The Visitors by Rebecca Mascull was the first book I read this year. I read it, I loved it, I was intrigued by it, and I wrote about it back here.
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“Imagine if you couldn’t see couldn’t hear couldn’t speak…Then one day somebody took your hand and opened up the world to you. Adeliza Golding is a deafblind girl, born in late Victorian England on her father’s hop farm. Unable to interact with her loving family, she exists in a world of darkness and confusion; her only communication is with the ghosts she speaks to in her head, who she has christened the Visitors. One day she runs out into the fields and a young hop-picker, Lottie, grabs her hand and starts drawing shapes in it. Finally Liza can communicate. Her friendship with her teacher and with Lottie’s beloved brother Caleb leads her from the hop gardens and oyster beds of Kent to the dusty veldt of South Africa and the Boer War, and ultimately to the truth about the Visitors.”
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Today The Visitors was published in paperback, and when I was offered the chance of asking the author some questions I had to say yes. And I am so glad that I did, because Rebecca’s answers are so thoughtful and insightful, and she makes so many points that really strike a chord with me.
So here are my questions and her answers
Adeliza is a very special character. Please tell me about her, what makes her special to you, and what inspired you to write her story.
Thanks for saying that about Adeliza. She is very special to me now, as she represents the first character I’ve ever written who simply came alive and took over the story. The first line of the novel came to me complete one day and thus her voice was born. I honestly don’t know where it came from, but she just started ‘talking’. Her voice was shaped by her unconventional upbringing i.e. coming to language late. Thus, she ‘speaks’ English in a curious way, with some odd constructions, like a speaker of English as a second language. She also has some Kentish dialect in there, as her teacher comes from that area. This was woven into the language as I went along, yet her forthright tone and her way of looking at the world – all that came from her. Nothing to do with me!
I was moved by Adeliza’s emotions when she could neither see nor hear, and by her joy as she learned to perceive the world around her and to communicate. How did you get into her head?
I’m so very glad it moved you; thank you. Three sources were key in trying to imagine Adeliza’s experience – Helen Keller’s autobiography, an account of Laura Bridgman’s education and lastly ‘Emma and I’ by Sheila Hocken, about a blind woman whose sight was restored in later life. Helen and Laura were both Victorian girls who were formally educated in the manual alphabet. Bridgman’s teacher wrote an almost daily account of how she was taught and how she responded to what she was learning; this was crucial evidence for me in constructing Liza’s learning curve. Keller writes so eloquently about her experience of being deaf-blind, yet I did ensure that I read these accounts early on and without taking too many notes, as I didn’t want to simply rewrite a fictional version of Keller, as she’s so well-known. I wanted to let the ideas I’d gathered from reading Keller inform the novel in more of a deep background way. It was important to me that Adeliza be her own person. As for Sheila Hocken, her account of the day she could see for the first time is one of the most amazing things I’ve ever read in my life. I hope I did some little justice to that astonishing event in Liza’s description of her own life-changing moments.
It was lovely to watch the relationship between Lottie and Adeliza grow from teacher-pupil into a true friendship. Who or what inspired that, and how important a part of the story you wanted to tell was that relationship?
The relationship between Helen Keller and her teacher Annie Sullivan was influential. If you know anything about these two remarkable women, you’ll know they also had a remarkable friendship which lasted for decades. Annie’s life is just as fascinating as Helen, as she had problems with her sight from an early age and a very difficult childhood. However, I didn’t want Liza and Lottie to be a carbon copy of Helen and Annie, and luckily their own back-stories just took over and carved out their own paths. If you work one-to-one like that, day in, day out for years, there is going to be an extraordinary closeness. One of the saddest things I read was about Laura Bridgman’s relationships with her teachers; Laura was educated at a kind of boarding school for the deaf-blind, the Perkins Institute in Boston, USA. She wasn’t lucky enough to have her teacher at her beck and call all day and night as Liza does with Lottie. And as teachers do, Laura’s tutors had their own lives and eventually, every so often, one would move on to another job or to marriage. And all that special closeness Laura had built up with that one person was gone, and she’d have to begin again with someone else. She was a passionate and emotional girl and found these changes very hard to cope with. It was heart-breaking to read about her loneliness when a particularly favoured teacher left. I just couldn’t let Liza go through that! So I decided from the beginning that they would become friends, true friends. I felt, though, that it was important that Lottie had her own life that was vital and full, and that’s how her family and the story of her old flame came about. She does sacrifice some things for her intense relationship with Liza, yet she gains an awful lot too. I hope that came across.
Who came first, Adeliza or her visitors? What is it that makes the visitors, who give the book its title, important?
Liza did come first and the visitors most definitely came later. Once I’d decided that one of the main characters was going to war, I had a vision one day of Liza walking through a battlefield strewn with corpses and seeing the spirits of the dead soldiers rise and turn towards her. I’ve no idea where that came from! I do love ghost stories and movies about all that sort of thing, so I guess it was likely I’d write a ghost story one day, but I didn’t know it would be this one! I remember coming downstairs and saying to my partner Simon, What do you think about ghosts in this story about the deaf-blind girl? And he basically said, I like it! I wanted to make sure it wasn’t silly or daft, the ghost idea. And that it didn’t take over the whole point of the story, but I have to admit they grew on me and I loved working out the rules of their existence i.e. who they could see and hear, and how they came and went, and why they were there at all. Some readers loved the visitors and some didn’t really feel they were needed at all, but sometimes as a writer you just have to go with an idea, and on reflection, I’m very glad I did. I think it adds a curious dimension to the story and sets it apart from the classic narrative of overcoming adversity. And of course they ended up as the name of the very novel itself! But I like that oddness, and the spooky book cover designs convey that unsettling feeling perfectly.
I was so sorry to have to part company with Adeliza at the end of the story. Do you have an idea of what lay in her future then, and might you ever come back to her story?
Gosh, that’s a lovely thing to say. I’m thrilled you felt like that. And I do have some idea of what lies ahead for Liza, I do indeed! In fact, I have a good few ideas about a possible sequel to ‘The Visitors’, but there are a few other projects I feel I want to do first. So we shall see. Perhaps one day. All I can say is that it would begin in America and may well deal with some aspects of late C19th/early C20th American history, but after that, I couldn’t say. Not because I’m being coy, but as I know well enough by now that there’s little point predicting the course of a novel not yet written. They tend to go off and do their own thing, despite your best laid plans. Like children.
Are there any books you would particularly recommend to readers who have loved ‘The Visitors’? And does being a writer and a published author change the way you read and respond to books?
Two very good questions. Firstly, I’d say if you want to know more about deaf-blindness, then read about Keller and Bridgman. And the Hocken book is fascinating too. I also loved ‘Seeing Voices’ by the great Oliver Sacks, about the deaf mind and some of the history of deaf education. As for fiction, I avoided reading any novels about deafness or suchlike while I was writing, as I’m always terrified of being influenced! Yet I did read the Forsyte books by Galsworthy around that time, as they are set in the same period, and loved them so (and both TV versions, both super in their own, very different, ways). Some recent readers have said my style of writing reminds them of Geraldine Brooks and also early Helen Dunmore – what a compliment! I hope it’s true, as they are fabulous novelists both.
Your second question is very knowledgeable and insightful. Being a writer and getting published has changed me hugely as a reader. It’s a massive question and I could go on all night, but in a nutshell, I’d say it has done two contradictory things: being a novelist has at times actually spoiled the reading of novels for me, as I find myself noticing all the cracks, analysing the techniques and losing that ability to lose myself in a story. Ian McEwan has written eloquently about this. It’s a busman’s holiday type thing. However, since being published and particularly beginning on social media, I’ve come into contact with many wonderful contemporary writers, including quite a few debut novelists like myself. Also my publisher Hodder give me books too, very, very kindly! And through this, in the past year or so, I’ve been reading some novels I probably would not have chosen myself, and have been wonderfully surprised by all of them in different ways. This has fundamentally altered the reader I once was. Now I know how much work goes into a novel, not only by the novelist of course, but through all the editing process and via reader responses; all of this has made me so much more benevolent and magnanimous to other writers! As a young reader, I was very impatient, and assumed that if I didn’t like a book then it was crap. As a got older, my position shifted slightly, and I presumed that if I didn’t like a book, then it was simply not well written enough. Now I know all that is largely garbage. Excluding the books that most people could generally say really ARE crap, I can now read a novel and say, That was brilliantly written, this person is a great writer, but I didn’t happen to like it, it didn’t suit me. That’s a big change for me, and I would say, a very positive one. I kind of wish all reviews were like that, and it does rile me when I see a hatchet job on a novel and I think, just because you didn’t like it, it doesn’t mean I won’t, or a thousand other people, or a million. I have an uncontrollable hatred of opinion masquerading as fact. Literature and indeed all art is mostly down to subjective response – I certainly know the publishing world is – and that’s ok. We could sit here all night and debate what makes great art or the top ten novels ever written, but I bet we wouldn’t agree. And that’s ok too. My favourite books stay with me in my heart because they chimed for me at a particular time in my life, they meant something to ME. You can’t analyse that scientifically, and you can’t bottle it and sell it, thank the STARS! That’s the magic of books.
Can you tell me anything about any future books, or anything else that lies in your future?
Right now, I’m engaged in the line and copy editing stages of my latest novel, ‘Song of the Sea Maid’, It’s due for publication by Hodder next year, in June 2015. It’s set in the eighteenth century and is about an orphan girl who is found by a benefactor and educated. She becomes a scientist, travels abroad and makes a remarkable discovery. In September I’ll be starting the next one, but all I can say about that at the minute is that it’s set in the early twentieth century. I think a writer can’t or perhaps shouldn’t talk too much about their current project, as it will probably all change anyway, and also, there’s a superstitious part of me that believes if it is seen in daylight, it’ll disappear in a puff of smoke. Writers are peculiar like that, you know…