Interview with Rebekah Heaney, 2017 Montegrappa Writing Prize Winner

09-07-2017

What inspired you to start writing?

As with most writers I was first introduced to the power of the written word through copious amounts of reading. I think when you read as much as I did as a child (and then as an adult when I went on to study literature at university) it’s only a matter of time before you start thinking about how you would put together a story yourself. It’s like going to a music gig: it’s near impossible to watch the greats up on stage making music and not want to join in yourself by singing along. Hopefully, however, your efforts will end up being a bit more artful than the tuneless – if very fun – shouting most of us do at concerts. But also, at the risk of sounding hokey, written stories are one of the most visceral ways to step into someone else’s shoes – potentially someone who has a completely different experience of the world to us – and that makes reading and writing not just entertaining but important. We could all do with trying to better understand where other people are coming from in life and novels help teach us that skill.

Who are your favourite authors?

How long have you got? Any writer whose book I’ve picked up at a time when their message really spoke to me ends up being a favourite and it pains me to leave anyone out in the cold with this list. But with contemporary authors I’m often drawn to writers who use great craft to ignore all the other writing rules. Kazuo Ishiguro always has the majority of his story happen in the subtext of his writing, the drama occurs out the corner of your eye, creating a wonderful atmosphere of uncertainty that wrings you out emotionally. Then there’s Sarah Waters who writes historical fiction that puts paid to any notion that history is dull or stuffy, David Mitchell who can find an authentic way to write in the voice of pretty much any person, anywhere in time and space and Terry Pratchett, who hides some of the modern world’s most bitingly clever satire and philosophising in his fantasy books. Finally, I’d be remiss not to mention that, as with most people of my generation, I’m an utter Harry Potter obsessive.

Could you tell us a little bit about your winning entry?

My entry began as a short story idea nearly three years ago which I developed into a full novel concept for the competition. It’s a tale set in a quiet village in the English countryside where a woman in her mid-sixties discovers she’s dying of a terminal illness. She soon realises that she won’t leave much of a legacy, nor will anyone in her life really care when she’s gone. So in a peculiar move she launches an advertisement in the local newspaper explaining that anyone who was planning to take a secret to their grave can come and tell it to her, and she’ll take it to the grave for them. At the moment it’s all about the aftermath of this decision she makes and how it begins to unravel the community, exposing its dark underbelly.

What was it like winning the Montegrappa Writing Prize 2017?

Writing is a very solitary pursuit, you sit alone in a corner scribbling away, focusing huge amounts of time and energy on what is essentially a conversation with yourself. So it’s hugely important to have the results of that validated by outside forces, especially by industry professionals such as with the Montegrappa Writing Prize. Having shown my prose writing to only a handful of family and friends I had no real way of gauging if what I was doing was at all worthwhile. I’d said to myself that I’d enter the competition and see if I got anywhere, but to have come first place is a brilliant affirmation that I should stick with this thing I enjoy so much. The competition is a priceless opportunity to get your foot in the door of the publishing world and so I’m naturally very chuffed to have won.

What’s next for you and your writing?

I’m currently continuing to work on the first draft of the book, having only completed the first few chapters for the competition entry. In September I’m planning on taking the trip I won to London to meet with the agent who judges the competition and discuss where we can go with it. It’s still early days, but I’m confident now that whether this culminates in a published book (as it has with so many other winners) or whether that is destined to happen a bit further along the line, writing is something I’m going to be very much pursuing moving forward.