Working on Kezia and Rosie

Every year Dahlia Publishing hosts students from the University of Leicester for a 10 week placement. The scheme run by the university provides students with an opportunity to gain work experience in a small press to enhance their learning. Students often work remotely and are supported by editor Farhana Shaikh to pursue a personal project – something where they can channel their interests and make a difference. During the 2021/22 academic year we were joined by Eva and Milly who had an interest in editing. They worked on a number of projects including supporting the production of Kezia and Rosie by Rebecca Burns. Here’s an interview the pair did with Rebecca Burns… 

We’re Eva and Milly and over the course of our placement with Dahlia we’ve been delighted to work on Rebecca Burns’ short story collection of Kezia and Rosie. From creating marketing campaigns for the collection to assisting with the blurb, for us Kezia and Rosie is an eye-opening, loving story that anyone can enjoy reading. Told from a child’s perspective, Burns’ writing captures your emotions and makes you feel for each of the sisters. We decided to interview Rebecca and learn more around her choices for creating this heartfelt collection.

What was your main inspiration for writing Kezia and Rosie?

I started writing this book during lockdown. It was a unique, strange experience for us all – I should say that I was very lucky during the pandemic, as I didn’t lose anyone, I was able to work from home and didn’t lose my job. But the situation still had a huge effect. Out of necessity, we all became more insular – staying at home, limiting social contact. I started to think back to a time when I had felt similarly cocooned – where I had experience of being “wrapped up”. That was time spent with my grandparents. I then started to write stories that drew a little on my memories of objects, the physical space, and overall sense of being in that grandparental bubble. 

How long have you been working on the project?
The thought of writing about my grandparents, or setting a story within the bubble of their love, has rattled around my head for years. But the act of writing, of putting pen to paper, happened very quickly. Lockdown was a big motivating factor – there were less distractions or calls on my time. I wrote the stories over the summer of 2020 and then spent some time editing.

Do you have a favourite of the short stories or one that you feel resonates with you the most?
I loved writing “The Bread Poultice”, because it reminded me so much of my grandad. He used to make those daft things – I remember him putting one on my finger when I’d got an infected fingernail. He had these weird, wonderful ways about him and would often take my sister off into a world of make-believe. When you add the reason to why he makes the bread poultice – to help Rosie, who was collateral damage in her parents’ disintegrating marriage – I think the story becomes profound and resonates.

Did you always know it was going to be a collection of short stories rather than a novel or singular story?
Yes. I write novels but my first love is short stories. I love diving into moments in characters’ lives and teasing out a world beyond the experience you see portrayed on the page. I wanted to build up a sense of a life and world through deep, sharp dives into moments in time, into moments in the lives of Kezia and Rosie, and work towards an overall picture.

The story mainly focuses on the 4 characters (Grandma, Granddad, Kezia and Rosie). Was there any point where you wanted to involve more main characters?
No, I wanted to portray a very small world – that word “cocoon” again springs to mind. Other characters are mentioned, of course, and Kezia and Rosie’s mum and dad are significant in their absence. 

Why did you decide to write the story mainly from Kezia’s perspective?
I wanted to write a book where the plot, meaning, and revelations unfold over time. Writing it from a child’s perspective is perfect for that – the world doesn’t make immediate sense to Kezia and sometimes she is afraid of it. 

Was the theme of family something you knew you wanted to thread throughout?
I wanted to put the relationship between these four individuals – Kezia, Rosie, Bernard and Edith – front and centre. The working-class streets and house they spend their summer in is one I know very well. There’s a great deal of love but toughness in the house on Vernon Street, and I wanted to show that this kind of family (the family bubble they create over the summer) is one that is safe and enveloping. The wider family is more chaotic. Andy, the uncle, lives thousands of miles away and is a little renegade, and the girls’ parents are not stable. But the family within the house on Vernon Street is solid and loving.

Which of your characters do you relate to the most?
I suppose Kezia, for I remember the confusion of being a child and trying to make sense of the world. I know the need to cleave to someone who offers unconditional love, and that’s something Kezia finds in abundance with her grandparents. But I also link to Rosie – so little and eager to find happiness in small things.

I found the chapter titles interesting how they were all different settings, how did you come up with where to place each chapter?
I returned to my memories of my own time with my grandparents. While the plot of the book is made up, the physicality of the stories ring true. My sister and I spend lots of time with them, playing at the allotment, or in Momma’s kitchen, or watching telly in the “parlour”. I wanted to show small, normal, but deeply loving experiences during the summer Kezia and Rosie spend with their grandparents. Maybe as I’ve become older, the memory of an afternoon playing Snakes and Ladders with Momma or helping Grandad in the greenhouse become more special.

*Spoiler warning* Finally, the main topic of Kezia’s parents separating was kept in the dark for most of the story. Why did you decide to keep it hidden and not directly address it?
Because this is how it is for Kezia – she only senses that something is wrong between her parents at first, and then pick up on hints and small clues. I wanted the reader to piece the story together at the same pace she did and, hopefully, feel her emotions – fear, bewilderment, grief, and a sense of loss. But emotions that are held in check and don’t overwhelm her because she has the ongoing love and support of her grandparents.

Milly says: 

I’m Milly, a second-year undergraduate, studying English BA at the University of Leicester. At university my interests lie in modern American literature as well as film and theatre. I have an interest in publishing after graduation as I enjoy the creative and marketing aspects of the industry. 

As a second year English student with an interest in the publishing industry, this opportunity to work alongside an independent publisher was perfect for me. I was lucky enough to be placed with Dahlia Publishing where I’ve been given the opportunity to explore and grow my interest in the publishing world. Through completing tasks involving editing and marketing I’ve had a lot of fun creating and learning with Dahlia. Dahlia has allowed me to develop my creative skills while giving me the independence to use my own initiative to complete the tasks to a high standard. I hope to take what I’ve learnt and enjoyed over the course of this placement with Dahlia Publishing into a future career as my interest in the industry has grown massively due to the work I was involved in on this placement.

Eva says:

Hi, my name’s Eva and I am currently on a placement with Dahlia Publishing as part of my degree! I am studying English with Creative Writing and have a passion for all things literature 😊 Outside of English my hobbies including piano, cooking, swimming, and learning languages. I have also been tutoring students in English for two years now – I love helping people to understand books and how they can be perceived. I have a growing interest in books and how they can help shape people’s views of the world and being able to help with this at Dahlia Publishing is amazing! 

Throughout my placement I feel I have been both supported and challenged with the work that has been my responsibility. The tasks went between editorial work (which is more in my comfort zone) and marketing. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed creating a twitter campaign with Milly as part of my placement and marketing is something that I am now much more open to exploring. Being able to work alongside Dahlia and Rebecca Burns, leading up to the launch of Kezia and Rosie, was an unforgettable experience. To know that I have played a part in publishing a collection is a wonderful thing and something I’m sure will be invaluable to my career endeavours in the future. I am very grateful for Farhana’s help, guidance, and support throughout my placement – I have enjoyed every part of it!