Welcome to Rebecca Gethin!
Today I’d like to welcome another Cinnamon Press author Rebecca Gethin to the blog. Becky’s second novel ‘What the Horses Heard’, set in the First World War was published earlier this year, and she’s agreed to answer some question about the book. I first met Becky a few years ago on a writing course in Yorkshire. Since then we have kept in touch by email and our blogs, and she came to to this year’s Worcestershire LitFest to talk about her novel.
So, welcome, Becky, and over to you!
1. What inspired you to write ‘What the Horses Heard’?
This book is the intersection of different impulses that were running through my head.
Looking back, it was really an unpublished story by Richard Jefferies (nature writer from 19th century) of a horse left out in the snow that started me off. Jefferies was writing of a landscape far more diverse and richer in wildlife than our own. I knew I wanted to write about the countryside and how it was diminishing. I needed an extreme man-made change so chose war and the effect WW1 had on our psyches. So the war in this book, although it is based on WW1, is really a kind of metaphor.
The title came to me right at the beginning. No one would have deflected me from that. My other half once pointed out that my first book, Liar Dice, contained no animals and as I love animals and often write poetry about them this did in retrospect seem very odd. So I decided to rectify this. I love everything about horses but the horses in my novel also bring with them traces of their mythologies… Kelpies and other fairy-tale horses; historical horses such a Bucephalus and Marengo; the horses in Homer that are so much a part of the human experience of the Trojan War. And I know that horses do hear things our ears are not capable of registering.
2 I’m particularly interested in the unusual points of view – a conscientious objector and a woman whose love of horses leads her to the front line. Why did you choose those angles?
They just entered my imagination! While working as a tutor at HMP Dartmoor I became interested in the prison’s history. Its brutal past haunts the place, as anyone who drives past will know. I discovered some old letters written by COs during WW1 in the prison museum. Their poignancy made me want to find out more about the men who had been imprisoned for their consciences. From early on I guessed that one of my characters had to be such a man and so Orion with his love of nature and horses came to be formed in my head, an ordinary man of the time with no strong religious sense … but with a reason to be a ‘refusenik’.
Women in the early 1900’s lived a very different kind of life to now. Much more constrained and restrained. You were a chattel and had no rights at all. The Suffragettes were not the only ones to break the mould. So it was Orion’s younger sister, Cass, whose love of horses takes her briefly to the front line in France, who drove this book. As soon as I had named her she sprang to life and nagged me all day, every day to get her to the Front. I tried to dissuade her, saying that women were not allowed near the Front but she said that some women did get there.
I said, ‘You will have to be a nurse then.’
‘You can’t write that because you don’t have any experience of nursing,’ was her reply to that. I could not argue this one. She begged me to find another way to get her there. In desperation I brazenly emailed the late Professor Richard Holmes who emailed straight back and said that I could perhaps make it work if I researched it. So Cass was right and I had to believe her.
3. We are much more sympathetic to conscientious objectors now than the culture of the time. Were you able to sympathise with the anger shown to conscientious objectors then?
Not much! Not when I read about how they were treated. I suppose I should say that I should sympathise but I think that the war propaganda was very powerful and it led people to behave in ways they might not have done so in other circumstances. The War Office handled the CO situation very badly.
4. I imagine you must have had to do a huge amount of research. Can you tell us something of that and its difficulties?
Writers have to set a book somewhere: if you haven’t lived at that time you have to research everything from clothes, music, speech, food, clocks, to hierarchies, etiquette etc. Listening to music from another time is always fun and so is reading what they read, thinking about room décor And I loved adjusting the dialogue of all the different characters and learned a huge amount about how much is revealed through speech patterns, cadence. This was a great challenge and I relished it. The only difficult thing for me was finding the courage and self-belief to do these things. Even if I went to these lengths would it ever get published and would it all be a waste of my time? But there was Cass spurring me on at every turn. I used her courage to keep the fire in my belly!
To read original archives I went to the Imperial War Museum and to The Friends’ House Library in Euston Square and I also went to the Army Medical Museum near Aldershot, for which I needed a pass to enter a military establishment. I travelled to France and walked across battle fields of the Somme and around Arras and found the endless memorials, graveyards and museums incredibly interesting but also unbearable. I read as many books set at the time or on the war that would fill a shelf the length of both my arms outstretched.
5. I loved the novel but found it unbearably sad in places. Did you find it difficult to write for that reason?
I wanted to look clear-eyed at the truth and not shy away from it. It wasn’t particularly difficult to write because it wrote itself. I just did the research.
(You are very modest, Becky. I’m sure it DIDN’T write itself!)
6. I know your first novel ‘Liar Dice’ is set in the Second World War. Was writing that a very different experience? What differences, for example between mood and tone, did you feel between the two wars?
I don’t know enough about either war to answer this because I am absolutely not a historian. I deliberately didn’t get involved with technicalities and wrote from the fringes. I think I probably use war as a chance to write about extreme situations that ordinary people find themselves in so that I can explore how they cope. Writing about war was something that just happened to me: I didn’t make a conscious decision about it. Having said that, I use the historical events as a structure in which my fictional characters live and breathe. While writing, I think I am asking: How might we react to those circumstances if we had been there at that time?
Historical Fiction demands that both writer and reader think about human character, and how people connect. To quote Ian Mortimore (who is an academic historian and a writer of historical fiction), ‘It (HF) shows that there is a different sort of truth beyond the facts and dates: truths about human beings which are timeless, or, at least, slow-moving. And it leaves you thinking that these truths, although they are unproveable, are probably the most important historical conclusions of all, for they reflect what we are, and what we can be, both as individuals and as a society.’
7. What’s next for you in terms of writing?
Whatever comes up! I never plan anything very far in advance. Both my novels were written without any forward planning. I just write on a blank page and see what comes out of my subconscious. I don’t know what will happen on the next page, let alone the next chapter or even the ending. And beginnings happen in just the same way. (Of course, there will be a lot of re-ordering later.)
8. As well as being a novelist, you are also a highly successful poet. How much cross-fertilisation is there in your work?
That is very nice of you to call me ‘a highly successful poet’. To be honest, for me, every single poem feels like back to the beginning again and every novel, too. I could never have written and completed either novel were it not for my apprenticeship as a poet. Poetry taught me to trust the process, that something would always emerge if I simply wrote into the blankness of the page. I like to think it also honed my sentences, sharpened my observation and my listening ear. Writing poetry enables me to cut back to the bones, even in prose, as well as be expansive at times.
Both of my novels had a lot of overspill which has emerged in my two poetry books and in lots of other poems that lurk in scribbles in my notebooks. For instance, I wrote poems about Conscientious Objectors long before I considered writing a novel with a CO as a character. There are a few WW1 poems in A Handful of Water (some of them from my sombre pilgrimage to the Somme). And I was so excited about the exploits of the Italian Resistance against Mussolini’s regime, that I discovered during researches for Liar Dice, that those stories emerged as poems.
Thank you, Lindsay, for the great questions and letting me tell you something about What the horses heard.
Thank you, Becky, for some fascinating answers about your work, and the writing process. Below is the brilliant cover for ‘What the Horses Heard’ from a painting, Rider by the Shore, by Anthony Amos:
Tags: Anthony Amos, Becky Gethin, Rider by the Shore, What the Horses Heard