Published fiction writer, freelance editor and teacher, Rebekah Lattin-Rawstrone, talks to Amanda Tuke about her passion for making writing look good, writing sound pieces and advice for new nature writers
How did you get into writing and editing?
Well I suppose that happened because I’ve always wanted to write and when I was younger I thought the best way to do that was to read loads. So that led to me studying English Literature first and then thought it would be good to take a completely different approach so I did the MA in Creative Writing at Birkbeck. At the same time I started running a series of monthly short story reading events in London – Tales of the DeCongested – which started at the Poetry Cafe and then ended up at Foyles. There was a monthly competition which people could send in work to and we chose a certain number of stories which the writers would then read out. That led to us setting up a publishing company – Apis Books – which is where my editing started. Paul, who I was working with, was an amazing editor, with a phenomenal knowledge of grammar. Being part of the generation which didn’t learn grammar, I learnt a lot from him.
I became one of those people who are fussy about how things look on a page. It matters to me that the work is as beautiful as it can be and expresses as much of what the author intended as possible. I guess the role of the editor is to get the author’s intent across as clearly as possible. I do quite a lot of editorial work with my students too, although it’s really mentoring or broader editing at earlier stages of writing. I’m now working with an organisation called the Museum of Walking editing their chapbook series which is how I met you.
When you were doing the editing were you doing your own writing alongside that?
Yes so my writing has always been alongside all that. The editing and teaching make money quietly in the background while I continue developing my own work.
You’ve published one novel and are working on a second. How would you describe your writing?
I write novels, short fiction, flash fiction and through the Museum of Walking I’ve been introduced to the idea of sound pieces, which you listen to rather than read. But the novel is where my heart lies which probably explains why it’s taking me so long to get my second book off the ground. The first is about a corrupt care home but the book I’m working on now is more literary, looking at the history of one woman as she’s thinking about her life and a half sister she’s never met who’s from Malawi. I’m interested in racial and social inequality, and the monster which sits inside us all which we’re not prepared to acknowledge. So I think although they’re quite different books they do have a core interest.
You mentioned writing for reading out loud, is there a different process of writing things like that?
It is different but I’m not sure I necessarily approach it differently. I think stories told from one voice like a prolonged monologue can work well spoken. Sometimes it’s about what the listener is anticipating and perhaps playing with that.
How did your regular book reviews start?
The reviews began as many things do with a feeling of frustration with what was being given a prize and what was being seen as valuable literature. So it started with me feeling cross and then it became an obsession. I’ve been doing it for years now and I can’t seem to stop it. It has become a process that helps me think about a book and I’ve learnt a lot in the process of writing those reviews in terms of what I will say and what I won’t say. I don’t really want to trash books and I think I might have done that a bit more in the beginning but at the same time I want to be honest about how I feel about a book. It’s become a little companion for myself… and I get free books.
What are your writing habits?
My ideal would be to write first thing and at the moment I find that the only way to do that is to get up incredibly early, like at five. Given the way things are right now, that works okay in patches, so I can do that for a week maximum and then I’m exhausted. I have been more consistent with thinking of ideas, through reading and walking and using a notebook or phone to make notes. I quit a job at the beginning of lockdown with the intention of spending more time on my writing, but I’m really bad at writing when I think I’m going to be interrupted. I really like it to be quiet which is why really early in the morning works well. I’m kind of managing it but I’m not getting as much done as I had hoped. If I’m in the middle of a sentence and someone interrupts me I’m not nice!
How did your collaboration with the Museum of Walking start?
I met Andrew Stuck, founder of the Museum of Walking, quite by chance at a fancy book society Christmas drinks thing. He is an incredibly enthusiastic and exuberant person. We got chatting and he asked me to come and do some creative writing walk-shops.
From your experience writing and editing fiction, how has it felt editing narrative non-fiction and nature writing for the Museum of Walking?
What is quite exciting and I don’t know if it’s because of doing this but actually I’ve been reading a lot more narrative non-ficition. Not all of it is nature writing as there’s also hybrid fiction and memoir books. A book I really liked was The Nature of Autumn by Jim Crumley which I read in preparation for a creative walk-shop which went with the chapbook Autumn Colours. I think the best parts of nature writing are very similar to fiction writing, in terms of what you need to be thinking about. Jim Crumley says that in order to see nature, in order to understand nature, you have to be prepared to put the time in. It’s about being quiet, it’s about going back to the same places multiple times. It’s about smelling and listening and looking, all of those sensory things, and there’s something very patient about that. And I think often the best fiction also shows a patient attention to detail so I suppose there are a lot of similarities.
There are probably tropes, it’s the same as the Bad Sex awards for example. It’s very easy to recognise when something feels clichēd, and I think it’s quite easy to fall into that with nature writing. That’s why I’m talking about this idea of precision and really paying attention to what you see, smell, touch, taste all around you because if you don’t, you are not going to describe it precisely but in generic terms which aren’t going to excite or interest the reader.
What advice would you give to new nature writers?
The advice I’d give to nature writers, as I would to any writers, is read and be attentive.
Particularly for nature writers, you need to precisely observe whatever you have chosen to write about, your particular subject. You also need to decide how you intend to frame your story, for example with a walk or the changing season, and creating an arc where you reach some kind of climax is important for both fiction and non-fiction. The most successful nature books often have a personal journey running alongside the exploration of nature that adds a different dimension.
What new project or projects do you have at the moment?
The project which could be fun for people currently is my creative writing walk-shop which is all about paying attention and you can download it from my website http://lattin-rawstrone.com/audio-and-ambient/ for 99p. It lasts for about 35 minutes and there are gaps in it so you can write. The idea is to go on a walk and make some notes about what you see around you… and it guides you through that process.