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Friday, October 13, 2006

INTERVIEW WITH ROSE TREMAIN

Published in the Book Review newspaper KNIZHNAYA VITRINA in June 2006

Elena Dedukhina: You lectured in creative writing for several years at the University of East Anglia. Among your students were: Andrew Miller, Tracy Chevalier, Mick Jackson, Erica Wagner... – they are all now established, well-known writers whose works have been translated into a lot of foreign languages (including Russian) and have become the household names. So, it’s evident what former students of yours got from their study. But what about their famous tutor – what that job (tutoring) gave you as a person and most of all you as an already established by that time writer?

Rose Tremain: I’m certainly proud of what the others you mention have achieved. It was interesting how tuned and alive these particular people were in the discussion groups: this singled them out early as people who understood what goes into the making of good fiction.

I taught on the course for seven years. In the first four or five years, the mutual exchange between me and the students fed powerfully into my own work and I think I learned as much as they did during this time. In the latter two or three years, the expectations the students had of the course seemed to change; they began to see it as a passport to instant fame – and this was difficult for me to endorse. In my view, writing needs a long apprenticeship - particularly novel writing.

Elena Dedukhina: Were there among other students those who were showing promise to become really good writers, but didn’t eventually justify your hopes? What do you feel about them?

Rose Tremain: Some took longer to come through. One such was a writer called Jane Harris, who has worked on two or three novels since 1996 and has now – finally – got one of them off to a good launch; an historical novel called The Observations, which has been well reviewed in Britain this spring. Others, like Suzanne Cleminshaw, have produced one book (The Big Ideas, 2001, shortlisted for the Whitbread first novel prize) and then seemed to falter. I hope she can pick up again with a new book soon.

Elena Dedukhina: Why did you finally give up teaching?


Rose Tremain: I wanted to give up after five years (see above…) but I kept going for another two, out of financial considerations. (I was a single mother, at that time, financing my student daughter.) But teaching on this course is very time-consuming and I prefer my time to be consumed by my own writing.

Elena Dedukhina: You judged the Booker prize twice, in 1988 and 2000, and were nominated (shortlisted) in 1990. How have you felt about ‘making’ someone a winner and not being a winner of the same prize yourself?

Rose Tremain: The Booker Prize is like a “sleeping policeman”, an object in the road you can’t quite ignore. Being a judge is demanding but very interesting: it gives you a panoramic view of what is happening in Anglo-Saxon fiction in that year. I was happy with the two choices I was involved in making: Peter Carey and Margaret Atwood. Both deserved the prize. I don’t know whether I deserve it. Time will tell…

Elena Dedukhina: What do the nominations to different prizes mean to you? Do they somehow ‘invigorate’ your itch for writing? (Can they do that at all?)

Rose Tremain: Prizes are confirming. Self-belief is a profound requisite of being a writer and – as with any self-generated phenomenon, it can falter from time to time. Winning a prize helps to get you back on the road of self-belief.

Elena Dedukhina: In your works you touch some dark sides of human life: incest, change of gender, botched abortion, anal rape... Yet, your novels can hardly be called ‘mystery’, ‘suspense’, ‘thriller’... We (Russians) know you mainly as a historical novelist thanks to the two costume drama novels – ‘Restoration’ and ‘Silence and Music’ (the only ones translated into Russian so far) which full of the dark sides of human lives of the main characters too. Why is it so important for you to explore those subjects in your works all in all?

Rose Tremain: Well, this is a big question! Here, you know, we live in a world crowded with ‘easy’ fiction, but I’ve only ever been interested in writing the kind of book I like to read: stories which explore the great (and timeless) human dilemmas. And these will inevitably incorporate the dark side of our natures. Using history as a ‘mirror’ to our own times has given me a freedom I do not have to the same degree when writing contemporary stories, which is a profound freedom of invention. I know that I am happiest when there is most to be invented – not just described.

Elena Dedukhina: “… writers who push to the extremes, if they’re English, are usually reacting against a prevailing social realism of the English novel,” said Ian McEwan talking about your tendency of ‘taking things to the edge’ in your works. What do you think about it – is it true? What does ‘a prevailing social realism of the English novel’ mean from your own standpoint?

Rose Tremain: Fiction offers two primary pleasures – the pleasure of recognition (i.e. a recognised realism, confirming the reader’s perception of how things are right now) and the pleasure of surprise (i.e. making the reader see something from an entirely new perspective.) Both are important, but I tend to favour trying to do the latter. However, many writers in Britain seem not to consider this as an aim for their fiction. Much contemporary fiction is really quite dull reportage of one kind or another.

Elena Dedukhina: Nevertheless, you are not very pleased with the idea being described as a ‘historical novelist’. Yet, we live in the world where each of us is expected to be attached to either political party or association, duty or genre in which one is working in... So, how would you describe yourself as an author regarding the genre you are writing in? Is it possible at all? Is it wise to do so? Why?

Rose Tremain: I’ve resisted the term ‘historical novelist’ because it implies a shallow kind of fiction, in which the reader can escape completely any obligation to think about the modern world. I believe/hope that, although (some of) my fictions transport the reader to a different time, the human dilemmas we face today are present in the story. I offer, as an example of this, the plot of Music & Silence, in which King Christian is plagued by the highly contemporary worries of a failing marriage and a diminishing bank account. In Restoration, the hero is obsessed by money, advancement and fame – as is British society today. So…the reader has to address these things.

I’ve searched hard for a new word to describe this genre of non-escapist historical writing, but have still found nothing which perfectly fits it.

Elena Dedukhina: Some famous writers are used to saying that they take their inspiration from the pictures, news (headlines), gossips, etc. What does normally inspire you to write every other book?

Rose Tremain: Inspiration arrives in many forms: sometimes a single image, seen in the street; sometimes an item in a newspaper; sometimes a forceful idea for a character.
Music & Silence was inspired the legend of King Christian IV of Denmark and his orchestra housed in the wine cellar, told to me while on a trip to Copenhagen. Restoration was born out of my discomfort with Thatcherite materialism and all that this brought with it. The age of Charles II mirrors Thatcherism in some ways.

Elena Dedukhina: “She holds gloriously challenging and sometimes confrontational views about contemporary fiction,” was said about you in some article. What is your view about contemporary fiction on the whole and the British one in particular?

Rose Tremain: I think the last twenty-five years may be seen as a kind of ‘golden age’ of fiction writing in the Anglo-saxon world. During this time, the novel has taken many different directions, from the politically aware hyper-realism of writers like Philip Roth, Tom Wolfe and Jonathan Franzen, to the magical realism of Salman Rushdie, inspired by Borges, Garcia Marquez and other writers from South America. Louis de Bernieres and Andrew Miller also take something from the South American writers and use it to wonderful effect. The dazzling imagination and empathy of some women writers has also been with us. I’m thinking, in particular, of Nadine Gordimer, Doris Lessing, Penelope Fitzgerald, the late Angela Carter, Annie Proulx and Joyce Carol Oates. New on the British scene are talented women writers from the former Commonwealth countries, Zadie Smith, Monica Ali and Andrea Levy. Ian McEwan and Julian Barnes continue to produce urbane, highly wrought and original work. Gay fiction is currently getting a huge boost from Sarah Waters. I think, all in all, the fiction scene is still lively…

Elena Dedukhina: Your characters never represent either full moon or lunar eclipse. They always have two phases - dark side along with the white one which just move around. When you create a character, what is the prevailing thing for you – to elicit his/her dark sides of the nature or the positive ones?


Rose Tremain: I think my characters are often pulled in opposite different directions and show both their dark sides and their generous natures. Merivel in Restoration pivots between duty ( as represented by his Quaker friend, Pearce) and abandonment to material things (as represented by the Court.)
He is both generous and passionate as well as avaracious and lazy. My true aim with all my characters is to make the reader care about them. If the reader doesn’t care, then everything is lost.

Elena Dedukhina: How much do you normally become attached to your characters? Has there ever been such a character that didn’t leave you in peace even when the book was already published?


Rose Tremain: I still sometimes wonder if I might write the sequel to Restoration. The thing I adore about Merivel is that he really makes he laugh! I think that, as an older man, his story might be moving. But sequels, alas, are usually doomed to failure.

Elena Dedukhina: How do you feel when people suggest their own visions of the characters which you have never perhaps even considered yourself?


Rose Tremain: Every reader will shape a fictional character to fit his/her own perceptions and desires. If a book is widely read, then you know the character must be accessible to people in many different shapes and guises. It never worries me when a reader sees a character differently from how I’ve seen him or her.

Elena Dedukhina: Have you ever experienced being restless while writing a novel? How do you manage to overcome it?

Rose Tremain: Not really restless. I’ve never given up on a book. I’ve often felt tired or blocked, or both. Sometimes anguished. Sometimes ecstatically happy. Writing a novel is to embark upon a long journey and the writer’s moods are bound to swing and alter along the way.

Elena Dedukhina: You said that you have learned to enjoy public events and literary festivals. It means you had to learn to enjoy the questions (and the repetitiveness of them) the audience tends to ask you. What kind of the questions you are enjoying most? Which ones usually do disconcert you?

Rose Tremain: It’s the writing itself that gives me most pleasure and satisfaction, not talking about the writing in front of audiences. However, literary festivals – and audience questions – can be fun now and then. The knack with questions is to turn them from the mundane towards the complex.

Elena Dedukhina: English court of Charles II, Danish royal court... Are you interested in Russian royal court and history to be inspired to write the very next novel?

Rose Tremain: Russian history is sublimely extraordinary! In a contemporary novel of mine, The Way I Found her, a young English boy falls in love with a Russian writer called Valentina, who then disappears. From Valentina, the boy picks up a few pieces of Russian history – some nuggets about the life and lovers of Catherine the Great, and later, quite a lot about the Second World War, in particular, about the siege of Leningrad. Later still, Valentina tells him about Kruschev’s “maize craze” which was so hard on Russian farmers. Maybe you should have a look at this book? I am now writing the screenplay of it, which I hope will be made in 2007.

Elena Dedukhina: In one of your interviews you said that there are now a group of ‘mystical boys’ in your fictions referring mainly to the idea of having children with the ability to communicate with the outer world. Some of your former students like Mick Jackson, Tracy Chevalier have created much like similar world of a child (ghost child). Don’t you think they simply duplicate your ideas about it (though I admire their works too)? How strong the influence of a tutor and mentor can be on his/her students as far as literature is concerned?

Rose Tremain: Well, sometimes I see ideas that have been carried on from my work by former students – like the idea of the heart/body with no feeling in Andrew Miller’s Ingenious Pain. As long as they do their own thing with it – and make it theirs – it doesn’t really bother me. And perhaps my work gave them the courage to begin their books in the first place – which is good.

Elena Dedukhina: Notwithstanding the fact that the Hollywood version of ‘Restoration’ won two Oscars in 1995, you were disappointed by that film and have become writing your own scripts for the other novels of yours? What is so disappointing was in that film that incited you to becoming a script writer too?
Rose Tremain: My disppointment with the film of Restoration lies only with the storytelling. The film has a beautiful texture to it and is, on the whole, well acted, but the story has no logic and so does not move the audience. This disappointment has led me to experiment with doing my own scripts. A script is a novel broken apart and reassembled differently. This reassembling must have cinematic logic (i.e. the audience must understand what they’re being asked to care about) or the film will fail.

Elena Dedukhina: What does ‘a question of time’ mean for you?

Rose Tremain: When you get older (I’m 62) time accelerates in a frightening way. I feel that there is a lot more that I want to realise before this acceleration gets out of control.

Copyright © Elena Dedukhina 2006
Copyright © Knizhnaya Vitrina 2006

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