Francesca Reece’s propulsive, vivid and witty debut, Voyeur , which sets over a French summer that tackles the pull between desire and power, was published as a launch title for summer 2021 by Tinder Press.
Francesca Reece grew up in Wales and having spent most of her twenties in Paris, now lives in London. She was the 2019 recipient of the Desperate Literature Prize for her short story ''So Long Sarajevo/They Miss You So Badly.''
Let's start from the beginning, how long have you been writing for?
I’ve kind of always been writing. I kept a diary all through my childhood and adolescence. That was my thing and when I was a kid, I either wanted to be a writer or one of those really cringey 2000s singer-songwriters (laughs).
Was “So Long Sarajevo/They Miss You So,” your short story which won the Desperate Literature Prize in 2019, the first thing that you ever published?
Yes. I’d written this novel in 2016 and it was living in the proverbial bottom drawer and not really going anywhere. I was sending it to agents and was routinely being rejected, again and again. A couple of people told me that no agent was even going to look at it, because no one knows who the hell you are—you’re just some girl who works at a café, you’ve never published anything, no one’s going to take a risk on a whole novel.
So I started writing short stories, just to get them potentially published (laughs). And, no offense to short stories, but I’m not even a big reader of them! I gave myself a training course in reading tons of short stories; I wrote a bunch and submitted them to some competitions and magazines.
And then my short story won the Desperate Literature Prize. Through that, Charlotte, my agent, sent me an email asking if I’d written anything and I was like… (chuckles) Yes! Here’s my book!
So, yeah, it was all through that and it was the first thing that got published. Publishing is an absolute nightmare if you don’t have contacts and haven’t published anything previously.
After spending years in Paris, you’re now back in London. At the beginning of the novel, Leah describes London, with its “veiled and insidious ache of the class system,” as something that she absolutely needs to escape from. Can you relate to this? Did you feel a bit more confident returning there as a published writer?
(Laughs) That's actually a really good question. It’s crazy how much it changes your feeling of yourself in a room full of people. Even watching people’s reactions when you say that you’re a novelist and your novel is about to come out—it’s so bad and I hate that this is the way it is, but people are literally amazed. Whereas before, when I said I worked in a café, the reaction would be: “oh yeah, that’s lovely…” Especially in a city like London, where everyone’s so thrusting and ambitious and carves out their own special place in this kind of an ultra capitalist landscape.
I feel I’m being really mean about London but one of the great things about going to Paris was that I was a foreigner, and I felt sort of removed from the context of competition with my peers. Which I think gave me the freedom to write and not think about things like getting a “real” job. I think if I had stayed in London, I wouldn’t have written a book, because I would’ve been so self-conscious.
Do you think that this newfound confidence has had an impact on your writing as well?
I think that, at first, it definitely gave me more confidence. It was vindication, validation. It felt like I wasn’t just writing into a vacuum. There was obviously a value to what I was trying to do. But now, the idea that it’s going to be out for public consumption and that people will judge the words that I’m writing, I just… (heavy sigh).
It’s a mixture. It definitely makes you feel validated, but there’s also this extra layer of pressure that it brings. You know that you now have to deliver, and you’re aware that what you’re writing is going to be read by other people. And that’s a little daunting.
What does a typical day look like for you? Do you have a writing routine?
When I’m doing well, I have a routine. I actually had a plan to get some kind of a part-time work, but then Covid happened. So, I’ve literally been a full-time writer this year, which has been very dreamy!
At the moment, my routine is like this: I sit down at my desk and say that I have to write 1,000 words per day. Some days that happens and some days it happens in excess of that, and I rattle out 2,000 words and I’m like: “Yeah! The muses are transporting me!” But then, on other days…
It’s interesting. When you aspire to be a professional writer and you read interviews with authors who complain that it’s the most agonizing job on the planet, you immediately think: “please, get over yourself.” But when you suddenly have to write full time, it’s not that easy. I’ve had whole stretches over a week where I sit down every day and just stare at the wall, having a complete block. My brain doesn’t engage with my fingers and all I can think is: “oh my god, I have to produce something here.” But I can’t complain, it’s the best job I’ve ever had!
Did you have an early idea of what your first novel was going to be like and what you wanted to explore in it?
Yeah, definitely. When I was a teenager, I was really obsessed with people coming back from the past, kind of like they do in the Almodóvar movies—a figure who comes and messes everything up. But I couldn’t quite work out how to write it without being cheesy… I mean, I was a teenager, so it would’ve been terrible!
But then everything started to come together and I did have this quite solid idea of the book I wanted to write. I wanted to write something like the books that I love. For example, The Magus. The kinds of books that are very much—even though I hate this word—“beach-reads,” but at the same time intellectually stimulating. Books that you can really get your teeth into. I hate to use that kind of publishing jargon, but they always talk about “upmarket beach-reads” and that was the kind of thing that I knew I definitely wanted to write.
One of the recurrent themes in Voyeur is storytelling. Can you tell us how this came about?
Yes! I’m happy that you picked that up, because it was one the big themes that I wanted to push: storytelling, truth-telling, how we narrate our own lives, and how subjective and in flux the truth is. And, as a reader of the book, you’re constantly guessing about all of these aspects, especially with Michael’s character.
Some of the epigraphs in the beginning of each new section give very pretentious clues (laughs). And the last section begins with a quote from Marie de France. It’s from this medieval courtly romance story about a forbidden love story between a knight and maiden, where she embroiders a text… but it’s all about the power of storytelling and textuality. And that’s very much what I wanted to convey in the book.
The central motive in the book, in my opinion, is Michael’s diary and next to it the fact that he’s a writer himself and has always had the monopoly on story-telling. And a lot of the text is also about Leah accessing her own ability to create her own narrative. Sliding panels of truth throughout the book were very important.
Another important motif in the novel is the male gaze, both as a subject in the arts and as a narrative technique used through Michael’s diary. What are your thoughts on this?
You know the John Berger quote right in the beginning, where he talks about women always looking at themselves through the eyes of the male gaze? I really wanted to talk about the internalized male gaze because Leah is such a victim of that at the beginning of the novel! She sees herself entirely through the way that men see her, which is also how I saw myself when I was her age. And it is incredible how much we as women, in the patriarchy, have swallowed all of that and have it within us, shaping our entire ways of moving in the world.
I loved how the novel often approached romantic possibilities—living in Paris, falling in love, travelling—but played with my expectations of how they would unfold in the narrative.
I think that in this aspect as well, the most interesting part is Michael and the fact that he’s basically incapable of seeing anyone for what they really are. All of these different ideas of love, for example, are just projections of himself. Objects of desire. He doesn’t actually know any of these people in his life. He doesn’t know Leah, he didn’t know Astrid—he’s just such a narcissist! Especially when it comes to his work, he has no morals when it comes to that.
And that’s an important moment; it’s of course very topical. I’m always very aware of the fact that I’m kind of a magpie, picking up people’s stories, but you have to have boundaries if you want to carry on being a moral person. I think it’s quite the preoccupation of our generation. Generations before us, like Michael’s, seemed to think that art is more important than morals. Whereas for us, it seems very important to be ethical while creating art. Or at least I hope so.
Ethics are definitely an important question in art today, especially if we’re talking about male dominance. That said, it’s interesting how contemporary fiction seems to be quite a female-dominated field these days.
Yes, I have definitely noticed this as well recently. I’m going to make a very big generalization here, but I do find that most of my male friends don’t really read fiction, or that if they do read it, then they don’t read contemporary fiction. The only male contemporary author that immediately comes to mind for me is Ben Lerner. So, when people are questioning why there aren’t many men writing… I feel like they don’t really read much contemporary fiction. Maybe there could be a connection here?
Still, I’d love to read more good books from a young male perspective, because 75% of the contemporary fiction that I read now is by female authors, and I love reading women. But when someone like Ben Lerner comes along I’m just like: “give it to me!”
Are there any particular authors or books that have been important to you as a writer?
The writer who basically made me write a novel—and it’s kind of odd since I feel that I have very little in common with him—was Patrick Modiano. I was reading Dans le café de la jeunesse perdue when I was living in a chambre de bonne in Paris, loafing around, and he was just writing about people wandering around Paris, going to seedy cafés and exploring all of this. It’s a very specific Modiano atmosphere that I love. Obviously he’s a Nobel Prize-winning author, but it made me feel like I could write a book. I could just sit down and start! He was a writer who very much spurred me into writing.
But in terms of my favourite writers… Rachel Kushner is hands down my favourite living author. Ben Lerner… Sybille Bedford is one I want to mention because I think she’s fucking cool and I love they way she writes about food and wine and sensations and all of these things. And Lawrence Durrell is another one but I can see that he’s very problematic and I can also see why he’s fallen out of fashion. I feel that no one is going to read The Alexandria Quartet that much anymore.
Is there anything in literature or the arts in general that you would like to see change?
I want to read an Ottessa Moshfgeh quote here:
I wish that future novelists would reject the pressure to write for the betterment of society. Art is not media. A novel is not an “afternoon special” or fodder for the Twittersphere or material for journalists to make neat generalizations about culture. A novel is not BuzzFeed or NPR or Instagram or even Hollywood. Let’s get clear about that. A novel is a literary work of art meant to expand consciousness. We need novels that live in an amoral universe, past the political agenda described on social media. We have imaginations for a reason. Novels like American Psycho and Lolita did not poison culture. Murderous corporations and exploitative industries did. We need characters in novels to be free to range into the dark and wrong. How else will we understand ourselves?
We do absolutely need novels that are moral stories. We’ve always needed them. But I do think that it’s important as well to have dark, disturbing stories, not to sound too much like a warrior against cancel culture, I’m definitely not—and I feel like the phrase “cancel culture” is a right-wing fallacy anyway—but I read this quote and felt that yes, we do need to project that!
You’ve just signed a two-book deal! Anything you can tell us about it?
Yes, I have the first draft in print here! Although the last chapter is currently in bullet points…
It’s very different! It’s about North Wales, urban-rural divide, second home ownership, political and class unrest in the UK…. Maybe I’m already giving too much away! It’s just very, very different from Voyeur.
Interview by our bookseller Iti Libe