Today I’m delighted to welcome Rebecca Stonehill to Fictionophile.
Rebecca has had numerous short stories published over the years, for example in Vintage Script, What the Dickens magazine, Ariadne’s Thread and Prole Books. Rebecca is the author of The Poet’s Wife, The Girl and the Sunbird and The Secret Life of Alfred Nightingale (to be published on 11 November 2017)
Rebecca is from London but currently lives in Nairobi in an old wooden cottage with her husband and three children. She dreamed of being an author from a very young age when she used to spy on people Harriet-the-Spy-style from under beds and up trees, scribbling down notes about them for use in future stories.
Rebecca set up Magic Pencil, an initiative to give Nairobi children greater access to creative writing and poetry.
Rebecca loves reading, travelling, yoga, photography and spending time with her family and she has so many stories jumbling around in her head that sometimes she feels overwhelmed by not being able to get them all out in time!
Congratulations Rebecca, your debut novel “The Poet’s wife” is currently enjoying a high Goodreads rating of 3.9! I haven’t had the pleasure of reading “The Poet’s wife”, but it is on my TBR. Tomorrow your third novel will be published! Such an exciting time for you!
1. Historical fiction requires immense amounts of research. Can you share with us some of your research process with us?
RS: The research process for my three novels have all been quite different. With The Poet’s Wife, this involved talking to many people in Granada and Spain as a whole to hear their experiences of the Spanish Civil War or the ensuing dictatorship. I was lucky enough to chat to 96 year old Bob Doyle, International Brigades veteran, at his home in East London, shortly before he died. In the UK, where I’m from, resources for undertaking research such as public libraries, museums and archives are fantastic so I literally spent hours upon end making the most of this, particularly in the extensive British Library.
By the time I came to writing my second novel, The Girl and the Sunbird, I was living in Nairobi (where the book is set) and this time round I found the research process a far greater challenge. Kenya does not have the same tradition of archiving and historical posterity (in many ways, not a huge surprise given its colonial heritage), so I had to employ more creative channels of research. For example, I found two elderly men willing to talk to me about their vastly different experiences of the Mau Mau period of unrest, one an officer with the British colonial government and the other, a Kikuyu who was interned in a Mau Mau concentration camp for two years by the British as a young man.
As for The Secret Life of Alfred Nightingale, I used some wonderful old photographs, diary entries and letters from my mother and her friends during their travels to Crete in the 1960’s as my starting-off point. I also read a number of books that I shipped out to Nairobi from the UK and trawled the internet for first hand accounts of the Battle of Crete in 1941. Thank goodness for the internet!
2. Has the writing process taken vastly different amounts of time for your three novels?
RS: It certainly has! My first novel took an incredibly long time, longer than I ever imagined possible to be honest. The reason for this, however, is clear: during my writing process, not only did we move country twice with my husband’s job (UK – India – Kenya), but I also had three children, each of them two years apart. I started writing the novel in 2004 and it was not published until 2014. I had a fairly tight deadline with my publisher for Sunbird, which came out just over a year later – but at least my children were a little older by then and at school and we were settled in Nairobi! Alfred Nightingale has also been far quicker, about one and a half years to write and edit, and a reason for this is because in many ways this is my ‘first’ novel; I have had elements of this story in my head since I was about eight years old!
3. Are re-writes a big part of your writing process?
RS: Yes, re-writes are integral and this, I believe, is where the true work begins. As writers, we are so close to our work and so invested in our characters that it’s often very difficult to look at the plotlines or character motivations dispassionately. This is where a trusted reader and/or editor comes in and the process begins of fine-tuning the balance between listening to their advice and taking those tough decisions of what needs to be tweaked or drastically changed, and what needs to stay the same.
4. Your first book is set in 1920s-1970s Granada, your second at turn of the century and 1950’s Nairobi, and your third, as yet unpublished novel is set in Crete during WWII and the 1960s. How do you pick a time period for your novels? What things influence your decisions?
RS: The reason I chose this (quite broad) time period for The Poet’s Wife was because I was shocked to discover what had happened in Spain in the not so distant past and realised that if I knew little about this period, the chances were that so did many others from the UK and beyond. When people think of Spain, they often think of beaches and sangria, but scratch the surface and there are a multitude of stories waiting to be told, the repercussions of which are still keenly felt in this country today.
As I was living in Nairobi, it made perfect sense to me (and my publisher) to set my second novel there. As for this particular period, I was astonished to discover when I set about my research that just over one hundred years previously, the teeming metropolis I now lived in consisted of vast Masaai- herded plains and swamps, wild animals and a few colonial buildings. How fascinating, I thought, to be able to wind back the clock, literally watch the buildings vanish before my eyes and set a story in Nairobi’s early days as a tiny township.
For Alfred Nightingale, my mother’s own experiences in Crete in the 1960’s inspired the time period. For as long as I can remember, I have been drawn to the Sixties, often wishing I could have been alive then (I was born in 1977). But I didn’t want my book to simply be a 1960’s coming-of-age story, so I started to research what had happened on the island during World War Two and a story began to emerge, as well as how I could link the two time frames.
5. Do you think it is imperative for novelists to be familiar with the settings of their novels, or do you believe that you can write a novel that is set in a place you have never been?
RS: That’s an interesting question. I spent two years living in Granada in my early twenties, teaching English as a foreign language and completely fell in love with it. Although I had no idea at the time what form the novel would take, I knew that one day I had to set a story amongst the narrow, winding streets of the old, Moorish Albaicín and amongst the hidden caves of Sacromonte. With this book, it simply would not have been possible to write had I not walked its streets, breathed in its alegría (a word often associated with Granada, roughly translated as ‘joy’) and listened to the stories from its inhabitants and its troubled past. Similarly with my second novel, the impetus to write that story would not have existed had I not lived there; my interest about Nairobi and its past simply wouldn’t have been sufficiently aroused if I hadn’t spent time living there.
Yet all that being said, I didn’t physically make it to Matala (the setting of my third novel in Crete) until 2016 and yet, I truly believe that the seed of this book was sown as early as 1985. As a child, I loved to heave down heavy old photograph albums from a shelf in my mother’s bedroom of her travels as a young woman. She was not a ‘hippy’ in the way we think of it now, as back then that word was not in common use. But she loved travelling (as I also do!) and in her early twenties, amongst other trips, hitchhiked down to Crete from the UK by car, truck, on the back of motorbikes and by boat! Of all her pictures I was most drawn to her time spent living in some caves in southern Crete with a group of free-spirited travellers from the world over.
I started writing my Matala novel (both in my head and on paper) well before I had visited the place so I think this is really significant; that a writer doesn’t necessarily need to have been to or lived in the setting of their novel, but if this is the case, the passion for this place, for whatever reason, must be there in order for this interest to be palpable to the reader.
6. How much part have you had in choosing the covers for your novels?
For my current novel, I employed a cover designer and was given a choice of about five covers after providing my designer with a detailed brief. I was absolutely delighted with the particular cover I chose and know that if I were to see it in a bookshop or online, I would want to dive right in – a great sign! Book covers are an interesting business, not at all what I imagined they’d be before I was published. So much rides on them and yet, at the same time, I’ve learnt over time that it’s less important for them to convey the book’s contents than be representative of the genre’s market.
7. In your novel “The Girl and the sunbird”, the protagonist Iris Johnson moves from England to Nairobi and finds her joy in teaching the local schoolchildren. This sounds very similar to your own experiences. How much of Iris Johnson is based upon your own life?
RS: I don’t think that Iris was ever ‘me’ on a conscious level. However, I certainly felt a keen empathy for her as a character. As a writer, those ‘What if…’ questions often form the vital undercurrent and pulse for a story. So by asking What if I was not allowed to use my brain in the way I wanted; What if I was not permitted to chose my own husband and What if I was sent thousands of miles from everyone known and everything familiar, the personality and character of Iris started to grow.
I have always loved working with children – their energy, honesty, curiosity and unbridled creativity has always served as great inspiration to me and so I knew that I could write convincingly of Iris’s teaching episodes. But on a more practical level, I needed to think of a realistic scenario in which my protagonist could meet local Kikuyu, Kamau. She simply would not have struck up a conversation with him walking down the main thoroughfare of Nairobi, so the schoolroom felt familiar but, more importantly, credible.
8. Have you ever ‘people-watched’ to gain inspiration for any of your characters? And, how did you pick your character’s names?
RS: Oh, yes! I people watch all the time! As mentioned in my introduction, I started this from a very young age. Inspired by children’s book Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh, I spent hours upon end as a child and in my early teens watching people surreptitiously and making notes about them. I no linger hide up trees or under beds, but I am fascinated by people in general: by what makes them tick, their passions and motivations and insecurities. The human race is so very complicated and multi layered and I’m intrigued by those words left unspoken and the subtle nuances of relationships and emotion.
Names for characters are so important and a number of them have been changed as the story has progressed. Obviously they need to be true to the period and setting but, as well as that, the name must suit the character. One could easily ask, but how do you know it suits the character and wouldn’t any chosen name serve just as well? All I can reply to that is that it has been evident as I have ‘written myself’ into a novel, that some names just need to go whilst others could not be more perfect.
9. All of your novels so far have been stand-alones. Have you ever considered writing a series? Do you prefer reading series or stand-alones?
RS: One of the comments I receive from readers that heartens me the most is when they say that my characters have lived on for them, far beyond reading the final page. A number of people have even said they would love to know what happens to them in later years. For me, this is part of the beauty of writing, that not all questions are answered and by the end of the book, I am handing the reins over to the reader for them to make their own decisions about the characters’ futures. For this reason, I must confess I’ve never considered writing a series and I’m sure it’s no coincidence that I read very few series myself. I love reading stand-alones, each one is a unique gift to be unwrapped and savoured, unlike anything that has come before or that will come after. But that is not to say I will never write a series. I never say never!
10. Did you have other jobs before becoming a writer? If so what were they and how did they influence your writing?
RS: I believe that we are the sum of our parts, whether we like and embrace what we have come from or not. Everything I have done, everywhere I have been and every person I have become close to has influenced me as a writer. I studied anthropology at university but I really didn’t know what I wanted to be still at that stage in my life, so I went on to do many things. I worked as an English language teacher, with disabled children, as a travel consultant to the Indian sub-continent, did some mind-bogglingly dull temping jobs, worked in a bar, was employed as care worker for elderly people, piano teacher, worked for an NGO that promoted fairly-traded photography, editor and, the most important job of all, being a mother.
All of the above have, in different ways, influenced me as a writer: the people I’ve met through these experiences, the conversations I’ve had and the emotions that have resulted in, for example, understanding the loneliness of isolated elderly people or learning that when I became a mother, my heart felt as though it continued to beat outside my own body.
11. Have you ever been so wrapped up in your characters that you dream about them at night?
RS: I feel like I should be saying yes but, actually, no! And that’s strange, because I do dream very vividly. But that’s not to say I’m not wrapped up in my characters…quite the opposite. They just visit me more in my waking hours! It’s not particularly fair on my family, but there have been times when I’ve been mid-conversation with them and a snippet of conversation or the ‘perfect line’ has come to me and I’ve literally had to dash off to write it down. Or when I’m walking I hear the voices of my characters in my head telling me something they want to do or a direction they want to take. It’s so interesting how these characters live and breathe independently of me.
12. I feel all writers must also be avid readers. What type of books do you read for pleasure?
RS: I absolutely love reading and am a complete bookworm, even when I’m in the middle of writing my own books. I really enjoy reading widely, so I wouldn’t say there’s a particular ‘type’ of book I read as I love so many genres, including poetry and autobiography and non-fiction. But as far as fiction goes, anything with a fantastic story, compelling characters and evocative writing and I’m in.
13. If you could sit and enjoy a chat and a drink with another historical novelist – who would it be?
RS: I would probably say Tracy Chevalier. The Girl with the Pearl Earring was one of my first foray’s into historical fiction and I have since read several of her books and think she is a master of the genre: impeccable research, compelling stories and multi-layered characters. I would love to know how she decides what to write next and what her writing process is and how this has changed during her career.
14. What novelist writing today do you most admire? Why?
RS: I would have to say Isabel Allende, who has been writing for decades and continues to write prolifically. The reason I say Allende is not because I read a lot of her books these days (though I have done in the past) but because she has built her career over many years, from her days as a young political journalist. Her writing style has grown with her and she has been so versatile as a writer over the years, creating adult fiction, political commentary, memoir, children’s books and even a cookbook. I love the idea of this, because I too would like to try my hand at different genres. In fact, I am currently collaborating with an artist friend on a children’s environmental book and my husband and I often talk about creating an illustrated culinary travelogue of the British Isles one day.
As a side note, it was after reading Isabel Allende’s House of the Spirits that I was first inspired to write The Poet’s Wife. This book influenced me hugely.
15. What current novelist do you feel is underrated or deserves to be more well known? (I like to ask this question because it gives me and my readers fodder for our TBRs!)
RS: I recently read Eve Green by Susan Fletcher. It was written in 2005 as her debut novel and I have not yet read any of others, but I most definitely will – all of them in fact. I adored this book. In a sense it is a ‘crime’ novel, but the most beautiful crime novel I have ever read, with beautifully rendered prose and particularly masterful observations of the natural world. I can’t wait to read more of her and urge everyone to try one of her books.
16. What is the title of the book that you most often recommend to your friends and acquaintances? What is it about this book that you love?
RS: My favourite book of all time, which I recommend a great deal and re-read myself every year or so, is The Golden Gate by Vikram Seth. It moves me to tears every time I read it, though I must be on my 20th time by now! It is a novel written in verse but it flows beautifully and after the first few stanzas, you completely forget that you are not reading prose. For me, this book encapsulates perfectly the human experience: pain, belonging, love, regret and understanding.
As for non-fiction, I recently read The Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane and am finding it comes up in conversation increasingly often. This is a beautifully written elegy to what remains of real wilderness in my native Britain and what we stand to lose. Lyrical, passionate and informative, it is definitely a book to be re-read, savoured and recommended widely, not only to people who hail from Britain, but anybody who has a deep love of the natural world.
17. What part of your career as a novelist do you dislike the most?
RS: Social media! I must confess I’m quite envious of those novelists of the past who only needed focus on the actual writing. The author’s world of today is very different and I am trying to embrace the positive elements that I am well aware social media can bring, whilst at the same time striking that precarious balance of time spent on and offline. People are amazed to hear that I don’t have a smart phone. I make gentle fun of myself that I’m a smartphoneasauraus, but actually it’s a decision I have made, to be online only when I choose to be without the distraction of various social media apps pinging the entire time. I know I could turn all of these off, but I think the temptation would be too great for me not to and I value silence and my own space too much.
18. What interview question have you not been asked yet that you wish had been asked – and what’s the answer?
RS: What a great question! Perhaps it would be, What is your greatest inspiration as a writer? As intimated above from a book I now find myself recommending to others (The Wild Places), I feel a deep affinity with the natural world, from mountains to oceans to birdlife to the vast plains of the African savannah. I have had the great fortune of living in Kenya for five years and, without question, my most cherished memories of my time here when I leave will be those occasions when I’ve escaped Nairobi for the wilderness. I feel as though I can breathe more deeply and more freely in rural areas and I need this kind of air and space, often, to feel truly connected to myself which, in turn, adds fuel to the fire of my creative life.
19. How do you wish to be contacted by ‘fans’? Do you prefer Facebook? Twitter? Your own blog?
RS: Any of the above! Having said in an earlier question that I am not a social media ‘natural’, I absolutely love hearing from readers. I reply to every single person who takes the time to get in touch with me, so please do contact me through my
or through my contact page on my website rebeccastonehill.com
If you would like to keep updated with my writing projects, please do join my mailing list here: http://rebeccastonehill.com/email
Thank-you SO much Rebecca for taking the time to answer my questions. On behalf of myself and my blog’s readers, I wish you every success!