Issue 051 Author Interview: Rebecca Burton and “There Is a Cottage by the Woods”

Oh, dear readers, who of us haven’t dreamt of being goodly witches living in the woods? Helen, the protagonist of Issue 051 story “There Is a Cottage by the Woods” gets to live that dream, and here we have author Rebecca Burton to chat with us about it!

LSQ: I am so envious of Helen’s life by the end of this story! Becoming a neighborhood witch in a magical cottage sounds like a dream life. Why do you think stories like this are so appealing despite their lack of “conventional” action?

Rebecca: It does sound wonderful, doesn’t it! I think as readers – at least some of us, some of the time we are drawn to what is missing or unclear in our own lives. If we feel lost or muddled or scared (like a lot of us have been over the last few years) or just tired, we reach for stories that offer us peace and comfort. At least, that’s what it can be like for me. In 2020, I pretty much only read comfort reads – either returning to old books that I love or reading books that I knew had a happy ending. Stories like these provide us with a safe space to rest – I think that is what makes them so appealing.

(And just because not a lot happens on the surface, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the same goes for inside the characters’ – and the readers’ – hearts and minds.)

LSQ: I like that this story focuses on what we need vs. what we want. Why do you think it’s so hard for people to differentiate between the two?

Rebecca: I think I’d go even further – there’s what we need, what we want and what we are told we should want. That last one is the really insidious one for me.

We receive so many messages all the time about what and who we should be, and our own brains can get hijacked – both by those external messages, but also by the more primitive parts of ourselves, our lizard and monkey brains, that want immediate gratification. They’re trying to protect us and keep us alive, they just don’t realize we don’t live in the jungle anymore.

In all that noise, the small voice of ourselves can get lost if we don’t remember to listen to it. We’re all so busy doing and trying to survive, we can’t hear ourselves anymore. And I think, sometimes what we want is easy, or more acceptable, than what we realize we need.

Following what we need often means going against what is generally agreed to be proper or right or appropriate, because it is unique to us. It’s not just following the same path as everyone else. It can even be pushing back against social norms. So even if we know what we need, there can be a big barrier between knowing that and being able to act on it because we’re scared of rocking the boat.

Sometimes even acknowledging what we need can be too much for us, if we live in enough fear.

For Helen, she has to stand up to her mother – who she knows loves her, but doesn’t understand her – but also the societal expectation that she will do something “useful”, where useful means “makes a lot of money”. And she also has to face the expectations she has built for herself around academia and study being more important, or “purer”, than making money, and whether she actually wants to study or is just talking herself into it. And then she has a third path offered to her, that no one expects and no one from her life would approve of, and it fits – but she has to give up everything else; all those expectations, all those dreams she built brick by brick for herself. I’m exhausted for her, just thinking about it!

LSQ: This story begins with young Helen daring to see if the stories about the witch are true. You could have easily made this story a little more sinister, but it turns out wholesome in every way. Why did you choose a kind, generous witch rather than go with the creepy old witch who lives in a bog route?

Rebecca: The honest answer is “she just came to me that way” and this would be a very different story if she wasn’t. This is the story I needed to write when I wrote it, and I try not to argue too much with the bit of my brain that feeds me stories in case it decides to stop. But that’s not a very helpful answer!

I guess my underlying premise is that people are inherently good. They may become warped by things they experience or they may justify doing bad things through convoluted reasoning, but I like to believe that, at our core, humans are born kind and caring and capable of so much love. At least until life smacks us around a few times.

Maybe that makes me hopelessly naïve. But I choose to keep believing it anyway.

LSQ: Are there any other projects you’re working on? If so, could you tell us a bit about them?

Rebecca: This year, I have found myself drawn to writing horror and horror-adjacent stories – which is somewhat unusual for me given I can’t be in the same room as someone watching a horror movie! My husband loves them, but I have to hide when he puts them on. But, for some odd reason, that’s where my brain has been going back to for the last few months. I just try to go with it…

My current project is a story about a woman suffering from skin hunger, so starved of human touch and affection that mouths start to appear on her skin, and then they start to speak… Shades of lockdown, perhaps?