SOPHIE GRENHAM talks to author REBECCA F JOHN about her growing up in Wales, FAMILY HISTORY and plunging her imagination into DARK PLACES …
Welsh author Rebecca F. John might be a fairly recent recruit to the literary pack, but many colourful feathers already adorn her cap. Rebecca’s path to prominence began in 2014, when she was highly commended in the Manchester Fiction Prize. In 2015 she was the first unpublished writer to be short-listed for the Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award. That same year, she received the highly prestigious PEN International New Voices Award and in 2016 she was the British participant in the Scritture Giovani Project.
Rebecca’s first short fiction collection, Clown’s Shoes (2016, Parthian), was praised by Roshi Fernando, who said ‘these stories come from a deep soul-like place of vitality, warmth and beauty…a prodigious writer of great intelligence and talent’. Her stories have also been broadcast on BBC Radio 4. This July sees the release of Rebecca’s debut novel. Set in 1920s post-war London, The Haunting of Henry Twist is a tragic and beautiful tale of passion, bereavement and the power of the human spirit.
Rebecca lives in Swansea with her three dogs. She is currently writing her next novel.
The Haunting of Henry Twist is published by Serpent’s Tale and available on July 6.
Pontlliw is a small village, right on the outside edge of Swansea. We can boast a local pub, a local shop, and not much else besides, but the location is perfect for me. I’ve always lived in small villages; I value the peace enormously. And Pontlliw is not remote. Within easy drive there are Swansea city centre and seafront, beaches, country parks. Cardiff’s shops and theatres are forty-five minutes along the motorway. The Brecon Beacons are an hour away by car. Everything I could want is huddled close by.
Perhaps what I enjoy most about where I live is the ease with which I can take my three dogs out and just walk. Whether that’s in woodland, along the beach, or just to nearby parks, I don’t feel I can start my day until we’ve wandered around for a couple of hours, the four of us. That’s when I stomp out my ideas, and it’s become an important part of my routine – even when it’s raining, which it so often is. Swansea is undeniably wet. But, of course, it’s the rain I have to thank for all the green spaces on my doorstep.
My childhood home of Pwll is even smaller than Pontlliw, and not too far distant. It’s nothing more than a few streets overlooking the sea. But that’s the beauty of the place. My childhood was punctuated by the laughing calls of herring gulls, and I still find relaxation in that high-pitched sound. My parents’ house was set up above sea level, so there was always a hint of salt rising on the air, and the occasional whistle of passing trains.
I spent most of my childhood imagining myself away from South Wales. Into my teens and early twenties, I imagined I wanted to live in London, or some other big city; I thought, perhaps, that I was missing out on something. Now, at thirty, I know that I’m just where I need to be: near the sea, close to greenery and forestry. And that realisation has been reflected in my work. More and more I have considered home in my writing. In fact, my favourite of my own short stories, Salting Home takes as its setting the view from my parents’ house in Pwll, overlooking the estuary and the cockle pickers and the changing tides.
I put most of my words down at home. When I moved into my house, two years ago, I bought one of those beautiful old captain’s desks, with a red leather inlay, and positioned it at an upstairs window, where I could look over the garden to write. It was the dream I’d had since I was ten years old.
I manage to sit at that desk maybe once a week. More often than not, I sit at the dining table, where I can keep an eye on the dogs and break when the washing machine finishes its cycle and so on. Writing, for me at least, is a time-consuming business, and I need to be practical about how long I spend staring at the screen. It’s an indulgence, really, but the more time I give myself, the less I seem to get done. I work better by breaking occasionally to get on with mundane matters – cleaning or organising my diary. Once a week, though, I sneak upstairs to my office and sit at my desk and allow myself that indulgence. Those are my treat days, when I sit amongst my books and just write and write with no distractions. Those are my favourite days.
The dedication in my short story collection, Clown’s Shoes, reads:
For my parents, who never denied me a book.
And it is one of the memorable truths of my childhood that wherever we were, whatever activity we were engaged in, if I asked for a book I was to have one. When or even if my parents came to such an agreement, I don’t know. Perhaps it was something that happened by accident.
Either way, the promise engendered one of my fondest bookshop memories, in which I am standing in front of rows of spines somewhere in Torquay and choosing my volume. Sadly, I couldn’t tell you the name of that bookshop, or even locate it. I was maybe eight at the time. But the clarity with which I can recall lifting The Secret of Platform 13 from the shelf, and the surrounding dusty smell that even new pages hold, and the darkness outside, and the enchanting blue cover showing what looked like a small white seal emerging from a chest or a suitcase is astonishing. Few of my childhood memories are so vibrant. That, surely, was one of the moments that formed my future.
I suppose the outdoors is my escape, both at home and abroad. I get out and walk as often as I can, and enjoy exploring my environment. When I go abroad, I seek out the cold places. I worked as a ski instructor for a time, and so I love to head to the Alps and play in the mountains. I’ve got no desire to race downhill though – I like to take my time and really appreciate the sights and sounds. Nothing much compares to that cold, crisp, first morning run.
I never escape my writing, though. Whether I’m sliding around in Serre Chevalier or Alpe d’Huez, or wandering along a Welsh beach, there will always be a character or two clattering about my brain, making themselves known. And I welcome that. I invariably return from any sort of break brimming with ideas for the next story or about existing characters. A writer friend of mine refers to it as ‘fuel’ – you’ve got to put in to get out. And a change of scenery almost always serves as that kind of fuel for me, whether that’s by elucidating existing ideas or birthing new ones.
On dark matters
It might seem odd, but plunging my imagination into dark places is one of my greatest pleasures. It’s not something I have to extricate myself from, because I emerge from the process feeling enthused, satisfied. I turn off my computer – because it’s late and I need to cook dinner or walk the dogs – with the reluctance of someone who hasn’t yet seen the job through. I itch to turn it back on.
And yes, sometimes the subject matter is dark, or the characters are in an uncomfortable mental state, but we all have past or present darknesses to draw on: those black places are a wonderful source of material. It might act as some sort of therapy, to throw painful memories or ideas onto the page, I don’t know – I don’t think too much about the process in that way. I only know that I want to tell stories, and I want to tell them as beautifully or rawly or painstakingly as their subject demands. Nothing gives me more joy than shifting words around on a page until they meld into something more than words.
Listening to my stories being read on BBC Radio 4 was a revelation for me. When the first story, The Dog Track, was broadcast a few years ago, it was the first time I’d ever heard my work read in anyone’s voice but my own, and it was a strange and exciting experience. I quickly became quite addicted to it. It amazed me how much the readers found in my writing – some of which I was even aware of. For instance, when I was shortlisted for the Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award in 2015, Lesley Nicol read the story to a live audience in London, and she packed it with humour. I hadn’t written it funny, but hearing her take on it showed me that actually there was plenty of black humour to be found in the protagonist’s haughty attitude.
I’d imagine it’s a similar experience for other readers. We have a habit often of reading in our own voice, which I think broadcast fiction breaks. It offers a new perspective, a different angle, and that’s an exciting prospect.
On what’s next
I was lucky enough, as a teenager, for a piece of family history to fall into my hands. It was a handwritten account of my great-great-uncle’s years in the army, beginning in 1911. It was written, I believe, around 1920, and includes an overview of the time he spent in action during WW1. I’ve read and reread Sergeant Francis House’s story, which fascinates me for a number of reasons – not least because I had stumbled across a family member who wanted to write! And he evidently had a flair for it. The narrative is fluid, descriptive, honest.
I knew I wanted to tell Francis’ story, so I’m now drafting a novel, which I will describe as part family-fact, part family-fiction. The split narrative belongs jointly to Francis and his sister Lily (my great grandmother). And what a thrill it is to write!
Francis’ desire to tell his story obviously felt very familiar to me. But the man does, too: he would have been roughly my age when setting down his words; his birth date was just a couple of days after my own; his handwriting even resembles mine. And he has given me a voice to explore which I feel very close to but which remains distinctly his.
I sincerely hope I can do his story justice.
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