Rachel Connor - Debut Author
Rachel was born in the north east of England and educated at the Universities of Leeds, Liverpool and Manchester. After a stint in her twenties of driving around northern France in a Renault Clio, supervising people putting up tents for a camping holiday company, Rachel taught creative writing to adults for the Workers’ Educational Association and lectured in English and American literature at Salford and Glasgow Universities.
These days, Rachel combines writing with working for the Arvon Foundation, a charity which runs residential courses for writers in historic, rural houses.
Sisterwives is Rachel's first novel.
Inside looking out or outside looking in?
From a young age I always felt like I was different from the rest of the crowd, something that is common in writers, I think. This feeling probably had a profound effect on me, because so much of my writing explores the place of the outsider – whether it’s a character who’s a loner, or a stranger arriving in the midst, or someone whose race or class alienates them from the status quo. Now I’m older I see that we’re continually constructing our own ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ – as individuals and as a society. That’s a very empowering realisation because there’s always scope to rewrite the narrative – both individually and socially. That’s a real point of interest for me, in the stories I write: the characters I’m most drawn to are those who have the ability and desire to rewrite their own story.
Spring, Summer, Autumn or Winter?
I’m lucky enough to live and work in beautiful countryside, in which you can see close up the magic of every season. Winter can be very harsh here, and working at Lumb Bank – with its long, steep track down to the house – is very challenging then. Last winter we couldn’t get vehicles down and ended up having to cling-wrap boxes of vegetables and slide them down the track! My favourite season has to be autumn, though – the valley is densely wooded and I love the intensity of colours.
Earl Grey or latte?
It depends on the time of day! I drink a huge mug of Earl Grey first thing (it used to be a pint of hot water but my good habits have slipped). Later I move onto coffee, though I prefer it flat, Americano style rather than milky. When I arrive at work at Lumb Bank the first thing I usually do is fire up the coffee pot (my colleagues are addicts too). Working in a writing centre means there’s an endless supply of coffee. I’m proud of the fact that since I started work there I’ve switched suppliers so now all our tea and coffee is Fair Trade.
Bed by 10pm or up after midnight?
As a student I was virtually nocturnal, finding the dark quiet hours in the middle of the night the most productive. I’d be going to bed as my flat mates were heading off to the library. Now early morning is my best time, which means that really I should be in bed by 10pm. But in the run up to the publication of Sisterwives things have been so busy – juggling family commitments with book promotion and my ‘day job’ working for the Arvon Foundation at Lumb Bank, as well as trying to keep the new writing ticking over – that I can only fit it all in by staying up later. I’m not a natural plate spinner, so it’s been difficult but I know I’ll look back at this period with incredulity but also with a huge sense of achievement.
Tidy house, clear surfaces or cluttered, bohemian mess?
I wish I could live in cluttered, bohemian mess. There’s something quite romantic and carefree about it but I also wonder whether the myth of the messy, disordered creative is just that – a myth. By nature I’m a real clear surfaces person. I feel stressed and irritable if things are out of place. I know this is partly about control, but if my space is tidy, I can concentrate better on the messiness of my work in progress. I also know where to find things, which saves me time. That said, there are times when I’m so ridiculously busy that the mess does begin to mount up. I can only cope with that for so long though, then I need to clear some time to tidy and organise everything again.
City break or country cottage?
I’ve lived in two cities – Manchester and Glasgow – and both are dear to my heart. During those years we’d hire a country cottage during holidays. Now I live in a more rural location I find I crave the city, so city breaks have become the holiday of choice. I like the bustle, the stimulus, the anonymity of a city. Recently, I spent a long weekend in Madrid with my daughter (aged 12) and a friend. It was wonderful to discover a new place together and to mooch and meander, people- watching from the pavement cafes. Such a different context to my day to day life now. That said, I wouldn’t swap where I am for anything. In Sisterwives, the setting shifts between the remote and rural and the more futuristic cityscape. So on some level I think I feel caught continually between the two.
photograph: Leanne Bolger
Shoes or handbags?
I’m definitely a shoe girl. For years I would only wear Doctor Martens, much to my mother’s horror! Now I’m older I’ve fallen in love with Fly London, which are smart and comfortable and make me feel like a grown up. I’ve never really done handbags – I’m more likely to go for something slung across my body – so dispatch bags are more to my taste. When we go out in the evening my husband ends up having to carry the money (and usually my phone too).
Make do and mend or buy new?
It frustrates me how modern manufacturing means that a lot of the time we have no choice other than to buy new. I try to be aware of the resources we use and I think Sisterwives – in which the community is virtually self sufficient – is a reflection of that. At the beginning of the novel, Amarantha, the young second wife, wears a wedding dress that has been passed around the community. And Tobias is a glassblower, which is the ultimate in recycling: glass comes from sand, and can be remelted.
Literary criticism or algebra?
I was always useless at maths at school, although I did quite like algebra. It was clear very quickly that I’d be taking a literature route and ultimately I ended up doing a PhD, so literary criticism was my career for a long time. I’m convinced that’s helped with my development as a writer: being able to analyse and learn a sensitivity to the resonances of the text. But the more I write, the more I wonder whether writing is more about algebra than literary criticism. I think algebra teaches us about logic and structure. Certainly when it comes to plotting that’s crucial. So in order to learn about plot I’ve reconnected with that mathematical part of my brain – helped along by Sara Maitland, who was my mentor during the latter part of writing Sisterwives. We took the whole text apart and reconstructed it – much like an algebraic equation.
Best character in TV classic 'The Good Life': Margo Leadbetter or Barbara Good?
It would have to be the young and feisty Barbara. I was young when the programme was first aired but I remember being aware at the time that it was quite an original concept on TV. I’m fascinated by the idea of self sufficiency. I visit an intentional community in Scotland every year, and sometimes volunteer in their amazing kitchen garden. I’ve learned tons about seasonality and growing vegetables. The best thing is going to the garden to harvest things for dinner – I love that. Some of the influence for Sisterwives came from my visits to that community, and also from reading about individuals and groups who’ve taken steps to live more sustainably. When I was in the research stage for Sisterwives, one of my favourite reads was Nick Rosen’s How to Live Off-Grid.
Fountain pen or biro?
When I was a child I was given a Pentel ballpoint pen by my uncle, and I’ve loved them ever since. A friend once joked that I should probably own shares in the company by now. They’re more convenient than fountain pens, yet have such a smooth ink flow. Despite the fact that I mostly write straight onto a computer, I still love the process of writing in a notebook (I’m a Moleskine aficionado), so I have to have the right pen. For both my novels I wrote extensive notes on character in longhand first. When I’m writing radio plays, I find I can sketch out ideas best by mind mapping, then writing snippets of dialogue, sometimes whole scenes. It’s great to have different processes for different genres and projects. Now I just need to get Moleskine to expand their range of colours so that I can pick up the right notebook for the right work in progress!
photograph: Leanne Bolger
Sisterwives - Rachel Connor
Published by Crocus Books
Publication date: 19th October 2011
Order from Amazon here.