Song of the Sea Maid – Rebecca Mascull
Published by Hodder & Stoughton
ebook and hardback – 18 June 2015
Paperback -11 February 2016
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.
I was delighted to be invited to take part in the blog tour for Song of the Sea Maid. I really enjoyed Rebecca’s debut novel, The Visitors (reviewed here) and this second novel, is just as good. I’m especially thrilled to have a Q&A with Rebecca – I’m so appreciative of the trouble she has gone to to answer my questions and also providing a few photos and I hope you enjoy it. My review is at the end of the post.
In both of your books, The Visitors and Song of the Sea Maid, the main female characters (Adeliza and Dawnay) have overcome great personal adversity to improve the quality of their lives. Is this a theme that resonates with you?
It resonates for me dramatically, but luckily, not so much or so often in my own life! I’ve probably had rather an uneventful life compared to my characters. But I do know what it feels like to want something very much and work hard for it i.e. getting published. I had years of setbacks when I was on that path. In my fiction – whether writing or reading – I am fascinated by characters who desire something very much. I do think it makes for a great narrative. What do they want? What will they do to get what they want? Will they get there? Many wonderful stories are based on the same idea. Even something like the Forsyte Saga – I was thinking the other day that, despite all these different characters, the thing that drives all of them is what they want (with most of the characters wanting Irene at some point, it seems!) In my own stories, I like to explore the idea that if you have enough drive, you can overcome lots of things that might prevent you. In my own life, I’ve had experiences where people in positions of power – at university, in jobs etc – have said no to me and in my opinion they had no good reason for doing so! So, I’ve pushed against that gate and had to find a way to get that gatekeeper to let me through. I haven’t always succeeded and I’ve always tried to be nice about the pushing, but now and again, I’ve got through. I like my characters to have plenty of gates to push against and watch how they go about charming or battling their way through.
|original c18th document seen during research|
Dawnay is a wonderful character whose passion for learning and in particular her interest in science and philosophy shines through. Are you scientifically minded – are these subjects that interest you?
I am completely fascinated with science but I’m not in the least scientifically minded. I have a very scientific brother who taught me a lot about very complex things like quantum physics – or at least he bravely tried but my brain couldn’t retain it for longer than 5 minutes. My mum has a similarly bookish and arty mind to me and yet she studied the history of science, which is a subject she and I could talk endlessly to each other about. How did great ideas come about? What were the lives of great scientists like? I liked to explore the idea of how a scientist could have wonderful ideas but how are they heard and remembered? I knew for years that I wanted to write about a scientist – in particular, the scientist as a child and what makes a scientist, from birth onwards – and kept a box with the aptly titled label Science Novel into which I’d throw snippets from newspapers and magazines that caught my eye. Eventually I narrowed it down to palaeoanthropology, as the whole issue of where we come from has interested me for years. The C18th is a wonderful time to explore the idea of human origins, as it’s when myth, science and religion were all rubbing up against each other. Thus was born Dawnay Price and her journey towards enlightenment.
Both of your books have been historical fiction, do you see yourself continuing to write in this genre, or is there another genre that you may be interested in exploring?
My third book is historical fiction too and I can’t see that changing soon BUT never say never, and if the story takes me, I’d happily write about anyone, anything or any time. I just feel totally at home in history. It makes me feel comfortable. My mum says something very wise, which is that we find the past comforting because it’s passed and therefore controllable. We know how wars ended, when people died, when natural disasters happened. But the people going through these things had no idea, of course. And that’s what really draws me in – what was it like to be on the Titanic and not know what we all know now? I generally live in the past in my head and find it vastly superior to the present in many way, the key exception being the history of medicine. I do know that I’d probably already be dead by my age if I’d been born even 50 years earlier than I was, due to various ailments I’ve had. I’m very grateful for that! I love reading historical fiction and watching costume dramas, and I learn so much about history by doing my research. But one thing I will say is, it takes a heck of a lot of time and work to research the C18th or a similar period I don’t know much about to begin with (I’m not an historian) and so it might be nice one day to write about the present day and save on a bit of that reading time…but hey, I LOVE all that reading too! It’s just very time-consuming!
|c18th sedan chair|
Is there any part of the writing process which you enjoy (or dislike) the most – i.e. researching, writing, editing?
Well, as I mentioned earlier, I do love the research but it is a vast undertaking. But it’s also such a joy to immerse yourself in a new subject and learn the most obscure things, like how you light a candle in a dark cave in 1755…Next comes the planning and synopsis writing – I know quite a few writers who hate writing synopses but I love them! It really helps me organise my ideas. And also, it’s a bit like telling the story to myself. It’s the point where I can start to get a clue if it’ll work or not. The first draft I find alternately joyful and terrifying. The place I most like to be is right in the middle of it, where I know the characters well and I’m not scrabbling around cluelessly like I was at the beginning, and I’m not at the end and the whole lovely thing is over. When the first draft is finished, I’m very relieved but also miss my characters dreadfully. The second draft is just hellish. All the fun has gone and it’s endless polishing, dusting and noticing horrendous plot holes. I hate it. Editing is ok, not my favourite thing to do in the world, but I don’t mind it. I’m generally just very grateful my editors have read my work so carefully and want to help me make it better.
|c18th cabinet of curiosities|
Are there any authors which you particularly admire or who have an influence on your writing?
Too many to mention! I’d have to choose Dickens as my all-time favourite writer. He encapsulates everything I’d want to aspire to in fiction: page-turning and charming and funny and deadly serious and unique. And you learn something too, every time you read him. Other than that, it’s often particular books that take me. It’s not that often I read everything by one writer but usually choose books on the strength of the story idea and also reading the first page. I get a good idea of style by reading that page and then I know if the writer and I are going to be good company for each other – or not! I wrote about my reading influences here on my blog: http://rebeccamascull.tumblr.com/readingandwritingstuff
What is the best piece of writing advice you have ever been given?
Persevere! Very early on in my career, I read an interview with someone – I forget who – that mentioned it’d taken them years to get an agent, let alone a publisher and I steeled myself for that i.e. that it’d be a marathon not a sprint. The same is often true after you get published too, so it’s stood me in good stead.
Assuming you get time to read for pleasure what are you reading at the moment?
Right now I’m reading South Riding by Winifred Holtby, which is wonderful. Her writing is so accomplished and her characters are so real. I was reading it earlier and found myself nodding, thinking, yes, that is how that is. She was talking of a character who was on the bus and composing a long descriptive and intimate letter to a friend in her head and she went on to say how these letters rarely reach the page. So true! I know if I’m coming across gems like that, I’m in book heaven.
Is there another book being planned? Can you tell us anything about it?
I can tell you I’m currently 3 chapters away from finishing the first draft of Book 3 for Hodder. The end is in sight! (On to the dreaded 2nd draft…ughhh.) It begins in 1909 in Edwardian Cleethorpes (down the road from where I live). I’m always a bit reluctant to give more away until I’ve finished the damned thing. More will be revealed soon(ish)…
Thanks for great questions, Karen.
Thank you very much for your time Rebecca, I am certainly looking forward to book 3.
It is the 18th century. A very young girl is roaming the streets with her brother and stealing food to survive, however her brother is taken away by a press gang and Dawnay is left alone. She makes a mistake when trying to steal from a gentleman but instead of being punished, she is taken to an orphanage. Her life improves somewhat; although the food rations are poor, she does at least have a safe place to sleep. She is given the name Dawnay Price and this is where her story really begins.
Dawnay was an intelligent child and despite all obstacles, she taught herself numbers and how to write. Her tenacity and ingenuity brought her to the attention of a benefactor and her learning began in earnest with a tutor who luckily for her shared her passion for science. Dawnay could be a stubborn character, she had no time for the usual conventions and expectations of society – being a wife was not for her. Her passion was science, knowledge and travel – she was really a young woman born in the wrong age.
Rebecca Mascull has bought to life a young woman, fiercely ambitious and intelligent and determined to make her own way in life. Whilst on her travels she encounters earthquakes, and sees for the first time the beauty and wonders of ancient caves and carvings and the flora and fauna that have intrigued her for so long. Not only her character, but her thinking is way ahead of her time and some of her views on God and the Bible are considered to be so controversial that they could place her in great danger were they to become public.
There were times when I became frustrated with her. Her obsessions seemed all consuming and there were occasions when her bluntness bordered on rudeness. However, despite her social shortcomings, she was a character that I couldn’t help but care about. She really was a pioneer in a male dominated era.
This beautifully written story drew me in from the first page. Dawnay was a truly remarkable character, not without her flaws but inspiring and so determined not to be constrained by convention and nor to be disadvantaged by her lowly beginnings – especially being female and I really enjoyed my time spent with her. The amount of research that has gone into this story is considerable – from the sounds and stench of 18th century London to the landscape of Lisbon and the archipelagos. Everything is vividly described and the author’s passion for her characters and story shines through. Highly recommended.
One final note, please don’t be put off by the words ‘science’ and ‘palaeoanthropology’. I am the least scientifically minded person in the world but I thoroughly enjoyed this book for the marvellous story-telling alone. If you enjoy historical fiction, then I’m sure this would appeal.
My thanks to the publisher for the paperback copy to review.
About the author:
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.