Interview: Rebecca Mascull on Song of the Sea Maid* and Eighteenth-Century Female Scientists

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As some of you may have seen already, I recently reviewed the phenomenally beautiful Song of the Sea Maid by Rebecca Mascull on this blog, a book I fell in deep love with. After chatting to Rebecca on Twitter for a while (she's lovely!) we decided to take part in a little interview with each other so you wonderful readers, and anybody else who joins in along the way, can find out a little more about her and Song of the Sea Maid. I hope you enjoy reading this, and stay tuned as on a later date we will hopefully be conducting another interview about her previous novel, The Visitors. Watch this space!

HPC: Who inspired you at first to write? I know you were particularly interesting in emulating the style of eighteenth-century prose when writing Song of the Sea Maid, but are there any authors who particularly influenced your style for either this novel or The Visitors?

RM: I did enjoy books as a child, particularly anything fantastical, such as Dr Dolittle talking to animals or Enid Blyton’s enchanted woods and flying chairs. In my teens, I read quite a lot of stuff about the paranormal and also studied classics for A-level and at university. Later, I read the whole of Dickens and I’d say he is hugely influential for me, largely in that I aspire to write books that have interesting characters and plots, yet also have something to say. So, I think I have quite an eclectic taste in literature. While preparing to write Song of the Sea Maid I read a range of 18th century novels, such as Tobias Smollett, Henry Fielding, Daniel Defoe and Samuel Richardson, and I would say their varying prose styles, prevailing opinions and subject matter did influence me in the writing of this book. One of my favourites was The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne, which is just mental! I defy anyone to read that and not laugh or at least shake their heads at the madness of it all. Just brilliant.

HPC: What gave you the idea to write Song of the Sea Maid? Was there a particular event in your life?

RM: I have always been fascinated by science, though I don’t have the brain for it really. I used to stay up all night talking about science with my scientifically-minded brother and try to retain some of what he taught me for longer than five minutes. I’ve wanted to write a novel about a scientist for years and once I realised that my favourite kind of settings were historical, I decided to come up with a tale of an historical female scientist. My premise for this story was the idea that there may well have been people with brilliant minds throughout history who were disenfranchised in one way or another - for example, by class, race, gender etc - and therefore posterity has never recorded their ideas. I wondered what would happen if a poor, orphaned female a hundred years before Charles Darwin came up with some ground-breaking theories - would anyone listen?

HPC: Dawnay is a brilliant, strong female character. Did any characters, in fiction or real life, inspire her creation?

RM: The fascinating thing about the history of women in science is that there are so many of them and yet there is so little common knowledge of them. Nobody built statues of them and only recently are people starting to write books about the subject and reveal these hidden histories. Two scientists I found particularly inspiring were Sophie Germain and Emilie du Chatelet. The latter was a scientific genius living in the 18th-century who translated Newton as well as carrying out a range of experiments and writing her own theories. The former was so determined to learn mathematics that she defied her parents, sent letters to leading experts of her day and eventually was begrudgingly given an education. Yet these two are just the tip of the iceberg, so if anyone is interested in pursuing the history of women in science, do read a marvellous book I used in my research called Hypatia’s Heritage by Margaret Alic. You won’t believe how many female scientists there have been throughout history - let’s hope one day some of these figures have statues built for them and we study them in school…

HPC: What is the most interesting thing you learned about the period in which Song of the Sea Maid is set whilst researching?

RM: Ooh, that is a hard one to answer! I enjoyed the 18th-century setting so much. I didn’t know much about it before I began researching and found that the fabric of everyday life was quite alien to me. It was the everyday things, like people travelling in sedan chairs or most men wearing wigs and most women wearing stays all of the time. It just seems so strange now. However, I think the thing that fascinated me most was the feeling that some aspects of modern life were developing in this period too, such as people hanging around in coffee shops reading newspapers and chatting about politics and fashion, complaining about the traffic and that the youth of today are all going to the dogs. Remove the wigs and you’d have a familiar scene from any city centre today!

HPC: Do you personally have an interest in natural history and science? Did you have much knowledge of the topics before writing?

RM: As I mentioned above, I have always been fascinated by science. Although I’m not very good at it, my strongest scientific subject at school was Biology and I got a grade A at ‘O’ Level through sheer hard work, because I was so interested in it, I was determined to learn it and do well, though I did not find it easy at all. My interest in natural history, Charles Darwin, evolution and all that kind of thing largely comes from my mum, who is a bit of a Darwin expert, and also from my stepdad, who is a botanist and taught me a lot about plants. One of my favourite topics in science is the study of palaeoanthropology - the evolution of humans - and I’ve read many books and watched many documentaries about the subject over the years. It’s also a very controversial subject and much of it is based on conjecture rather than hard evidence, due to the enormous time gap between us and the subjects of our study. Therefore, anything controversial to me is an excellent subject for a novelist!

HPC: Song of the Sea Maid has only just been released, but do you have any early plans to write another novel? Are there any other literary forms that might interest you, like poetry or the short story?

RM: I studied quite a lot of poetry when I was younger and have my favourites, particularly Robert Frost, Philip Larkin and, on the lighter side, John Hegley! But I don’t have the skills to write it myself. I do enjoy reading short stories – some of my favourites are Raymond Carver, Katherine Mansfield, Lorrie Moore, Annie Proulx, Anton Chekhov, Ernest Hemingway, amongst others. But I am absolutely rubbish at writing short stories. I find them so difficult to do well – I’ve tried a few in the past and I think I can safely say they were all crap. So, I’ve admitted defeat and turned to my favourite form – the novel. I’ve read and enjoyed just about every kind of text there is, but I keep coming back to the novel as the height of everything I feel literature is trying to achieve. It’s just my opinion, but I believe the novel to be one of the supreme acts of being human. I basically worship novels! And I’m honoured to play a small part in that tradition.

I am currently working on Book 3 for Hodder and Stoughton, which I can’t say much about, apart from the fact that it is set in Cleethorpes (near where I live) and begins in 1909. After that, who knows! Though I do have a few ideas kicking around for future books, which I put safely away in boxes on my shelf and they wait patiently me to get round to them…

Song of the Sea Maid is OUT NOW and I would recommend with all my heart that you pick up a copy! It's stunningly beautiful and inspiring. I'd like to thank Rebecca heartily for offering to take part in this interview with me.

M x

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