Monday 29 June 2015

Interview with Rebecca Mascull by Lydia Syson

It's a great pleasure to welcome Rebecca Mascull to the blog today. Her new novel, SONG OF THE SEA MAID, is out this month and tells the haunting story of Dawnay Price, an eighteenth-century anomaly. Dawnay is an educated foundling who overcomes her origins to become a natural philosopher, setting sail for Portugal to develop her scientific theories.  She discovers rather more than she anticipated, not least about herself. Tomorrow, if you're lucky, you can win a copy of the book. This interview should whet your appetite. 

Rebecca Mascull (photo by Lisa Warrener)

Like her heroine, Rebecca lives by the sea, but in the east of England, with her partner Simon and their daughter Poppy. She has worked in education and has a Masters in Writing. Her first novel THE VISITORS tells the story of a deaf-blind child in Victorian Kent and was published by Hodder & Stoughton in 2014. She is currently working on her third novel for Hodder.

You weave into a single, compelling narrative a vast and fascinating array of different material: naval battles, foundling hospitals, scurvy, scientific voyages, religion, publishing, early theories of evolution and one huge and memorably described eighteenth-century event which I don’t want to give away here. I wonder where this all started for you.  Was there was a single image, or moment, or historical character that set you off?  And why did you choose that exact year?  (Dawnay Price is born in about 1732.)

The idea for this novel has been with me for years and in all that time I would just call it Science Novel! It all started with the What If scenario: what if someone in ages past had a brilliant scientific idea, but because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time, nobody ever heard about it. As my character’s idea was linked to the theory of evolution, I thought it might be interesting to set it a good hundred years or so before Darwin, in order to explore how some groundbreaking ideas are present in the history of thought before they are brought to fruition by one seemingly isolated genius. It was just a hunch, but when I started to research the history of 17th and 18th-century science, I discovered this to be absolutely true.
Then I had to decide when in the 18th-century I wanted Dawnay to live. I knew there was going to be a naval battle, so I looked into wars in that period and it turns out that Europe were at war for almost the entire century! I also knew that the Napoleonic wars have been done quite extensively in novels, so I fancied finding an aspect of 18th-century war that was less widely known. By watching Kubrick’s film Barry Lyndon, (which I sought out to experience his beautiful authentic lighting – the “huddle and glow” of the 18th-century), I stumbled across the Seven Years’ War, which I then realised was also satirised in Voltaire’s Candide, which I’d also just read for research. 

Once I’d chosen that period, and started to read about science and society at that time, the rest of the ingredients just fell into place.

Research photo: rigging from the age of sail
seen on the Cutty Sark at Greenwich

The few women who did manage to engage in scientific activity during the Enlightenment – and they are hardly household names -  generally seem to have come from wealthy, privileged backgrounds, but Dawnay starts the story a nobody with nothing, entirely alone in the world.  Why was that important?

We all know money talks. It’s easier to be heard when you’ve got a bit of capital and position behind you. Being heard and recorded by history often requires a certain set of fortunate circumstances for the speaker. Those who are disenfranchised at any point in history usually don’t get heard. In Dawnay’s era, that list would include the poor and women, particularly poor women. In my 20s, it occurred to me that there were very few women in the history of great endeavours and I knew instinctively that this could not be because of their capabilities. I assumed it was because of their lack of education and that such ambitions would have been discouraged for females. What I’ve realised now is that there were women doing and thinking extraordinary things, it’s just that no one bothered to record them. Even wealthy female scientists were not taken seriously by many, were banned from attending and certainly speaking at scientific events, and some even had their work attributed to male colleagues or relations. If you were poor and had no position in society, those problems were compounded hugely. Thinking this through, I’ve come to believe that many great ideas may have been lost in the history of thought because the thinkers did not have the right credentials.

And from a narrative point of view, I like my protagonists to have something to fight against! How dull it would be if everything came easily to Dawnay…

Emilie du Châtelet (1706-1749),
French mathematician & physicist
You’ve written a first person present tense narrative, which takes Dawnay from very early childhood to her mid-twenties. . .was this structure and point of view a very obvious choice for you, and how did you go about establishing Dawnay’s distinctive voice?  Did you find it a struggle to get the right balance between readability, authenticity and pastiche? (It certainly doesn’t read as a struggle, I hasten to add.)

I did experiment with different voices when I started writing the first draft. I tried third person and past tense, but I just had this image of the little girl in the street with her brother stealing pies, and it felt like an urgent situation, in which the past tense third person didn’t seem to fit. Once I changed it to first person present tense, it just took on a life of its own and then I was off.  Also, that idea of hidden histories and silenced voices being heard meant that it felt imperative that Dawnay tell her own story.

I read a lot of fiction and non-fiction written in the C18th and made notes on the conventions of prose in that era. I decided that to include them all would probably alienate a modern reader; for example, some of them are very distracting, such as the use of capitalising the initial letter e.g. Thus my Pride, not my Principle, my Money, not my Virtue, kept me Honest. In the end, I chose to give a flavour of 18th-century prose through Dawnay’s choice of vocabulary and sentence structure, rather than bash the reader over the head too much authenticity.

Why the title?  Was it your first choice?  (I wondered afterwards if you’d considered calling it ‘The Orphan Myth’, the title of Dawnay’s unpublishable paper on her theories of the origins of humankind, an idea before its time.)

The history of this novel’s title is quite a chequered one! Whilst writing, it was called The Edge of the Map and was submitted to the publisher with that title. It’s mentioned in the novel a couple of times and sums up many of the themes. But it was felt that it didn’t have the right appeal for the audience, so then we had to think up another. The Orphan Myth was indeed an early possibility – well spotted! But again it was generally felt that it had a mournful sound to it and therefore didn’t really suit the narrative – and had those awkward ph/th sounds! We went through many ideas, with just about everyone in the know chipping in different suggestions, mostly revolving around mermaids and caves. Then I corresponded with Dr Jane McKay – who lectured on mermaids – and she suggested I look at T.S. Eliot’s Prufrock, which includes ‘”sea-girls” and the “mermaids singing each to each”. I also consulted my trusty Dictionary of Quotations and Proverbs and found a line from Shakespeare: the “sea-maid’s music” (A Midsummer Night’s Dream). It was such an evocative and archaic word for mermaids and avoided, I felt, the negative connotations of them i.e. luring men to their death, yet also being rather girly and, of course, fairy tale-like. So, sea maid it was – and then I realized that it would fit rather beautifully if the cave painting could be seen as a song about our past, and that Dawnay too was a kind of sea maid (swimming and discovering) and that the whole novel was her song. Lastly, I think it just sounds lovely too!

How did the process of writing and research affect your understanding of the role played by imagination in scientific discovery?

That’s a tremendously interesting question! I don’t have a scientific mind myself, though I have always been fascinated by science and wished I had the brain to understand it! Yes, I do wonder if scientists and artists have that one thing in common - that they have to imagine truths before they necessarily find the evidence to support them. My brother David (who has that scientific brain I lack) has always told me a lot about theoretical physics and such things, and it’s caught my imagination many times, with the part played by theories and ideas, for which the finding of evidence is incredibly difficult. So, I do think some areas of science require a creative way of thinking to come up with the ideas in the first place.

The same is true of palaeontology - the evidence is so scant and hard to find, that many theories have come into being over the years based on little evidence other than our own imagination of what these bones may represent. What I discovered in my research, is that this reliance on imagination can sometimes lead to a terrible bias towards the discoverer e.g. in researching early humans and, in particular, cave paintings, I found a distinct bias towards males as artists, and males in general as the leaders of evolution. This really pissed me off!!

 Very recent studies have suggested that females may have been responsible for much cave art that we see – one very sensible suggestion is that, even if males may have been responsible for much of the animal hunting, it is likely that females may have been responsible for butchery, and therefore had an intimate knowledge of animal physiology that would make them the ideal artists of the animals we see in cave paintings. This is all theoretical, of course, but then much of what we know about early humans is based on assumptions and theory, rather than hard fact. I just think we need to redress the bias a little bit… For example, you may have noticed I don’t use the term early Man and instead refer to early humans – don’t even get me started on THAT one…

Hand print at Pech Merle

Were you able to travel to the settings of the book yourself, and how did you come up with the idea of Dawnay’s cave (which has intriguing echoes of King Solomon’s Mines…)?

In terms of London, I did visit the Coram orphanage Museum and also Dr Johnson’s house, to get a feel for 18th-century London. Further afield, I have spent time in both Spain and Portugal - I travelled to both countries as an 18-year-old and again spent time in Spain when I studied Spanish as part of my degree. I am a total Hispanophile - I love Spanish literature, film, music and art, as well as its history (and I know we share a love of the Spanish Civil War, Lydia!), so it was a delight to set parts of the novel in this region.
Dawnay’s cave itself is a product of my imagination. However, I did visit ancient cave art in northern Spain as a student and saw the handprints of early humans in red paint on the cave walls and was so moved. It has always stayed with me. I researched the many forms of cave art and found examples of mermaids from different cultures on the walls of caves, as well as examples of seals and fish from cultures living close to the sea. So, it is my own invention but it is grounded in existing cave art. And new caves are being discovered, so who knows what else is out there waiting for us to find…?

Berlenga Island
Your debut novel was set in the late nineteenth century, this a century earlier.  Can we expect a seventeenth-century setting for your next book?

Ah, well, I have to say I’m not as organised as that! My brain doesn’t work very chronologically - I’d say I have a butterfly mind that flits from subject to subject. I’m currently working on Book 3 and it’s actually set in the early 20th century, beginning in 1909 and I plan to end it in 1919. I have a title, setting and an idea in mind for Book 4, but I’m really not sure when that one is going to be set - possibly 19th-century, possibly World War II… who knows! It’ll all come out in the wash.

Don't forget the competition tomorrow.  You can find out more about Rebecca and her work, and read interviews with other authors about the craft of novel writing, at her website: 

1 comment:

Sue Purkiss said...

Am interested to see how the cave painters fit into the 18th century narrative - I've been to the cave at Pech-Merle, an got hooked on those handprints!