Rebecca F John on How Philip Pullman Changed Her Life
Rebecca F John writes short stories, adult fiction and children’s literature from her home in Wales where her creativity is spurred on by views across the valleys and daily visits from red kites.
Earliest Reading Memory
I’m actually fairly uncertain about my earliest reading memory. There are, however, two books I recall reading as a young child which have stuck with me.
The first was called Steeleye and the Lost Magic, and what was fantastic about it was that it was interactive. You would reach the end of a page and be faced with an option. If you want to take this path, turn to page x. And so on. I remember reading that book with my father and loving the adventurous aspect of it and also the sense of control as a reader.
Another book which has stuck with me from early childhood was called The Secret of Platform 13. I don’t recall much about the story now, but I do remember coveting the book — it had a lovely blue cover, with tendrils of mist — and being bought it while on a family holiday in Torquay and just reading and reading it. I should revisit it, perhaps! Both of them in fact.
The Author Who Changed My Life
The author who shaped my life, I suppose, is Philip Pullman.
I talk a lot about how I read Northern Lights at the age of around 10 (when the book was released) and how that reading experience made me want to become a writer.
I was a very practical child, but I was also full of lofty ambitions. When I read Lyra’s story, of adventuring in the frozen north and befriending armoured bears with her trusty (animal-formed) daemon at her side, I wanted beyond anything to experience her world. Knowing that I couldn’t, I decided that if I couldn’t have an adventure like Lyra’s, I could at least write my own.
That was the (secret) start of it all for me. I had been a reader before that point, of course, but it was then that I decided I would be writer.
The Author I Keep Returning To
Maggie O’Farrell is a big favourite of mine. She’s one of those authors whose book I will pre-order without needing or wanting to read the blurb and find out what it is about first. Her voice draws me in every time.
A couple of authors who have more recently had that effect on me are Elizabeth MacNeal and Kiran Millwood Hargrave. It’s the beauty of the images they create, perhaps, which grips me in whatever they happen to be writing about.
Most Recommended Book
Naturally there are a few to choose from here, but the one that I’ve been recommending the longest, perhaps, is Sarah Waters’ The Night Watch.
It’s set in 1940s London during and after World War II, and follows the fragmented lives and loves of five loosely and closely connected individuals.
The genius aspect of this novel is that it is told backwards. In beginning at the end, we are reading away from the conclusion, which would, you would think, be a frustrating experience, but it is anything but. As we read back, we find out more and more about what brought the characters to their present, and the way that information is fed to the reader is just so perfectly handled.
An Unexpected Pleasure
Miss Benson’s Beetle, by Rachel Joyce.
I’d never read any Rachel Joyce, but I heard her talking about and reading from her WIP some time before Miss Benson’s Beetle was published, and I couldn’t wait to read it.
My usual reading material is on the darker side, and so I thought perhaps that Rachel’s personality had persuaded me to this title rather than the story itself, but it was a really wonderful read. It is emotional, and at times a little dark, but it’s also really funny — not something I experience often in the books I choose but which really brought this story to life and made it all the more poignant.
The Last Book I Bought
The last book I would have bought was The Aerialists, by Katie Munnik, as I’d had my eye on it for ages, and I was very lucky to be gifted a proof before it published.
It is set around the 1896 Cardiff Fine Art, Industrial and Maritime Exhibition and features hot air balloon ascents, parachute descents, and women who are desperate to fly.
It’s the exact kind of story I look out for, and while I’ve only just started reading it, I’m loving it so far. It has all those ingredients I love in a novel: interesting women, daring, beauty. I’m sure it’s a book I’ll be recommending to everyone soon.
You Won’t Find Me Reading …
Non-fiction. It is an issue I constantly tell myself I ought to address, but with so many fantastic new fiction titles to grasp my attention, it’s something I never quite get around to. I intend to remedy this one day soon!
I Would Love To Have A Drink/Dinner With …
How could I possibly choose just one person! There are a hundred writers I would put on this list, so I’m not going to choose a writer at all.
I’m going to say… because I can’t possibly choose one over the other… David Bowie and Queen Elizabeth I.
David Bowie because it would be amazing to explore the wild and wonderful ways he used lyrics. And Elizabeth I to find out more about what it actually meant to be a woman in history who transcended the almost exclusively male environment in which she found herself.
My Favourite Writing Place
I have a lovely writing space set up in my current house, with an old restored captain’s desk set in front of a window which looks out at the village and the hills beyond.
I’m sat at that desk now and I can see mainly trees and greenery, and the most prevalent sound is that of small house birds (namely the starlings and sparrows which have decided to nest in my roof and who I can’t bring myself to evict).
I also see red kites outside this window every day, which is a joy, and less-frequently buzzards. Twice each day, morning and evening, a heron also flies past, always on the same, apparently lazy, trajectory.
But I really will write anywhere: slouched on the sofa at night; in doctor’s waiting rooms; on trains; in hotel rooms; in bed on the odd rainy weekend morning. I don’t feel I need a certain set up to focus. The ideas are always there, whirling around, fighting for attention, and I am always ready to return to them.
I Wish I’d Written …
Oh, there are so many, of course, but most recently Liz Hyder’s The Gifts, which absolutely stole my mind and heart.
It’s a historical fiction novel, set in nineteenth-century London, and it focusses on two women who suddenly and without explanation grow enormous wings. It explores ideas around science, religion, nature, and ambition, but it is, to my mind, primarily about women’s bodies — what they endure, what men and society cause them to endure.
The prose is gorgeous. The characters are brilliant. The writing is both lyrical and page-turning. I dearly wish I’d written it and I am simultaneously thrilled that I didn’t, so that I was able to experience it as a reader.
The Author Behind The Name: Rebecca F John
Rebecca F. John grew up in Pwll, a small village on the coast of south Wales. She holds a BA in English with Creative Writing and an MA in Creative Writing from Swansea University, as well as a PGCE PCET from the University of Wales Trinity Saint David.
Her short stories have been broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and BBC Radio 4Extra.
Her first novel, The Haunting of Henry Twist, published by Serpent’s Tail in 2017, was shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award.
In 2022 she published two adult novels. The Empty Greatcoat, a story of a young man’s experience in the Gallipoli campaign of World War One, is based on the diaries kept by Rebecca’s great great uncle during the war. Fannie is a feminist reimagining of the story of Fantine from Les Miserables.
Rebecca is also the proprietor of Aderyn Press, an independent press based in Wales which specialises in spooky, historical and speculative fiction.
You can follow Rebecca via her website and at Twitter @Rebecca_Writer
The Empty Greatcoat: Synopsis
When Francis House enlists in the British Army in 1907, at the tender age of fifteen years and three months, he is not thinking about war. He imagines he simply wants to earn his stripes – to ease his traumatised father’s Boer War memories, or perhaps to please his favourite sister, Lily, with whom he has always dreamt of adventure.
But he soon discovers that simply becoming a soldier is not enough and, against the advice of his sergeant, he determines to seek out a real fight. Wading ashore at Gallipoli seven years later, Francis thinks he might just have found the site of his greatest opportunity. Here, he thinks, he might finally prove himself a man.
First, though, he must find his missing friend Berto. He needs to say sorry. He cannot yet imagine the ghosts that might stand in his way.
7 thoughts on “Rebecca F John on How Philip Pullman Changed Her Life”
Well, that was interesting. I clearly share quite a few of Rebecca F John’s reading tastes, so will follow up on those books I don’t know. Except I do read quite a lot of non-fiction – I’d say up to 20% of my reading. But it has to carry me along as well as a fine story does. Dry-as-dust need not apply … And she’s an author I don’t yet know, so I need to put that right. Thanks for an interview with lots to think about. Ah! I see that we have The Haunting of Henry Twist available in our library. I’m on the case ….
Let me know what you think of “The Haunting”. I’ve heard really good things about The Empty Greatcoat
When I’ve read it (so much to do (… so little time … ) I’ll report back!
I’ve not read her work yet but I’m sure I’ll get around to it, especially as I see her name popping up all over the place!
so good to see another independent press in Wales
It’s so interesting to read about Rebecca’s influences. Her own writing is absolutely beautiful – a real joy to read. I love her short stories and novels too, and thoroughly recommend The Haunting of Henry Twist. Thanks for this post, Bookertalk!
I’m promising myself a copy of The Empty Greatcoat later in the year – now I shall have to add Henry Twist to the wishlist….