I was really pleased to find a surprise copy of a really intriguing book through the letterbox recently. Vulcana by Rebecca John is due out this coming Thursday, 4th May from Honno Press. Vulcana herself sounds such a fascinating character. I knew I wouldn’t have time to read it right now so invited Rebecca to take part in my Author Spotlight. I’m delighted she agreed.
Welcome Rebecca. First of all, would you tell my blog readers a little about yourself?
I’m a proud Welshwoman, a prouder ‘mam’ to a 1-year-old son, dog-owner, walker, dreamer, and writer. That’s the blurb! I’ve published five books to date: Clown’s Shoes (2015), The Haunting of Henry Twist (2017), The Empty Greatcoat (2022), Fannie (2022) and The Shadow Order (2022). I currently work as an editor of children’s books and write in every spare minute I can find. I adore historical fiction, sometimes with a hint of magic. I feel most like myself when I’m wandering through woodland or near the sea.
What inspired you to start writing?
When I was 10 years old, I read a book called Northern Lights, by Phillip Pullman. I’d always been a keen reader, but Northern Lights was the best adventure I’d ever been on. I wanted to step into Lyra’s world, to discover the shape of my daemon, to journey into the snow and the stars. Being a very practical child, I knew that I’d never experience such an adventure. But I realised that I could dream one and write one – or many – and so that’s what I set about doing. I didn’t admit that to anyone, of course. I was not only practical but also painfully shy, and I didn’t want to be laughed at. In working class Wales, admitting to wanting to be a writer felt akin to wanting to be a ballerina or an astronaut. It was something that felt out of my reach, but my desire for and commitment to it has never wavered in all the years since. I’m just not my best self if I’m not writing.
In a nutshell, what is your book about?
Vulcana is the lightly fictionalised story of the life of Kate Williams, stage name Vulcana, who was a world-famous Welsh Victorian strongwoman. Kate ran away from her Abergavenny home as a sixteen-year-old and started performing with a troupe in the London theatres. Soon, she was performing all across the world. Kate was a vocal advocate for women casting off their corsets, taking physical exercise, and becoming physically strong. Her personal life was equally bold and interesting. I found her inspirational and, as soon as I discovered her story, I knew I had to write about her.
How did you come up with the title for your book?
Using Kate’s stage name seemed the perfect choice for the title from the beginning, and I didn’t change it at any point, as I often have other titles during the writing process. I’m not sure where the name came from, but it strikes me that the strength Kate exhibited during her performances and her interviews with newspapers and magazines is reflected in the simple evenness of the word. Vulcana. It has a powerful sound, don’t you think?
How do you plan to celebrate publication day?
Publication day is on May 4th and I’m having a launch event at my local Waterstones, in Swansea, that evening. I’m hoping to celebrate with family and friends – and any other interested readers – there. I also have a special guest coming: Vulcana’s great granddaughter Jane, who I contacted before I started writing the novel, and who has been so very generous in sharing her detailed research with me.
Do you have a work in progress just now?
Always. Progress is slow at the moment, as life is very busy due to my editing work, running my own micro publisher, and my son’s endless energy, but I’m always planning and jotting down snippets, even when I don’t have the time to sit and write thousands of words. I’ve made a start on two novels – one for adults, one for children. The adult idea is set against the race for the North Pole and focusses on four women sharing a ship voyage who are all searching for something different but vitally important. It’s about womanhood, motherhood, patriarchy, love. It’s a gothic novel. The children’s idea is a fantasy story, which begins in Cardiff in the early 1900s before moving into a fantasy world. I may never finish either of these stories – there have been plenty of novels I’ve abandoned at the 25,000 word mark – but at the moment, I’m really excited by them.
What one book would you recommend to a friend and why?
Just one? It’s too difficult a question! It’s an impossible question, and one to which I’d probably give a different answer every time you asked me, but for today, and because I have to choose just one, I’m going to say… Ooh, it’s such a struggle to choose! Okay, Sarah Waters’ The Night Watch. It’s just so cleverly constructed, in that the narrative runs backwards, but the tension is never lost despite us having already met with the characters at the end point of their story arcs. It’s brilliant.
What are you reading just now?
I just this morning finished Once Upon a River, which I LOVED! It’s the first Diane Setterfield I’ve read and I’ll definitely be reading her backlist. This novel was just the right mix, for me, of richness (of language and concept), depth of character, darkness, and the blurred line between reality and imagination or story. I adore reading (and writing) on that edge, and Setterfield balances on it perfectly.
If you were on Desert Island Discs, what one book would you take with you?
I think perhaps Ian McEwan’s Atonement. I’ve read that novel a couple of times, and the second reading allowed me to notice some of what I had missed on the first reading. I’ve long thought that I should return to it and read it with a more forensic eye, to really pull apart and examine how McEwan designed the metafictional elements of the story and made them work so seamlessly. I could no doubt do similarly with various other aspects of the novel, though I doubt I’ll have time for many a year, unless I become castaway with a copy, of course.
Is there a book you’d love to see made into a film?
So many! Liz Hyder’s The Gifts. Jess Kidd’s Things in Jars. The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley, The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. When I write, I see my stories as though I’m watching a film – that completely. Lots of writer friends of mine do, too. And when I read writers like Hyder, Kidd, Pulley, and Morgenstern I get that same feeling – as though I’m already seeing the film. I’d love to see what a director would do with those novels.
How can people follow you or connect with you on social media?
Twitter has long been my chosen platform, and I can be found there under the handle @Rebecca_Writer. I must learn to use Instagram, too, and I will get around to that very soon. You’ll find me there as @rebeccafjohn. I’m not a fan of technology in general, and it tends to take me a little while to get into the flow, though I will say that since using Twitter, I’ve found the most wonderful bookish people to share my passions with. There’s a real community hidden away there, through which I’ve made amazing friends. I wouldn’t do without it.
And finally, if you could be a character in any book you have read, who would it be and why?
Definitely Lyra Belacqua in Northern Lights. She is an explorer. She has a perfect animal sidekick. She travels to far-off snowy places and, eventually, other worlds. What a life for an eleven-year-old! More than just her circumstances, though, I always loved her courage. She shows incredible spirit and has an attitude of fairness I really admired. Admire still, actually. Then and now. Fairness is something I think a lot about, and always try to live by. Who knows – perhaps Lyra helped instil that in me.
2 thoughts on “Meet today’s #AuthorInTheSpotlight Rebecca John | #author of Vulcana | @Rebecca_Writer @Honno”
What an interesting subject for a book in Kate Williams. I hadn’t heard of her before. I agree about the Watchmaker being made into a film – I’m surprised that someone hasn’t got to it.
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I’m really looking forward to reading this. Vulcana sounds fascinating!
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