Writers in discussion
Laura Harrington interviewed Rebecca Wait about her debut novel The View on the Way Down.
Laura Harrington: Rebecca and I share a publisher and I was so intrigued when they sent me her book to read that I requested an interview because I wanted to learn the story behind the book. Rebecca, can you tell us about your book – how you came to write it? What inspired you?
Rebecca Wait: The book was partly inspired by my experience of depression as a teenager. The illness seemed to come almost out of nowhere shortly before I turned eighteen, and was devastating. Not long after I got better, I began to realize that my first book – my first ‘proper’ book, anyway – would have to be about depression. I couldn’t write about anything else until I’d tackled that. I wanted to see if I could find a way to put into words something that had always seemed to me to be indescribable. When I was ill, I found it very difficult to explain to people what was wrong. Writing the book was a way of coming to terms with what had happened, and trying to understand it better myself. At the same time, I had an idea for a story about an estranged family being forced to confront the past. Eventually, these two strands came together in my head to form The View on the Way Down.
LH: Can you tell us about your journey to publication?
RW: It began with a stroke of luck. The day after I’d finished my finals at Oxford, I heard about a writing competition being launched by a literary agency – you had to enter the opening three chapters and synopsis of an unpublished novel in progress. There were only a few days left to enter, so whilst my friends were out celebrating the end of exams, I sat alone in my room and wrote the synopsis and first three chapters of what would become The View on the Way Down I won the competition, and at the awards ceremony I met Caroline Hardman, who would eventually become my agent.
A year later, when I’d finished the whole manuscript, I sent it to Caroline, and she offered to take me on. We polished the book further, and then Caroline submitted it to several publishers and the anxious wait began. I was teaching full-time at a secondary school at this stage, which at least helped to take my mind off what might or might not happen. I’d pretty much given up hope when Caroline sent me an e-mail telling me my book had gone to auction amongst several publishers. Picador was one of the top bidders, and ended up becoming my publisher.
LH: When did you know you were a writer?
RW: I think I’ve always known. I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember – since I was four or five. And I started telling people I was going to be a writer when I was seven (revoltingly precocious). I won some competitions when I was a teenager, and was always desperate to be published. I’ve been lucky – it happened earlier than I’d hoped.
LH: I know you wrote The View on the Way Down while working as a teaching assistant. Quite a feat! Are you at work on your second novel? Will your working schedule be different this time around?
RW: Writing The View on the Way Down was fairly exhausting. I worked on it every evening after finishing at school and most weekends, too. I became a bit of a hermit that year and missed my friends. But I was absolutely determined to get the book finished.
Working on the second novel has been a much more relaxing process so far. I’m writing full-time at the moment, though I’m going back to teaching part-time in September because I miss it. Having so much time to write is a huge luxury, but it’s also made me less productive; now I agonize over every sentence (definitely not the way to write a book). But I’m not complaining!
LH: Can you describe a typical working day?
RW: I’d love to be one of those people who can leap out of bed at six full of enthusiasm for the day ahead, but I really struggle to pull myself out of sleep each day. I consider it a big success if I’m awake by eight and working by nine-thirty.
I work at the table by the window in the living room of my tiny flat, or sometimes in my local library or the British Library. On a good day, I’ll manage about four hours of actual writing, spread over quite a long period – more than that, and the writing becomes a bit rubbish. Other time is spent going for walks, reading, or wandering around the flat wasting time. Sometimes I tutor in the evenings.
LH: Congratulations on your two book deal with Picador. Can you tell us anything about your second book?
RW: The book revolves around a religious cult, led by the charismatic ‘prophet’ Nathaniel. They’ve cut themselves off from society and live in a remote enclave called the Ark. The story focuses on Moses, a boy whose lame foot makes him an outsider even within the cult. The arrival of new members, including a girl who becomes Moses’s friend, sets in motion a sequence of events which destroys the Ark and leads to a horrible crime.
It’s based on a slightly odd experience I had after leaving school, when – through a slight misunderstanding – I ended up staying for a while with a small evangelical Christian group. They weren’t a ‘cult’, but it was the most intense experience of religion I’d had, and made me think about extremes of belief.
LH: What’s your favorite way to procrastinate?
RW: I get into this stupid habit of checking and rechecking my e-mail every 20 seconds or so, as if something crucially urgent might arrive in my inbox at any second. (I don’t think I’ve ever received an urgent e-mail in my life.) I also check the online editions of the papers a lot – every twenty minutes or so. Since starting to write full-time, I’ve kept VERY up to date with current affairs.
LH: Were there any novels that helped you enter the world of a depressed child and adolescent?
They’re memoirs rather than novels, but I re-read Sally Brampton’s Shoot the Damn Dog and William Styron’s Darkness Visible whilst I was writing the book. Both are superbly lucid accounts of the writers’ own struggles with depression, and helped me to look beyond my own experiences.
LH: If you could meet any writer dead or alive who would it be? What would you want to know?
RW: So predictable, but it would have to be Shakespeare. I’d ask him which play he’s most proud of, and which he likes the least (my money’s on The Merry Wives of Windsor). I’d ask him how troubling he intended the endings of various plays to be, especially The Merchant of Venice and Measure for Measure.
And I’d probably ask him what he was up to in the ‘lost years’. Because we’ve all been wondering.
LH: Who are your favorite writers of all time?
RW: That’s hard – I’ll try to pick out a few... Out of contemporary writers, I really admire Elizabeth Jane Howard, who has a way of making the small details of everyday life seem important and compelling – which they are, of course. Also Pat Barker for her pared-down style, and Edward St. Aubyn, who is brutal and brilliant.
Going further back, Henry James is such an elegant writer. Milton makes all my lists, because Paradise Lost is astonishing. And I love the medieval Pearl poet for the intelligence and ambiguity of Gawain and the Green Knight and the poignancy of Pearl, which is one of the most moving pieces of writing I’ve ever read.
And Shakespeare, of course. Always Shakespeare.
This interview by Laura Harrington (author of Alice Bliss) was first published on Beyond the Margins