Martin Shaw interviews Rebecca Starford
Rebecca Starford’s Bad Behaviour: A Memoir of Bullying and Boarding School is generating much excitement at Readings. After numerous sleep-deprived staff members turned up to work unable to think or speak of anything else, Martin Shaw decided to go straight to the source for the story behind this fantastic debut. Here, Martin and Rebecca discuss how this extraordinary memoir came about.
MS: I’d have to confess that I was a little stunned when I heard that this book had been signed a couple of years ago. How will she find the time, I wondered: between being a full-time editor (you’re now at Text Publishing) and running the esteemed literary journal Kill Your Darlings (that you co-founded) – and writing a book on top of that?! And for someone still in their twenties to have material for a memoir already? But perhaps your very profession has played a role in making this book come about: by being a handmaiden to other people’s writing, as it were, it perhaps gave you the idea that there were possibilities within your own personal history to explore? And I couldn’t help but recall that to my mind your biggest editing triumph to date – your work on the book which became a regional winner of the 2013 Commonwealth Book Prize for a first novel, The Last Thread by Michael Sala – was a book with heavy autobiographical underpinnings. How did you first come to thinking of writing this book?
RS: ‘How do you have time?’ is a question I was often asked when I was working on the manuscript! And it certainly was a challenge to write the book while working full-time and running KYD – but I think writing a book is pretty gruelling for anyone, no matter what their time commitments might be (whether it’s work, or family, or friends).
Before I began writing, I had very rigid ideas about the conditions for writing: it couldn’t possibly be in a café, or a library, or after 6pm because my ‘creative brain’ had switched off by then … I pretty quickly had to throw these restrictions out the window if I was going to meet my deadline, and I found when I relaxed my process, I wrote a whole lot more.
But I did write most of the book in my study, before I went to work each morning. I set my alarm for 6.30am, and after a few snoozes I’d roll out of bed, and be at the desk for an hour of writing before getting ready to go to work. I’d usually write about 1500 or 2000 words a week like that, and then I’d work for a minimum of three hours a day each day of the weekend. That really was the key to shaping the material – it’s very hard to condense redrafting and editing.
I first thought about writing about my experiences at boarding school about five years ago. I’d just come out of an intense and pretty dysfunctional relationship, and I was very unhappy. I just couldn’t pull myself out of the slump I was in – I found I was thinking about myself a lot, but not being very introspective, or thoughtful towards other people.
I finally rustled up the courage to see a therapist, which was a transformative experience. During these sessions, I started talking about old friends I hadn’t thought about in a long time, and then I found myself often thinking about ‘Silver Creek’ – drawing comparisons to the friendships I’d had there, as a teenager, to the relationship I’d just come out of.
But I didn’t think of writing a book – not at first, anyway. I planned write an essay; an essay seemed far more contained, and less daunting than a full-length manuscript. I’d had a bit of experience writing essays, but mostly I’d been writing reviews and literary criticism – as far away from life writing, I think, as you can get!
A friend had recommended I read Odd Girl Out by Rachel Simmons, a young American writer and academic. This was a fascinating book, which profiled dozens of teenage girls across various social milieus, and demonstrated how endemic aggression (emotional, psychological and, at times, physical) is to female friendship – and how often the aggressor is also the best and most loved friend.
Reading this book really kick-started my book-writing plans. Eventually I realised that I had far more material than I could squeeze into an essay – and that my interests and motivations in writing the book had in fact changed: I wanted to dig deeper into my own experiences, to re-examine what happened during that year away, and how much of an effect it had on me into adulthood.
MS: I loved the way you addressed the issue of writing about people you knew, and may still know, already in the opening paragraph of the book, interrogating the impulse and addressing any potential qualms the reader may have. Even though a preliminary note informs us that ‘names have been changed, attributes adjusted & characters conflated’, you seem to flag both a freedom and a responsibility in your method. How did you find the experience of writing about people so clearly drawn from life? Did the necessity of protecting identities, especially when writing about disturbing episodes of bullying when you were at school, or private moments in your adult relationships, inadvertently provide opportunities for you to shape the narrative while still remaining true to the essence of events?
RS: It’s a tricky question because all storytelling is contrived, to an extent, isn’t it? But writing about real-life people does bring with it such complex ethical questions. And while I did eventually change characters’ names to protect their identity, and the identity of the school, I must confess that I didn’t really ask myself any of these moral questions as I was writing. Not out of any callousness, but because I think if I did, I would have found the writing the book excruciating – all that second-guessing. One of the great challenges writing this memoir was to step outside of myself – to almost become a character that wasn’t me at all, to create a greater degree of reflection and objectivity. Once I’d done this, however, I felt really liberated. That’s why I found the earlier sections, when I was a teenager, far easier to write – because I had that distance of time separating us.
What I found most interesting – and at times technically challenging – was how to shape these episodes into a concise (and hopefully compelling) narrative. Writing your life like a story is a strange experience – and yes, there are instances where events aren’t entirely chronological, or I have attributed dialogue to a different character, because it creates more dramatic tension or has more emotional resonance. But I was always conscious of, as you’ve described it, remaining authentic to the essence of this year – as well as the events I write about further on, when I am an adult.
MS: A key to the book – the thing without which you probably couldn’t have undertaken the project – is the existence of your diary from that time as a 14 year old school student. But of course it’s not what’s mentioned in it that became the thing that intrigued or bothered you the most, but that ‘so many things had been left out entirely – arguments, sadness, misbehaviour. On these pages I’d instead pasted in photographs from hikes, to make it look like something else had happened. What, I wondered, was I trying to forget?’ How useful was having your diary to refer back to, and what do you think are the limits of drawing upon the writings of your 14-year-old self?
RS: I think it would have been very difficult to write this book without my diary. It was my lifeline during the early drafts – for so many reasons. It helped me recall certain events that I had completely forgotten, it gave me insight into my thoughts and concerns and preoccupations throughout the year, and it helped me ‘plot’ out the narrative, because all the key events of the memoir are there, in its pages.
I also think drawing on any kind of diary has its limits – mainly because I really was the most atrocious writer when I was that age. God, the cringes on re-reading it! But what I found limiting about my diary also became one of my most intriguing questions, which is teased out in the book: what was I trying to forget? And, as it turned out, it was many of the instances of bullying that took place up in the boarding house – which I obviously didn’t forget about because I’ve shaped a memoir around it! But it was weirdly confronting and uncomfortable reading that diary for the first time in more than ten years and realising that I was trying, in a pretty unsophisticated yet strategic way, to re-write my own history, my own memories, with a misguided belief I might be able to trick myself into forgetting certain episodes years later.
MS: Relatedly, how much embellishment was required – for instance for your sensory descriptions of place, your recording of feelings and emotions, and indeed your recall of conversations? In recent years – particularly in relation to the gargantuan amount of detail in the autobiographical fictions of Karl Ove Knausgaard for instance – we frequently hear the refrain: how does he (she) remember all this?!
RS: Ha ha. You know, sometimes I alarm myself at how much I can remember about that year, but not remember from yesterday!
I do think all memoir requires a degree of creative embellishment, mostly in the transitions between scenes, or drawing out particular themes or motifs – otherwise it would read very episodically (much like memory itself). When I visited the school again for the first time in years, I took a notepad with me so I could mark down these sensory descriptions. In my diary, I wasn’t so interested in what the air smelt like, or which birds were in the trees (I wrote a lot about what food I’d been eating and how much I disliked particular teachers). But it was strange: as soon as I stepped out of the car on that first trip back, I was overwhelmed with the familiarity of the place – those smells, particularly, but also the feel of the air; it has its own kind of weight, almost.
The conversations, obviously, also have embellishments – it’s not possible to remember them all verbatim. But I have tried my best to reproduce the essence of them, as I remember them – as well as how I was feeling at that time. Because you don’t really forget how you felt during that time in your life, do you? The more I talk to people about the book, the more I realise this to be true – those feelings and experiences at that stage of your life leave a lasting imprint on your psyche.
MS: I remember that when a short excerpt from this book was published last year I had the reaction: alright, this is apparently memoir, but gee it would make excellent fiction too! It’s possible, I guess, that there will be people who might suggest it would have been safer for you to have made this material fiction? As it stands you put everything out there: some chilling interpersonal relationships between the girls; some lax supervision on the part of the teaching staff; and a seeming indifference from your parents to your welfare. It’s powerful, astonishingly honest stuff – was there ever a time when you questioned just how unflinching you were being?
RS: There were a couple of times when I thought about writing this as fiction, but it wasn’t the project I wanted to write. Part of what I describe in the book gets to the heart of why I needed to write this as autobiography – to reconcile with these events from the past, and to evaporate all that residual shame I had carried around for so long (shame about being a bully, shame about being bullied, shame about being gay, etc.) – all of which had a profound impact on my sense of self, and my happiness.
I also don’t know if a writer can ever be safe, no matter if they’re writing fiction or non-fiction – don’t we say of fiction writers that they’re hiding in plain sight?
I’ve always thought that the only way I could write this memoir is to be as unflinchingly honest about myself as anyone else in the book. Now that the book has been published, I don’t have a lot of control on how readers will interpret that intention – but it was extremely difficult, at times, to narrate some passages about myself. There were some scenes I just really didn’t want to write – which, perversely, made me understand I had to write them.
MS: If one was to name a general tone of the book it might be to a great extent a self-castigatory one. The journey of the book seems to seek some explanation of that pivotal year, and achieve some sort of peace with the past. But you don’t spare either the people around you at the time or yourself. I imagine some people are going to be a little shocked by just how honest and open you are – not least with respect to the people who will see themselves portrayed. Perhaps the most sensitive for you is your portrait of your mother. I thought of Kafka’s Letter to My Father here in its fault-finding – but the very large difference is that Kafka never sent that letter, and it remained unpublished in his lifetime. How do you think people are going to react to this book? Would it have been a betrayal of your intent to be more sparing?
RS: I imagine it must be very hard to be written about by someone else. Most often when we talk about these ethical issues, we talk about it from the perspective of the writer, and we try to be very libertarian about it. But I guess if the shoe was on the other foot, it would probably be very different …
If someone from my boarding house had written about this year, and I featured as a character, I would feel very uncomfortable, but only because of the fear about how these events might be represented: I would have absolutely no control over the storytelling.
So I was very aware of that ‘powerlessness’, if you like, of the real-life people I write about. And although I have attributed to them dialogue, and gestures, and mannerisms, they are also rendered silent. They can’t reply; they can’t protest; they can’t say, ‘That’s not how it happened.’ (Unless, of course, they write a book too). In some ways, that is the most thorny issue to grapple with – they’re already at a disadvantage, and we’re all conditioned to think that this isn’t fair.
Joan Didion says all writers are ruthless. But I’m not sure: that seems to imply that a writer has no compassion or pity for other people; people who become the subjects of their books. I may have not censored the episodes from that year, but I always tried to be honest and compassionate and feeling towards the characters; they are only girls, after all, and like me they will have changed as adults, and perhaps even carried around similar feelings as I did. My portrait of my mother, particularly, is drawn out of love, and also heartbreak.
MS: Which probably brings me to my next question: it seems to me that there was a personal imperative that compelled you to write this book the way you have. It also seems as if it’s got multiple addressees: principally yourself, of course, but also your classmates, your teachers, your parents – and readers too. You don’t spare yourself at all in a lament for some of the choices you made and the path you took – but it’s not a story just about your own path to understanding and reconciliation with the past: it seems to implore all of those people in your life-world at the time, and indeed all of us generally, to take some responsibility for our actions and prevent the psychological scarring that ‘bad behaviour’ can give rise to. Would you agree?
RS: Yes, I think that is true, to a point. What I hoped might come about from the publication of the book were a couple of things: the first being that it generates a more complex discussion about bullying – one that explores the dual role of bully and bullied, and the impact this has on all of us when we become adults.
It’s really wonderful that we now talk very openly about bullying in schools, particularly – and of course much of this aggression now happens online as much as it does in real life.
But I couldn’t help wondering: for every child that is the victim of bullying, there is of course a bully – and what becomes of them? Do they keep bullying as they get older? Or do they internalise these inclinations, and become victims themselves? And do they ever really reflect on their behaviour every time we talk about bullying?
I don’t know if all ‘bad behaviour’ causes psychological scarring. I think it depends on your experiences – and also your capacity to understand your own behaviour. When I was feeling my most lost, I didn’t feel like I understood myself at all, which was a really scary feeling, and I also wasn’t a very good communicator with people I was close to. I felt so disconnected from myself – which is why I am so thankful I went and spoke to someone about everything that was going on inside my head, because now I feel like I have a much better understanding of my behaviour – and I am so much happier for it!
MS: You lament that even though you spent a year with the girls of ‘Red House’, you still felt that you didn’t really get to know them. Do you think the wariness you felt was unavoidable? In writing this book, what insights did you gain into the nature of friendship? How influential do you feel young friendships are in establishing frameworks and patterns for future friendships and even relationships?
RS: I think young friendships are massively influential in the way we form relationships in later life, absolutely. For many women, the first heartbreak they ever experience is the loss of the best girl friend – generally through conflict. This happened to me, when I was nine, and it was like the world had ended. I couldn’t sleep, I lost weight; I acted out in class. It was like a break-up. I was devastated.
I think I’ve become a much better friend as I’ve got older, especially in recent years, because I understand myself a lot better. I’m also far more intuitive about my friends’ feelings and emotions, and I’m a lot less sensitive in turn. My closest friends are women I’ve know for a really long time – some for more than twenty years – so we’ve been through a lot together and we know each other extremely well. I love my friends so dearly – I can’t imagine not having them in my life. I’ve also learned that friendships are constantly evolving and changing, no matter how long you might have known someone – and like long-term relationships, they also require lots of reflection, good communication, as well as compassion and understanding and, at times, forgiveness.
MS: In Bad Behaviour you give much thought to privilege, public vs private education and the particular issues faced by scholarship students. You recognise you were lucky to access the education you had, but your story attests to some considerable psychological scars. What are your thoughts now about the relative cost – both financially and emotionally – vs the benefits of the sort of schooling you have written about in Bad Behaviour? Might ‘elite’ schooling do more harm than good?
RS: Almost everyone I know has some kind of war wound from their school years, whether they went to a public or private school, so I don’t think the issue is at all unique to ‘elite’ schools. I was so lucky growing up to have parents who believed in the value of education (they have both worked in the state education system for decades) – and supported me in all my studies. They worked their hardest to enable my brother and me as many opportunities as possible – the biggest being going to a school like Silver Creek.
I had bad experiences during my year at Silver Creek, but that doesn’t mean other people who go to the school – or other schools like it – will have those same experiences. As I write about in the book, Red Unit was a unique mix of girls – some of the most socially vulnerable in with a few fairly notorious bullies.
There are many wonderful aspects of the program that I feel fortunate to have participated in – the hiking, for instance, was such a wonderful way to build confidence and resilience and a love of the outdoors. And I had many wonderful experiences during my years down at the senior school, where I made great friends and was lucky to have several truly inspiring teachers who fostered in me a love of literature and the arts that I’m not sure I would have necessarily pursued at university if I had gone to a different school.
I can’t speak for the philosophy or culture of other ‘elite’ private schools. Unfortunately, as I mentioned in an earlier question, I do believe this kind of aggression is endemic to girls’ experience – it is part of our make-up; only it manifests in some relationships worse than others. Environment has a lot to do with that, as does loneliness and fear. I often reflected that the primary aggressor in Bad Behaviour was in fact terrified most of the time – about not being loved, and not being able to be herself.
MS: With the publication of Bad Behaviour, it seems inevitable that such names as Helen Garner and Karl Ove Knausgaard will be thrown into the discussion as points of comparison, and in the book you reveal the powerful influence the discovery of the writings of Virginia Woolf had for you. Aside from the fact that you read a lot of contemporary writing in the course of your work, were there any particular literary influences that helped shape Bad Behaviour?
RS: Helen Garner and Karl Ove Knausgaard are two writers I admire greatly (and I do find the Knausgaard phenomenon really interesting). Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye has been a big (and perhaps obvious!) inspiration, and Jeanette Winterson’s Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal? had a profound impact on me when I first read it, particularly because of the complexity of her relationship with her mother, and definitely influenced my own writing about family. I also read Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club and Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life while I was writing, which was really instructive, as well as other novels like Picnic at Hanging Rock and Fly Away Peter by David Malouf for its evocation of the bush landscape.