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The third title for Red Button takes a turn to the dark side. Rebekah Lattin-Rawstrone’s powerful and thought-provoking novel Home tells the story of newly widowed Steve, who uncovers disturbing and frightening secrets at the care home where he works. Home has already garnered praise from acclaimed novelist Toby Litt. We are delighted to have an exclusive interview with Rebekah on our blog today.
Q: Home is set in a care home for the elderly. It’s a dark novel that raises a lot of uncomfortable questions about how we deal with the elderly and the dying both as individuals and as a society. What do you hope readers take away from the novel?
REBEKAH: I am particularly interested in what we choose to ignore about ourselves and about the world around us and so when I write about people or practices that seem dark or distasteful, I’m really trying to get people to question themselves. What do they do or not do that implicates them in the feelings of disgust or horror they have towards my characters or situations? It’s something I’m interested in exploring about myself. I write to explore it and hope that my writing might then inspire others to question themselves. It is all too easy to name and scapegoat the bad we see others perpetrating, and much more difficult to examine ourselves. In an ageing population, questions about how we deal with the elderly are essential and I think we too easily infantilise old-age; it would be nice to go back to perceiving age as wisdom rather than allowing youth-driven consumerism to objectify the elderly, rendering them useless once their money has been spent.
Q: What inspired you to write Home?
REBEKAH: I used to live in a tiny little flat that looked out onto a low-rise block of assisted living apartments for the elderly. I didn’t give the building much thought, but then one night I woke up thirsty at about 3am and came to the kitchen to get a drink. I didn’t turn on any lights, because as everyone who lives in a city knows, the street provides plenty of light, and I was naked so I didn’t really want anyone peeping in. But as I stood by the sink, glass in hand, something caught my eye and I looked out of the window. There, in the building opposite, was a woman standing at the window. The windows on that side of the building were huge, with two long panes of glass and then one lower pane that stretched the full width of the window. Oddly, though, the window was covered by a net curtain that moved gently as the woman did; it only fell as far as the upper panes of glass so that all I could see clearly of the woman were her feet and ankles. They were bare, the toes beginning to twist with bunions. I could make out the large, hospital-style corridor behind and her nightie, but not much else. She was standing, rocking gently, and staring out, it seemed, right at me. It was extremely unnerving. I felt very exposed. And I kept wondering about her and why she was there, about her life, and why she seemed so sad and lonely, awake and staring at 3am. The old woman came from her and everything else followed on from that.
Q: Home portrays a world where “evil has been made ordinary”. Should we be frightened of the possibilities laid out in the novel?
REBEKAH: Yes. Evil is ordinary. But evil is such a charged word. We use it to label and scapegoat, when really we should be exploring it, using it as a mirror. For example, Milos is not meant to be an evil character. We all live in a world in which ignoring unpleasant facts makes life easier. He thinks what he does is art and no worse than what the relatives of the old people have already done and he hopes to use his art to challenge people’s attitudes to old age and the family. He thinks this will make up for his part in the atrocities taking place in the home. He is selfish, though, and by allowing his own needs to take precedence over everyone else’s he is not only blind to the depravity of his actions but also to the people around him. That is how he ends up tangled in his own web. Just like Milos, we sometimes need to look harder at ourselves. I think that is a frightening prospect.
Q: Do you think fiction can be used as an effective precursor for debate on political and societal issues?
REBEKAH: Absolutely yes, with emphasis on the word ‘precursor’. I think really good fiction should be encouraging us to ask questions about ourselves and the world around us, and if this isn’t a precursor for debate on political and societal issues then I don’t know what is. However, I am wary of people who seek to turn writers into authorities on politics and society. Just because writers are good at asking questions doesn’t necessarily mean they have the answers and hopefully all the ideas a writer has had about a political or social topic are within the work of fiction they have created. I’m not a huge fan of We Need To Talk About Kevin, but I think it’s a great example of how a work of fiction can provoke debate.
Q: Home features fourteen original artworks from artist Katherine Jones, inspired by the book. Did the two of you discuss these beforehand? Did you have a vision as the writer of what the artwork should look like?
REBEKAH: Katherine and I have been friends for some time and we often talked about working together and being inspired by each other’s work. There is a real sense of time in Katherine’s work. You can feel the moment of the image but there is also a suggestion of memory, of what happened to create this moment, and the imagined future, which give them a dream-like, surreal quality that I really love and that I feel complements what I was trying to do in Home. I didn’t give her a brief, I just gave her the book and she created these amazing womb-like, organic and organ-like drawings. I think they say a lot of what I was hoping to say. Together they show the human journey and its fragility. I love them. I hope someday I’ll do justice to one of her images in the way that she has done justice to Home.
Q: You’ve recently been teaching a workshop for writers on writing “the unpalatable”. Tell us more about that.
REBEKAH: ‘The Unpalatable’ is really a name I have given to the kind of writing that interests and inspires me. I like to be encouraged to question myself and my place in the world and this is often most effectively achieved by making readers feel uncomfortable. I don’t feel I’m writing straightforward horror, and I don’t feel I’m writing straightforward speculative fiction or even straightforward slipstream, which actually outlines much of the characteristics I have associated with the unpalatable but is perhaps more self-consciously tricksy than I would like to be. So I came up with my own term for the kind of writing I would like to do. I used the workshop to encourage writers to think about what themes interest them and why. I wanted them to think about how they place themselves among other writers and what they think they are trying to achieve.
Q: Which writers would you say have most influenced your own writing?
REBEKAH: This is a really difficult question because there are simply too many to pick and at different times in my life different writers have inspired me. I have a fascination for fairy and folk tales that started in childhood, but I also love the younger fiction of Diana Wynne Jones and Orson Scott Card. I was a huge Virginia Woolf and James Joyce fan at school and college. Off the top of my head, other inspiring writers would be: Richardson, Aphra Behn, Jane Austen, William Faulkner, Joseph Conrad, Borges, Kafka, Dostoevsky, Steinbeck, Toni Morrison, Katherine Mansfield, Ron Butlin, Dambudzo Marechera, Elfriede Jelinek, Zeruya Shalev, Ben Okri, Amos Oz, Paul Auster, Akutagawa, Susan Sontag, Marquez, Ian McEwan (early work only, though), Primo Levi, Jamaica Kincaid, George Perec, Marie Darrieussecq, Bret Easton Ellis, Calvino, Angela Carter, Alice Munro, Murakami, Jim Crace, Philip K. Dick, Stephen King, Joseph D’Lacey, José Saramago, Paul Blaney, Heidi James.
Q: What was the last book that really moved you?
REBEKAH: Love Life by Zeruya Shalev. There is a layer of the book that I don’t understand, mostly because I’m not familiar with stories of the temple, but it was brilliant. Just to cheat, Heidi James’s Wounding, coming out in April, is also very moving and should provoke debate about modern attitudes to motherhood.
Q: What are you working on now?
REBEKAH: I am working on my second novel, a series of short stories trying to take a wry look at modern moral dilemmas and a children’s story called ‘The Magic Story Pot’. The novel is set in England and Malawi and is about how we care for others. In some ways it expands on themes already touched upon in Home.
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To organise your own interview with Rebekah or to request a review copy please contact Caroline and Karen at firstname.lastname@example.org