Originally published July 2016
Name: Rebecca Beattie
What authors/ books influenced you in your early days of being a Pagan/following your spiritual path?
I have always found most of my inspiration in fiction as well as in non fiction. The book that influenced me the most was Mary Webb’s Precious Bane, which is the story of Prue Sarn, a woman living in rural Shropshire at the time of the Napoleonic Wars. When her mother is crossed by a hare when pregnant, Prue is born she has a facial disfigurement, which means the local population believe she is a witch. Prue is a nature mystic, so she spends time in nature and encounters the divine there. Because she isn’t expected to marry, she is sent to the local Cunning Man to learn how to read and write. The book is full of folklore, and superstition and witchcraft. What's not to love about that? That book always stayed with me, as although it was written in the early twentieth century, before Modern Paganism really emerged, I could relate to the way in which Mary Webb writes about the sacred in nature. Her landscapes are an active element in her work, and they have agency. And her descriptions are very witchy indeed.
In terms of non-fiction, I am a bit of a hedgewitch, so I spent a lot of time learning about and working with herb, oils and stones. I loved Scott Cunningham’s Incenses, Oils and Brews, and Culpepper’s herbal. I also loved Phyllis Curott’s Book of Shadows as an inspirational story about one woman’s journey into coven based Wicca, and Rae Beth’s Hedgewitch.
What drew you to your path?
I think I was always pagan, but only ‘found’ my path when I learned how to label it and realise it was a ‘thing’. I grew up on the highest point of Dartmoor, so nature was all around me, and most of my childhood was spent out roaming the hills with my dog, or with my nose stuck in a book. My earliest memories involve me making ‘perfumes’ for my mum by mixing flower petals from the garden with water from the stream that flowed through it. (They smelled awful!) But it took me leaving home to understand what I was, and what I had access to on Dartmoor. When I was in my twenties, I was working as an actor on tour doing a four-person Macbeth when I started to give myself the space to explore paganism. I spent several years as a solitary witch before I realised I needed more formal teaching and went down the path of initiatory Wicca, and that solitary path still sits alongside my other practice now.
Where do you find inspiration for your books?
Two places really – in nature, and in other literature. I write every morning on the tube as I commute to work (as it's generally quieter than a library!) but in order to have things to write, I do a lot of walking at weekends, and a lot of watching the details of the seasons turning. As I don't get home to Dartmoor as much as I would like, I have had to discover the bits of wildness all around the city, and I have found some really magical places tucked away, right under people's noses!
How did you become an author? Was it something you intended to do or was it by accident?
I became a writer after I left acting. My acting life was making me quite unhappy, as I had all this creative energy to express, but had no means of expression unless I had passed the audition and got the job. This meant most of my creativity was dependent on other people giving me the opportunity, and I had little or no control over the project I was working on. This coincided with me realising I wanted to take my spiritual life more seriously, and I had recently found a teacher who was offering me quite an intense training opportunity. I decided that I would take a sabbatical from acting, and immerse myself in my ‘year and a day’ studies. Part of my year and a day involved researching the folklore of your local area, which is lucky, as Dartmoor is brimming with it. I was reading about a walk called the Lychway on Dartmoor, which was the route people took from my home village to the parish church, some ten or so miles away across the open moor. Before the advent of the turnpike roads, if a member of your family had died, you would have to carry them along this path to bury them, which is said to be eight miles in fair weather, and fifteen in foul. The path passes across rivers, over tors and along past Wistman’s Wood, an ancient forest of gnarled, moss covered oaks. This set my imagination going, and as I had always loved writing stories at school, I decided to experiment with a short story about a woman whose father has died, and she must set off on this journey to bury him. The only problem was, the short story kept getting longer and longer, and after about a year, I had my first novel. (I think I had to tell myself it was just a short story so I didn't scare the pants off myself.) Once I had started, I didn’t look back, and I never returned to acting.
What do you feel makes a book worth reading?
If it's fiction I would say plot and character are the first things that draw me in – they have to be compelling enough to make me want to read a book. I like fiction where I actively miss the characters when I have finished, as if they are friends. At my last university, I often got told off by my supervisor for writing about fictional characters as if they are real people, and I am wholly unrepentant. I like that interplay between fact and fiction, and I like to keep one foot in the real world and the other in my imagination.
Aside from plot and character, I am afraid I am a bit of a writing snob – a book needs to be well written, and also to reveal something interesting about the author. I think we all look for that unique voice that will reveal a truth to us that we couldn't learn somewhere else. I like to know who authors are, what their stories are, what makes them tick.
Are you working on a new book right now and if so what is it?
At the moment I am writing my fifth book (and fourth work of fiction). It's called Looking for Mary Webb. It's for a PhD in Creative Writing. I started a PhD in English a few years ago, and was researching Mary Webb (who by now you may have realised is my favourite writer!) She was immensely popular in the 1930s, following her death in 1928, and then again in the 1980s, but most people have forgotten her today. She led quite a fascinating life – she was quite an eccentric – but when she died, her husband (who was a bit of a toad) burned all her papers, so not much survives except for her novels and her poems, and some beautiful nature essays. I always wondered what would have happened if she had left a diary, like Virginia Woolf.
A few years ago, my stepmother rescued a couple of mysterious diaries from a skip. They were written by a girl living in London – the first was dated 1926, and the second 1934. We have often speculated about who she is and what happened to her, and what may have happened to the other volumes (we have only two). Of course when you write a diary, you rarely talk about who you are or even what your name is, so we have no way of really knowing, other than a few clues she left in the diary. Ideas about this fused with my thoughts about Mary Webb, and now I am writing the story of a contemporary woman who discovers the lost diaries of Mary Webb, and sets out on a journey to discover who she is. It's great fun to write as I have to climb into Mary Webb’s skin as I am writing as her. At the moment, I commute to work as a woman living in 1912, and then have to remember who I really am when I get off the tube.
Do you write part or full time?
At the moment I write part time as I do lots of things! I work for a drug and alcohol counselling charity, which I love as it keeps me grounded and reminds me how lucky I am to be where I am. I also make and sell semi precious jewellery and pendulums through Treadwell's in Bloomsbury, London. I also have my PhD that I am studying part time. I used to make natural soaps and sacred baths from scratch, but when I went back into academia, something had to give, so I have set that part aside for now. If I had time I would happily do all of those things full time, but as it is I like to juggle them around a bit. Each one helps support the other, either financially, or by opening my eyes to things I wouldn't otherwise have experienced, or by allowing me to use my creative energy. The charity I work for pays the bills. There were times in my life that I really resented having a ‘day job’, but as I have got older I have become less resentful, and I now see the value in it. I like working in the charity sector, as I know the organisation I work for makes a difference in people's lives, and the regular salary frees me up to use the rest of my time for the things that I love.
I think that the way our society is arranged, we don't really value the artists and the dreamers, so until we do, I will keep on multi-tasking in order to pay the bills.
What's the hardest thing about writing?
Probably the time element, as you need lots of it, and I always feel there's not quite enough time in life to get everything done that I want to do. I am one of those irritating people that doesn't believe in writers block, as I don't have time to get stuck. I have very precise chunks of time to write in, and I have to make the most of them, so I don't give myself the option of getting stuck. I think the trick is in learning what inspires you, and then you mix that with a lot of hard work and the ability to take feedback, which can sometimes be uncomfortable if you are not expecting it.
How can other readers discover more about you (website/facebook links etc)?
I do have a website at www.rebeccabeattie.co.uk and I am on Facebook under my real name. (I wasn’t quite wise enough to think of using a pen name before I was published!) My Facebook page is at https://www.facebook.com/Rebeccabeattie13
What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
I was writing about this recently in an article for Pagan Dawn. If I could have known one thing ten years ago that would have made my life less angsty, it would be to always love what you do, and don't confuse what you do with who you are. If you love it, and can't bear the idea of doing something else, then go for it, and be prepared to work hard at it. There is a lot of the business that have to learn in order to write these days, so make it your mission to keep learning, and keep pushing yourself beyond your comfort zone. It's very easy for us to pin all of our emotional energy on to a craft and imagine it's our purpose in life, and to feel like a big fat failure if you are not living the dream by the time you reach twenty five (which is what I did with acting). But don't be surprised if you have to earn your living in other ways – most artists I know either teach or do other things to bring the money in – ultimately, how you earn your living doesn't define you as a person, and your ‘purpose in life’ is much bigger than that.
There are tons of pagan books on the market, what do you think makes you stand out from the crowd?
All you can really do is be authentic to yourself, and really love what you are doing. If you aren't loving it, don't do it, as it will show in the work. Your passion will flow through in your writing (or whatever craft you choose to concentrate on). I feel a a bit like I had to travel around the world before I realised that what makes me stand out from the crowd is being true to myself, and not trying to be like everyone else. The things that characterised my childhood and made me the person I am today are my love of literature, and my love of nature. The books I write always combine both those things – sometimes in fiction,and sometimes in non-fiction.
My last book – Nature Mystics: The Literary Gateway to Modern Paganism combines both those loves. It looks at early twentieth century writers (some very well known and some forgotten) who contributed to the cultural cauldron that enabled people like Gerald Gardner and Doreen Valiente develop their ideas about Modern Paganism, what was it in that culture that enabled a 1950s London commuter to consider joining a coven that met in the woods in Hertfordshire? As far as I know, not much has been written on this area yet. Ronald Hutton mentions that Modern Paganism emerging from literary influences, and talks about some of the more well known writers like DH Lawrence and Rudyard Kipling in passing, but (and I know he wouldn't mind me saying this) Ronald is an Historian, not a student of literature. I wanted to go back and rediscover some of the literary gems that we have forgotten about, and I also have a fascination with forgotten women. I like to remind people that there were some pretty special and very talented women writers who shaped that cultural cauldron too...
Which one of your books are you most proud of?
Probably my second novel, Somewhere She Is There, which was perhaps my weirdest. I lost my mum to cancer twelve years ago, and a very well meaning therapist once suggested that if I wrote letters to her, it might help me to process my grief. I did this for about a year, but I couldn't shake off the feeling that it had become a very one-sided relationship, which was not how we were when she was living. I wondered what she would have written to me if she could have written back, so one day I sat with a pen and paper to see what would happen. As part of the research, I spent two years learning Psychic Development and Mediumship at the College of Psychic Studies, and it has left me with some really lovely (and weird) skills in my pagan toolkit. I also experimented a lot with channelling and automatic writing. What I love about that book is that I know my mum wrote it with me. Whether or not you believe in all of that woo woo, it almost doesn't matter, as it can be viewed in several ways. At its most basic, the book was inspired by my mum, and the part of me that is her. But I like to think she was more actively involved than that.