We are taught that girls are inferior. That girls like Barbies and plastic kitchenettes, while boys like guns and power
- Credit: Archant
Ex-Hartismere High School pupil Rebecca Pizzey says there should be more to literature than middle-class Cotswold romances and hungover, angry white men
Giving a voice to people not often-enough heard. That’s the aim of a national scheme run by publisher Penguin Random House. And Rebecca Pizzey is one of just a dozen writers on it. She tells Steven Russell about reading under her duvet as a child, how she earned a Blue Peter badge, and why the walking pace of many Suffolk people gets her very cross indeed...
Rebecca was born in Norwich and lived there until the age of three, when she moved to Eye. She went to Hartismere High, then Hartismere & Debenham Sixth Form.
Did degree in English with creative writing at Brunel University London and then a master’s degree in Creative Writing: The Novel. Since the summer of 2015 she’s worked as an editorial assistant for a London publishing company that produces magazines such as Teaching Drama and Music Teacher.
And what’s this mentoring scheme she’s in?
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WriteNow is designed to give writers from the LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer) and BAME (black, Asian, minority ethnic) communities, as well as writers with a disability, the chance to perfect their manuscripts through a year-long mentoring programme with an editor.
Now for the important stuff from Rebecca. Starting with childhood on the Suffolk-Norfolk border…
- 1 More Suffolk petrol stations closed as PM plans action
- 2 Explained: What is causing the long queues at petrol stations?
- 3 Lorry drivers being offered up to £60,000 and other bonuses as shortage bites
- 4 How it all unfolded: Town grab late point against Owls in bizarre fashion
- 5 Blaze spreads from classic car to bungalow next door
- 6 Dramatic pictures as huge barn fire breaks out near coast
- 7 Suffolk petrol stations avoid closure as garages shut nationwide
- 8 Two arrested after man dies in crash
- 9 22 Suffolk schools have Covid-19 outbreaks
- 10 Petrol queues worsen rush-hour traffic
Most of my memories there are happy – I often got quite bored living in the countryside, and restless – hence the move to the largest and most populous city in the country!
I was surrounded by women as a child, and a wonderful group of friends at school – to these people I owe pretty much everything.
I can’t really say I had a bad time in school. There was a little light bullying, as there often is, though I was lucky to not be too affected.
Strangely, most people that picked on me did it because of my size – in that I was tiny. (I suppose I still am – though to a lesser degree, at 5ft 2in!) There was a lot of ingrained homophobia, but I was able to conceal myself from most of it. It doesn’t stop you from absorbing and going over things, though – but I had a strong group of friends around me and, ultimately, my school years were largely positive. Most of my teachers were supportive.
I remember reading voraciously from primary school, and, if anything, I’ve picked up momentum as I’ve gotten older. I loved Enid Blyton when I was young – her short stories in particular. And of course the usual suspects: Harry Potter, A Series of Unfortunate Events, The Spiderwick Chronicles.
As a child I loved fantasy as a means of escapism, and I used to read under the duvet with my reading lamp, listening out for my mum to come checking on me. I was very good at pretending to be asleep!
It wasn’t until I was in high school that my mind was opened to other genres: Wuthering Heights, The Picture of Dorian Gray and the like. And then, in sixth form and beyond, I went through the typically literary “rebellious” stage of Trainspotting, The Naked Lunch, Fight Club – until university, when I realised there’s more to literature than hungover, angry white men!
Now I love a huge range, particularly fiction written by women or books that aren’t written by white Westerners. I like to consume as wide a range of experiences as possible.
I think it’s pretty much always been there. When I was six, I made “books” out of stapled-together strips of sugar paper, and brought them into school. I remember my Year 2 teacher putting them on the book rack with the Biff and Chips – I felt so proud.
A Blue Peter badge…
Reading has always been significant to me, but I suppose writing became more so when I was shortlisted for a Blue Peter writing competition at the age of 13.
My story was judged by Jacqueline Wilson, and I was awarded a Blue Peter badge, which I still have. I entered small poetry and short story competitions here and there, and I wrote my idea of fantasy novels from around the age of 11.
I left sixth form in 2010, and took a gap year, during which I did a little bar work as a kitchen porter and tried to stitch my frail mental state together. I wasn’t in a good place then – and even going into university I wasn’t.
Was London a culture shock?
Going to the capital from Suffolk was strange! I remember being told that Brunel was one of the most culturally diverse universities in the country – whereas Suffolk is the opposite. I hadn’t realised how much I needed to immerse myself in so many different experiences until I finally did.
One of the first things I did once I’d settled in and found my place among friends was join in with the Occupy London protests on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral. It was strange to be feeling a sense of unity in a city that was still quite alien to me, but I really enjoyed jumping straight into something I believed in.
Now I’ve been living here for six years and that initial magic has gone away, and I find myself missing East Anglia, particularly for its proximity to my family and old schoolfriends.
Come back much?
I do as much as I can afford the train fare! My mum lives in Bury St Edmunds now, so it’s fairly easy to get to. It’s a little strange when I come back. I suppose in a sense I do feel like a Londoner – the walking pace of Suffolk locals infuriates me no end, but I have to be reminded that it’s actually Londoners who have an irregular walking pace! I just always feel that travelling time is wasted time, and get very impatient when stuck behind people.
Sometimes it’s good to slow down and remember what’s important and what isn’t. Mowing people down to get to Boots is not. Taking a deep breath and enjoying the weather and the slower pace is.
I suppose I might consider moving back one day. I’d like to do a PhD within the next decade, so if I don’t study in London again, I may look into UEA. But for now I shall remain in London until I’m priced out… which will likely be very soon!
We’d better talk about your “proper” writing!
Nearly enough all of what I write or have written deals with humans at their base level. Lonely humans, mentally ill humans, repressed humans, abused humans.
I like to explore what happens to the psyche when everything has been stripped away. Of course, I can only do this to the degree that I understand from my own experiences, and writing always has its limitations (the main one being knowledge – or lack of it).
Tell us about The Secrets of My Aristophanes – your work being honed as part of the WriteNow scheme…
It’s a dual narrative, with one thread set about 10 years ago and the other in the late ’70s and early ’80s, when in England attitudes towards sexuality were less liberal, and understanding of mental health was still largely overshadowed by the pre- and post-war concept of “feminine” hysteria (the word “hysteria”, of course, possibly having “feminine” etymology, with the Greek word for “uterus” being “hystera”).
My novel explores what repressed sexuality and misunderstood mental health can do to a person.
Any advice on writing that might help other people?
I think my first piece of advice would be to not write just for recognition or publication; that’s not really the point of writing, and it is unfortunately more likely to not happen than it is. I think that publication should be viewed as a (very!) happy by-product of writing – if and when it does happen; success and publication aren’t mutually exclusive.
I have tried not writing before – when I’ve been frustrated or felt lost in what I’m doing – but I can’t not write, ever. Even if I shelve something, I start on something new, or work on something even older – and that absolute hunger to keep going, to keep writing, to be constantly thinking about something even when you’re away from the pen or the computer, is what writing means – for me, at least.
So I would say: do you absolutely have to write? It’s not necessarily a matter of enjoyment for me; yes, I do enjoy it at times. But writing is hard, and lonely, and frustrating. It’s also full of self-discovery and wonderment – and sometimes utter joy. The first step to writing is to write. It sounds simple because it is! That’s all you can do, really – sit down with a pen and paper or a keyboard, and do it. Everything else that happens thereafter will happen – and getting published shouldn’t be the ultimate aim.
Writing groups help. At the WriteNow London event, novelist Kit de Waal advised us to join a writing group; you don’t need an education to set one up or attend one, and you can easily find them or people to join online. Something that Kit also said was that, if you can’t find a writing group local to you, set one up yourself. Some fellow mentees and I did that, with the guidance and help of Spread the Word (a London-based organisation). A quick Google is all it takes, and signing up for email alerts.
I would also recommend looking into local or nationwide arts and writing communities or organisations. Some of them will require a joining fee, and others won’t. There are also online forums for support and feedback, and some writing schools offer rare paid-for places on their programmes.
It’s hard, because the glass ceiling is there, but there are also people willing to help you through it.
Why is it so important to give a literary voice to marginalised groups?
Literature is historically male – white male, with writers of colour and women often omitted or written out of history. And yet this doesn’t represent the proportion of white men in the world to other demographics.
What about readers of other races, religions and genders? I think it’s hugely important to give voices to writers who can write for those.
I read this quotation from you. Ouch! Do tell more!
“There needs to be a cacophony of voices from all walks of life, and the contents of bookshops need to represent the wonderfully diverse population of our planet.
I love learning things when I read, so, while they’re great in their own respects, I don’t want to read too many more books about privileged, hungover young men or a middle class romance in the Cotswolds. I want to read about countries I have never visited and religions I hardly know. I want to be taken by the hand to experiences I have never had.”
Ha! I suppose what I was getting at was that these books – the Amises, the Hemingways – they’re great, they’re intelligent, they’re funny – they’re fine. But how many more of them do we need?
I just think there needs to be more of an emphasis on diversity. The demand is there, but the supply – while improving, slowly – is not yet meeting that demand.
My master’s (degree) reading list was mostly – if not entirely – composed of books written by men. Every single person in my seminar group was female. While this is a very small example of readership versus books, it does represent a larger problem.
About a year ago, in response to someone else’s experience of being harassed, you tweeted about a frightening incident involving a man who followed you and screamed abuse when you wouldn’t tell him your name. You wrote “This, and so many other reasons, is why we need feminism.” Is there a deep-seated problem about the way some men see women?
It’s difficult, because a lot of it is institutional, and goes back to before primary school: “if he hits you, it means he likes you”, “you throw like a girl”, “man up” and so on.
We – boys, girls and everyone in between – are taught that girls are inferior from a young age. That girls like Barbies and plastic kitchenettes, while boys like guns and power. From early on, society reinforces negative stereotypes that are harmful to men as well as women.
I think that a lot of “lad culture” – from the seemingly “harmless” cat-calling to the rape of women behind bins, such as [Stanford University swimmer] Brock Turner, who blames alcohol and claims his life and career have been ruined – stems from this, to a degree. But it’s more complex than that; it’s historical.
Slowly, steadily, I think we are unpicking the seams – partly by challenging the norms, as others before us have done.
On a lighter note, what would you like your life to look like in 10 years?
I suppose it goes without saying that I would like to have further developed as a writer. Whether that means being published or not is up for debate; what I write isn’t necessarily meant “for the masses” but is rather a means of self-expression and exploration that I would love for other people to connect to.
I’d obviously like to be more financially secure than I am now – but I’d like to get to this point without compromising my beliefs or hobbies, so I’m okay for that to take a while – as long as I don’t get sick of tinned soup or freezing my loaves of bread!
You’re a big Oscar Wilde fan. Why?
His calm aplomb – the means by which he could create a storm with a few inflections or not-so-subtly-concealed undertones. When I read The Picture of Dorian Gray, I cried. It’s funny and eternally relevant, yes, but it’s also tragic – even more so when you know about Wilde’s own life.
I love the manner with which he handles beauty and sexuality within his work (his plays included), but more poignant is what seemingly humorous themes must have meant to him.
The end of his life was terrible; thinking about him spending his final moments away from the ones he loved and in shame (and in Paris) is all the more upsetting because it’s something that still happens today. His story isn’t something we can isolate to “another time”, because it’s still applicable to our lives. To a lesser degree, here in England, yes – but there’s still homophobia. Fascism is on the rise. And what about in places like Uganda, where being gay is punishable by life imprisonment (and, previously, death)? Or in Chechnya, where men have been rounded up like cattle and detained (some even killed)?
I suppose that’s what I love about Wilde. His writing we can isolate, yes, but it’s more powerful when we use it as a mirror.