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3 November 2021updated 05 Nov 2021 3:05pm

Rebecca Watson: “A person is multitudinous, but also paradoxically, impossibly and perfectly one thing”

The author on Virginia Woolf, forgetting the names of books, and her Goldsmiths Prize-shortlisted novel Little Scratch.

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

Rebecca Watson is a novelist and the assistant arts editor at the Financial Times. In 2018 she was shortlisted for the White Review Short Story Prize with “Little Scratch”, which she then developed into her debut novel of the same name, published by Faber & Faber in January 2021. The book is set over the course of one day and follows a young woman living in the aftermath of sexual assault. Watson writes as though inside the protagonist’s head, as thoughts referring to life’s day-to-day monotony – showering, texting, hole-punching, making small talk with one’s colleagues – co-exist with the deeply emotional after-effects of trauma. Such a method makes for a distinctly rhythmic text, and a visual one too: the typography skips across the page, like verse. Little Scratch is one of six books shortlisted for the 2021 Goldsmiths Prize.

The Goldsmiths Prize was set up to reward fiction that “breaks the mould or extends the possibilities of the novel form”. What can an “innovative” approach offer the reader – and writer – that a more conventional novel might not?

Confrontation, surprise, immersion. But then can’t a traditional novel offer those? I think every innovative approach has its own reason. Mine was a solution to a problem: I was frustrated at the impossibility of immersing the reader in present-tense immediate experience. I wanted to heighten the stakes of the everyday, and to find out what you can conceal in the gaps, and the form came from this pressure point. The page had to echo the system of interiority – of bombardment, overlap, overwhelmingness and closeness. To depict immediacy, the form had to bow. I think experimentation should be inextricable from the project. The answer to what an innovative approach can offer the reader should be there on the page. 

Little Scratch is set over the course of just one day – as is Leone Ross’s This One Sky Day, which is also shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize. What did having those perimeters allow you to do with the novel, and do you think such a form lends itself particularly well to “experimental” or “innovative” fiction?

It subverts the epic. Or rather, shifts the units of the epic. If you’re contained to a day, then instead you must find the constant drama of the moment. What I discovered was an intense creativity and rhythm embedded in the pace and patterns of a day. There is so much about everyday experience that we ignore or forget, move on from by the necessity of time passing. Innovating the form and voice allows the reader to feel surprised by the quotidian. There is also, crucially, so much humour to keeping the reader to a day, in locking them into the live steps of time. There’s a comic absurdity that I had fun with.  

Much of the narrative splits physically into two, or even more, columns: one marking details that suggest how time passes externally emails coming in, or a hole-puncher punching paper and the other indicating the internal monologue that occurs throughout. It’s a brilliant and effective technique, and I wondered whether you have thought about other ways in which that duality could be presented in a text, if not so visually?

Now, now. If I answered this question you’d be one idea up, me one idea down. A lot is made of the duality of Little Scratch, but if you read the novel out loud it becomes a performative monologue. The columns compete but they also work together and depend on each other. When I was writing the novel, I was fascinated by this tension. Experience is inextricable from everything else. The trouble with “duality” is that it can imply a line down the middle. Even talking about the book as using columns which I do myself, as a means to translate insinuates division: as if you’re being asked to read more than one book at once. What I’m getting at, I suppose, is that a person is multitudinous, yes, but they are also paradoxically, impossibly and perfectly one thing. That’s what duality is to me.

I read Little Scratch almost as I would poetry – its inherent rhythm would hardly allow for anything else. Do you see the book as being a novel over a prose poem, and why? Does it even matter?

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I think it’s a novel. With poetry, you linger: go over words, spend time unpicking meaning. With Little Scratch, the rhythm propels you on. You’re encouraged to read it fast, skipping across and down the page. The challenge is to inhabit the head of another person, and in present tense, you don’t have time to stop and start, to pause over a thought that has already been replaced by another. That’s not to say that someone else couldn’t see it as poetry, but I would never say I was a poet.

Little Scratch is due to begin its run as a production at the Hampstead Theatre on 5 November. How involved were you with the adaptation to stage, and how has experiencing the story as a live thing altered or developed your understanding of its function?

The playwright Miriam Battye adapted it for stage – using four actors to convey the protagonist’s consciousness. The novel is condensed and the characters – A, B, C and D – evoke different psychological spaces of her head. It’s a very smart way of adapting it. It feels far more in conversation with the book than a straight one-woman show, because it translates the intention of the project – intense immersion – to the stage. I spoke to Miriam and the director Katie Mitchell at the beginning of the process, but apart from signing off the script and dropping in on the odd rehearsal, I’ve been hands-off. I haven’t seen it performed yet, so there is a reaction yet to come, but I’m not sure it will change my sense of Little Scratch. The novel is so loud and alive to me that it won’t come as a surprise to see it performed. It’s an affirming thing, a moving thing, but my relationship to the novel feels set.

As well as being a novelist, you work as a journalist. What has your work at the Financial Times taught you about novel-writing, and what has your time writing fiction taught you about journalism?

Journalism was a good practice ground: reviewing books refines your way of reading, and writing pieces trains you to structure and be exact. But I’d be lying if I said they had particularly profound relationships to each other. There’s also a crucial difference in that one’s a job, and one’s something I’d do whether I was paid or not. In truth, journalism was talking myself down from a pipe dream. Now, madly, I get to do both. 

Tell me about a piece of art, literature or music that was important to you in the writing of this book.

I am grateful to the book I was reading in January 2018 that I couldn’t remember the name of when a colleague asked me what I was reading. It launched this whole novel. After I remembered the name, I was so caught by those 30 seconds of internal stress that completely dissolved in remembering a title. It became a writing exercise: how to convey struggle while everything else carries on. This plays out in the novel far more intensely and importantly in the protagonist’s struggle after sexual assault, but the novel deals with the question on every level. I was playing with stakes. The harder challenge was to translate the kind of stress that exists in present tense that only matters for seconds (eg, only while it’s happening). I found the answer and in that answer I found a novel.

Why do we need the Goldsmiths Prize?

To push exposure and demand of novels that are breaking ground. To centre the unpredictable. So that writers can afford to keep writing. So that readers get some worthwhile recommendations.

What past British or Irish novel deserves a retrospective Goldsmiths Prize? Why?

Let’s begin by giving Virginia Woolf’s The Waves a retrospective Goldsmiths Prize, and once you’ve done the paperwork we can start sorting prizes for Between the Acts and To the Lighthouse as well.

The winner of this year’s Goldsmiths Prize will be announced in an online ceremony on 10 November and will be in conversation at the Cambridge Literary Festival’s virtual Winter Festival on 18 November