Today we’re delighted to bring you an interview with Rebecca Mascull, talking about her friendship with the late Vanessa Lafaye. Writers Rebecca and Vanessa first became acquainted by reading each other’s novels. They then connected via social media and soon became firm friends. When Vanessa passed away in 2018, her final book Miss Marley – a prequel to the Dickens classic A Christmas Carol – remained unfinished, and so Rebecca completed it for her friend.
Both you and Vanessa Lafaye were members of The Prime Writers, a group set up by novelist Antonia Honeywell for writers who published their first book after the age of 40. How did this shared experience affect your friendship and your approach to the publishing industry?
This writers’ collective has become incredibly important to me, as I know it did to Vanessa too. It was the first time in my career (and perhaps even my life?!) when I felt I had finally found my tribe. Here was a group of writers, all around the same age as me or older, all around the same points in our careers, who had started out starry-eyed and naïve and were very quickly learning that the writing business was pretty damn hard on writers, particularly financially. We were there to celebrate each other’s triumphs and commiserate when things didn’t go so well.
We chat everyday via a Facebook group and there is implicit trust there, that we can have a rant and it won’t go further, that we can crow about each other’s good fortune and won’t be seen as being smug! It’s invaluable to a writer, I feel, because so much of what we do is done alone in a room. I have met some of my greatest friends through this group and I’ll always be grateful to it. Also, we make each other laugh a lot, which is always good!
We read that when you were approached to finish Vanessa’s book, you said yes straight away. When you actually sat down to work, how did you find the writing? Were there any particular joys, or challenges? And what did the process of finishing entail? Writing extra chapters? Editing the rest of the draft?
You’re quite right, I did say yes straight away. I knew I would do it, that it was my honour to do it for my friend. When I sat down to write, I had already read through Vanessa’s section and scribbled a few ideas on how I thought the story should end. These were discussed with HarperCollins and agreed upon. So, I did a chapter plan first and then started writing the final chapters.
I wrote the whole lot in a few days. It really did pour out. I didn’t need to think about it too much while writing, as I’d already done the thinking in the planning. It was almost stream of consciousness. I do usually write quite speedily but this was particularly quick for me. I think, looking back, I was in just the right head-space for it at that particular moment. Our editor at HarperCollins, Kate Mills, was quite clear from the beginning that she felt nothing should be changed in Vanessa’s section and I totally agreed. All we did was tweak a couple of very minor details that needed amending, but other than that, it remained largely untouched.
When we were writing our own book A Secret Sisterhood, we were conscious of the need to ensure a single writer’s voice throughout the text. If we had read Miss Marley knowing nothing of its publication history, we would never have guessed that the author’s pen had changed hands part way through. What did you do as a writer to achieve this level of consistency?
Ah, that’s wonderful to hear! I know I’ve done my job if a reader feels that way. Thank you. When I first read through Vanessa’s section, I made lots of notes on her style of writing: imagery she used, sentence structure she preferred, key words and phrases that needed to come up again in the final section. I noticed something she and I had talked about in the past – our styles were actually quite similar already. That’s probably one of the reasons I was asked to do this.
I decided early on not to obsess over the style and analyse as I was going along, as that would be detrimental to the flow. I wanted to simply write it and worry about style later. As it happened, once I’d finished and read back through it, I felt that very little needed to change. And my editor agreed. I’ve never had so little editing done on something I’ve written in my whole career. Extraordinary really. But it was, in every way, an extraordinary thing to be asked to do.
How did your relationship with the memory of Vanessa, and also perhaps your feelings about Charles Dickens, change as a result of working on Miss Marley?
It was a lovely experience but it was bittersweet, of course. I felt very close to her during the writing and then when I’d finished, I had the usual writer’s grief of leaving that world behind, but I also felt the loss of having to leave Vanessa behind too and that was very sad. It was a privilege, though, to have lived inside her head for a few weeks while writing those chapters, as well as to walk through Dickens’s world, one of our favourite authors. So, all in all, it really was a joy to do, as I’m sure it was for Vanessa too.
The moment I finished writing Miss Marley, I felt closer to Vanessa than ever and yet, in that same moment, felt her absence more than ever. I’ll never forget doing it and I’ll always be grateful to have been asked. I’ve no idea if she’d have liked my ending or not, but the key thing was to do what I felt was right and also to allow her final work to be completed. It really was a team effort; HarperCollins did a beautiful job of the design, and the illustrations – based on Vanessa’s own – were super too. Now it’s done, it’s just wonderful to see the finished book out there in the world, Vanessa’s story charming readers everywhere.
In addition to Miss Marley, Vanessa Lafaye is the author of At First Light and Summertime, which was a Richard and Judy Book Club choice in 2015 and was shortlisted for the Historical Writers Award. Vanessa passed away in 2018.
Rebecca Mascull is the author of three novels, including The Wild Air, which made the Not the Booker longlist in 2017. She also writes historical sagas under the name Mollie Walton, and is the author of The Daughters of Ironbridge, forthcoming in 2019. You can follow Rebecca on Instagram @beccamascull and on Twitter @rebeccamascull.