An interview with…

debut novelist Rachel Connor

Those of you who know me will be aware how much I love Twitter. It’s a great tool, especially for writers, and it was on Twitter that Rachel and I first met each other. Other than being authors and mothers we have such a lot in common: debut novels published within days of each other, Manchester-based publishers, another job to juggle alongside the writing… and when we got talking in more detail we realised that there were several thematic overlaps in our novels: motherhood, different social structures and family arrangements, ethics and beliefs.  Sisterwives is the story of two women in a polygamous marriage living in an isolated, religious community. Tension simmers beneath a tranquil surface when pride, love and principles clash. It is a sensuous and seductive read, with moments of great insight and tenderness.  It’s a powerful book. You can read my review here. Here’s Rachel on writing, reading, and whether or not she’d share her fella.

How did you come to write? Tell us about your journey.

I’ve always loved that tussle with words but it wasn’t until my 30s that I started writing properly. I enrolled in a weekly adult education class in my local area, then went on to attend a residential ‘Starting to Write’ couse run by the Arvon Foundation (which is now my employer!). That was an amazing, life-changing, door-opening week.  I can’t describe how ecstatic I was at the end of it.  One of the tutors at Arvon persuaded me to apply for the MA in Novel Writing at Manchester University.  I wrote my first novel (which is still in a drawer) on that, then went on to write Sisterwives.

Do you have any rituals you have to go through before you start writing?

I always write better with a cup of coffee in front of me, so I guess the pre-writing coffee-making is a kind of warm up ritual.  I’ve never really gone for that other superstitious stuff like putting on a particular hat or pair of socks or whatever.  Mostly I write in our outbuilding and I find that short journey across the courtyard helpful in making the division between home and work.

Any top tips from your writers’ toolkit you’d like to share?

Ok, here are two: once concrete, one more abstract.  Always have a bunch of blank index cards with
you.  They’re great for sketching out scenes when you’ve a spare 10 minutes and when you’re planning the structure of a project, they can be invaluable.  More esoterically: develop the skill of listening – both to yourself and others.  If you can listen to yourself, you’ll learn what’s really working. Listening to others – discerning which is the right and appropriate feedback and filtering out what isn’t – takes time, practice and humility.  I can’t say I’m there completely; I think it’s probably a lifetime’s journey.

Which writers do you most admire and why?

There are so many amazing writers, both classic and contemporary.  In my work hosting courses for the Arvon Foundation I encounter brilliant writers most weeks, and hear them read from their work: it’s a fantastic job to have!  Is that a cop out?!  There’s one enduring influence I must mention though: Virginia Woolf.  I studied Mrs Dalloway in sixth form and I was blown away by her ability to capture interiority and consciousness, and by the sheer beauty of her sentences.

Can you tell us about the inspiration behind Sisterwives?

I heard an interview a few years ago with a wife who had escaped from a fundamentalist Mormon compound. I was completely riveted by her tale, and started wondering what it would be like to have to share your home, your husband, your children – and even your bedroom – with another wife. My decision to set it in an imagined community (rather than sticking with the Mormon context) might be seen as risky, but it allows me to question the basis of structures – religious and social – as a whole.  The reader might disagree there, though…

One of the themes of Sisterwives is faith, and biblical references abound in the novel. What does faith mean to you?

To me, faith implies a belief in something unseen and unknown. Many people find that a comfort, a guiding framework for living life. But it’s not for me. I’m interested in the here and now, and I don’t hold with the traditional notion of God.  Attending a Quaker meeting for the past few years has taught me the value of seing the spiritual in the everyday.  So for me, writing is praying, running might be praying; a simple task – like chopping vegetables – can have that function for me too. ‘Spirit’ for me is evident in anything that allows that intense awareness of the moment, that rare, fleeting thing we are all capable of
feeling: of being ‘outside’ ourselves. If I have any sort of religious practice at all, it’s that – trying to
move beyond the limitations of the tiny yet all consuming ego.

You’re married.  Would you ever consider sharing your husband with another woman (or man)?

Ha! I can see I’m going to get asked that a lot!  I’m trying to explore the practical and emotional benefits to non nuclear families and co-parenting. But – from the research I’ve done in a Mormon context – it’s also hell: the rivalry and having to share.  So, no, I couldn’t do that.  On the other hand our lives are  made up of a complex web of intimacies with others.  For one person (our partner) to provide everything – satisfaction on an emotional, physical, mental and spiritual level – is too high an expectation.  We need those friendships, flirtations, frissons with other people.  Sisterwives explores what can happen when the boundaries of fidelity are opened up.

The characters in Sisterwives are beautifully realised and they are all portrayed with great compassion.  Do you have a favourite? And if so, why this particular character?

I very much wanted to give a balanced view of each character, and there are plenty of instances where we see the characters from each others’ viewpoints.  I recognise myself in many aspects of each of the three main characters. I’ve got Rebecca’s sense of responsibility and seriousness, I think, and I share Tobias’ passion for the creative process.  But it’s Amarantha who is closest to my heart; I certainly had the most fun with her voice – it’s more lyrical and poetic than the others.  She’s the most flawed and yet – to me – the most fascinating because of her capacity for adventure.

What’s next for you, writing wise?

I’m developing ideas for radio plays, which is great fun.  And I’ve started the next novel. It’s early days yet but this one’s very different – it’s historical, for a start, set in the late Victorian/early twentieth century period, around the school of artists known as the Glasgow Four (Charles Rennie Mackintosh and his
group).

Coffee or tea?  Beer or wine?  Marmite or Bovril?  Dark chocolate or Milk?  High heels or flatties? Blusher or mascara?

What great questions! But it feels like my other answers have been quite wordy, so I’ll keep this brief: both; wine; neither (yuk!); both; depends; neither, most of the time, both occasionally.

Thanks for your time, Rachel. Fascinating, and I’m looking forward to your next novel. To find out more about Rachel and her work, please visit her website. To buy Sisterwives, click here.

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