Rebecca Watson on Authors Being as Gods to Their Characters
In Conversation with Mitzi Rapkin on the First Draft Podcast
First Draft: A Dialogue of Writing is a weekly show featuring in-depth interviews with fiction, nonfiction, essay writers, and poets, highlighting the voices of writers as they discuss their work, their craft, and the literary arts. Hosted by Mitzi Rapkin, First Draft celebrates creative writing and the individuals who are dedicated to bringing their carefully chosen words to print as well as the impact writers have on the world we live in.
From the episode:
Mitzi Rapkin: Your narrator is a writer herself. She hasn’t really been writing lately, but she loves poetry. She’s consumed or at least really interested in the literary world of her town. She went to a poetry reading with her boyfriend. And she’s talking about an author, and she’s talking about how she writes autofiction. Can you talk about autofiction? What does that mean to you? Does that have any resonance with this book for you?
Rebecca Watson: So, this passage, I always kind of smirk when someone brings up because I wrote it in knowing that the reader would read it and it would be a moment where they rear their head, and perhaps feel like the author’s kind of come off the page to talk to them about the assumptions that they may or may not be making about me as a writer. When you hear the facts of this book and the facts of my life, there’s so many connections to make; I find it quite funny because a lot of them I don’t even think about. I work in a newspaper office, this protagonist works in a newspaper office; she has been raped, I was once raped. You know, her life is not mine. I wanted to borrow a texture of a world.
I actually write myself into this book. There’s a colleague she speaks to, and he’s constantly checking in on her. He makes her tea and compliments her shoes, who’s kind of this weird figure that can be kind to her and the protagonist kind of reveres. I felt like if I was to put a writer, me, in the book, the character would obviously like them, because as a character the writer becomes kind of like a god, right? The character thanks you for making them exist. And so this colleague kind of passes in and out of the book very briefly and is a very incidental person, but I wanted to introduce them as a way of pointing away from the protagonist. If people were to ask, is this you? I would say, no, this person here is me instead.
So the book isn’t autofiction, but I was very interested in the overlap, because I think the way we talk about things either being a novel or things being blurred memoir or autofiction is so binary and so disingenuous as to how I, at least, feel writing works. I feel like fiction is a kind of tightrope, and you’re walking along and you’re going to accidentally tip off, or almost sway from your stability of fiction.
There are moments of emotional truth or environmental signposts that are recognizably mine. And I would be very impressed to meet any writer who doesn’t have that same thing of the textures of your world being absorbed into what you’re writing. That’s how you know how to write life and how to write people, is by understanding either your own feelings or other people’s feelings, and assigning your own experience to other people’s experiences. And so those things are there.
And yet, this person, this protagonist, feels so distinct from me and so alive in my head as someone else’s voice. When I was writing, I was listening to her rather than listening to myself, and I felt led by her. But now I look at the two things and I say, well, sure, yeah, why would you not think that this is me because there’s so much to connect to me.
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Rebecca Watson writes for publications including the Financial Times, The Times Literary Supplement, and Granta. In 2018 she was short-listed for the White Review Short Story Prize. This is her debut novel.