In 2015, Rebecca F John won the prestigious Pen International New Voices award. Since then she has released her debut collection of short stories to much praise, Clown’s Shoes (Parthian), and her debut novel, The Haunting of Henry Twist, will be published in 2017 with Serpent’s Tail. This year Rebecca was chosen as the British Participant in the Scritture Giovani Project.
Short stories have scattered me all around the globe this year. Canada, Mexico, Italy, Germany… wild, wet Cardigan. Throw in a few holidays and I’ve flitted across seven countries in just ten months. For a poor traveller, I’ve done quite well. Peculiarly, finally being able to do what I’ve always wanted to do – to write – has taken me far from my desk. And yet, somehow, it hasn’t taken me far from my writing. I’ve thought a lot this year about whether I’m still writing when my fingers aren’t rattling across a keyboard, and the answer is yes, of course I am. I don’t know how not to.
I’ve spoken about a writer’s ‘fuel’ before, and the idea is becoming more and more pertinent now that I’m largely taking on this writing thing full-time (and isn’t that a scary place to be). It’s not possible to sit at a computer screen and create an endless stream of output. At some point, we require input. Writers, it seems, are just the same kind of machine as any other; the cogs won’t turn on their own.
So how has all this recent input affected my output? It’s hard to say exactly, but it seems to permeate my writing in strangely contrary ways. I spent a heavy, sticky week in Greece this summer planning how extensively I could write about Welsh rain. I plotted an entire novel around it and I hope one day I’ll be able to write that moody book. A visit to the Guadalajara International Book Festival last year brought me home brimming with thoughts of magic realism, hints of which are only now beginning to push through my short stories, all chaos and spook and newly blunt edges. Magic realism is my attempt perhaps at abstract painting or mosaicking or something similar, and I’ve surprised myself by becoming enthralled with what I think of as its orderly disorder. And so it goes on. Bright, snowy days spent skiing in France slid me into embarking upon a second historical novel…
But how? What do sharp mornings in the Alps have to do with nights misused in the murky depths of 1900s Swansea? Nothing, probably. Why, then, has my mind turned the information around in this way?
I’ve thought hard about this question following a recent trip to Mantova and Berlin, which I was invited to undertake as the Welsh participant of the Scritture Giovani project.
It was warm! Both cities sagged under the heat. Possibly for the first time in my life, and only after visiting three countries in under six weeks where the temperature was hovering over 35 degrees, I accumulated a tan. (Already, it’s nearly faded.) The festivals were marvellous: friendly, inclusive, inviting. The cities, too. Berlin, particularly, I’d love to visit in winter – my favourite season. As interesting as I found it all, though, it was not the cities, or the humidity, or the people I returned home wanting to write about. What, or rather who, refused to leave my mind was Anne Boleyn – and now here I am, sitting at my desk, part way through a short story which took form in the bumpy snaps of sleep we all enjoy on plane journeys.
It might have been re-reading my Scritture Giovani story, about a young queen, which prompted thoughts of Henry VIII’s unfortunate second wife. It might be that viewing the old architecture of Italy and Germany had to boast simply increased my appetite for historical tales. It might be that some complicated cognitive process I will never be granted an understanding of took place. But there it is. That writer’s fuel going in and stoking an unfathomable fire.
And I’ve realised lately that that fire hasn’t gone cold in years. Barely a moment passes when some character, or setting, or interaction is not playing through my mind, taking form, settling.
In the last year, I have travelled to more new places than I have in the previous twenty-nine years of my life. I’ve packed myself off to Canada alone, I’ve stood on vast stages and given speeches, I’ve talked to festival goers about aspects of my writing I’ll probably never fully understand, I’ve wandered city streets and absorbed their histories and their people, I’ve even accepted a prize from the wonderful people at PEN International. But what I’ve done more than ever before is write about home.
This is the place I truly know, after all. Here, I wake to the smell I crave but can never find on other morning airs. Here, I leave the house prepared to encounter sunshine and rain and wind and hail in the course of one afternoon. Here, my accent, my attitude, my pale skin fit. I feel, when I’m in Wales, that I am my whole self. So, for all my recent roaming, I might just have returned home a Welsher writer than I ever have been. And that’s okay by me. I’m happy to let my love affair with writing shape its own path, as I suppose all the best love affairs must.
Finally, I have to say a big thank you to all those involved with the Scritture Giovani project, who did the most fantastic job of welcoming us writers, and putting us at ease when delivering talks in translation, and keeping us safe and fed on our travels. It was an honour to be involved, and to meet so many lovely people along the way. I can’t wait to see what my fellow writers do next.