Rebecca watson’s debut novel small scratch, now published in paperback, is told over the course of a single day by an unnamed office junior living through the aftermath of a sexual assault. the New Yorker called it an “extraordinary start [that] conveys the forms and rhythms of thought” by “arranging the text in an unconventional way”. Shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize last year, it was recently featured in a production directed by Katie Mitchell. Watson, 26, grew up in the South Downs and told me about London, where she works part-time as an assistant editor in the arts office of the FinancialTimes.
What led you to the unusual shape of the book?
It came from a very clear moment. A colleague walked past me and asked me what I had read recently. And for 10 seconds I couldn’t find an answer, then I did, and he left. I was just really smitten with this encounter, which was nothing, but for a while I had the stakes way too high. It made me very aware of the layers and channels of the present. I remember thinking to myself, how would you write it? And I just instantly wrote that moment on a [notebook] page to show how things [and thoughts] occur simultaneously. It was only a few hundred words, but it was the answer to how to present an immediate experience in the present.
What did it look like written?
It was basically that as you scrolled through the page, you went through time, and the page also really felt like the spirit: the left and right sides had different feelings for them, and there were different kinds of tonal spaces to through the page. He flipped a switch: I got the insinuation of the book’s formal system.
The book explores the consequences of rape, but a recurring word is “joy.”
It’s a reaction to the often very messy way we talk about rape and sex. I wanted my protagonist to be able to tell them apart; separating the two is part of his ambition throughout the day [over which the book unfolds]. I didn’t want the rape to corrupt her sex life or her sense of desire. It was an empowering position for her to take, and for me to take, to ensure that the joy and the desire remained, even if there was not necessarily a resolution in the novel.
Did you feel compelled to report in the acknowledgmentments that the protagonist is fictional?
Some people think it’s me; it was inevitable. It’s about rape, and I’ve said it before [in a 2019 piece in the TLS] that I was raped, but the narrator’s experience is very different from mine; there are many ways someone can be assaulted and many ways someone can react. I sometimes regret this piece, only because it serves as a springboard for interviews. It always comes up, and I really don’t believe there’s a correlation between that and small scratch, but people try to match the play to the novel and interpret it as confessional. This novel was never an act of catharsis. It was a joyful act of creation.
Do readers ever come into contact with the book?
I’ve had some really moving responses from readers who have been sexually assaulted or raped, thanking me for describing what they feel or what they’ve been through, or a process they found difficult to verbalize. or that they had never seen written before. I’ve also had responses from male readers saying it made them reflect on their own past behavior. Both sides of it are pretty powerful and that makes me very proud, but it’s a weird thing to get those reactions.
What was it like working with Katie Mitchell?
Really cool. He’s a hero [of mine] and it was the easiest decision to say, “Yes, please take it and put it on.” She bought the novel from the back of the Guardian review; she tells me, or at least pretends, that she obviously knew it was her [kind of] theater from about the first page, and that she read it almost like a score. I went to see the show about five times in six weeks. It was amazing.
What are you working on now?
I’m on my fourth draft of my second novel. I was so instinctively in the small scratch voice that there was a lot of necessary time spent learning to detach myself from it. I know [that] everyone’s perception of me as a writer is actually that of a book, rather than me. This next thing is actually more ambitious: it’s over five days, alternating between present and past, which for me is something new. It is [also] formally experimental and looks odd on the page. It is the story of a woman who learns of the death of her brother, whom she has not seen for nearly a decade.
What have have you read recently?
I read ephemera by Andrew O’Hagan at Christmas. It’s really moving. The way he captures the romance of friendship is a pretty rare thing. It’s also a beautiful, spontaneous celebration of life, which feels really brutal to read during a pandemic.
Have you always wanted to be a writer?
I always had this propulsion [to create things in words]. I’ve always been interested in voice, rather than necessarily storytelling, and I’ve always been writing poetry, or passages, since I was a teenager. I was an early reader and maxed out my library card every week and read and read and read. As long as it was fiction, I didn’t wonder what my finger had landed on. I ended up reading Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca when i was a kid just because i saw my name on the shelf. I read The Diary of a Princess next to The thorny birds; it was a fairly ad hoc selection process. I just had to keep reading whatever I could pick up; no matter what: it was as if I was going to discover some kind of secret that I risked losing at any moment.