With her latest novel – an ingenious spin on Les Misérables’ tragic Fantine – getting glowing reviews from Buzz and others, Joshua Rees spoke to tireless south Wales writer Rebecca F. John about Fannie.
Acclaimed for her long and short fiction alike, Rebecca F. John’s short stories have been broadcast on BBC Radio 4, and her debut novel, The Haunting Of Henry Twist, was shortlisted for the 2017 Costa First Novel Award. She has recently published two new works of historical fiction: Fannie, a novella, is a feminist retelling of the story of Fantine from Les Misérables, while The Empty Greatcoat is a fictional novel based on the real account of a British soldier in World War I. She is also due to release her first children’s book, The Shadow Order, later this year.
What inspired you to reimagine the story of Fantine?
Fantine, to my mind, is a character who is largely viewed through the male lens; she exists in relation to men’s treatment of her. Firstly, she is abandoned by her lover to raise her daughter alone, then is unfairly dismissed by the factory foreman, hounded by a male police officer when forced to resort to prostitution, and when a man, Valjean, finally shows her kindness, she dies. His good deed, therefore, becomes more a demonstration of his virtuousness than a means of allowing Fantine any real respite from the hell she has endured or us any exploration of who she might become as a woman in different circumstances. I wanted to imagine what her life might be if I took those male characters out of the story. I wanted Fantine to attempt to save herself, for better or for worse.
Have you always been a fan of Les Misérables, both the book and the musical?
My love of Les Misérables started with the musical. As a child, I had the 10th-anniversary edition on VHS and I would play and replay it until the tape jumped. I have been lucky to see the show on the West End a number of times and have always been fascinated by the cast of characters. My particular interest in the character of Fantine developed later, as I grew older and my feminist ideas took form.
Although it’s based on a fictional story, the period setting of Fannie feels authentic. How much research was involved in the writing of the book?
I think I have immersed myself in the story of Les Misérables so frequently that I felt I could, to a certain extent, drop into that world. For me, the research tends to happen in response to the idea. I usually begin with a character, follow them into their particular era and search out the small, specific details I need to make the whole feel authentic.
When I was writing The Haunting Of Henry Twist, I wrote my way into a scene where Henry needs to feed his infant daughter, in the 1920s, after her mother’s death. I reached that point and then searched out what kinds of baby formula were available during that decade. Where I take a wider approach to research, I tend to fall into other stories and end up with a whole host of characters who is demanding my attention. Often, those characters have become independent stories. Some are still waiting to be written about.
In Fannie, and in your other books, you evoke a strong sense of place. Would you say that place plays an important role in your work?
Yes, but perhaps only in a way that is secondary to the characters and their development. All my stories begin with a character, or with an image containing a character. I often dream of my characters within a particular landscape. But I never set out to write place first and foremost. I only hope to provide my characters with enough place to live validly within.
I’m also aware of being a very visual writer. I’ve heard other writers say that they don’t know what their protagonist looks like – that concept felt entirely alien to me. I know exactly what my characters look like, down to the last detail. I see the stories I want to tell as though I’m watching a film which I have to transcribe, and as such, place asserts itself too. That being said, I would happily manipulate place to serve the purposes of my characters or plot.
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Fannie is being published by Honno, the excellent Welsh women’s press, who have been putting out a lot of interesting work recently. Do you think this is a good time for women writing in Wales?
Honno – a feminist press dedicated to promoting Welsh women’s voices – is the perfect home for Fannie, which is above all else a book dedicated to allowing a woman her voice. I’m so pleased that they agreed to publish the book and to be able to add my voice to a body of work that has been nurtured over 35 years.
I would hope women’s writing in Wales is finally gaining some of the recognition it deserves, yes. Honno and other Welsh presses have a huge part to play – they often take chances larger presses won’t. There are incredible female Welsh authors working in and outside of Wales at the moment – Jane Fraser, Siân Collins, Paula S Owen, Catrin Kean, Sara Gethin to name a few – published by Welsh indies. Reading their work is one part of what inspired me to found Aderyn Press, which has just started publishing this year, and through which I will be publishing more incredible female writers.
This feels like a strange question to be asking someone who is already having two books published this year, but are you working on something new? If so, what can you tell us about it?
I’m very lucky to be publishing three books this year! The Empty Greatcoat published in January, Fannie in February and The Shadow Order, my first children’s book, publishes in October 2022 with Firefly Press.
The Shadow Order is a middle-grade novel set in the city of Copperwell, where people’s shadows have suddenly shifted so that instead of showing their physical forms, they show their true personalities, their hopes, their fears. It follows the characters of Betsy, Teddy, and Effie – named for my dogs! – as they negotiate their changing world.
In terms of adult fiction, I have recently written a novel about a Welsh Victorian strongwoman named Vulcana – which is based on a true story and which I’m entirely in love with. That manuscript is currently with my agent, and I hope it will find a home soon. Beyond that, I’m back to drafting and this time it’s a story about three women in a Welsh mining village and a haunted mine. I’m always working on something – however slowly – whether it’s long or short form fiction. I’m not sure I know how to not write. It brings me so much joy!
words JOSHUA REES
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