(Trigger Warnings: self-harm, abuse).
Hey Rosie, thank you so so much for agreeing to do an author interview with us!! I have just finished reading your book last week, and I am so moved by it. Your novel is truly powerful and I honestly finished the last page feeling overwhelmed with emotion.
Please may you briefly explain to our readers what ‘What Red Was’ is about?
What Red Was opens with Kate Quaile as she arrives at university. She is an outsider, but when Max Rippon knocks on her door he invites her into the privileged world of his wealthy family: a house in the countryside, a film director mother, innate social ease. But it is Kate’s involvement with Max’s family that culminates in an act of violence that threatens her bond with Max and to destroy her world. What Red Was is about trauma, sexual violence and its devastation; but it is also about recovery, the courage required to speak out, and about rebuilding a life in the wake of trauma.
The relationship between Kate and Max is so complex, and when Kate gets another boyfriend (that is not Max) it made me question what was stopping the two from being together. Was there a specific reason why their relationship was created in such a way?
This question comes up a lot and it is so fascinating to me. In fact, the relationship between Kate and Max was always intended to be a friendship and not a romantic relationship. For Kate, I think Max represents a possible life, a life that feels ever more remote in the aftermath of the assault, and I think if they had become too closely intertwined this sense of mystery would have been compromised. There is a particular innocence I think is unique to friendship at this age, and I loved writing two young people who are testing out their boundaries in a space where they can trust one another – there’s a fantastic innocence to it; something else which is threatened by the assault.
Your book deals with some very sensitive topics, particularly as it centres around a scene where sexual assault occurs. I felt that your narrative positioned this scene perfectly, as we were allowed to see the person Kate was before this happened, and who she changed into after it. Was the intention behind this so that the reader could see the damaging effect it had on her, or was the chronology of the book set out for a different reason?
I am so happy you think so, and yes, you are absolutely right – I felt very strongly that there was a ‘before’ and an ‘after’ for Kate, and the narrative deliberately telescopes after this moment. The first section of the book covers a lot of ground, chronology wise, but after the assault, when the stakes become much higher for Kate, time becomes more sludgy (if that’s a word!) and all of Kate’s experiences are heavier, more intensely felt. This is what trauma does to a person: distorts their sense of time, so that they are continually returning to their traumatic memories, unable to move forward.
Another sensitive topic was when Kate self-harmed, and when she had feelings of depression. Was it important to depict Kate’s feelings in as realistic a way as possible?
It was vitally important to me. I know there is a lot in this book that is hard to read, but I don’t know what we are doing when we are telling stories if not trying to find something truthful. Zadie Smith’s instruction to writers is invaluable: ‘Tell the truth through whichever veil comes to hand – but tell it.’ I always try to come back to this quote when I am writing. Otherwise, what’s the point?
For me, class played a huge part in this book. Max’s family are ones of lawyers and film directors, where Kate’s is one of much more humbler origins. Do you think that this class difference is a huge factor in the book?
Absolutely. The class difference is essentially one of power. Kate is at an exciting point in her life when she meets Max; she has not come from an economically advantaged background but further education is a kind of equaliser. And, when she meets Max, Kate sees opportunities to widen her horizons and to elevate her aspirations. However, this makes her vulnerable, less independent, and the access she is given to certain spaces and privileges by Max’s family make it harder for her to be explicit about what has happened to her. We have seen in the last few years a very public reckoning over the prevalence of exactly this experience. We have seen that we are mistaken to try to separate sexual violence from power and, by extension, from class.
The final chapters weave the narrative together in such a perfect way, as all the loose ends from all the threads of stories tighten up. When you wrote this book did you have a firm plan of where you wanted this book to go, or was it a start writing and see what happens kind of thing?
In fact the ending materialised as I wrote, and as I edited. I had loose ideas about the kind of resolution (or not!) that I wanted, but it was only when I’d put all the characters in place and felt as though I knew them inside out that I knew exactly how they would respond to the circumstances they’d found themselves in and what they would do next. Having said that, I did an awful lot of work during the edits to make sure everything tied together – my bedroom walls were covered in plot graphs and chapter plans so I could hold everything together in my head!
Have you always known that you were going to be a writer, or is it a passion that has come about later on in life?
I always wanted to write. I wrote as a child and as a teenager, then studied English Literature at university because I wanted to read as much as possible. When I graduated I couldn’t see how writing would be a feasible career but the desire to do it just didn’t go away, so I kept on working on stories and novel ideas in evenings and at the weekends until I had a first draft of What Red Was. I feel unbelievably lucky to be doing the thing I always dreamed of doing.
Are there any more books planned for the future, and if so how has lockdown affected your writing?
Like a lot of people I struggled with lockdown. I was missing all of the daily experiences that would ordinarily fuel my writing, and the daily structure I have built around my writing in order to contain it. It was hard, too, to see the point of doing something as frivolous as writing books and making up stories when the world seemed to be falling apart. So in fact I stopped writing, which was the best decision I could have made. I ended up reading a huge amount, and because I was reading I was reminded that of the power of books to transport us, to give us a different perspective on the world even when the walls are closing in. I’m writing again now, and my second novel is well on its way.
Finally, we love to hear our author’s perfect writing conditions. What is your ideal place to write?
I bought a desk from Etsy around the time I quit my job to write full time, and it is always in the corner of wherever I am living. If I’m writing at home that’s where I’ll write. But really, the place doesn’t really matter – I also write in coffee shops and on trains, very occasionally in the park – the main thing is to turn my Wi-Fi and my phone off, and to set an hour’s timer. If I can sit down for an hour a day with no distractions then I trust that the work will get done.
Thank you so much again for this interview, we love your book and recommend everyone to read it. It is not an easy read, but an important one I am always telling people, and you manage to discuss these topics in a sensitive but realistic way.
You are welcome, thank you so much for reading the book!