Following my review of Rebecca Mascull‘s wonderful first novel The Visitors, the previous posting on here, I was delighted to be offered the chance of doing a Q + A with her. as her book gave me much to think about, and curiosity about her authorial process. So……..with my question marks neatly polished, here we go:
I was particularly struck by the sense of kinaesthetic awareness you brought to Liza’s experience. How did you get inside the inability to express, the being locked within oneself, and then the explosive newness of each experience she has?
I think the turning point for me in trying to understand the condition of not seeing and not hearing was when I read an account of the deaf-blind experience which explained that reality for a hearing/seeing person has memories related to what they have seen and heard which help to create a solid sense of who they are, where they are and their life up to that point. For a deaf-blind child this sense of reality is thin and splintery, creating a kind of chaotic and sometimes frightening existence in relation to themselves and the world. That sense of confusion and frustration was so heart-rending to me and made me feel so lucky to have my senses in good working order, and made me determined to represent some aspects of the deaf-blind experience as faithfully as I could. I researched a couple of key deaf-blind personalities. Firstly, Helen Keller, by reading her autobiographies; and also Laura Bridgman – the first deaf-blind child to be formally educated in America – particularly by reading an almost daily account of her education at the Perkins Institute. I also spent time with some staff from the deaf-blind charity Sense, who showed me videos and talked a lot with me about the unique needs of deaf-blind adults and children. Years ago, I read an astonishing account of a blind woman who had her sight restored in later life: ‘Emma and I’ by Sheila Hocken, and her description of the moments after the bandages were first removed was mind-blowing. This new sense of wonder at the world was highly influential in rendering Liza’s experiences. I believed it was crucial to convey the idea that the lack of senses such as sight or hearing were not Liza’s problem in themselves, but her real obstacle at the beginning of the book was that of being unable to communicate – once she is given the key to this by Lottie, there’s no stopping her, despite her limitations. That was a message I wanted to come across very clearly, that with determination and help, one can overcome almost anything.
Without wanting to give any spoilers away, for readers who haven’t read the novel, I was fascinated by the explanation you gave in a previous interview, printed at the end of the novel, where you talk about the characters beginning to take over and insist on their own journey. How do you explore that, how do you ‘get inside’ character and inhabit character?
That’s a fascinating question. I do believe the creation of character and fiction writing itself is a very mysterious process. I can’t really explain it, other than describe what happens when I write. I am a very methodical writer in some ways, in that I plan narratives in a lot of detail once I’ve got a plot arc more or less worked out. I write detailed synopses and chapter plans and work from them. Not all writers do this, of course; it’s a very individual process. Having said that, amongst these best laid plans, characters do seem to take on a life of their own. They can be most awkward and muck up all your intentions for them. Pirandello explored this beautifully in ‘Six Characters in Search of an Author’; it’s so very true. Once created, they do march around and call the shots. They are probably different aspects of the writer’s personality yet I like to think there’s something more magical going on, a kind of channelling or curious act of empathy. The act of writing a fictional narrative does include a bit of magic which you can’t really analyse or explain. One example is the way plot problems resolve themselves by actively NOT thinking about them consciously. I’ve found that ideas for plot and character percolate in the brain and work themselves out with little input from my conscious mind. So, I don’t believe I really do inhabit the characters as much as watch them present themselves, fully formed, and yet sometimes they allow me the kindness of jumping inside their heads once in a while and looking out.
What I very much pick up from this book, is a sense of quietness and waiting – from you as a writer. It made me wonder about how you work, whether you are someone who has background music or whether you are someone who needs space and solitude?
That’s such a beautiful thing to say, thank you. I think part of my previous answer relates to that, the act of watching characters to see what they’ll do next. I absolutely do prefer to write in solitude and silence, whenever possible. I do most of the actual prose itself during the school day, when the house is empty and mostly very quiet. But life sometimes intercedes and I have to write with stuff going on around me now and again. My ideal writing conditions are in my house, alone, whilst it’s snowing outside; thus the world itself is quiet and muffled too, and there’s something eerie and magical about snowfall. But I don’t get that very often, so school days have to suffice. The silence helps me listen to that inner voice that does all the really good bits of writing, all the subconscious stuff where the flow comes from. Sometimes I do close my eyes and bend my head to let it in, to hear it. I’m starting to sound a bit odd now, I think…
The only note within this book which I could not quite understand, was, very early, when Liza is still within her having no one to communicate with, before she learned the palm signing, there is mention of how touch, smell and taste are preternaturally sensitive – and that she gets sent out by Cook, Nanny or a maid to gather particular herbs – and I couldn’t imagine how that request might have been imparted to her. How did you envisage that being communicated?
Ah, well spotted! My mum pointed this out to me in the first draft too. My answer then was that I thought Cook would give her a sprig of the herb to go and find or perhaps merely the scent of it somehow. But I liked the flow of that sentence and didn’t want to add more detail in. Perhaps I should have done now! It’s an example of how the deaf-blind in this early period before education were able to circumvent their limitations and get by, such as making up their own signs for hunger and thirst etc.
The Visitors, at least what Liza means by The Visitors, as opposed to the wider context of the meaning of the book’s title, are a very integral or natural part of the story, and Liza has always been aware of them. They are of course frightening to others, or possibly thought of as being indicative of madness. Liza senses she must keep the secret of them close. Because the reader primarily identifies and sees the whole story through Liza, I believe we accept the reality and normalcy of them too. I wondered whether they were pure imagination for you, or whether you had awareness of another dimension?
I’m really glad you felt like that about the Visitors. I wanted them to be part of the fabric of Liza’s world and yet not overpower it. It was important to me that the focus of the story be Liza and her development as a person, with the ghostly aspect an interesting addition yet not the whole point of the book, despite the book being named after them! You’re quite right to mention the wider context of the title and I’m glad too that you did, as I wanted the term ‘visitors’ to apply to all the different kind of outsiders we find in the story, such as the English in South Africa and even the Boers themselves, and the hop-pickers on the Golding farm, and Liza herself in the Crowe household. It is a theme of the story, of being on the edge, looking in. As for the ghostly aspect, my answer is that I don’t really believe in ghosts as such, yet I’m a pretty open-minded person and my general philosophy in life is – what do I know? I was always into the idea of ghosts and mediums – I read Doris Stokes as a teenager – and loved ghost stories and movies, especially ‘Poltergeist’ which I was terrified of and obsessed with in equal amounts. Later I became fascinated with stories of alien abduction too! Yet I’m also a very rational person and adore science, though I don’t have a very scientific mind. As a writer, anything that is unexplained and mysterious is fun to play with and I did relish working out the rules of how the ghosts would behave i.e. who they can and cannot see, what they understand about their own condition. I think deep down they are probably a metaphor for our fears and about holding on to the past, but, as ever with writing, that wasn’t something I thought consciously of when writing about them. I just enjoyed them!
I was intrigued, at the very end of the book, looking forward to Liza’s and Lottie’s future plans and ambitions, there is a very subtle placement of them, almost as a throwaway onto a particular real location that has quite a curious and oppositional history (difficult to describe this without spoilers!) I thought there was something a little (deliberately) ambiguous about this. Are you drawn to open-ended rather than neatly tied–up?
Yes, let’s not include spoilers, but you’re right – this place does have a wonderful history and I do have an idea of what will happen to them in the future. I do have a sequel story in mind, but who knows whether it’ll get written or not – we shall see! As for types of ending, I remember someone saying once that endings should be unpredictable yet feel inevitable. That’s a great standard to aspire to and I would always try for that. I would want the reader to feel that the main plot points have been resolved enough to feel satisfying, without being too neat and tidy. I also like the idea of the characters living on in the imagination after the end of the book, that is, of a reader thinking, I wonder what they’ll do next? I love books like that, where the characters are still alive in my head and going about their business. So, I think my perfect conclusions are always a bit open-ended, though I can’t be doing with what I’d call unfinished narratives, where everything is unresolved in a very modernist way. At the very least, I’d want some sort of epiphany for the characters, so that something has changed irrevocably in their lives. And after all, these are novels we’re talking about, not real life, and so I feel a little bit of resolution is in order, to give the reader a prize for going on that journey with you, a destination of some kind, instead of leaving them stuck on a road to nowhere…
Finally – and forgive me if somehow I missed something – in your acknowledgements, you thank a couple of people for loving or defending ‘Daniel’. I can’t remember a Daniel in this story and wondered perhaps if the central male character had been re-named – or, is this perhaps a character who will feature in your forthcoming novel. And could you give a bit of a tease preview by telling of the general territory which it inhabits….
Ah, Daniel. I wrote three novels before ‘The Visitors’ and one of them was about a character called Daniel. It was turned down by a lot of publishers but it did secure me my agent Jane Conway-Gordon, who loved that book and stuck with me whilst I wrote ‘The Visitors’ next. Several friends and family members also read that book about Daniel and loved it and still talk about it now. So, he is very dear to me and I do hope to rewrite it one day and improve it, so that perhaps he’ll get his story heard. It was a very ambitious novel, set during WWII in London and Poland and I think now I was probably just too inexperienced to do justice to it. I think I’ll wait a while until I’m a better writer – and a bit older and wiser – and tackle it again.
My forthcoming novel is called ‘Song of the Sea Maid’. It’s about an C18th orphan girl who is educated through a benefactor and becomes a scientist. She defies the conventions of her day to travel abroad and makes a remarkable discovery.
I’m about to start my next novel which will be set in the early C20th. I will be a bit secretive about that one, as I’m never quite sure myself where it’ll all end up, so I’ll keep it under my hat for the moment…
Well all I can say, after getting Rebecca’s fascinating and thoughtful answers to my questions is, if I HADN’T read the book I would be racing over to do the one-click/buying/download thing! HAVING read the book her responses deepened my appreciation even more.
There were some lovely images and ideas in her answers. Solid reality formed by visual and auditory memory, and a thin and splintery reality when parts of sensory experience and memory are lost. were responses which absolutely underlined my sense that Rebecca really inhabits the reality of what she is writing, and because of that, can take the reader into inhabitation of her characters and world too.
I’m delighted Book 2 is ‘forthcoming’ and a book 3 is being written, and even the possibility of a future for Liza and Lottie, not to mention the mysterious Daniel. (books 4 + 5?) But no doubt there will also be other characters waiting for Rebecca to listen for their voices……………
Thank you Rebecca