Lately I had to talk to Rebecca Mascull about her novel The Visitors. The Visitors is a beautifully crafted story and I could not put it down. You can find it here.
Have you always been a writer? If not, what inspired you to begin writing?
I have always loved a story, since I was a little girl. I see this in my daughter Poppy now, a love of imaginative play. One of her favourite things is to make up a story using little plastic characters – ‘Can we do a story, Mummy, PLEASE?’ – and this reminds me very much of myself. When I was a teenager, I started writing stories down a bit more seriously. I was highly influenced by films and TV shows and wrote thinly disguised copies of stuff I’d seen for example a rip-off of the female gunslinger from ‘Romancing the Stone’! But that’s ok; they call it ‘homage’ rather than plagiarism, don’t they?! Once I was at university I started to write short stories, then began work on an idea for a novel. So, yes, I’ve always been writing in one way or another, and had a fascination for stories.
Where did the idea for The Visitors come from?
I saw a TV movie about Helen Keller when I was a kid and it stayed with me, deep down. It was the bit when Helen realised that a word carried a meaning beyond itself, a marvellous light-bulb moment. I could see that her biggest obstacle in life was not that she couldn’t see or hear, but that she could not communicate. Once she had that, she could achieve almost anything. Years later, I worked with deaf teenagers when I was teacher training and I wrote an essay all about deafness and again it fascinated me. The complexities of deaf communication and the differences between sign, written and spoken language were so interesting and I wanted to explore that.
How well do you know your main character before you begin writing from his/her point of view? How do you shape his/her personality?
That’s a very interesting question and there is no simple answer. It is a long process, which begins from the first glimmerings of the novel and continues throughout the writing process. I do some notes about my characters in the planning stages as ideas come to me – some of this comes through the historical research, where I might find a personality from history who captures my imagination and I incorporate some of their attributes into my character. Also people I’ve known might influence me, of course. But mostly, I learn to know my characters as I write them; it’s a mysterious process that comes through the act of writing itself, where I sometimes get the curious impression that the characters are already fully formed and are revealing their personalities to me bit by bit. Writers are odd that way…
How difficult was it writing from the point of view of a girl who could not see or hear? Did you do anything to put yourself in her position?
It wasn’t easy! My first draft was littered with mistakes revolving around Adeliza responding to sound and sights when of course she couldn’t hear or see them – my mum was a particularly eagle-eyed editor in this regard! I did sit with my eyes closed sometimes when I was writing the blind sections, and also tried to approximate silence in the house, but that’s not always easy. It was more about going to a private, silent place inside my mind where I could reside in Liza’s mind and try to imagine the sensation – touch became very important and I found myself seeking out objects she mentioned in order to describe how they feel, for example, when I visited a hop farm, I made sure I touched all the different parts of the plant and wrote down how they felt to touch, such as the sticky stalks and soft new growth, as I knew Liza would have done this. Smell was also very important and my worst sense: I virtually have no sense of smell myself, I don’t know why, but it’s very poor. So I had to imagine what range of things she might smell in a room or setting and project that into her experience. It certainly was a challenge but I love that.
Many writers claim that their characters’ voices just “come” to them. Was this true of Adeliza or did you have to work on her voice?
Funnily enough, this did happen exactly that way with Liza, though it hasn’t with all other characters I’ve written. One day the opening lines of the novel just popped into my head: ‘My name is Adeliza Golding. I am born breech and nearly kill Mother.’ My own baby was breech and wouldn’t turn, so that’s where that came from. And her name came from research into my family tree. But the opening and her voice just ‘came’ to me, as you say; I wrote it down in a notebook months before I started writing, and when I came to it, I typed out those words and then she was off. There was no stopping her! I did work on her late Victorian/Edwardian dialect and also put some Kentish words in there too, as her teacher is a Kentish girl so I felt that was appropriate. But mostly, Liza just spoke to me and it was often as if I was copying down her words from dictation. Spooky.
Do ideas for the characters and settings come to you easily? How do you go about researching a novel?
I do keep notebooks stashed around the house and in my handbag to jot down ideas when they come, as my memory is terrible. And it’s often at inopportune moments, like when I’m driving or just about to fall asleep. I’ve actually trained myself NOT to think about the current novel just before I go to sleep, as 1. It’ll keep me up all night and 2. I’m too lazy to turn the light on and write it down so I know all that lovely mental effort will be lost and forgotten! The most creative time for me is in the early research stages of the novel, when I’m just about getting to grips with the new subjects of the book, and then the ideas come thick and fast and I struggle to keep up with them. I scribble in notebooks and margins a lot during this phase. Not all of these ideas find their way into the final novel, but a lot of them do. I’m at that phase right now with my 3rd novel for Hodder, and I’m loving it.
So, when researching, do you use the internet, books or visit places?
When researching, I do all three of those. I use the internet to look up a wide range of information, but I always try to find at least two sources for any fact I wish to use. Much of my research comes from books: once a year or so I go to some fabulous 2nd hand bookshops in nearby Horncastle and look for books on my themes/topics. I always find something useful. I find others in Waterstones too and also some great bargains on Amazon Marketplace, where I’ve found some marvellously obscure books in the past, sometimes from America or even print-on-demand. I use libraries too, particularly specialist ones related to my subject, such as the Imperial War Museum Reading Room, which I used exclusively for Boer War research. They have unpublished letters and diaries there too, for example from Boer war soldiers, which were invaluable. For my next novel, I visited the Caird Library at the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich, to read original documents about the Seven Years’ War. I also like to visit relevant places, for example Kent Life hop farm for The Visitors and for the next book I went to Fairfax House, Burton Constable Hall and Dr Johnson’s House (all C18th). These help you get a real sense of place. As I walked down the hop lanes I could see Adeliza skipping before me…
The settings in The Visitors such as the oyster beds, the hop gardens and the veldt of Africa are described beautifully and add so much authenticity to the novel. What made you choose these specific settings?
Thank you. I’m so glad to hear that. Well, the story of the hops and oysters is partly luck and partly ancestral voices calling. I was reading a book about Edwardian society and it had some chapters on industries at that time, and one of the chapters was on hop farming. I lived in Kent from the age of 9 to 19, and I remembered that I’d been on a school trip to a hop farm as a teenager and never forget that amazing smell of drying hops: it was sickly sweet and overpowering. I loved reading the colourful language of hops too, such as scuppets and green stages. Lovely. Then after talking to my mum about it I discovered that her mother’s mother’s maiden name was Golding, and there had been talk in the family that there was some connection with a famous variety of hop called the Golding hop and that set me off on family tree websites. So, hops just felt right, for all those reasons. Then I needed the Crowe family to have an alternative source of income, and I wanted them to live in a different area of Kent, so that they would represent escape and freedom to Liza, and the sea just seemed the best place to achieve that. So I looked up the seaside industries at that time and came across Whitstable oysters – again, such evocative little creatures they are, and such lovely language, like half-ware etc. I was hooked. South Africa and the Boer War came about because I wanted a main character to go off to war, and in the historical setting I’d chosen, that was the main war at the time. I didn’t know much about it before I began researching, but that’s always appealing to me, as I feel if I don’t know much about something, then it’s likely quite a few readers won’t either, and that’ll make interesting reading, hopefully.
Could you tell me more about your writing process? Do you have a daily writing routine?
I do have a daily routine and that is largely shaped by my family and other commitments. So, my daughter is at school and my partner works in education so I tend to write during the school day i.e. from 10 till 2ish. That means that not much writing gets done in school holidays, weekends and evenings. But those latter times are when I get quite a lot of reading and research done. I tend to save the actual creation of the original prose fiction for the days when I’m alone in the house, as that suits me. Also, my writing year is currently shaped by the fact that I do examining work for 3 months every summer, so I tend to start first drafts in September when everyone is back at school and try to get projects finished by the end of April. That’s the ideal, but it doesn’t always work out that way. I had to do the line edit of my latest novel during the exam period this year, and it was very tough indeed! But you can’t always line up your deadlines so neatly once you get published, and you just have to roll with it and work out new routines for writing.
Do you plan your novels or are you a more spontaneous writer?
I plan in a lot of detail; it’s just the way my brain works. Once I’ve got a certain amount of research under my belt and a notebook full of ideas, I write an extensive synopsis of the main events and movements of the characters. I then use this to write detailed chapter plans and I have these on the desk when I write the first draft. However, as many writers will testify, the best laid plans of mice and men etc. etc. So, I’ve learned to use all this planning wisely and not insist of sticking to it when the characters clearly want to wander off in a different direction; instead, to listen to my characters and go with it, as they do tend to know exactly the right path and you ignore them at your peril.
Do you have a favourite writing space?
I would love to write in bed, as bed is my favourite place for reading and writing (and drinking tea and eating cake/chocolate/other goodies) BUT I’m supposed to write at my desk for health reasons: I had a neck problem a couple of years ago which was terribly painful, and it was all caused by years of bending over a laptop. So now I have a laptop riser on my desk and a proper keyboard, and certainly that’s where I ought to be doing most of my full-on typing. (But I do a lot of research and other jobs in comfier places…)
I like to write in fat, clothbound notebooks. Do you prefer to write longhand or at the computer? My lovely fella Simon always gives me a new notebook for each novel (and for any excuse really – I’ve got loads of lovely ones on the shelf) so I tend to do a lot of the planning and initial ideas for each novel whilst scribbling in notebooks. But the actual first draft and further drafts are all on the laptop. It suits me and the way I can edit it so easily on screen. And it’s probably necessary in terms of making it accessible to others, such as agents and editors etc. But I love writing by hand too. I love books and I love pretty stationery and I know I’m not the only one. I’m convinced that whatever happens with technology, we will still be holding pencils and pens and reading from beautiful paper and books for many, many years to come.
Thank you so much to Rebecca for her fantastic answers to these questions!
Her next book, Song of the Sea Maid, will be available on June 18th 2015.