Saturday, May 28

Rebecca Watson: ‘This novel was never an act of catharsis’ | Fiction

Rebecca watson’s first novel, small scratch, now published in paperback, is narrated over the course of a single day by an unnamed office student living after a sexual assault. The New Yorker called it an “extraordinary debut [that] conveys the forms and rhythms of thought” by “organizing the text in unconventional ways”. Shortlisted for last year’s Goldsmiths Award, he was recently featured in a production directed by Katie Mitchell. Watson, 26, grew up on the South Downs and spoke to me from London, where she works part-time as an assistant editor in the arts section of the financial times.

What led you to the unusual shape of the book?
It came from a very clear moment. A colleague walked past me and asked what I had been reading recently. And for 10 seconds I couldn’t find an answer, then I did and it was gone. I was very impressed by that match, which was nothing, but for a moment I had a lot at stake. It made me very aware of the layers and channels of present time. I remember saying to myself, how would you write it? And I instantly wrote that moment on a [notebook] page to show the way things [and thoughts] happen simultaneously. It was only a few hundred words, but in it was the answer to how to present the immediate experience in the present tense.

How did it look written?
To a great extent, as I went down the page, I went through time, and that the page also really seemed like the mind: the left and right sides had different feelings and there were different kinds of tonal spaces along the page . He flipped a switch: he had a hint of the book’s formal system.

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The book explores the aftermath of rape, but a recurring word is “joy.”
It’s a reaction against the often really messy way we talk about rape and sex. I wanted my protagonist to be able to tell them apart; separating the two is part of his ambition throughout the day [over which the book unfolds]. She didn’t want the rape to corrupt her sex life or her sense of desire. It was an empowering position for her and me to ensure that the joy and desire remains, even if there is not necessarily a resolution in the novel.

Did you feel compelled to point out in recognitionments that the protagonist is fictitious?
Some people think it’s me; It was inevitable. This is rape, and I’ve said it before. [in a 2019 piece in the TLS] that I was raped, but the narrator’s experience is very different from mine; there are multiple ways someone can be attacked and multiple ways someone can react. Sometimes I regret that piece, just because it acts as a springboard in interviews. It always comes up, and I really don’t think there’s a correlation between that and small scratch, but people try to map the piece into the novel and interpret it as confessional. This novel was never an act of catharsis. It was a joyous act of creation.

Do readers ever get in touch about the book?
I’ve gotten some really moving responses from readers who have experienced sexual assault or rape, thanking me for depicting how they feel or what they went through, or a process they found difficult to verbalize or hadn’t seen in writing before. I have also received responses from male readers who say that it made them think about their own past behavior. Both sides of that are quite powerful and it makes me very proud, but it’s kind of weird to have those reactions.

What was it like working with Katie Mitchell?

Really cool. she is a heroine [of mine] and it was the easiest decision to say, “Yes, please take it and put it on.” He bought the novel on the back cover of the guardian revision; she tells me, or at least affirms, that she knew it was obviously her [kind of] theater from about the first page, and that he read it almost like a score. I went to see the show about five times over six weeks. It was incredible.

What are you working on now?
I’m in the fourth draft of my second novel. I was so instinctively in small scratch voice that I spent much needed time learning to detach from it. I am aware [that] everyone’s perception of me as a writer is actually of a book, rather than me. The next thing is actually more ambitious: it’s about five days, switching between present and past time, which for me is something new. Is [also] formally experimental and looks weird on the page. It is about a woman who learns of the death of her brother, whom she has not seen in almost a decade.

What have have you been reading recently?
I read mayflies by Andrew O’Hagan during Christmas. It’s really moving. The way he captures the romance of friendship is pretty rare. It’s also a beautiful celebration of spontaneous life, which feels really brutal to read during a pandemic.

Have you always wanted to be a writer?
I’ve always had that propulsion. [to create things in words]. I’ve always been interested in voice, more than necessarily narrative, and I’ve always been writing poetry, or passages, since I was a teenager. I was an early reader and maxed out my library card every week and just read and read and read. As long as it was fiction, I didn’t care where my finger landed. I ended up reading Daphne Du Maurier’s book Rebeca When I was a kid just because I saw my name on the shelf. I was reading The princess’s Diary beside the prickly birds; It was a rather improvised selection process. I just had to keep reading as much as I could pick up; it didn’t really matter what: it was as if he discovered some kind of secret that he could lose at any moment.

small scratch is published in paperback by Faber (£8.99). to support the guardian Y Observer order your copy at Shipping charges may apply

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