Today I’m delighted to feature author Rebecca Stonehill. She is the author of three historical fiction books, The Poet’s Wife, The Girl and the Sunbird and The Secret Life of Alfred Nightingale. Rebecca is currently working on her fourth novel, set in rural Norfolk in the 19th century, as well as a memoir.
Besides the UK, Rebecca has lived in Spain, India and Kenya. She now lives in Norwich, Norfolk with her husband and three children where she teaches creative writing online to children.
Over to Rebecca:
Which five pieces of music/songs would you include in the soundtrack to your life and why?
This is such a hard question as music is SO important to me and always has been. If you asked me tomorrow, they may be an entirely different five songs! But today, if I have to narrow them down to five, here they are in chronological order of significance:
Take on Me by a-ha. This was the first band I unashamedly loved. I can’t quite believe I’m admitting this but I used to sleep with a picture of Morten Harket under my pillow and often fell asleep listening to a-ha on my Walkman
It’s Raining Men by The Weather Girls. When I was eighteen, I travelled with a schoolfriend after A Levels to work on a kibbutz in Israel. They always seemed to be playing this song at all the nightclubs and I don’t know how many times I danced to it. We then inter-railed back to the UK through Europe and this was definitely played a lot in the bars and clubs and was really ‘the’ song of my gap year.
Cucurrucucu Paloma by Caetano Veloso. This music was played as my husband and I walked down the garden ‘aisle’ after our outdoor wedding while friends and family scattered us with rose petals. I still remember that moment so well – everything felt as though it were in slow motion.
Beethoven’s ‘Emperor’ Piano Concerto No.5 in E Flat. I made a playlist when I was pregnant with my first daughter but most often played this one, hoping that the calm beauty of this music would be felt by her. She is a calm, grounded soul – so maybe it worked!
Obiero by Ayub Ogada. I lived in Kenya with my family for five years and whilst there, I completely fell in love with the sound of a traditional African lyre called a nyatiti, native to Western Kenya. I love listening to this song as it immediately takes me back to the open plains, teeming with wildlife and the wide skies of this beautiful country.
What five things (apart from family and friends) would you find it hard to live without.
My journal. – I have written a diary since the tender age of 6 so would struggle to be without a journal to write my thoughts in. I don’t write every night, just when I feel like it (which is often) and if I’m ever going away, this is the first thing I am likely to grab. I also always keep a list in the back of my diaries of the books I’ve read, so it’s a great book record for me.
Yoga mat. – No matter what is going on in my life or the wider world, standing on my yoga mat immediately grounds me. I have a short yoga routine I do every morning to help ease me into the day. At the end of it, I always set an intention for the day, checking into my body to see what it needs.
Piano. – Something would definitely be missing from my life if I couldn’t play the piano frequently. I find it hugely relaxing and if I’m stressed, when my fingers make contact with the keys, something definitely shifts and eases inside me. At the moment I’m challenging to learn some jazz, but mostly I play ambient piano music, especially the pieces of Ludovico Einaudi.
High-speed blender. – This gets SO much use in our house, from making oat milk to hummus to almond butter to smoothies to soups. It is one of the best household items we ever invested in!
Walking Boots. – I absolutely love walking. I have to go for a walk every day, even if it’s a short one. At the weekends, I always go for a longer walk with my family in a rural area and when I get the chance, I love longer-distance walking. A wonderful memory was a five day trek to climb Mount Kenya which was spectacular. I’m hoping to climb both Ben Nevis and Mount Snowdon this year. Good walking boots are a must for me to support my ankle after a very bad skiing accident in my late twenties.
Give five pieces of advice to your younger self?
Remember that things are always changing. When you’re having a hard time, it won’t stay hard forever. Life is not a constant high, and it’s so much richer to embrace and create a healthy relationship with your vulnerabilities and frailties as well as your joyful traits.
Perseverance and self-belief is just as important as talent. Keep going. Keep writing. You’ll get there. Don’t forget writer Debbie Millman’s advice that ‘anything worthwhile takes a long time.’
You won’t have a lot of time with your Dad, so make the most of the time you do spend with him. Ask him questions, about himself, about his past and his family. Really get to know him. This is precious time.
You have a unique gift to offer the world that only you can contribute. When you are feeling anxious or insecure don’t forget that.
Don’t worry about trying to look or act a certain way around the boys; worrying you’re not pretty or witty enough. One day, you will sit on a bus in a Guatemalan lakeside village and meet a man and you’ll know, very quickly, that your life is about to change.
Tell us five things that most people don’t know about you
When I was growing up, I thought I had the strangest family in the world. Why? Because my father was older than my grandparents, I had a niece who was older than me and many (over ten) half-siblings, one of whom was the same age as my mother. The first writing competition I ever won was when I was about 8. It was for the Puffin magazine and we had to create a zany family. I just wrote the truth about mine which clearly did the trick!
My paternal grandparents who were Jewish left Poland in the nick of time. They emigrated to Chicago and managed to get a number of their family members and friends to the US though sadly, many could not leave.
I have faced significant challenges with chronic insomnia for fifteen years which has impacted hugely on my life. That being said, I’m really proud of what I’ve managed to achieve even with the presence of this in my life.
When I left University at the age of 21, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life so spent a year solo-backpacking and doing voluntary work in India. I have loved India ever since.
I don’t eat any dairy or meat. I eat a small amount of fish but make sure this is sustainably sourced possible because of plummeting global fish stocks and unethical fishing methods. The MSC doesn’t go far enough in my opinion.
Tell us five things you’d still like to do or achieve.
I’d like to see my future books in bookshops. The novels published with my previous publisher have a different model and are only sold digitally or through a print-on-demand service.
I have a dream that one day, the house I live in will have its own library! This will be filled with shelves of books, comfy chairs and many, many houseplants.
I am currently working on a memoir which feels, in many ways, like the most important thing I’ve ever written. I write about some very difficult things in my life and my greatest wish is that this will be able to help others going through something similar.
I realise that the first three things on this list are book-related! So here’s a non-book wish: I’d like to visit my sister and her family where they live in New Hampshire in the US. They moved there from London five years ago and I haven’t made it out there yet.
During the first lockdown, I unexpectedly picked up a new hobby of identifying wildflowers and plants. I’m getting pretty good at knowing which ones we can eat, even in urban areas (and often add various leaves to the family dinner!), but I’d love to expand my knowledge on this subject so I can find out more about the healing properties of different wildflowers and herbs.
So delighted to finally get to know more about you Rebecca. We’ve had fleeting contacts over the years so this has been a real pleasure for me. I love your music choices, don’t worry you’re not the first to admit to a Morten Harket crush!. Great to hear something Spanish as well, you might remember I love Spain. I have spent the morning listening to Ayub Ogada (courtesy of YouTube) so thank you for introducing me, he has a beautiful voice and his music is so relaxing. Interesting to see that you enjoy playing by pieces by Ludovico Einaudi, I only discovered him recently when he appeared as one of Angela Petch’s music choices.
Now that things are starting to relax (fingers crossed) I hope you get to Ben Nevis and Mount Snowdon, I’ve done the latter several times – in all weathers, but hopefully it will be good for you. Now about that bus in Guatemala, you do realise we all want to know more now – I guess we’ll have to wait for the memoir. In addition to your ‘zany family’ you’ve had such an interesting life it will be a worthy read. Here’s to seeing your books in print and you must work towards that library, every home should have one – I’m still dreaming too!
The Secret Life of Alfred Nightingale
A compelling page turner of a buried past resurfacing, set against a backdrop of the 1960’s youth culture and war torn Crete.
1967. Handsome but troubled, Jim is almost 18 and he lives and breathes girls, trad jazz, Eel Pie Island and his best friend, Charles. One night, he hears rumours of a community of young people living in caves in Matala, Crete. Determined to escape his odious, bully of a father and repressed mother, Jim hitchhikes through Europe down to Matala. At first, it’s the paradise he dreamt it would be. But as things start to go wrong and his very notion of self unravels, the last thing Jim expects is for this journey of hundreds of miles to set in motion a passage of healing which will lead him back to the person he hates most in the world: his father.
Taking in the counter-culture of the 1960’s, the clash of relationships between the WW2 generation and their children, the baby boomers, this is a novel about secrets from the past finally surfacing, the healing of trauma and the power of forgiveness.
The Girl and the Sunbird
East Africa 1903:When eighteen year old Iris Johnson is forced to choose between marrying the frightful Lord Sidcup or a faceless stranger, Jeremy Lawrence, in a far-off land, she bravely decides on the latter.
Accompanied by her chaperone, Miss Logan, Iris soon discovers a kindred spirit who shares her thirst for knowledge. As they journey from Cambridgeshire to East Africa, Iris’s eyes are opened to a world she never knew existed beyond the comforts of her family home.
But when Iris meets Jeremy, she realizes in a heartbeat that they will never be compatible. He is cold and cruel, spending long periods of time on hunting expeditions and leaving Iris alone.
Determined to make the best of her new life, Iris begins to adjust to her surroundings; the windswept plains of Nairobi, and the delightful sunbirds that visit her window every day. And when she meets Kamau, a school teacher, Iris finds her calling, assisting him to teach the local children English.
Kamau is everything Jeremy is not. He is passionate, kind and he occupies Iris’s every thought. She must make a choice, but if she follows her heart, the price she must pay will be devastating.
The Poet’s Wife
Granada, 1920. Free-spirited Luisa and young poet Eduardo fall in love, cementing a bond that can never be broken.
Behind the jasmine filled courtyard, perched amongst houses like clouds on a hilltop, stands a beautiful villa; Carmen de las Estrellas. Beneath its walls live Eduardo and Luisa with their thriving family, but war is looming, casting its shadow over the household.
When Civil War finally breaks out, Luisa and Eduardo must fiercely protect those dear to them. Yet these are turbulent times, and as each of their children begin to make their way in the world, the solace of home cannot shield them from the horrors of war.
This is Rebecca Stonehill’s first collection of published poems. They were written in 2019 during a period of great inner struggle brought about by long term chronic insomnia and explore the frustration and pain of this condition, but also the stillness and compassion for herself and the world around her that has grown out of her experiences.