, laughing, sleeping, love, travelling, money, a good steak or seafood platter, a massage, holidays in the Maldives or the Amalfi coast…

What’s your most surprising passion or hobby?

Crocheting and searching for inspiration.

What is your ideal writing scenario?

A good chair with a good desk, and a good view. A nice room with a lot of daylight, silence, my laptop, and no one around. No other urgent duties. And a big deadline.

What was your strangest or most embarrassing author experience?

In the changing room at a swimming pool, a lovely lady came over to me and started telling me how she had discovered my writing through books she had bought for her children and that she now reads and enjoys my writing for grown-ups. Neither of us had our pants on, and I was debating in my head whether it was polite for me to finish drying my butt with the towel whilst she was talking to me.

If you could have any writer, living or dead, over for dinner, who would it be, and what would you serve them?

I would go to the Oyster Bar at Grand Central in New York with a young J. D. Salinger. I’d let him choose the cocktails.

'I'd let J. D. Salinger choose the cocktails at dinner.'

What’s your biggest fear?

To be lost forever trying to get to where I need to go with my baby in a pram by the lifts at King’s Cross St. Pancras station.

If you could have a superpower, what would it be?

I’d happily take the ability to write again, thank you.

What’s the best book you’ve read in the past 12 months?

The Time of Our Singing by Richard Powers.

Reading in the bath: yes or no?

Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, oh my God, yes.

Which do you prefer: chocolate or crisps?

I'd prefer a grilled octopus with baby potatoes or a good tenderloin cooked medium to rare.

What is the best book you’ve ever read?

I can't answer that. All the other books I love won’t forgive me for mentioning just one.

What inspired you to write your new book?

I wrote Cappy and the Whale because I wanted children, the new Ukrainians, to come across fewer stereotypes, taboos, fears, myths, and drama talking about complicated things. I wanted them to have a familiar narrative and an example of how others cope when difficult things happen in their life. And (if you get yourself a copy of the book) you'll learn what the two most important things are to help you keep going when something scary and confusing happens.

The book I'm currently working on is inspired by my desire to help people see how cruel, destructive, and impossible the war russia is waging against Ukraine is.

Cappy and the Whale by Kateryna Babkina is out now.

Image at top: Melisa Lee for Penguin

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