Monday, June 16, 2014

Interview with Rebecca Mascull

1. Which came first the discovery of your great great aunt or the idea for the book?

Ah well, that is a good question and needs a roundabout answer. The idea for ‘The Visitors’ definitely came first, as I had wanted to write about a deaf-blind girl for years. I worked with deaf students when I was teacher training and also I saw a film about Helen Keller when I was a kid. I thought it’d be a great challenge to write from the girl’s point of view, to try to imagine that darkness and silence, and how it would be to have no proper form of communication. And how fascinating it would be to chart how she moves from that nowhere land of no words to a world of ‘talking’. As a teenager, I also read the autobiography of Sheila Hocken, called ‘Emma and I’, about a blind woman who has an operation to restore her sight. The moment when she first opens her new eyes was astounding and stayed with me. So the seeds for this novel were mostly sewn years ago.
However, whilst I was researching the late Victorian/Edwardian period, I wanted a profession for my main character’s family and I came across hop farming in a social history book. It ticked all the boxes for me as it was a risky business and very picturesque, with lovely language, such as ‘scuppets’. When talking to my mum about it, she told me that we had a hop farming link in our past, as my mother’s grandmother was a Golding, and there was such a thing as a Golding hop, and the family legend was that we were connected to that. I was amazed! I started researching through family tree websites and found the Goldings; I managed to get back to James Golding, born 1810, and found he had farmed on hop land, but sadly didn’t find any evidence at all that we had anything to do with the famous Golding hop! However, amongst the Goldings was an Adeliza Golding, who was present in one census, then disappeared by the next, and I realised she must have died very young. I know nothing about her at all, but the name was so beautiful and it felt tragic that she died so young; I couldn’t resist using her name and making that link to my family past.
So, that’s how it all came about. ! But I wonder now if I had heard something about the Golding hop as a young girl and maybe stored it in my subconscious, and perhaps that’s what attracted me to hops. I also lived in Kent from the age of 10 and visited a hop farm on a school trip, and never forgot the overwhelming smell of drying hops. It is curious how a writer’s influences come together to create a novel. As we know, there are only so many story types in the world, yet what makes each book unique is that every person is so, and all of their memories and allusions are unique, and thus everyone tells a story in their own inimitable style.

2. Was the writing easier or harder because you based the story on an ancestor?

As you can see from my first answer, the story wasn’t actually based on my ancestor. So it didn’t guide me or restrict me in any particular way. Funnily enough, when I was researching the Goldings, I found that it was possible that they were once called Golden and had changed their name to Golding, though I’m not sure why. It may have been a mistake by the census taker, who knows! At this point I started jotting down ideas for a story around the Goldings and the
Goldens and how one part of the family were rich and one were poor and they met up and there was a scandal – and then I realised I was rewriting ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’!! So I soon dumped that idea and decided to just carry on with my original plan of the little deaf-blind girl, and not worry about family history and just let the story develop in its own way. That’s one reason why I would find it hard to write a novel centred on a real historical figure; my caveat is that I do like the idea of my characters bumping into real historical figures, as that’s quite fun, to have those real-life references to make the novel feel as if it really happened once. But if I had my main character as a real figure – especially one whose life has been well-documented - I think I would find that very restrictive, and would want to take that character off in new directions. I’m not ruling that out as a future project, but I think I’d have to find creative ways around it. I do like my characters to decide their own fate, and not be restricted by pesky things like the truth!

3. What are you working on now?

Right now I’m working through the line edit to my next novel, ‘Song of the Sea Maid’, which will come out in June 2015. It’s about an orphan girl who is educated and becomes a scientist. She travels abroad and makes a remarkable discovery. I see from your blog profile that you say you’re a history geek and a feminist – well, I do think you might like this novel, in that case! It does cover those themes for sure. It’s the third draft and is taking quite a bit of work and time! It’s set in the C18th and was a huge challenge in terms of researching the era, as I knew very little about that period, and particularly the history of science at that time. I also needed to find out about the Seven Years’ War and various other historical events of the time – I won’t say what they all are, as it would spoil the story! – so it was a lot of work in the making. Recently an historian has very kindly read it for me and given me some wonderful notes, so I’ve been addressing those and my Hodder editor’s suggestions. When that’s done in a month or so, I’ll be getting on with the research for the next novel, which is set in the early C20th. I’ve already started a box of books for this one!

4. Is historical fiction your genre or will you/have you tried other things?

I wrote 3 novels before ‘The Visitors’. I’d imagine that’s reasonably common for quite a few published novelists, though some do strike it lucky first time. My first 2 weren’t historical fiction, but my 3rd was, set in WWII in England and Poland. It got an agent who loved it but not a publisher, so I started writing the next one, which was ‘The Visitors’ and did get a deal in the end, thankfully! Writing that WWII novel taught me the hard way about how to research and write an historical novel – how to find sources, how to decide what’s necessary and what isn’t, how to weave history into a story – and as a novel I guess it had its flaws, but it was a marvellous and necessary learning curve. I may well rework that book into something better one day; I still think about it and it haunts me rather. Anyone who knows me will tell you I do kind of live in the past – in my head, at least – though I watch/listen to the news every day and I’m interested in current events and politics. But I love old language, old books, old things and so writing historical novels is just pure joy for me, to inhabit those other worlds, lost forever in
time. So, I’m very happy where I am in historical fiction and confess I read very little contemporary fiction that is set in the present, and would usually want to read about the past – but not always. So, I don’t know as yet if I’ll ever write about the present day. We shall see!

5. What is your writing method - meticulous planning or seat of the pants? Do you write while listening to music or in silence can you work with noise, kids, housework in background or do you have to go out?

I’d say meticulous planning just about sums me up. I do write a detailed synopsis for each novel and then an even more detailed chapter plan, from which I work as I write each chapter or section. I find that writing about the past – with its store of facts and dates – does necessitate that kind of organised approach, though I know all writers have their own ways; it works for me. My ideal writing conditions are in an empty, silent house. But needs must, and life goes on, so I do find myself writing with other stuff going on around me; but I try to leave the research and editing for such times, and keep the precious peace of the school day - whilst my daughter Poppy is at school, and so is my partner Simon, a deputy head at a school! - for the actual writing of the draft, to preserve that special quiet time for the most creative part of the process.

6. Have you always wanted to write?

Yes, absolutely. I’ve been writing stories since I was a child. I think in stories. I observe people and places as if they are part of stories. I love movies and TV/Radio drama and documentaries, and again I look at them all in terms of what makes a good story. I have studied and taught narrative theory too – which I find absolutely fascinating – and so I guess you could say I am utterly addicted to stories. I can’t help myself. But then, there are worst things to be addicted to!

7. Who are your literary heroes and heroines?

Quite a few are from the past – my historical bias evident there – such as Dickens, Austen, the Brontes, Shakespeare, Hardy – yet I also have hugely enjoyed some more contemporary novelists such as Amy Tan, Isabel Allende, Annie Proulx, Margaret Atwood – all of whom present other worlds to me, such as China, South & North America and Canada, and are also simply brilliant writers. I feel very attached to writers I discovered in my teens and twenties, as they are nostalgic for me – such as Salinger, Fitzgerald, Raymond Carver, Ian McEwan. But I’m open to reading just about any novel if it’s beautifully written – though I must admit my bias is towards historical fiction presently. I’m also influenced and attracted to the work of certain playwrights and poets, such as Arthur Miller, Peter Schaffer, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost and Philip Larkin. I find stories and ideas in them just as compelling as any novel. And I’m tremendously influenced by film narratives too, and how they handle plot development and the visual side of writing.

8. What were your favourite books/authors in childhood?

Doctor Dolittle (talking to animals – just the best idea!), Enid Blyton (especially the Faraway Tree and anything involving pixies, brownies and toys coming to life), Winnie the Pooh (particularly the poems), Rosemary Manning Saunders on magic animals and sorcery, Ursula Moray Williams (cats on desert islands), Barbara Sleigh (cats on broomsticks) and Roald Dahl. One of my most important influences was seeing Star Wars in the cinema, aged 7 or thereabouts. It changed my life! As you can see, all of these inhabit the world of the imagination – very little realism here! I just wanted to escape.

9. Do you believe in ghosts? Have you ever seen one?

Ooh, great question. My truthful answer is I really don’t know. I lived in an old cottage for a few months once and I swear there was something odd there, some kind of presence. My cat Lilly knew it – she was very freaked out by that house and used to jump a lot and stare wildly into the corners of the ceiling. But I have never actually seen a ghost – though I would LOVE to (I think…) I certainly love ghost stories, and alien stories too – like that movie ‘Signs’ – I just love the idea of the other, coming into our world – like the scariest movie, ‘Poltergeist’. And us visiting their worlds too, like one of my favourite ever films, ‘Contact’. I loved Carl Sagan’s ‘Cosmos’ growing up too. Ghosts and aliens and the past and travel – it’s all about other worlds and the imagination. That’s where I’m most comfortable.

10. Will you write about ghosts again?

Well, I do have an idea for a sequel to ‘The Visitors’ which might materialise one day. And I do love ghosts – especially the fun you can have in determining the rules your ghosts will follow i.e. how much influence they have, who they can talk to etc. So I might do…But when I travel, I tend to always go somewhere new each time, to discover more about the world – and at the moment, that’s how I am with my writing. But never say never…

Thanks so much for such great questions, Lisa. It was great fun to answer them.

Thank you Rebecca for those great answers.
The Visitors is published by Hodder and is currently available in Hardback but the paperback will be published 17th July 2014. Keep an eye out for my review of The Visitors asap.

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