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An Interview with Mary Watson

A year on from speaking to Mary Watson about her debut The Wren Hunt, we had a chance to ask her some more questions about her writing process and the world she's inhabited for two novels. 

1. For those who don’t know, could you start off by telling us a little bit about your new novel, The Wickerlight

Zara and her family are reeling after the unexpected death of her sister, Laila. Zara begins to piece together Laila’s last months and finds herself in the middle of an ancient feud between two secret magical factions in their small Irish village. David is trying to recover a stolen artefact, and as he searches, he finds things he hadn’t realised he’d lost. 

2. How was the process of writing a companion novel in the same world, but with a different focus?

It was a really natural progression. I felt like Wren had told her story but there were a few threads to explore in the I’d world created. And David was a character who niggled at me. I knew I wanted to come to the world from the outside, with characters who weren’t part of the secret communities, and Zara and David’s voices hit the right note. 

3. How did you keep track of the different strands and interweaving narratives?

I prefer to write in order. So the events dictated whose voice went next. There were a few scenes I had to rewrite from David or Zara’s POV because I needed a particular event at that point and wanted to keep them to alternate chapters. But they both have their own stories, which intersect at key moments. 

4. How did you approach the writing process this time around? Do you have a set routine or does it vary?

It varies a little. But broadly, I think and generate ideas using notebooks and draft on computer. The book comes alive through a combination of drafting and outlining. I revise a lot. I write in my study at home, I can maybe edit at coffee shops but I’m easily distracted. I use scented candles and music (game soundtracks are my favourite) as sensory triggers to help me shift mental space from the school run and doing the dishes to a small village where magic is real. With each book there are one or two trigger songs I’ll play a million times, until my family beg for reprieve, and when I am moving between projects or returning for edits these songs bring the world back to me. It’s so Pavlovian now that when I hear these songs, the characters wake up. 

5. You write from the perspective of two characters: Zara and David. What are the challenges/rewards of writing in a multiple POV?

It’s tricky to keep them distinct when they both have my voice which is inevitable and present in every book I’ve written. But these two characters have different attitudes to the world and I find myself slipping into the way they think when writing them. Zara is more self-conscious, maybe even a little uptight while David is self-deprecating and has a more black and white view of the world. Their thought and speech patterns became clearer to me the more I fleshed them out and it felt different writing the two.  I liked being able to further the story outside of each protagonist’s view, and in The Wickerlight it was essential because Zara doesn’t know the magic world and I didn’t want her discovery of magic to be the main focus of the book. 

6. How do you organise yourself, as a writer, to keep track of the world you’re writing about?

As I’m going along, I plot the scenes with post-its and washi tape in an enormous, bound sketchbook. This way I can visualise where everything is in relation to each other. I also divide a page in quarters and decide which events need happen in which quarter of the novel, and whether it’s the early or later part of the quarter. I read on Kindle a lot and 25%, 50% and 75% feel like natural markers to me. Of course it’s not exact, but dividing by quarters rather than a three act narrative works better for me. 

7. Your writing overflows with descriptions of the natural world. How much of an influence is landscape for you?

I do a lot of creative thinking while walking, and my neighbourhood is very inspiring with trees and fields and a lake, and this is how Kilshamble was formed. Writing is a dialogue with the world around me. While I don’t have to be in a place to write it, I do have to have a good sense of it. 

8. Following on from the previous question, what landscapes have inspired you? 

I love nature, but the beauty of rundown and abandoned places really appeals to me and I think this is there in both books. I am also inspired by Cape Town, my home city which is naturally extraordinarily beautiful but has an uncomfortable mix of privilege and poverty. 

9. Where is your favourite place to write?

My study, with the door open because I’m alone at home, and The Witcher 3 soundtrack blasting from another room. A tray with tea and my homemade almond sugar free biscuits. 

10. For you, what makes a great story?

I love nuance and texture in a story, and I also like riveting plot. It’s a difficult balance, because too much nuance interferes with plot, and too much plot doesn’t always lend itself to texture. But books that veer towards this balance are my favourite.  

11. Best bit of writing advice you’ve ever heard?

To be honest, when I see Twitter threads with writing advice they freeze me up. People like and value such different things. The best advice? Find what works for you, whether it’s content or style or practice. Writing is not easy, and sticking at it is even harder. Listen to what works for others, evaluate, and then choose your own path.  

Mary Watson is from Cape Town and now lives on the West Coast of Ireland with her husband and three children. Highlights of her adult writing career include being awarded the Caine Prize for African Writing in Oxford in 2006, and being included on the Hay Festival’s 2014 Africa39 list of influential writers from subSaharan Africa. The Wickerlight is her second book for young adults, following The Wren Hunt.