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

BookRambler’s Q&A with Children’s Author, Lari Don

Lari Don is an award-winning children’s author of ten books and a further four books out this year.

Maze Running and other Magical Missions,  published by Floris Books this month, is the last in the popular ‘First Aid for Fairies’ series for older children.

Lari also writes picture books for younger readers.

 

Lari graciously agreed to a Q&A by email before the launch of her latest title – Maze Running …, which I devoured in one sitting. It’s pacy and exciting – a really good traditional story for children and a fitting climax to the series:

 One of Helen’s friends is dying, stabbed in the heart by the Master, and this life-threatening injury needs a magical remedy. Helen and her fabled-beast friends unite, with the help of the dragons, to find a magical token with the power to cure. But they only have until tomorrow night…

[from the publisher’s tempting blurb]

Lari regularly updates her blog with information for writers looking for tips and inspiration and with reflective posts that examine the writing life. And in her email responses she gives thoughtful answers that let us into some of the decisions and strategies she adopts when writing for children.

Q1. In Maze Running, as in all your books, you create a real page turner. From the first page the pace flies along and doesn’t flag. New writers often struggle with their openings –either they begin too dramatically and then fizzle out or build to the drama but fizzle out quickly. You keep the pace moving forwards. How do you do work it out? Do you write individual scenes and connect them together or work out the cliff-hangers at the end of each chapter and write up to it?

LDI’m glad you thought the story kept on moving! I like to keep the pace up, so I try to put any description or necessary information amongst the action, rather than stopping the action. And I don’t plan the plot carefully beforehand; I just let the story carry me along. I tend to write chronologically, rather than writing individual scenes then moving them around, and I use cliff-hangers as signposts to aim for, but really, I just sprint ahead with the characters and record what happens!  However I do edit very carefully afterwards, to cut out all the bits I needed to work out the story, but which the reader doesn’t want to slog through.  I hope that’s why it’s pacy!

Q2. You don’t shy away from writing about dark things that happen. Do you worry that this might be too frightening for your readers? How do you know when you’ve got it right?

LDI don’t ever know if I’ve got it right.

I did once read a draft chapter of Rocking Horse War to my own kids, and as I got to the dark distressing bit, I thought “Oh dear, this might make them upset.” Then I thought, “If this makes them cry, then I’ve written it right.” It made them cry. And I was very pleased. Which probably makes me a conscientious writer, and a terrible mother!

When I write picture books for wee ones, they are not dark or scary. There will be a problem, but it will be solved in daylight, with adults in the background.

But Rocking Horse War and the First Aid for Fairies books are for older kids. I wouldn’t be able to sustain their interest over 20plus chapters if there wasn’t some danger, and as a writer I wouldn’t want to live in that world for a year if there weren’t some difficult decisions and dark characters to challenge me. It’s what makes the story worth writing, and reading. But these are books for primary kids, mainly, and I do always want to end on a positive note. So there will be a bit of worry and fear (and tears, sorry…) as well as a few painful injuries on the way, but I can usually promise, if not a totally happy ending, then at least a hopeful one.

And maybe I can tell if I get it right. If kids want to read the next one…

Q3: Do you have an ideal reader you write for?

 LD: Me, when I was 10. I write for the girl who loved horses and climbing trees and getting wet in rivers, but who also loved reading Diana Wynne Jones and CS Lewis books. I really do wish a centaur had turned up on my doorstep!

Q4: The names of your fantastical and fabled creatures seem to fit them so well: Yann, Lavender, Sapphire, Lee, Helen, Catesby, Rona… How do you know when you’ve got the right name? Do you ever change a character’s name at the draft stage?

LDGetting the right name is really hard, and involves scribbling lots of lists and testing lots of names. Helen was Anne or Anna for a wee while, then Irene, but she didn’t convince me at all until she became Helen. That fitted her immediately. There is a meaning or a reason behind every name (Rona for example is from the Gaelic for seal; Sapphire is a blue dragon who likes jewellery, hence a gem name) but I very rarely explain the name in the book, it’s mostly just for my own satisfaction! Yann however turned up with his own name. I didn’t choose it!  I don’t much like arguing with him…

And yes, I have changed names late on, if they haven’t fitted, or if I have realised they are too close to other potentially confusing names. That can be hard, as it takes a while to get to know the character again.

Q5: I love the way you thread well-known traditional folktales into your stories. The Scottish folk-tale of Thomas the Rhymer is an important element in Maze Running, how did this come about? Have you always known this tale or did you research ballads?

LD: I am inspired by a lot of myths and legends. The main injury in Maze Running (but I won’t say what that injury is!) was partly inspired by a Viking god myth for example, and the Borders tale of Tam Linn was a huge influence on the Carterhaugh section of First Aid for Fairies, and on the whole plot of Wolf Notes. I have known of Thomas Rhymer, and the story of his reappearance at the Eildons, for a long long time. My family come from the Borders, and I went to school there for a while! And I once told Thomas Rhymer in a forest, as part of an art exhibition with students putting their visual interpretations of the old legends in the trees, as storytellers told the tales below. It was a lovely night, apart from the midgies…

I love the idea of introducing kids to the old stories in my new books.

Q6: Setting is very important in all of your books. In Maze Running it’s the Eildon Hills. Why here for the last in the series?

LD: The settings are vital. I find the landscape and legends of Scotland very inspiring. Maze Running is set partly in the Borders (Traquair and the Eildons) but also much further north at Cromarty, and further west at Kilmartin. I wanted to go back to the Borders because that’s Helen’s home, so I wanted to tie the story up there.

And the Eildons are very magical hills. I walked up them one day last autumn to research the quest at the Lucken Howe, with a notebook and pen in my hand, as always. I could actually HEAR Helen and Lee arguing in my head as I walked from Melrose up to the reservoir. So that scene almost wrote itself, in a way which would never have happened if I’d been sitting at home looking at pictures of the Eildons online. Walking is a great way of hearing the right words!

 

Q7: Your books appeal to both male and female readers and you’ve got really strong female characters – I’m thinking of Helen and her vet mother. How important is it to you that you give out a positive message in your books? Or do you just concentrate on writing a good story with universal appeal? Why is “The Master” – the baddie – a male character?

LDGood question. I’m a girl, and I have two daughters, so I tend to think of girl characters first.  But I hope I write strong boy characters too, and I certainly know that boys and girls enjoy my books.

When I was growing up I used to get slightly annoyed at all the excellent books with main characters who were boys who had sidekicks who were girls. And that’s still a tendency in kids’ books. So far I’ve tended to do it the other way round! Helen is the main character, and Yann and Lee are often her sidekicks. And in Rocking Horse War, my other novel, Pearl is the main character, but is accompanied by (and either helped or hindered by) the mysterious Thomas.

However as far as my baddies go I am an equal opportunities employer… The Faery Queen in Wolf Notes is a girl! And I would suggest (without spoiling the plot) that there are several other characters in Maze Running who are definitely female and definitely not goodies!

Q8: If you were magically transformed into a fabled beast, what would it be?

LDOh. I don’t know. I’d like to be a centaur because I like to run. But perhaps I’d like to be fully human some of the time. So maybe a selkie? But they are usually a bit wet, and I’m not as much of a fan of swimming as I am of running. So perhaps a wolfgirl like Sylvie, who can be human or wolf, and can chase down deer. But I’m a vegetarian, so I’m not sure that would work. I think I like being that most magical creation – a writer, because then I can be anything I like, every time I write !

 

Q9: Maze Running is the last in the series of ‘First Aid for Fairies’ – sadly. Did you always plan to write four or did they evolve out of each other? Did the characters demand more stories?

LDInitially I only planned to write one. There would have been no point in writing more if no-one had published it!  But when I was editing First Aid for Fairies for publication, I came up with the idea for Wolf Notes, and when I was editing Wolf Notes, I came up with the idea for Maze Running (which right from the first moment was clearly going to be the last book), and when I got feedback from readers that they missed Rona in Wolf Notes, that cemented the idea for Storm Singing. So each new book came out of the previous books. But four is enough, for now, even though I had lots more ideas when I was editing the last two! I have to stop now, partly because Helen and her friends are getting older – they’ll be wanting Young Adult plot lines next, and I’m not ready to write those! – and partly because I want to explore other ideas, characters and worlds.

Q10: If you were paper, what would you fold yourself into? Ian Rankin said ‘a book’ in his Q&A, – so what else?

LD: A boat. There is a boat in Viking mythology which can be folded up and put in a pocket, and I’ve always thought that would be very handy.  Especially round Scotland’s wild and wonderful coastline.

Thanks Lari, for taking the time to answer my questions – 

…And finally….  what’s next on the writing front? More fabulous creatures or something different altogether?

LD: Not another fabled beast book yet, if at all. I have a few other totally different ideas racing around in my head, but I’m not sure which one I will go for first. It’s a difficult decision, choosing which characters and story you’ll spend the next few months or years with. I think I will have to choose the questions which I’m most keen to answer, the story which just won’t leave me alone!  

Q & A with Ian Rankin

Q & A with prize-winning Scottish author Ian Rankin


Writing professionally since the 1980s, there’s not much we don’t already know about Ian Rankin or his writing. His best-selling Inspector Rebus novels are published in 22 different languages across the globe and more recently he’s started writing about a new kind of crime-fighter in DI Malcolm Fox of The Complaints (Internal Affairs).

You can find all you need to know about Ian on his Official website: biography, the books that inspired him, his writing life and love of music – you can even follow a map to ramble around Edinburgh in Rebus’s footsteps.

There’s a nice Q&A on Waterstone’s author page too:  where we find out that Ian’s favourite word is ‘lacrosse’…

… so, it’s almost impossible to find out something we don’t already know.

Or is it?

I caught up with Ian between events on the book-launch tour for The Impossible Dead.

J:-      The Impossible Dead is set in contemporary Scotland with much of the plot looking back to the social and political scene of the 1980s, the same time that you published your first novel, The Flood. If you could travel back in time, what advice would you give to your younger self?

IR:-    Don’t drink so much.  A lot of blank spaces back then where memories should be.  Maybe that’s why I couldn’t remember all the domestic Scottish terrorism that was going on.  A lot of the period 1980-85 seems to have passed me by.

 

J:-       Who would you invite to your Come Dine with Me Dinner and what would you serve them?

IR :-   I watch that show.  I’m not a great cook but I do have a few ‘bankers’.  Maybe a rich beef and wine stew.  Or a chilli con carne.  Plenty of good white and red wine.  To start: smoked salmon.  Cheese and oatcakes for afters.  Around the table would be arranged Robert Louis Stevenson (so I can ask him about the first draft of Jekyll and Hyde – the one he’s supposed to have thrown on the fire), Frank Zappa (he might even play a few licks – I never got to see him in concert), and Billie Holiday.       

 

J:-        Your house is on fire! Your family and record collection are safe but you only have time to save one book – what is it?

 IR:-    My 1st edition hardback of Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. My wife bought it for me when I was doing my PhD on Spark.  Many years later, I met the lady herself and she signed it for me.  (At the risk of getting a hand singed, I might also grab my signed and dedicated copy of Keith Richards’ Life in passing…)

 

J:-      The Impossible Dead is set outside of Edinburgh and nicely opens up the possibility of taking the Malcolm Fox series across Scotland. You’ve visited bookshops and book festivals in all the major Scottish towns and I wonder, which Scottish town have you always wanted to visit but haven’t yet found the time?

IR:-    I’ve visited most of them, at one time or another.  But I’ve never been to the Outer Hebrides… so maybe Stornoway.  Also, I visited Falkland once (when I was in primary school) and I keep meaning to go back.  Johnny Cash claimed he had roots there, you know.

 

J:-        I love the new covers! The whole back catalogue has been rebranded. How much input did you have on the final result?

IR:-     I once tried designing my own book jacket  –  it was for the original hardback of Strip Jack.  Orion went along with it and it was terrible (basically a Lion Rampant flying from the Houses of Parliament).  I’m useless at that kind of thing, so I usually go along with the opinion of people who are paid to come up with the right visual treatment.  It is frustrating that if you get a really great look, it only stands out from the crowd for a year or two, because people start to copy aspects of it.  Orion showed me various possible jacket looks, and we did discuss it a little.  I’m happy with the outcome.


J:-       If you were paper what would you fold yourself into?

IR:-    I’d fold the paper in half, then in half again, and cut the edges to make an eight-page blank book, ready to be filled with cartoons, drawings, and lines of text.

 

The Impossible Dead (Orion) is published on 13th October