I was delighted to get the chance to put various questions to Rebecca Mascull, sparked by her second novel, out this week – Song of The Sea Maid. Astute, long time readers of this blog may note I have only ever done one author interview Q+A before, with Rebecca, about her first book, The Visitors
And as you can see, a couple of her answers drew further comments from me
Keep an eye out – this Q + A is part of the ‘Song of the Sea Maid Blog Tour, 15th-21st June’ I’ll be adding any WordPress ones I find onto my ‘Posts I Like’ sidebar widget
I would classify both your books as literary fiction with historical settings. Is this your own perception of your writing, as far as you can tell at this time? – it’s a bit of a sneaky question as of course it asks questions about future books which maybe are only nebulous floating ideas at this stage.
I suppose I find it quite difficult to classify my own writing. It does have an historical setting, but that’s largely because I live in the past in my head! I’m obsessed with the past and fascinated by it. When I read books set in the past I’m immediately at home there, whereas I find novels set in present day (and certainly the future) very hard to warm to, however brilliant the writing. So, for me, the historical setting is just a place in which I feel comfortable and also totally engages me. But I don’t have a particular period I’m taken with, or a type of story. I have a few ideas for future books and they’re all quite different from each other in terms of setting and narrative. I think this reflects my butterfly mind, which likes to swoop and dip from one thing to the next. As for whether it’s literary or not, I’ll leave that up to the readers and the critics. For myself, I like to read novels that make me think and I like to write such novels too. But never at the expense of a good storyline and interesting characters, at least that’s what I try to do. Again, I leave it to the reader to decide if I’ve succeeded – or not.
Do you see any kind of cultural parallels between the tail end of the nineteenth century setting of The Visitors, and the Enlightenment Age setting of Song of the Sea Maid?
In terms of researching the C18th, it felt quite different from the late Victorian setting of The Visitors. There were aspects of the late C19th that felt particularly modern, from everyday events like train travel to the idea of our boys going overseas to hot places to fight wars we don’t understand. It appeared to me as if the modern age seemed less distant from the world of The Visitors. But my first readings about the C18th made it feel as if it were a different planet. The texture of everyday life seemed quite alien – it was little things, like all the men sweating under wigs and women wearing no knickers and having to wipe their menstrual blood on their shifts! And the widespread belief in mermaids still permeating institutions like the Gentleman’s Magazine. Yet, once I’d become more accustomed to it, I realised that the seeds of modern life as we know it now seem to be sown in the C18th, such as journalism, coffee houses, Johnson’s English dictionary etc. Of course, when you look at Charles Darwin’s critics and how his theories were received, it feels that science and society hadn’t moved on much, as well as the prevailing attitudes towards women as being a lesser form of human. But what I love about both periods is that they were both tremendously forward-thinking at the same time as battling old prejudices – so the C18th Enlightenment and then the Industrial Revolution are both fascinating times to get to grips with, and look at the rate of social change. And great fun to place characters within that and see how they get on.
(And yes, the comparisons between the Enlightenment Age and the end of the nineteenth, that you drew at the end of that question, are rather what made me feel a kind of similarity – I suppose, I go back to a kind of optimism, too, which I suspect got irretrievably lost after the First War, and, if not then, after Second – something about what mankind was able to do with ‘progress’ and a feeling it was all going to be good)
Whilst I was reading Song of the Sea Maid, and particularly as I deeply thought about it, I was getting strange reminders of George Eliot! What I mean by this, is that she was a writer with a strong moral sense – her characters are people for whom a broad, not a narrow morality is important. A moral humanist view, I suppose. Is she a writer you have a sense of connection with? And/or which writers (modern day or classical) do you feel have had an influence on you – both in terms of what they are writing about, and how they are writing?
Gosh, that’s a massive question and a delightful one. I rate George Eliot very highly as a writer and thinker. A tremendous intellect, to which I aspire as a mouse to a lion. And I love her stories and characters, but to be brutally honest I find her fiction quite dense and not very easy to read. Her style can be absolutely charming and brilliant, like the beginning of Adam Bede where she invites us to see the scene reflected in a drop of ink from her pen – that’s beautiful and brilliant. Yet for me she does wander off in too many asides at times, and I itch to get back to her characters and what they’re doing. It may be sacrilege to say so, but I actually prefer the TV drama versions of her novels in some cases, as they preserve the brilliant wealth of characters and fascinating plots in something like Middlemarch or Daniel Deronda, whereas the novel can be quite hard-going, for me anyway. I really liked Silas Marner the book in that way, as it’s quite short! And sticks more to the narrative than some of the longer works.
The opposite of that for me is Charles Dickens. He is my literary hero in every sense. I know his faults and I don’t mind them, so it is true love in that sense! What I adore in Dickens is that he’s a consummate storyteller. His range of characters is breathtaking, whilst the twists and turns of his plots are so clever. Just think of the moment we discover Magwitch is Pip’s benefactor in Great Expectations or we discover Steerforth has run off with Emily in David Copperfield. Just awesome plot moments that I’d write my whole life to get anywhere near. Yet, he’s also hilariously funny as well as having this profound sense of injustice and a social conscience to be reckoned with.
I think Eliot had the mightier brain than Dickens, but I feel the latter was the better storyteller. In my wildest moments, I’d like to aspire to a bit of both, in trying to tell stories that keep you turning the pages and make you think. That’s what I’m struggling to do, anyway.
(I absolutely agree about Eliot / Dickens – Eliot’s brain, Dickens’ ability to tell a story and I’m reminded of both his journalistic and theatrical background in with this – it was the sense of humanist morality that I was getting the reminders from rather than style)
I’ve been really struck, in both books, but perhaps even more so in this, that whilst you are writing strong female characters, strong female role models, who have had ‘real’ women giving a springboard to your imagination, you aren’t creating women who are opposed in their struggles by individual reactionary men. This kind of comes back to the previous convoluted question – I feel an optimism about humanity in your writing – a kind of inclusive, not a separatist, feminism. Does this analysis ring true?
That is a fascinating analysis. I’ve heard it once before from a friend of mine who read the first draft of this and she said the men were all really nice and if she’d written it, they certainly wouldn’t be! Well, I think I probably am an optimist at heart. I do like to think the best of people. I’m not naturally suspicious. I grew up with three wonderful brothers who I love very much. I’ve also had many close friendships with women over the years, that I value extremely highly. So, when it comes to the males and females within my peers, I’ve known lovely people of both sexes – but don’t get me wrong, I’ve been around long enough to have come across some real rotters too, male and female.
In this story, Dawnay’s benefactor –Markham Woods – is a kind man, but he is quite reactionary too. It is Dawnay who educates him a bit. But remember that he is widely travelled and that has broadened his horizons. Her mentor – Stephen Applebee – is a very kind man, yet again he has shadows in his life we discover later.
And the most reactionary of all is the sea captain, who starts out quite infuriating, yet he changes too.
People are changed by their experiences – they learn from them – so I hope the best of my characters do that. Those that won’t are the voices we hear around the dinner table on board ship, who feel the poor are another species. Those minds will never be changed. Even Dawnay’s early mother-figure, Matron at the orphanage, is set in her ways and unlikely to ever alter her course. But she’s human and she cares for Dawnay too, and that softens her.
For me, this story is about someone with no advantages who fights her way through the restrictions of her time. One of those obstacles is being female in a world ruled by males, but to me that doesn’t mean that men are the enemy there. They are all victims of their age in that sense. Her other problem is her poverty and that was just as difficult to overcome in that age. So the antagonist for me was always her society, her culture, and not one person or thing. And God too, and Nature. She battles with these concepts as well. People are small fry compared to the forces she’s squaring up to!
As I noted in my review, I had a question mark about how safe, as a lone female, Dawnay might be on her various travels. I was a bit ambivalent about this, because of course, as readers, we do care about Dawnay and want to keep her safe – but I did wonder, whether you as a writer had felt a strong urge that you wanted to keep her safe?
Blimey, another corker of a question. Let me think. Well, I think I’ve probably changed a lot as a writer since I became a mother. Before my daughter was born, I was writing a novel set during World War II (as yet unpublished) and I remember bumping off characters left, right and centre with no qualms whatsoever. I finished that novel after I had my daughter and mysteriously people who died in the first draft were resurrected and their lot generally made much easier all round! So, yes, I am a bit of a softie about my characters these days. I can’t bear novels where characters are punished horribly in scene after scene. I just don’t want to read about that any more. I know that some people have the most horrific experiences in life and these should be told. But I also feel that some people go through their lives generally surrounded by some nice people, having quiet, reasonably happy lives with only the ordinary, everyday tragedies that we all are familiar with. To me, that doesn’t make great fiction necessarily, but conversely I don’t think you need to haul your characters over the coals repeatedly to make a good story. Dawnay does suffer throughout the story and goes through some difficult times, and that was enough for me. Yes, women were more at risk in many ways in the C18th than they are now, but I would say the same was true for everyone living in that time: life was cheap, there was no organised police force, the penal system was extremely harsh, some children were whipped and beaten, and some people in pillories were stoned to death. Yet, there were plenty of other folk, including women, who went through their lives without being assaulted or attacked or molested in any way, just like people today. So, I maintain that if I want my character to escape such horrors, then I have the vagaries of history to back me up. And as I said, I certainly don’t think she escapes unharmed or untouched by the things she sees and suffers.
I was very aware, at the start of this novel (as I was with The Visitors) that you are a mother – there’s a close observation/inhabitation of a child’s perception of the world, and we make that journey, with both Adeliza and Dawnay – who they are as adults is very clearly linked to them as children. I know we talk of books and the writing of books being ‘like the author’s child/baby’ but I wonder, with starting your central characters from very young childhood, how much they, not just the book itself, feel like additional children, growing up remarkably fast!
That’s a superb observation. I certainly think that an important similarity between being a mother and creating my characters has been this sense that they are connected to me in a profound way and yet very definitely separate and with their own identities and lives to lead. I felt that from the earliest flutterings of my baby in the womb, that this was a whole other being with inclinations all her own. As parents, her father and I are there to guide her and love her and all that, but she belongs to herself. I absolutely feel that about the characters I create too. They may spring from my subconscious but they have their own internal logic that I feel I have little control over. As a novelist, I have a similar obsession with childhood as Dickens, who is of course brilliant at inhabiting the child’s point of view, as George Orwell noticed. I do believe in the power of formative experiences – as a parent, this is terrifying as we consider the mistakes we make and the effect this might have one day on our children! But as a novelist, it’s a state ripe for exploration and one I find endlessly interesting.
I’m also very aware, as I was with The Visitors, that you have had a background in teaching – there is a real passion about both teaching and learning, in both books – there are inspiring teachers in both, and the central characters are inspiring learners. Did/do you write that exciting, heady, greedy desire to learn out of your own experience of learning, and your own (perhaps idealised, given current educational strictures!) teaching experience?
Yes, education is definitely a theme of mine. I have personal experience of different types of teaching in varying setups with varied success. When I was a full-time schoolteacher, I certainly had a lot of big ideas about the ideal teacher and the problems inherent in the school system. But I’m also a voracious learner, as you guessed. I can’t help myself! I just want to know everything about everything, all of the time! Sylvia Plath once said something about wanting to speak to every person in the world and I know exactly how she felt. The world is endlessly interesting to me and I believe to all children. If the teacher can tap into that wonder all children have, that’s half the battle. And you probably shouldn’t get me started on all the issues I feel there are in the current school system that actively work against encouraging that sense of wonder. Yet I don’t think the education we see in either of my novels is necessarily ideal – both characters are very isolated and find it quite hard to go out into the world and form relationships, possibly partly for that reason. I imagine that the ideal would be a mixture of both i.e. the best of schools and the best of one-to-one mentors. If only!
Both Adeliza and Dawnay are definitely exceptional, heroic, out of the ordinary, inspirational characters – to those around them, as well as to their readers. Do you as a writer find that it is the idea of some kind of ‘heroic’ which inspires you?
I actually think it’s difficult to be exceptional. The very nature of someone who is out of the ordinary means that they are likely to find life tough. It can be much easier to fit in than it is to stand out. Some people thrive on that and want to be the centre of attention. Others are comfortable being invisible. Quite a few writers I’ve spoken to about this have always felt themselves to be on the edge of things, not quite in the club, in the team. On the outside looking in. That may well be a good place for a writer to be – observing, considering – but it can be more fun to be in the thick of it! The people I admire in real life are not necessarily heroic in any traditional sense of the word, but quite often they are those people who quietly revolutionise things without making much fuss about it. I love the idea of great thinkers squirrelling away for years in obscurity, doing necessary and ground-breaking work for the love of it and not the glory. I also think it’s pretty heroic to stick around and make life better for the people around you, rather than going off on adventures like the traditional hero does. In my life, my heroes are people who manage to be kind, caring and generous despite the busy, chaotic nature of modern life. I also think in that way that everybody has the capacity to be a hero to someone else. Both of my heroines so far are very determined, which I admire. They are also very gobby and hot-headed! And a bit impetuous, which can get them into trouble. Interestingly, my current work in progress (which I can’t really say much about – I’m superstitious that way!) has a much quieter heroine and I’m really enjoying her watchfulness and silence, and the contrast between that and what’s really going on inside her head. But, as with all works-in-progress, that may well change!
Are you at all drawn to the idea of making a male character your central one, and the challenge of writing a male sensibility?
Yes, I would like the challenge of that one day. I have written from the male point of view in the past, in novels (unpublished) I completed before The Visitors. I will admit that I don’t find it as easy to write as a man and so it would be slightly nerve-wracking for me to have a go at it. At the moment I am interested in the theme of a woman in a man’s world, yet I have an idea for book 4 that has nothing to do with this, so perhaps my protagonist in that novel – or at least one of them – may well be male, who knows! I try so very hard to be authentic in everything I write – whether it’s the historical details or the sensibilities of a character, so being a woman and writing from the male viewpoint always feels a bit risky or even presumptuous. But I know that’s probably nonsense, as some of my favourite male characters have been written by women and very much vice versa. After all, we are engaged in the act of writing fiction, and thus we use the only tool that really matters: the imagination. I probably ought to trust in mine more than I do.
Thank you Rebecca
Now I enjoyed all that enormously, especially trying to frame some of the burning questions I had without revealing any spoilers, and Rebecca was being equally careful in giving me answers whilst choosing non-spoiler illustrations too. Not to mention the fact that Rebecca’s answers made me think even more enjoyably about other ideas and reflections related to the book.
And now I’m intrigued by the watchful, quieter heroine who (at the moment) is expressing herself a little differently in Rebecca’s book-in-process.
Here are links which will take you to look insides, and you can see if that intriguing young child on the streets catches you as expertly as she caught me…..
And if you are keen to see other Q + A’s with Rebecca Mascull on Song of The Sea Maid, I found the Monday one, on Onemorepage.co.uk As this isn’t a WordPress blog, I couldn’t ‘like’ it and have it automatically appear as a link in the widgets, hence including here