Q&A with Jane Rusbridge – author of Rook (Bloomsbury Circus)

Jane Rusbridge

is an Associate lecturer of creative writing at ChichesterUniversity. Her first novel, The Devil’s Music, was published to critical acclaim in 2009 and was Longlisted for the 2011 International IMPAC Literary Award. Rook is her second novel and one of six titles published this year under the new Bloomsbury Circus imprint.

Q: Music plays a central role in Rook. It’s used to great effect to create atmosphere and it gives an, at times, hypnotic rhythm to the language. In building Nora’s character, why did you decide that her chosen instrument was a cello, rather than, say, a violin or a piano?

JR: The answer to this question reveals something of the randomness and chance involved in my creative process, so I’m glad you asked it.

I knew nothing much about the cello before I wrote Rook. I play the piano, so Nora was going to be a pianist until a chance comment changed my mind. The conversation was about music, the way it speaks directly to the human brain, and someone mentioned that a cello produces the sound closest to the human voice. My ideas for the novel already involved the telling of untold stories, and with that remark something clicked: Nora was a cellist. The decision was that sudden, certain but not at all logical, since even now I don’t know if the statement is accurate.

Q: The setting of Rook is a tightly knit community, in the same area as your first novel, The Devil’s Music. Can you explain what captivates you about the seascapes of West Sussex?

JR: I’ve been reading Simon Schama’s book on landscape and memory. He says ‘landscape is the work of the mind. Its scenery built up as much from the strata of memory as from layers of rock’. And yesterday I learned that the word ‘landscaef’, brought to Britain by Anglo Saxon settlers, meant a clearing in the forest with animals, huts, fields and fences – a place carved out of the wilderness. A place made ‘home’.

My attachment to the seascapes of Sussex is rooted in my childhood and closely bound to my sense of identity. I grew up in Bexhill, East Sussex, where we had a beach hut. Often we’d be there in all weathers, from breakfast until bedtime, and my childhood memories are mostly of being outside, barefoot; of running on pebbles, climbing breakwaters, exploring rock pools, building huge sandcastles with crowds of other children. For me, memories of Sussex beaches are associated with pleasure in the freedom, tempered with safety in familiarity.

Looking back, I’d hazard a guess that’s why, as I began writing my first novel, The Devil’s Music, when everything about the process was unfamiliar and new, I chose to set it on a Sussex beach. Rook ventures a little further inland, along a creek path, across wheat fields. With novel 3, I’m getting adventurous, since it looks as though it might be set in forests on the Downs, and away from the sea.

Q: The story of modern life is interlaced with facts about archaeological digs and historical places and figures, such as the Saxon church at Bosham, King Canute and King Harold, mixed together with legend and scenes from the Bayeux Tapestry. How long did you spend researching the background to the story?

JR: There were a few weeks of intense research near the start of the writing process, when I read church archives and made copious notes. The church archivist took me up the Saxon bell tower, unlocked cupboards and drawers filled with papers, and put into my hand a piece of stone from the coffin thought to belong to a daughter of King Cnut. I read about historical artefacts found in the mud around ChichesterHarbour and the history of the Godwin family; squelched around on the foreshore of Bosham creek; visited The Anchor Bleu and bought ice-cream from the van on the foreshore. It takes a while to discover how or indeed if, any information gathered is relevant to the emerging story, so all this was left to ‘compost’.

Rook took almost 4 years to write, from first inklings, but the total time spent researching is difficult to quantify. For me, it’s an essential and ongoing part of the creative process. I start writing more or less into the dark, imagining scenes to get to know my characters. Being a bit obsessive about detail, I can’t stand being vague, even in first drafts, so I look up specific details if necessary. On tricky days when my imagination is not in gear, is somehow stuck, I switch to reading around the subject to free my mind. This will be when I alight upon the gem, the snippet which has been waiting for me to find it, the vital spark needed to get my imagination rolling once more.

For example, well into the redrafting stage, I ground to a halt. The puzzle of what was to connect the 1066 Edyth sections to the contemporary women’s stories was not yet solved in a satisfying way, and it worried me. Turning idly to Google during a coffee break, I found an article on Harold II’s burial place I hadn’t read before. I traced the author – an academic – emailed him, and in response to my query, received an answer pages long, with some relevant sections of the Waltham Chronicles attached. As I read about the monks at Waltham Abbey, a different version of Edyth’s story sprang to mind, one which tied in with Nora’s storyline. My problem was solved, as if by accident.

Q: Parts of Rook must have been difficult for you, as a mother, to write. Without giving away the storyline, can you say a little about the creative process of writing difficult emotional scenes?

JR: What triggered the idea for Nora’s story was an item in a tabloid newspaper, which got me wondering. By chance, I came across another, very similar case, was niggled by the one-sided telling of both. My sense of a misrepresentation prompted a quick online search, to see what else came up.

I didn’t want to write about these ‘true life’ events. Sensationalism was a danger. Plus, Nora’s story is not something I have experienced myself. The novel was going to be about the repercussions of a school reunion in middle age, I thought. How did I not know my own process better? Nora was barely more than an image, yet there I was sketching out a plot. That’s never worked for me before, and it didn’t work this time.

So, the creative process began with my resistance, which in the end gave way. One day, I began talking about my preoccupation with these stories to a friend and, in one of those weird moments of synchronicity which happen when you’re writing, I learned she’d recently been involved with something similar, not personally, but observed at close hand. What she recounted moved me. I read seriously around the subject, watched films, bought a specialists’ manual, wept over images and, most importantly, met with women who’d been through at least part of Nora’s experience.

The full stories behind experiences like Nora’s usually remain secret, but I bought an autobiography by a woman who’d done what Nora has done, thinking it would help me get under my character’s skin, to understand. On first reading, her account disappointed me terribly – so little detail was there. Clearly, she had been left too tender to express her emotions fully. Of course she had. That simple realisation of the difficulty of voicing this particular secret was the key to finding the ‘voice’ for Nora’s most distressing scenes.

Q: You don’t include lengthy notes about the historical facts nor include a detailed bibliography of texts consulted while writing Rook, although you mention some books in your ‘Acknowledgement’. Unless the reader is familiar with English history they could easily miss many of the historical resonances and subtleties which texture the story. What’s the reasoning behind this decision?

JR: This is a very interesting question. The books acknowledged are those I relied on most for inspiration and information, but Rook is fiction, an imagined story which grew organically. I made things up, played with time and distance, wanting to open up possibilities, to explore the difference between secrets and mysteries. I hoped to suggest that, in the end, there is very little we actually ‘know’ – about historical events like Harold’s death and burial place, and also about the people we love.

So, although I read many different historical viewpoints, I tried not to allow ‘facts’ to restrict the direction of the novel’s growth. I selected and discarded sources and information in a process very different from the one I’d employ if writing an academic essay. It’s been said before, but it’s relevant here: the ‘truth’ of a piece of fiction is something separate from ‘facts’.

As for missing historical resonances, if that happens I’d hope there’ll be some residual or subliminal effect to enrich the reader’s experience of the novel. However, some details are there simply because knowing them gave me pleasure, and because they belonged.

Q: If you were paper, what would you fold yourself into?

JR: One of those paper fortune-tellers children make, because of all the possibilities they hold, secreted in the folds.

Cross-posted from We Love this Book