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An Interview with Rebecca Mascull

Rebecca Mascull is the author of a gorgeous book set in late Victorian England called The Visitors. At its heart is the story of a deaf-blind girl, Adeliza Golding, and her appetite to know the world. Today I am thrilled to share some questions I asked Rebecca about her work along with her answers.

 The Visitors

·      I loved the story of Adeliza Golding, and I wondered what inspired you to write about a deaf-blind girl.

There were two main influences in this regard: firstly, I saw a TV movie about Helen Keller when I was young and was fascinated by the moment when Helen learns her first word ‘water’. Secondly, I was lucky enough to work with deaf students when teacher training in Bristol. It really opened my eyes to the difficulties they faced accessing the curriculum in English, when their first language may well have been British Sign Language. I was quite ignorant about the different ways deaf people communicated, such as lip-reading, Signed English, BSL etc. I shared a bus trip with one of the students, James, and asked him lots of questions about what it was like to be deaf, using a pad and paper. He gave me a wonderful insight into deafness. I then wrote an essay on the subject and read ‘Seeing Voices’ by Oliver Sacks about deafness – a marvellous book which suggests that the deaf brain is inherently different from the hearing one. I was hooked on the whole subject and it stayed with me all those years. When I came to choose my next project a few years back, my interest in deafness resurfaced and then I knew I had my subject. Then I wondered if I could ever attempt to write about deaf-blindness, particularly in the first person. I knew it would be a huge challenge – to approximate that experience of no sight and no hearing - but I like to take on a challenge and knew it could have the makings of an unusual and fascinating story.

·      In the story Liza’s ‘blindisms’ are seen as things she needs to work to eradicate and she wears a ribbon over her eyes to avoid upsetting those who can see her. Does this come from your research or your imagination?

This all comes from the research. My main focus was Laura Bridgman – if you Google her you’ll find plenty of stuff. She was the first deaf-blind child to be formally educated in America. She pre-dates Helen Keller and was famous in her own lifetime. Charles Dickens even came to visit her at the Perkins Institute in Boston where she lived. She was a very bright child and learned to fingerspell, read and write incredibly quickly. A detailed account of her education can be found in a marvellously obscure book by Mary Swift Lamson, one of her tutors. I based Adeliza’s education and the chronology of her progress almost precisely on Laura’s own. So, if anyone doubts the speed of Liza’s education, there is real-life precedent! I discovered that Laura was subject to regular appearances, where she had to meet interested members of the public. She didn’t much like this, but it was used by the school to raise money for the pupils, so one could argue it was necessary. She had to wear the ribbon to shield her eyes and didn’t much like that either. She was also perpetually scolded for her ‘blindisms’ and encouraged not to make ‘strange’ noises. Of course, to her, these were not strange but entirely natural and she fought against this. Interestingly, when I spoke with two brilliant Sense ladies who work with deaf-blind adults and children currently, they both said how little had changed in that respect: deaf-blind individuals are still treated with a little disdain by uncomprehending and inexperienced onlookers in public when they hear their sounds and watch their faces. It’s a subject that continues to be one of debate today.

·      Did you always plan to have a supernatural element?

Not at first. The initial plan was to set the book in America, post-Civil War. One day I had this image drift into my head of Liza walking through a battlefield strewn with corpses and watching the souls of the dead rise up, and only she could see them. I don’t know where it came from! I later changed the setting to England, yet the ghost idea remained. I couldn’t escape it and it just seemed to fit. I liked the idea of playing around with perception, of the possibility that a different kind of mind might be open to different levels of reality. Once I’d made the decision to include ghosts, I had all sorts of fun deciding what kind of rules would govern their universe. It was important to me that they did not take over the narrative, that Liza was the driving force behind the plot, but that they played their part. I hope I achieved the right balance there.

·      Do you believe in ghosts, and have you seen one?

Ooh, that’s a good question. Well, no, I’ve never seen a ghost, though I’d love to! I have always been drawn to ghostly tales and the ideas behind them. I am a bit daft when it comes to superstition though, and salute magpies and nonsense like that! And yet I’m also a great believer in science and largely sceptical about many things, and quite a rational person and a realist. My general feeling about a lot of the supernatural is that our brain is incredibly complex and we generally know little about precisely how consciousness works. So I do believe there are gaps there in how science understands so-called supernatural occurrences, and that is a gap a novelist can exploit and explore.

·      I think there are lots of different sorts of prisons in the book, illness or family expectations, as well as more literal types of prison trap people. Yet The Visitors is a very uplifting and hopeful story. It must have been difficult to balance this, especially as you avoid an overly-neat ‘happily-ever-after’ ending. Was it something you were particularly aware of when structuring the story? (Sorry this is a long rambling one!)

That’s a super question, very interesting. The original plan was for Liza and Caleb to end up together, but once I was halfway through the novel, it just became apparent that this was wrong, all wrong. I realised that this was first love and that she had built him up into something he wasn’t. They just would have made each other unhappy, I think. So I knew it wasn’t going to be a traditionally happy ending, though I was hoping the reader would agree with me that it was the right ending for the characters. I think you’re absolutely right that the theme of imprisonment runs throughout the book – different kinds of restrictions and expectations, often from the conventions of society yet also from our own fears and regrets. In one way or another, all the characters have to live within restrictions and find ways to escape them or cope with them, even the Visitors themselves.

·      I loved the description of eye surgery as it felt very realistic. Was this type of operation common in the late nineteenth century or is Liza something of a pioneer?

Lens removal as a cure for cataracts is a very ancient practice. The main problem with eye operations in the ages before antibiotics was the risk of post-operative infection. However, cataract operations were carried out regularly in Victorian England and patients did survive and regain their sight – I read a wonderful account of a real one in a Victorian newspaper, and got the details from that of the instruments used, the medication administered and so forth. I wanted to make sure I was absolutely accurate about this, so I corresponded with an expert from the Royal College of Ophthalmologists (who is mentioned in the Acknowledgements at the back of the book) and asked him lots of awkward questions about Liza’s eye condition, the eye surgery, her recovery and how her sight would be changed afterwards. He also read all of the eye sections after I’d written them and checked the facts. It’s important to me to get things right.

·      I enjoyed and was intrigued by how the story moved to encompass the Boer War. Was there a particular motivation for your inclusion of this overlooked conflict?

It was largely chance that drove this. I knew that Lottie’s brother was going to run away to war. But I hadn’t decided in the early stages exactly when in the C19th the book would take place. I looked briefly at the Crimea but I’d read ‘Master Georgie’ and didn’t want to do the same. I was also restricted by the timing – I needed Liza to be educated at a time when there had already been a deaf-blind child educated (i.e. post-Laura Bridgman) yet not too modern, so that it would still have been early days in its history. So the Crimea turned out to be too early anyway, and WWI would have been too late, so the Boer War was the only major conflict that would fit with the correct time period. Once I started to look into that war – something I knew very little about – I found it an overlooked and compelling part of our history.

·      I read in your acknowledgements that Golding, and Adeliza Golding in particular, is a family name. Do you know much about your hop-farming ancestors?

I don’t know much about the early Goldings. I did get caught up in all those family tree websites for a while and managed to get back to James Golding, who is mentioned in the Acknowledgements. I found a tithe record that he farmed on hop land back in 1840 or thereabouts. And there is a famous hop called the Golding hop, though I couldn’t find any particular connections between our Goldings and the hop, though I like to imagine it! I also found a child in our family who was listed in one census as an infant, then she had disappeared by the next census. I looked into her and found she had died very young. Her name was Adeliza Golding. It was such a beautiful name, I couldn’t resist.

·      Do you have a special writing routine?

It’s largely dictated by other responsibilities. Thus, I write my novels between September and April, during the school day, between the hours of 9.30 and 2.30! I have a daughter and also my partner works in a school, so evenings, weekends and school holidays are busy. Also, I do exam marking every summer from May through to the end of July, so I have to get novels finished by then! It actually works very well for me, as I naturally work better to deadlines. I begin researching a novel whenever I’m ready, and do this mostly in any spare time I can grab – in the car waiting for my daughter, in the bath! – but the writing I find needs to be done mostly in a quiet and usually empty house during the day. It’s a routine that works for us.

·      I know that your second book is in the making; I’d love to know what it will be about!

Ah well, I can’t reveal too much, only because it’s still in development. I’ve finished my final draft but it’s being looked at, so I can’t talk too much about it! However, it is set in the C18th and is about a female scientist. Once things have moved on a bit, I’ll get back to you and we can talk more about it (as I suspect you like a good C18th novel)! What I can say is that it was a great challenge to research the C18th and inhabit that world, yet I loved every second of it and I’m quite sad to have left it! As for the next novel, I have a few ideas swimming around in my head, but I’ve not decided yet. It’s too soon after the last one, and I need a bit of a mental break to gather myself!

Thanks so much for your excellent questions.
***

Thank you to Rebecca, I really enjoyed finding out more about the background to the story, the writing process and the writer! And, as it is definitely true to say that I enjoy a good eighteenth century novel, I can't wait to read Rebecca's next book. 

I hope this has whetted the appetite for The Visitors; if anyone needs anymore persuading then I will post my review of the book tomorrow. I also noticed that there is a preview of the first chapter available on the Waterstones website.

There's more from Rebecca on her website or you can follow her on Twitter (like me) or on Facebook:
https://twitter.com/rebeccamascull
https://www.facebook.com/RebeccaMascull

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