My First Time with...Rebecca F John
Rebecca F. John was born in 1986, and grew up in Pwll, a small village on the South Wales coast. She holds a BA in English with Creative Writing (1st class hons) and an MA in Creative Writing (distinction) from Swansea University, as well as a PGCE PCET from the University of Wales Trinity Saint David.
Her short stories have been broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and BBC Radio 4Extra. In 2014, she was highly commended in the Manchester Fiction Prize. In 2015, her short story 'The Glove Maker's Numbers' was shortlisted for the Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award. She is the winner of the PEN International New Voices Award 2015, and the British participant of the 2016 Scritture Giovani project. In 2017, she was named on Hay Festival's 'The Hay 30' list.
Her first short story collection, Clown's Shoes, is available now through Parthian. Her first novel, The Haunting of Henry Twist, was published through Serpent's Tail in July 2017.
When she is not writing, Rebecca enjoys skiing, reading, sketching, watching tennis and playing music. Rebecca lives in Swansea with her three dogs, Betsy, Teddy, and Effie.
Here's the blurb for The Haunting of Henry Twist...
London, 1926: Henry Twist's heavily pregnant wife leaves home to meet a friend. On the way, she is hit by a bus and killed, though miraculously the baby survives. Henry is left with nothing but his new daughter - a single father in a world without single fathers. He hurries the baby home, terrified that she'll be taken from him. Racked with guilt and fear, he stays away from prying eyes, walking her through the streets at night, under cover of darkness.
But one evening, a strange man steps out of the shadows and addresses Henry by name. The man says that he has lost his memory, but that his name is Jack. Henry is both afraid of and drawn to Jack, and the more time they spend together, the more Henry sees that this man has echoes of his dead wife. His mannerisms, some things he says ... And so Henry wonders, has his wife returned to him? Has he conjured Jack himself from thin air? Or is he in the grip of a sophisticated con man? Who really sent him?
Describe the exact moment you decided to write your book.
I decided to write The Haunting of Henry Twist the instant I woke from a dream I had about the main character. It was such a vivid dream, clearly set in 1920s London, during which Henry – though he had a different name then – answered his door to a gang of thugs and was informed that his friend Jack needed his help.
This particular image didn’t make it into the final draft; the characters, however, and the heavy mood, and the sense of foreboding, stuck. I felt like I already knew the story. As I was between jobs at the time, I sat down to write the book the very next morning.
Those six months were the only six months I’ve ever spent out of work, but they were perfectly timed, because I was able to draft the entire novel in that period – a feat I don’t ever imagine I’ll manage again in the same timescale.
What’s the one thing you wish you’d known before starting to write it?
It seems the more I learn, the slower I write, so really there’s nothing I’d change about the way I approached The Haunting of Henry Twist.
I’d researched agents and publishers, I’d just completed an MA in Creative Writing, so in many ways I had a good knowledge of the structures and processes, but when it came to the writing, I went with my instinct – I just sat down and started writing, and didn’t stop until I got to the end – and that seemed to work for me.
It’s how I’ve approached my second novel, too, which I’m nearing the end of now. I did try to plan initially this time, but I just couldn’t focus on it. I reverted to writing my way to the final image – which I do always have in mind. I always know where I’ll end up before I start. What happens in between tends to surprise me.
What’s your go-to procrastination method?
I walk my dogs a lot. Although, I think that’s very good for me, so perhaps I shouldn’t call that procrastination – especially as I do use that time. I’ll work through ideas or record recent drafts onto my phone and listen back to them while I walk, to better hear the lumps and bumps.
What else am I guilty of? Cleaning, perhaps. I don’t feel I can really get to work unless I’m sitting in a clean house, so that often delays the start of my working day a little. I need some more adventurous distractions! Ha! I’d say overall, though, that I’m quite disciplined. I am a slow writer, so I have to be.
What was the biggest tantrum you had while writing your book?
I can honestly say I didn’t have a single tantrum. I make it my business never to be miserable about anything writing related, even rejections. I’ve often heard writers talk about not wanting to write, or the agony of writing, or something similar, and I always wonder at it; if they don’t want to write, why are they doing it? I get so much joy from sitting down to write!
And even when it’s going badly, or slowly, I still love the process of developing a character, of playing with words, of finding a new way to express some part of the human condition. I’ll skip parties for that. I can’t wait to get to my desk each day. And my appreciation of that ensures that I’m never inclined to throw tantrums about any of it. I’m very lucky, I suppose, to feel that about my job.
Best thing about writing your book?
Writing it! Just the act of writing it. I love sitting down and tossing words around, delving into this character’s motivations or that character’s fears, finding a better way to construct a sentence. There’s this amazing magic to writing, when hopefully, at some point, your measly string of collected words takes on a greater meaning, touches someone, helps someone.
There’s no explaining that transition, but it’s wonderful to attempt to make it happen. Some of my readers have told me that I’ve made them cry – and that’s probably the best compliment I could ask for! I arranged words on a page and they made someone cry. Brilliant! That’s when I know I’ve done my job properly.
And the worst?
The time it takes to get from finished draft to published book. I’m thoroughly impatient, and since I started writing The Haunting of Henry Twist in 2012, and it was finally published in July 2017, it felt like a very long wait!
Go-to writing snacks?
Chocolate! Always chocolate. I’m an absolute fiend for chocolate, unfortunately. In any form. I read something somewhere which claimed that authors gain half a stone for every book they write, so I really need to find a healthy alternative, but I’m afraid I’m too reliant on it now. It’s my biggest vice.
Who or what inspires you to write?
The unhelpful answer to that, I suppose, is everything. There are always stories whipping around in my head – more than I’ll ever have a chance to write down. Some I dream, as with The Haunting of Henry Twist. Sometimes I’ll see a picture or hear an anecdote, and begin to build a narrative around it. I’m quite a visual writer, so a passing image might spark something. But most of it I can’t pin down. Most of it seems just to be rattling around in there, ready to make its way to the page.
The book that changed you?
Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights, without question. It was the book that made me want to write books, and so it’s definitely the book that’s shaped my life the most.
I was ten, or thereabouts, when I first read it, and I was immediately convinced that there was no more exciting place to be than right alongside Lyra and her daemon. I wanted to exist within that world so badly. I wanted a daemon of my own desperately. And, being the very sensible ten-year-old that I was, I decided that rather than pine after Philip Pullman’s invented world, I should invent my own.
I must have spent a long time imitating him, but none of those first stories remain in my possession. I refused to admit to anyone that I wanted to be a writer, and I’m fairly sure I disposed of all my early efforts.
Your pump up song?
Ooh, that’s a hard one. I’m quite faddy with songs. There are a handful that stick, though. One of my all-time favourite songs is 'Carry on Wayward Son' by Kansas. Also, though not strictly a song, I have always loved listening to Les Miserables. I’ve seen it in the West End a few times in recent years, but I played the 10th anniversary video over and over as a child and still play recordings of it often. Those two pieces of music evoke the most feeling in me, I think.
If you could share a bottle of wine with one writer dead or alive, who would it be?
Well, I don’t drink, so it would have to be a cup of tea instead, but… Ooooh, there are so many to choose from.
I won’t say Philip Pullman, as I mentioned him earlier so I’ll say my favourite short story writer, Clare Wigfall, because I just love her writing and I want to know everything about how her brain works.
One piece of advice you’d give first time writers hoping to get a book published?
Get used to rejection. That’s not as negative as it might at first sound. It’s probably just the inverse of ‘have confidence in yourself’.
All writers experience rejection somewhere along the line. I do, all the time. However, I have friends who have written, received one rejection letter, and just stopped and I think that’s such a shame! There are so many incredible writers out there who had to really fight to get their work published.
What if they hadn’t had the confidence to continue that fight? Imagine how much we as readers would have missed out on.