I cannot begin to tell you how excited and honoured I am to be part of the celebrations for the paperback launch of Rebecca Mascull’s ‘Song of the Sea Maid‘ which was one of my ‘Best Reads’ in 2015. It is published by Hodder and Stoughton on 11th February 2016. You can buy a copy here in the UK, here in the US, directly from the publisher and from all good bookshops.
I am thrilled to have an interview with Rebecca Mascull here on the blog today.
Song of the Sea Maid
In the 18th century, Dawnay Price is an anomaly. An educated foundling, a woman of science in a time when such things are unheard-of, she overcomes her origins to become a natural philosopher. Against the conventions of the day, and to the alarm of her male contemporaries, she sets sail to Portugal to develop her theories. There she makes some startling discoveries – not only in an ancient cave whose secrets hint at a previously undiscovered civilisation, but also in her own heart. The siren call of science is powerful, but as war approaches she finds herself pulled in another direction by feelings she cannot control.
Praise for Song of the Sea Maid
‘Captivating . . . With a plot rich in description, written in a straightforward style that reflects the no-nonsense attitude of its heroine, this is an inspiring read.’ The Lady
‘From the opening chapter I was totally captivated and felt completely at ease in the company of a fine array of characters and by the storytelling skill of an author who clearly knows how to hold a reader in the palm of her hand.’ – Jaffa Reads Too
‘It felt as if I was reading a work by a modern and accessible Dickens. SONG OF THE SEA MAID is a highly intelligent novel – a feminist text, a scientific text, a philosophical text, a love story and an historical novel. However, above all else it is a fabulous blend of all these genres into a wonderful and hugely satisfying read. Song of the Sea Maid enriches the reader’s life.’ Linda’s Book Bag
‘Rebecca Mascull’s second novel continues to showcase her talent for writing intelligent, impeccably researched, absorbing historical fiction. Dawnay Price – foundling, scientist, feminist – is a wondrous character and I was on the edge of my seat following her fortunes.’ Louise Walters, author of MRS SINCLAIR’S SUITCASE
An interview with Rebecca Mascull
I’m absolutely delighted to welcome you here on Linda’s Book Bag Rebecca. Thank you so much for agreeing to answer some questions about your writing and ‘Song of the Sea Maid’.
‘Song of the Sea Maid’ is your second novel after’ The Visitors’ and both feature strong and brave female protagonists. How easy or difficult was it to move from writing about Adeliza to writing about Dawnay?
As many writers do, I found myself editing The Visitors while starting the initial planning for Sea Maid, so I had to learn how to hold two books in my head simultaneously. Not easy! By the time I’d finished the first novel, Liza was so clear in my mind, and Dawnay so shadowy, there was no comparison. I realised that, instead of starting my Book 2 research with all the minutiae of C18th life, I decided to start with Dawnay. What kind of person was she? How did she think? How was her later ambition to be a scientist made manifest in her child’s mind? I’d not done it that way with research before i.e. starting with the character instead of the setting, but it worked really well for me, allowing me to get to know her early on, so that by the time I came to start drafting, her voice was very clear in my head.
How did you go about creating Dawnay’s character? Did you have photographs, music, an image in your head perhaps or was she based on someone you knew?
Strangely, she just turned up one day – figuratively speaking – and started rattling on about her brother! It happens that way sometimes. I had done quite a bit of research by then, so, of course, it’d all had a good lot of time to start percolating in the old subconscious. That’s where characters are born, I think, in a kind of rich primordial soup of things you’ve read, people you’ve met, movies you’ve watched, your dreams and yourself. For Dawnay, her scientific characteristics come from looking at a range of female scientists of all different backgrounds throughout the history of science. I found a wonderful book called Hypatia’s Heritage, that did exactly that. It was a revelation. The truth is, there were so many female scientists in the history of science, yet we just don’t know about them. Dawnay was particularly influenced by Émilie du Châtelet and Sophie Germain, amongst snippets of others. These two were both scientific and mathematical geniuses, utterly determined to learn and study, and achieved their aims. Dawnay was certainly based on their sense of self-belief and minds before their time.
In ‘Song of the Sea Maid’, Dawnay narrates her own story so engagingly. How far did you find yourself becoming her as you wrote or did she always remain a character for you?
Ah, well, I don’t think I ever do that, to be honest, become my characters. I’m always one step removed from them. They do kindly allow me to step into their mind and walk in their shoes from time to time, but mostly I’m a bit like John Fowles sitting on the train watching Charles in The French Lieutenant’s Woman. I watch them a lot to see what they’ll do next. I just start them up but they call the shots after that. Oddly, I hardly ever see their faces. I’ve talked to a lot of other novelists about this and many have said the exact same thing: they never see their main character’s face, full on. I wonder if it’s because in some ways we do become them, and so in the same way we have an internal self-image which is usually quite different from the ways others see us, it’s also very difficult to truly see our protagonists. When I was pregnant, I was totally aware from the earliest days that this child was totally separate from me, a totally separate little soul with her own inclinations. My characters feel like that to me too, a part of me, but separate.
Education for Dawnay is so important. You have a daughter of your own. What are your views on education for girls in today’s society compared with Dawnay’s time?
Things have improved! But we’re not out of the woods yet. I do think there’s still too much assigning of gender roles from the earliest age. I really like all this stuff about Let Toys Be Toys. The same goes for books – I hate seeing Books for Boys and Books for Girls. I saw one the other day where the book for girls was all about fairies and suchlike, while the boys’ version was Treasure Island, Gulliver’s Travels, The Count of Monte Cristo – some of my favourite stories ever! Literature should be for everyone, not what some numbskull thinks a boy or girl should like. So, that winds me up. Also, girls in science is another live topic at the minute. My editor sent me a link to this advert, remarking that this could be Dawnay: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/06/24/verizon-ad-tells-parents-to-encourage-girls_n_5526236.html Yet we’re 250 years on from Dawnay’s time and how much further along the road have we really come? Little boys still get told not to push prams around or throw ‘like a girl’. So, there’s still a lot of work to do. That’s one reason I love writing about the past: it’s so very effective at illuminating the present.
That link certainly provides food for thought!
When I read ‘Song of the Sea Maid’ I thought it was beautifully crafted and it reminded me of the best elements of Dickens’ writing. I know you wanted (and you succeeded) to create an authentic text. How difficult was it to achieve such a style? Did you edit as you went or did you go back and polish the writing in stages or at the end?
*swoon* Now, Linda, you mustn’t go around saying things like that to a Dickens fan, as it’s all too much to cope with. I’ve read all of Dickens and I worship him, so to hear that is quite, quite wonderful! I did work hard on the style and voice for this novel. Partly, this came through immersing myself in the period by reading a lot of texts written at the time. That included fiction e.g. novels by Defoe, Swift, Richardson, Smollett, Fielding and non-fiction, such as memoirs, essays, diaries and letters. This gave me a good grounding in the voices and style of the era. For each novel I write, I keep a file titled LANGUAGE and this becomes a virtual box where I throw in any nice words and turns-of-phrase I come across in my reading. I print that out once I start drafting and have it beside me on the desk. It means I can pepper my prose with some authentic vocabulary that gives the writing a good flavour of the period, hopefully without overwhelming it. I also add quite a bit in the second draft too, when I’m tweaking the language to get it just right. It’s a gradual process and one that, for me, does involve quite a bit of polishing, yes.
Without spoiling the plot for those who’ve yet to read ‘Song of the Sea Maid’ for the first time, how did you go about researching the historical elements of the story?
I go through stages of research when planning a novel. I start off reading widely around the topics involved in the story; in this case, C18th society, female scientists, the age of sail, palaeoanthropology, the Seven Years’ War etc. I take lots of notes and scribble a lot in the backs of books. I watch a lot of documentaries and movies about the period and the topics too, such as DVDs on evolution or a film like Barry Lyndon. It all helps feed into immersing myself in the era and the subjects I need to know about. I also have a picture wall (on 3 cupboard doors in my study!) where I put up images of the era e.g. C18th streets, clothes, houses, ships etc. This helps me shut out the modern world when I come in to my study to write. I also travel to visit relevant locations whenever I can, within reason. For this novel, I visited C18th town houses – Dr Johnson’s House and Fairfax House – in order to get ideas for Dawnay’s benefactor’s house. I also visited an C18th scientific collection at Burton Constable Hall – an actual cabinet of curiosities. I also went to the Caird Library in Greenwich to see original C18th documents related to the Siege of Menorca, which was priceless. It’s a long but fascinating process!
C18th cabinet of curiosities Rebecca visited
Burton Constable Hall
I found the descriptions of the environment in which Dawnay finds herself so evocative. How many of the places you use for settings have you visited personally?
Berlengas Islands Portugal
Thank you for saying so. I studied Spanish at university (along with English), so I did spend quite a bit of time on the Iberian Peninsula in my younger years, so I used my memories of Portugal and Spain when writing about Dawnay’s travels. Mostly, it was the atmosphere that came back to me and the feelings they inspired in me when I was there. I also know Charmouth quite well! I’ve collected fossils myself on that beach.
Charmouth Beach Fossils
The sea is almost a character in its own right. How important was it for you to present the sea as a central theme in the novel?
Oh gosh, the sea was so important in this story, and is so important to me too! One of the working titles for this book was The Edge of the Map, and that says a lot about the idea of seascapes and landfall in this story. Dawnay is desperate to escape her lot, yet also her place in life, and her travels are an outward journey that echo the inward journey she’s making in educating her mind. Crossing the ocean was still a dangerous and mysterious process in the C18th – I loved writing the scene where her tutor shows her the map and Dawnay learns that down in the southern parts of the world, nobody really knew what was beyond there. After all, Captain Cook hadn’t left on his epic voyage yet and thus Australia didn’t even exist as far as Europe was concerned! So, the sea represents freedom and also mystery, as well as exploration and discovery. I also was very attracted to the idea of the sea playing an active part in our human evolution. If you read about the aquatic ape theory, there’s a wonderful point made by, I think, Elaine Morgan who says, why do we go on holiday and sit and stare at the sea? Why don’t we turn our chairs and sit and stare at forests? I love the idea that we could once have been creatures of the sea, within human memory. Humans have a deep fascination for the sea. I saw a documentary just today about the giant squid and was in tears watching the first time this amazing creature had ever been caught on camera in the wild. David Attenborough’s lovely voice reminded me that the oceans are still full of mysteries – in today’s jaded media-riddled world, it’s so nice to think that there are still mysteries to solve out there.
I’d love to hear more about Dawnay. Do you think she may appear again in a future novel or would you prefer to investigate a new era and character?
Ah, I think I’ve sung that song. I love Dawnay and was so happy writing her story. But I’d like her to row off into her own future without me, I think. But never say never! I do have an idea for a sequel to The Visitors, so who knows?
For those of us who’ve so loved your first two novels, please would you give us an insight into your third?
Thank you, Linda! Yes, I can, a bit! I don’t like to say too much while I’m still writing, which I am at the minute. What I can say is that it’s set in Edwardian times, starting in 1909 and the story begins in Cleethorpes, not far from where I live! My heroine this time is a much quieter person, watchful and observant, quite different from Liza or Dawnay’s gobby ways! Yet she’s a determined young woman, again! I like gals like that.
As an author, what is your view of social media like Twitter and Facebook?
What an interesting question. I have a love/hate relationship with social media. It has brought me much joy – joining Twitter in particular opened up a world of connecting with readers and other writers that I’d never have hoped to join if I wasn’t on there. I have made some wonderful ‘real-life’ friendships through this too, so it’s been invaluable. It’s also been marvellous to interact with lovely book bloggers and readers such as your kind self, which again, would have been far less likely to happen without social media. One of my favourite things is interviewing authors on my blog – I’ve learnt so much. However, promoting your books and connecting with people on social media is incredibly time-consuming and can sometimes feel somewhat relentless. It can take up far too much space in your head and in your day. I’ve learnt that taking regular breaks from social media – i.e. specifically posting something that says I’m taking a break and will see you all soon – has been a marvellous tonic every now and again. It means that I don’t have to think about it all or answer to it for a while and can get some breathing space. It also means I’m really happy to come back to it afresh after a break and get cracking again and join the fun. And it is fun, such great fun!
And finally, if you could give one piece of advice to an aspiring writer, what would it be?
PERSEVERE! It’s a long, long game, this writing business and nothing’s going to happen overnight. It’s worth it though. To hold a book in your hand, that you wrote, with your name on it? There’s nothing quite like it. J
Thank you again Rebecca for agreeing to answer my questions. Your answers have been so fascinating and I can’t wait for book three.
About Rebecca Mascull
Rebecca Mascull lives by the sea in the east of England with her partner Simon and their daughter Poppy. She has previously worked in education and has a Masters in Writing. SONG OF THE SEA MAID is her second novel.
You can find out more about Rebecca through these links: