Monday 21 March 2016

A Conversation with Rebecca Mascull

Rebecca Mascull was born in the Cotswolds, she moved all over the country during her younger years, before studying English and Spanish at the University of Exeter. She completed her teacher training at Bristol before working at Huntcliff School, in Kirton-in-Lindsey, and later Doncaster College and Grimsby Institute, where she taught everything from professional writing to English studies.

She left full-time teaching and enlisted on a Masters in writing at Sheffield Hallam University. Her first published novel, The Visitors (2014), follows Adeliza Golding, a deaf-blind girl, born in late Victorian England on her father's hop farm in Kent. It was nominated for the Edinburgh Festival First Book Award.

The Visitors may be Mascull's first novel, but she writes with the fluency and dexterity of a born writer, deftly crafting an engrossing story that imbues her characters with tangible sensitivity, warmth and humanity." (Sydney Morning Herald)

Her second novel Song of the Sea Maid (2015), published by Hodder & Stoughton, follows Dawnay Price, an C18th orphan who becomes a scientist and makes a remarkable discovery. In the 18th century, Dawnay Price is an anomaly. An educated foundling, a woman of science in a time when such things are unheard-of, she overcomes her origins to become a natural philosopher.

Against the conventions of the day, and to the alarm of her male contemporaries, she sets sail to Portugal to develop her theories. There she makes some startling discoveries – not only in an ancient cave whose secrets hint at a previously undiscovered civilisation, but also in her own heart. The siren call of science is powerful, but as war approaches she finds herself pulled in another direction by feelings she cannot control.

‘Rebecca Mascull's second novel continues to showcase her talent for writing intelligent, impeccably researched, absorbing historical fiction. Dawnay Price - foundling, scientist, feminist - is a wondrous character and I was on the edge of my seat following her fortunes.’ (Louise Walters, author of Mrs Sinclair’s Suitcase)

Rebecca lives by the sea in the east of England with her partner Simon, their daughter Poppy and cat Tink. She is also a member of The Prime Writers, a support group for those writers who commercially/traditionally published their first novel aged 40+.  She is currently writing her third novel for Hodder, set in the early twentieth century.

We'd like to thank Rebecca for taking part in A Conversation with... and wish her all the very best for novels and future writing.

1. Tell us of your journey as a writer

Like most writers, I’ve been writing since childhood. But I didn’t take it seriously until I left full-time teaching in 2001, started an MA in Writing that year and taught part-time. Over the next eleven years, I wrote four novels and two text books (and had a baby in the middle of it). Each of the first three novels secured an agent, with many rejections. It took a lot of time and money and lot of gumption to file all the rejection letters and carry on. At long last, I wrote The Visitors and my agent submitted it to Hodder and Stoughton and we had a deal in a couple of weeks. One month to the day since the novel was finished and sent off, seven years give or take a month or so since I left full-time teaching to become a novelist and eleven years since I’d gone part-time to do my Masters. A long old journey.

2. How do you see your role as a writer and what do you like most about it?

My role is simply to write good stories. I don’t see myself as doing anything more important than that and I truly believe that is my duty to the reader. I want readers to enjoy my books, to find some escapism in them from their everyday lives and to be entertained. If they learn a bit about some parts of history or the world they didn’t know about, all the better. What I like most is the first draft. It’s written in a kind of long flurry of joy. Everything else is icing on the cake. But the first draft is where I feel most at home. I also like the fact that I can wear my dressing gown to the office…

3. Have you ever created a character who you dislike but find yourself empathising with?

I empathise with all my characters, even the ones who aren’t so nice. I want to create characters who have flaws and have depth, so there are going to be parts of them we don’t like. But I can see their thoughts and let’s face it, we tend to believe ourselves to be all right, even we are self-critical, we can’t hate ourselves utterly, surely. So, I see how my characters justify their actions and I empathise with their reasons for doing so. In 
The Visitors , I really cared for Caleb, despite that fact that he didn’t always behave well, and the same goes for Dawnay in Song of the Sea Maid. She can be very self-involved, but she’s lost a lot in her life and her dream kept her going, so I forgive her a lot.

4. Last October, GW organised #diverseauthorday. What has been your experience of writing about diverse characters?

The Visitors , I wrote about a deaf-blind girl in Victorian England, named Adeliza. I did a lot of research with the charity Sense that works with deaf-blind adults and children. I learnt about how deaf-blind children learn to understand their surroundings and communicate, including finger-spelling AKA the manual alphabet. It was utterly fascinating to explore their world, especially children who are still learning to communicate, as one writer described it as a “thin, splintery reality”. One of the most important lessons I took away was that whether one speaks, writes, uses visual sign language or the manual alphabet, each form is just as complex and diverse as the other. And what makes us human is not how we look, how we see the world or how we are, but the fact that we think deeply and we can communicate our thoughts to others. Everything else is just surface.

5. If you could be transported instantly, anywhere in the world, where would you most like to spend your time writing? And why?

Oh, that’s easy. Cornwall. In my younger days, I travelled a lot through Europe and beyond, to the U.S., to North Africa and even to India. But I never found anywhere as beautiful as Cornwall. I studied at Exeter University and spent quite a bit of time in Cornwall, and I’ve been back there whenever I can ever since. I feel entirely at home there and adore the coves and caves and cliffs and the wild ruggedness of it all. If I could afford it, as much as I love where I live on the east coast, I’d go there tomorrow. My heart is there, that’s for sure.

6. What is the one book you wish you had written?

Great Expectations. No question of that. Dickens is my favourite novelist and that is his best and most stunning work, in my opinion. The perfect novel.

7. What advice do you have for would be novelists?

One word and that is PERSEVERE. It really is a long game, writing, especially if you’re aiming for publication. You have to retain a kernel of self-belief throughout all the people who will say no to you – and keep going. If there are enough signs from the universe that what you’re writing is good – a positive critique, an interested agent who’d like to see your next book, a longlist in a competition, however small – all these signs should keep you on the path. Whatever your aims, try to see it as a journey, with gates and gatekeepers. How are you going to get them to open up that gate? Work harder, improve, read more, improve, never believe your own hype and never listen to your demons. It’s a craft and you’re a craftsperson, so get working. PERSEVERE!

8. What are you currently working on? What can we look forward to reading?

To date, I’m about three chapters away from the end of the first draft of Book three for Hodder & Stoughton. Light at the end of the tunnel and all that! It’s set during the Edwardian period and begins in Cleethorpes, which is just down the road from me. I’m always a bit paranoid about sharing the true subject of a book before I’ve finished it, but suffice to say it follows the fortunes of a young woman who wants to do something rather unusual…

Thanks very much for having me, Rosie. 

Song of the Sea Maid (2015), is published by Hodder & Stoughton
You can follow Rebecca on Twitter: @rebeccamascall

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