'Please Just Let Something Happen': An Interview with Rebecca Watson
by Elsa Court
I’ve had the pleasure to know Rebecca as a friend and colleague for several years. She and I first met over lunch in the sunny cafeteria of the Financial Times, where we both work. Back then, the offices of the newspaper were still in their former location on Southwark Bridge, and on a clear day the view from the top-floor cafeteria revealed a memorable panoramic city skyline. Office life is an integral part of the tight and often disquieting social economy of little scratch. The novel scans the mundane routines of the narrator’s daily grind against a background of personal trauma and ceaseless mental chatter.
For this interview, I arranged to meet Rebecca in person, for the first time in many months, just a week before the reopening of public venues in the UK. She and I shared a windy outdoor coffee in East London, where she lives. We refrained from hugging and reflected on what we miss and don’t miss from office life. We discussed Rebecca’s early influences, her second novel in the works, and how working from home also transforms the writer’s routine.
What always struck me about little scratch was how carefully observed the rhythm and structure of office life came through at every page. Reading it now, in the middle of the pandemic, it feels like an ode to a London that is no longer. How does it feel to reflect on this reality now? Do you miss the cacophony of pre-pandemic London?
I think I do, to a degree. I prefer working from home for many reasons but I think, in little scratch, the play of office life is crucial. Even though it’s implied that it’s the same every day, you realise now that this comes with variations, things that happen which you can’t expect. Those sensory stimulations — people, sounds — now are so absent. I miss those weird moments when someone walks up to you in the kitchen and says something completely unexpected which takes you outside your head.
I also think that office life is something that most people spend their lives waiting to escape from. It’s a very freeing thing that many of us won’t inhabit that life in the same way that we once did. I kind of like the way little scratch’s structure is now based on something that is nostalgic rather than normal.
You wrote little scratch while working full time and often had to find time to write around the schedule of your office day. I know that you’re now working on a new novel and I wonder whether working from home affects your writing.
It does. My writing routine for little scratch was really charged, really quick. Part of it was working full time and having to write around that. It would be writing in short bursts, on my phone, into an email at work. Not that I was writing on the job, you know.
During lunch breaks.
Exactly, and because time was limited, I think I also wrote more quickly. But I had more things to think about because I guess the world felt like a bigger place. Now I write for longer, partly also because I work part-time, but I find the whole process almost more difficult. I wrote a full draft of this second novel and I’ve now binned 80% of it, precisely because it was infused with some of the claustrophobia of the pandemic. There was a level of fatigue and slowness in the voice that was there and I realised I didn’t want to preserve that. So now I’m trying to push against that.
There were also those moments of violence or drama that would suddenly be peppered into this draft and I think it was me just thinking: PLEASE JUST LET SOMETHING HAPPEN. I can’t trust my instinct in the exact same way.
The office is a place of social constraint and awkwardness. It can also be a place of violence, as little scratch touches on. I personally sometimes miss the odd genuine display of office camaraderie. Like, hugging a female colleague. Do you?
Yes, no I do! I miss hugging generally. You can express so much to an old friend as soon as you see them. And now it’s like, you offer your elbow. It cuts back from that sense of joy.
You turned 26 in April. Can you tell us about your earliest literary and/or artistic influences, the authors who first triggered a desire to express yourself through writing? How do you look on them today?
Virginia Woolf was probably the big early influence for me, the one that shifted my idea of what books can do. I was reading her when I was 16, maybe.
It’s funny because little scratch has been compared to Mrs Dalloway, I think precisely in reference to the bustle of London life and stream of consciousness narration coexisting with all this surrounding stimulation.
Yeah. It’s funny I can see that although that one was never my favourite. The ones that really stirred me up when I was growing up were The Waves and Between the Acts. Her rhythm, the sense of movement to her sentences were huge to me. She has this very intense gaze.
My relationship to her now is very much the same although I kind of feel like I was more open to reading her then. Reading Woolf requires great attention.
A poet friend of mine once said it’s almost impossible to be a good reader and a good writer simultaneously. Her point was that you have to take turns, because both require your full attention. Do you think that’s true?
I think they’re very connected. I don’t seek out books that are relevant to the project I’m working on. I try to read as randomly as possible, because I’m scared of the idea of being imitative. Recently I’ve been reading nonfiction and historical novels. I actually think you learn more from writing that is different to your own than writing that is similar.
Giancarlo DiTrapano, the founder of New York Tyrant Books who recently passed away, once he said that his advice to young authors was to not read what everyone else was reading. To ward off the danger of being influenced by what everybody else was doing. Do you think that’s good advice?
I’m definitely aware of the hype machine and often put off reading something just because someone has recommended it to me. It’s the same with TV! It took me ages to watch I May Destroy You just because everyone was telling me it was so good.
I think I also don’t know who my writing comparisons are. I think with little scratch particularly it gave me confidence, the fact that it felt like my own thing, the space on the page was my own space, where I didn’t have to worry about what other people were doing. Perhaps the fear is in reading someone you recognise your own ambitions in, and who has achieved them. Because then it makes those ambitions seem redundant.
I’m partly asking this because the narrator in little scratch is a participant in the London literary world. She goes to poetry readings, talks about writing autofiction. Was this important for you to portray the aspiration of a young female writer in terms of the anxiety of influence?
I think I was more interested in making my narrator a writer because she is failing to tell a story: that of her assault. And I thought the relationship between a psychological block and a failure to write was an interesting one. By being a writer, she is a character so concerned with performance and voice but that’s almost a downfall — she turns her mind into a performance as a way of survival.
I remember talking to you years ago about the lack of texts that address women’s sexuality from a place of awareness about trauma. I remember talking about Katherine Angel’s Unmastered (2012) which to me felt like one of the few contemporary texts in English to address heterosexual female desire and its discontent about heterosexual dynamics, and to hold them both so unflinchingly. Is this something you wanted to make space for in little scratch? I’m thinking about how your narrator is a rape survivor and is sexually very alive.
It definitely was. I don’t think I really see many victims of sexual abuse or rape being depicted as ever having a sexuality. I think people are scared of getting this wrong, because discussions around rape and assault and sexuality are usually so foggy. The answer seems to be to move away and not deal with it. I find that reductive and it was really important for me when I was writing little scratch that the narrator was a sexual being and was able to have power over that while at the same time having to deal with the trauma of having been raped. I found that really fun to write actually, to make sure that those spaces existed separately. A lot of people are surprised by the inclusion. It makes me realise the absurdity of common discussion surrounding rape.
I’m thinking of James Baldwin. In Go Tell It On the Mountain you have this female character who’s been raped and becomes a martyr figure. The idea for a man to marry her is crazy. Baldwin really plays with the tired tropes of victimhood as attached to female sexuality. It’s really interesting.
At your Zoom launch in January you said that you had started off writing poetry when you were in your teens, then moved to the nonfiction prose form before eventually feeling more at home in fiction. There are writers who have published successful books in all these forms within the interval of just a few years. I’m thinking of Patricia Lockwood. Would you see yourself publishing a poetry collection? A memoir?
At my American book launch, someone asked me if I would ever consider writing nonfiction and I just said no. As soon as the event ended, my editor texted me and my boyfriend simultaneously walked into the room. Both said to me: ‘What are you talking about? You’ve written loads of nonfiction.’ Even if I’m familiar with writing in different territories as an exercise, nonfiction is not something where I’ve felt at home. I think when I write nonfiction that I like it is usually because I’m using some of the tools that I know well in writing fiction — i.e. playing with voice, rhythm, tone.
As a teenager, I would never have considered writing a novel. I didn’t even know if I was a writer. Poetry allowed me to work on these small pieces. I told myself that if you just write six lines, it’s not a big deal. No one has to care about it. I don’t have to care about it. I was just playing around.
little scratch started off being a short story, which then turned into a longer, book-length project. So maybe you were still, again, testing something first.
Yeah, exactly. I actually wrote this short story specifically for the White Review Short Story Prize. I had written something else (a long patchwork of fiction and non-fiction, poetry and prose) and I was trying to get my head out of it so I used the prize to write something new. By the time I had submitted it already felt like it was meant to be something longer. So I pushed either side of the story and stretched it into a day. I now see that as a unit rather than a story.
It was a good exercise, then, in that sense!
[Laughs] Yeah, I’m really glad I did it!
Walk me through the pitfalls of writing fiction in the first person as a young woman.
Ok. 101. [Laughs]. Well, a lot of people will ask you if your boss really said that. I find that disconcerting because lots of people definitely think it’s me, but then they also don’t ask me if I’m ok. Because, if it is me then, you know, this is quite serious! Don’t you want to sit me down and get me a cup of coffee and ask me if I want to, I don’t know, call the police? I know that’s a dark thing to say but I do think it’s pretty strange that some people would simultaneously decide it’s me but also, you know, not care.
Maybe it testifies to the fallacy of that assumption in the first place. If people aren’t checking you’re ok, on some level, it proves they know the difference between a confession and a narrative construct.
It is strange, but I understand the impulse. I like to take that as just them believing the voice and trusting that the character is real. In a sense, it’s great because it means I’ve done a good job! Then on the other hand, this has to do with the fact that, in little scratch, I was playing a lot with situations from my immediate environment. I work in a newspaper office and the narrator works in a newspaper office. That’s because I thought it was an interesting place to set it, but I knew that people were always going to think it was me, even from the first thousand words. In some ways, you are almost teasing those instincts of this kind of reader, when you’re using elements from your day to day routine.
That’s something you have in common with authors of autofiction, where the impulse is not pure autobiography but playing with that ambivalence precisely knowing that it’s going to lure the reader in.
It’s interesting though because the only overlap between me and the protagonist of little scratch is an environmental overlap, rather than something individual or interesting. Anyone could share those overlapping traits, because they have to do with a specific workplace, or being both young and a woman. All of these things are shared by hundreds and hundreds of people. Someone might feel smart for noticing an overlap over something that is actually quite unspecific.
And then you can’t turn that down because people will call you out on inviting those connections in the first place. It’s tricky.
I should have written it from the perspective of an alien.
Your story, ‘The Nothing Game’, is written through the third person. Do you find that changes your voice, your perspective on that story, or the perspective of those who will read it?
That story was me saying in my head: ‘Huh, I don’t think I’ve ever written in the third person before. What would it be like?’ I’m not in love with the result, even though I’m glad the story is out there! I was interested in exploring the perspective that the third person would give so I chose a story where the person would be distancing themselves already and then trying to un-distance. I think that I’m naturally drawn to the first person and the kind of revelation that that kind of voice can give you that once I’d written it I was right back working through the first person again. I’m interested in the internal world, the dramatics of voice and the many layers of performance that existing necessitates, and first person feels like the realm to explore that.
I take it your next novel will be written in the first person.
Yeah. Very much so. [Laughs].
I want to resist the impulse of asking you about a novel in progress, because I know how that can feel pressuring, but if you could share one word with me about your next book, what would it be?
Ok. The word I choose is ghosts.
I mean I can give you a couple of sentences if you want them.
Go for it.
I do feel resistant to talk about it. But only because until a project is done you can’t really trust that you’re the authority on it. Loosely, it starts when the protagonist/narrator’s brother dies, and she has a very complicated relationship with her brother. Then from this, a lot of things unravel. Her sense of herself, her past, her trust of her own memories shift. It’s set over five days from the death of the brother as she seeks to restore control over who she is and what her past has been.
Having read ‘The Nothing Game’ and little scratch, and having listened to ‘Punchline’ on BBC4, I noticed you are very good at portraying the way trauma imposes silence and disconnect on otherwise loving and potentially intimate relationships. One of the tragic things in little scratch is the way the narrator refrains from telling her story to anyone, even though we witness that she has loving parents who check in on her regularly, and that she has this close and tender relationship with her boyfriend. There’s a similar disconnect in ‘The Nothing Game’ that we assume is an offshoot of trauma response. Is that something you were always consciously exploring? Would you address it again?
It’s funny that you should say that because I noticed it while writing ‘The Nothing Game’ and told myself that I’d done this before, and probably shouldn’t do it again! I do think those notions of unspoken trauma, and the fact that trauma has its own rhythms, is something you can potentially explore forever. I am really drawn to these ideas of disconnect. I think trauma is commonly seen as this thing that is very othering and yet it happens to people who would normally be perceived as very normal and capable of engaging in loving relationships. As a writer, I think that dropping this kind of bomb onto dynamics that feel very familiar is fascinating for the ways you see these dynamics play out. But in the novel I’m writing at the moment I’m trying to resist the unsaid, and to make the narrator express things and to see the effects that those moments of confession elicit.
In the first person.
[Laughs]. Yeah. In the first person. And it’s a different exercise. It’s interesting to test what happens if you make your narrator do different things.
I look forward to seeing it come to life.
So do I!
little scratch is published by Faber.