We got to know Rachel Lewis last year when she submitted a series of poems for our ‘Siblings’ competition, where her poems stood as for being poignant, emotive and beautiful to read. Fast forward to the present and the end result is Three Degrees of Separation, a debut poetry pamphlet telling the story of a family dealing with issues of mental health and the difficulties of life.
Ahead of her pamphlet launch this weekend (HURRAY!) we wanted you all to get to know Rachel a little better! So we asked her all about her love of writing, her process, and the advice she’d give to other writers like you!
1. What do you like / enjoy about writing?
I love the playfulness of it. Nothing is so freeing as sitting there with a blank page and shaping the sounds in your head into some kind of sense. All the other stuff – the hard work editing and the vulnerability of sharing with others – wouldn’t be worth it without that.
2. What are you reading right now?
Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 trilogy, but it could easily be something much less respectable. I’m actually trying to read all the books in my family home without buying any new ones at the moment, so my recent reading has been pretty eclectic.
3. Where did you draw your inspiration from re: ‘Siblings’ competition and subsequent pamphlet?
I happened to go to a poetry masterclass run by Joelle Taylor at the Poetry Café just when I was thinking about writing something to submit to the ‘Siblings’ competition. She encouraged us to write about our experience, to be as visual as possible, and to hold nothing back. The poems were definitely born there.
4. How would you describe your research process and how long do you spend researching before starting with the writing itself?
It varies enormously depending on what I’m writing. For my next collection, I’m spending months in advance just researching because it’s something outside my experience. For something closer to home, however, I tend to research as I go. I’ll start writing and have Google open for whenever I trip over something I don’t know enough about.
5. How did it feel when you won the ‘Siblings’ competition and began working on your manuscript for the collection?
It was dizzying. Suddenly something I’d hoped for all my life was actually on the verge of happening! I was absolutely over the moon, and at the same time very focused on the work needed to expand my competition entry into a full- length manuscript.
6. What was the biggest challenge when working on the manuscript ahead of its publication with us here at Wordsmith?
The hardest part was accepting that the manuscript was done. I felt a certain amount of pressure to showcase my best work in the pamphlet so without support (and deadlines!) from Sophie and the team, I probably would have sat on it for years and never felt I’d “finished” it.
7. What advice would you give to someone trying to avoid common traps, mistakes or overcome key challenges in relation to getting their work published?
On a related note, an easy trap to fall into is waiting to reach out to publishers or to submit to competitions until you think your work is definitely good enough. If you do that, your work will likely never get good enough! This is partly because you learn so much from the process of preparing work for submission, and partly because writers tend be perfectionists.
8. If you had the opportunity to go through this experience again, would you change anything? If so, what would you change?
I wouldn’t change a thing. I couldn’t be more delighted with the way the pamphlet has turned out, and I’m really looking forward to the launch event.
9. Do you feel you have developed any skills since becoming a writer, developing this poetry collection and working with Wordsmith as your publisher?
I’ve learned a huge amount. Some of it is very tangible – for example, I’ve learned how to clarify my writing and how to build up a longer collection through the editing and revisions process. I’ve also learned a lot about publicising a book and getting the word out there. Some of it is less tangible. I’ve definitely grown in confidence and in understanding how to balance writing with everything else in my life.
10. Tell us as a little bit about your next publication or the current / next manuscript you are working on… what’s it called and what’s it about?
I’ve begun the research process for my next pamphlet-length collection, which I think will be about the experience of Jewish people in Belfast during the Troubles. My dad’s family were part of the Jewish community there until the 1980s. The community is now declining in numbers, and my grandparents are in their 90s, so it feels like the right time to try and capture some of what they went through, especially with the Irish border back in the headlines constantly thanks to Brexit. I actually hate titling things though so it likely won’t have a title until the second before I submit it somewhere!
11. Now, just a fun one now to end the interview. If you could go for dinner with anyone (dead or alive), who would it be and why?
David Attenborough. I’m a huge natural history nerd and genuinely wanted to be David Attenborough when I grew up. We would talk about all his adventures and he would offer to bring me along on the next shoot just for fun.