Culture Street

Rebecca Mascull lives by the sea in the east of England with her partner and their daughter. She has previously worked in education and has a Masters in Writing. The Visitors is her first novel.

How did you keep going after receiving rejections for previous manuscripts?
Firstly, I would say that there were many rejections over the years! But my partner Simon has been my rock, and over the years has always maintained that it would happen one day, and encouraged me against giving up at various low points, even when weíve been particularly skint! My agent Jane Conway-Gordon too just told me to get on with the next book, when the last one had failed. The Visitors secured a deal within a few weeks of finishing the final draft, but that was after 12 years of setbacks. So, my answer to your question is: persevere! I had enough signs from the world that my writing was good enough to carry on, such as praise from independent readers or securing agents. And armed with that, I think you must have a small, deep part of you that believes what you are writing is quality stuff that will gain a readership given half a chance. You must carry that with you and use it to arm yourself against every setback. Also, remember that each book is a product that someone needs to sell; it is not the only book youíll ever write, it is not the best book youíll ever write and it is not YOU. So, every time a book is rejected, try someone else and keep trying. And if that exhausts itself, then write another book, and another, and another. Youíll be practising your craft as you go and you will improve. I honestly believe that good writing will out, but only if the writer has thick enough skin to withstand the rejections.

There are so many writing courses available. Do you think they are helpful?
This is an excellent question and an important one. I do have a background in this in order to answer from both sides i.e. I have taken writing courses and I have given them. Iíve been to creative writing summer schools and an evening class, as well as completing a Masters in Writing. Iíve taught creative writing at undergraduate level and to younger students. My basic belief is this: you cannot teach someone to be a great writer BUT you can explore and analyse writing in ways that will improve a writerís craft. Just as a great sculptor or architect will have studied the great antecedents of their craft, I believe writers must do the same. It may well help to do this in a group setting of some sort, such as a writing course, where one can get instant feedback, as well as analysing other writersí work. But I strongly believe that it is largely pointless to engage in giving that work a mark out of 100, which is what all academic courses will require you to do. Whoís to say that this short story gets 67% and this one 68%? How would you rate John Steinbeck against Margaret Atwood? What mark would you give Tim Winton out of 100? Or T.S. Eliot or Chinua Achebe? It just seems a nonsense to me to rate creative work out of some supposedly objective criteria. So, I think that some writing groups and courses can be extremely helpful, in looking at such elements as narrative structure, plot devices, character development, editing skills and so forth. All of this stuff can be discussed and pulled apart to see how it works. But letís not pretend that prose fiction Ė or any other art for that matter Ė can be objectively scrutinised and shoved in a pigeon hole of inherent quality. Writing can be a lonely business, and finding a class which allows you to share your work and explore your craft can be brilliant. But I would warn any aspiring writers to think very carefully before parting with a lot of money Ė there are charlatans out there, from tutors to reader services to dodgy agents, who will happily take money from desperate fledgling writers for very little in return.
So, finding the right teacher is key. Shop around and try different groups. Do your research Ė you may find that your local library runs a free writing group that will give you far more value than an academic course costing thousands. And one of the most crucial things I believe all writers should do is READ. You canít get a better teacher than great writing itself.

Do you draw inspiration from other authors?
Yes and no. I have read a shed load of novels in the past and have learnt something from all of them. I donít have the time to read novels as much as I used to Ė juggling family life and work Ė yet I continue to learn from every novel I read. I think the thing I find most valuable from reading other peopleís novels is enlarging my scope of what is possible in a novel, of what works. My views on this have broadened hugely over the years, Iím glad to say. In my youth and well into my twenties, I read extremely widely Ė Iíd read just about anything, give it a go. In my thirties I seemed to begin a process of narrowing down to what I thought I liked and quite limiting my reading experience. But itís all changed since Iíve got my publishing deal and joined social media, as now my publisher sends me books or recommends them, and I discover new finds constantly through Twitter and other outlets, contemporary writers Iíd probably never have stumbled across otherwise. And Iím very happy to say that my reading has opened up again and Iím finding all sorts of new approaches to the novel and yes, this does inspire me all the time. But, the Ďnoí part of my answer is specifically this: I very rarely read any novels whilst I am engaged in writing the actual novel itself, as I have a paranoid fear of being directly influenced by another book or writing style. So I limit myself to mostly research and non-fiction books whilst Iím doing the drafting process, and once a novel is done I have a kind of crazy novel-reading glut where I get my fix for a few weeks until I start writing the next one.

How has your life changed since The Visitors was published?
My day-to-day life has not altered as much as one might imagine. I still do all the things I was doing before, yet with more emails to answer, more writing work to do in general, and more deadlines to meet. Connecting with readers and reviewers has been a big change, and a joyous one. Itís been wonderful to discuss the book and writing in general with like-minded people Ė such as your lovely selves! - and thatís been the biggest single change to my everyday life and a very welcome one, after the years of working alone in my study! Thereís been a bit more money around, but believe me, not much! Donít go into novel writing for the money, thatís for sure! But it has helped and so far has meant I donít have to get another job, for the moment anyway. Yet the biggest change, and this has been hugely significant in my life, is an internal one, the way I feel about writing and about myself. It has been a sense of validation, after years of thinking - what the hell am I doing? Ė but not being able to stop myself anyway. Different writers will have different aims, yet mine was always to secure publication by a major publisher and see my novel on the shelves in bookshops. Thatís what I wanted. And for years, there were many occasions where I almost convinced myself this would never happen (see Q1 above!) So, finally achieving that aim and seeing it come to fruition and finding that there are some readers out there who like my book too, has made all those years of work and waiting worthwhile. Itís a quiet knowledge I carry around in my pocket every day, and when life gets tough and things get tricky, I have this treasure I can hold on to, and it warms me inside.

Tell us about The Visitors ...
Itís about a young girl in late-Victorian England who is both deaf and blind. She is born with little sight and loses her hearing through scarlet fever at a young age. Her early years are desperately frustrating, as she has no means to effectively communicate and becomes almost like a wild child. She has a curious relationship with the Visitors, strange beings only she can sense. One day she meets a hop-picker on her fatherís farm who teaches her to finger spell, thereby opening up the world of language to her. Her life changes in that moment and she goes on to explore both intellectually and emotionally as she grows to young womanhood. She becomes embroiled in the Boer War in South Africa and experiences love and loss, as well as the truth about who the Visitors really are. At its heart, itís a novel about overcoming limitations and the importance of friendship.

Are you working on a new novel?
Yes, Iíve just finished my next novel, Song of the Sea Maid, which will be published by Hodder and Stoughton in June 2015. Itís about an C18th orphan girl who is educated through a benefactor and becomes a scientist. She defies convention to travel abroad and makes a remarkable discoveryÖMy newest novel, which I plan to begin in earnest after the busy summer holidays, will be set in the early twentieth century. I love that part of writing, when a new project is beginning to percolate, and Iím gathering books and resources, and wondering where the story will go. Thatís where I am right now, and itís a lovely place to be.

Thanks so much for your insightful questions. Itís been a pleasure to answer them.

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