Rebecca Mackenzie grew up in the jungles of Thailand, where her parents worked as Christian missionaries, but at 12 she and her family moved back to a Scottish fishing village.
Now living in Hackney, MacKenzie has written her debut novel, In a Land of Paper Gods, which steers away from her early experiences to tell the story of a schoolgirl in a boarding school in China at the outbreak of the second Sino-Japanese War.
Rebecca, how long have you lived in Hackney?
I moved to London at 17 when I went to university and I’ve been here ever since. I moved to Dalston over ten years ago. Friends used to be hugely relieved when I’d meet them from the bus stop and walk them back again. Now I live at the top of a vicarage in Stoke Newington. I love it, even though the first thing I see outside my front door is a graveyard.
The thing that seems to have struck a lot of reviewers is that it’s quite personal book – something that had parallels with what you experienced growing up.
What drew me to the lives of missionary kids was my personal experience. I grew up in what was partly an evangelical environment, but I was also surrounded by Thai animism, spirit worship, and the idea that there were spirits and creatures everywhere. But I chose to set the book in a different part of Asia, at a different period in history because I needed that distance to kickstart my imagination.
While there are definitely biographical themes there’s also a truth that comes from my dreamworld that’s not like the truth of your day-to-day reality.
I believe in synchronicity as well and there were synchronous moments in the writing for the book. For example I went to interview an English woman who’d lived in China during the Sino-Japanese war, and like me she was the daughter of missionaries. We were having this nice cup of tea together and I felt something. I couldn’t stop looking at her. It turned out that she’d returned from China to Edinburgh and she’d moved into the same street in Edinburgh I’d lived on, 50 years before me, and her grandparents came from the same tiny village in the north of Scotland my grandparents came from.
I thought that the voice of the lead character, Etta, was very strong. How did you create her?
I saw these formal school photographs at SOAS from a missionary school. Some children, if they weren’t sitting still, became a kind of blur. I became interested in these naughty children, who somehow disappeared from history as a result of fidgeting.
What things as a writer do you find particularly helpful about living in London?
Being near other writers and other creative people is a wonderful resource, but with that comes distraction.
How do you make time for writing, solitude and focus?
I love sitting in Rare Books and Music in the British Library. The concentration in there spurs me on to keep working.
In a Land of Paper Gods
is published by Tinder Press.
RRP: £16.99 ISBN: 9781472224194