Jane Rusbridge's richly layered second novel, Rook, is published today. When Nora returns to her childhood home in Sussex she 'adopts' a fledgling rook. She's come back to forget, but the past starts to leak into the present. Jane talks here about the chaos of first drafts, the importance of writing in her shed and why she no longer makes 'To Do' lists
PJ: It feels as if a number of preoccupations came together to grow this story – rooks, the Bayeux Tapestry, Bosham Church – its history and surrounding landscape, cello music – was there ever a single seed?
JR: I love the word ‘preoccupation’, and have used it myself ever since reading Heaney’s Preoccupations. Heaney quotes Yeats on the ‘intense preoccupation’ art demands. Other writers sometimes describe the earliest stage, when something haunts your mind and you’re not at first sure why, as a ‘gift’ from your unconscious. My ‘gift’ was rooks. They were busy nest-building in trees arching over the road as I drove to work that spring, and I asked my husband, a farmer, if rooks were on the increase because I’d not noticed them before. They’d always been there, he said, and talked about his mother’s pet rook, kept for years in the casing of an old television in their kitchen. As a boy, he’d hated it. Greedy for more rook information, I read two books which were to influence my creative process: Crow Country by Mark Cocker, which sent me off on a quest to Norfolk to watch thousands and thousands of rooks come into roost, and Corvus: A Life with Birds by Esther Woolfson, who writes with captivating detail about a baby rook she reared.
JR: Meanwhile, back at the novel, I was intending to write about the repercussions of a school reunion in middle-age. Nora had appeared already, taking up her place in my head as a musician, alone in a hallway with a bowl of cold porridge in her lap, sitting on the floor where she would not be seen by the window cleaner. She had suffered a loss. That’s all I knew, and was busying myself trying to discover why and what, and where the book was to be set.
Then one day we went for lunch in Bosham’s Anchor Bleu. We wandered round the quay and across the mill stream to the ancient church, as we have many times before, often with the children in tow. From habit, I paused to look at the memorial stone for King Cnut’s daughter set into the flagstones and was struck by a shock of recognition: the bird etched into the stone looked just like the baby rook I had been reading about in Woolfson’s book. There was a connection. In that moment, Bosham church and its history were pulled into the mix, and Nora’s story began at last to grow.
PJ: Both your novels have explored hidden histories, secrets. Slowly the reader discovers what has not been spoken of. Does the writing process mirror the reading experience? I suppose I’m asking how much do you plan ahead, how much do you discover as you write?
JR: The story unfolds as I write. Michele Roberts talks of ‘writing into the dark’ and that’s how it is for me, both exciting and frightening. First drafts are chaos. Untold stories fascinate me, the power they hold over characters who, for whatever reason, can’t at first voice them. I need to write scenes as they come to me, with no sense of a beginning, middle or end, simply as a means of getting to know my characters. I can’t ‘hear’ their untold story until I know them better.
The poet Sharon Olds speaks of poems forming ‘behind her breastbone’, and of the effort required to get a poem out and onto the page without distorting it, ‘like a very very over easy egg out of the pan onto the plate without breaking the yolk’. That’s a little how I feel – as if the story already exists somewhere, and in order not to distort it in the telling I must take care not impose my idea of a plot too soon. If I get anxious, and force it, things go wrong.
PJ: Writing about a real village into which you put fictional characters – the pitfalls are obvious – how did you navigate them?
JR: I don't live in Bosham, so can observe the setting and life there as an outsider, from a distance. I was scrupulous about characters – none are drawn from their real life counterparts except for Harold and Edyth in the 1066 sections, who are, of course, very much re-imagined. Until the book was finished, I decided not to meet the vicar of Bosham church, or John Pollock, the local historian whose theory about Harold II’s burial place was so inspirational, because of my tendency as a writer to observe and ‘borrow’ mannerisms, figures of speech and body language from people. The local historian in Rook is a woman, just to be on the safe side.
The Anchor Bleu pub exists, as do Mariner’s teashop, the ice-cream van which is often on the foreshore and of course Bosham church, and I’m hoping locals will enjoy these recognisable elements. However, Jason, the barman in Rook is a fictional character, and the real life ice-cream vendor is not Italian but, I believe, called Dave. I was convinced Creek House was my own invention until I discovered only yesterday there is a house with that name, situated more or less where I’ve put it in the novel; another of those weird blurrings of fact and fiction which are rather unnerving.
PJ: You ‘bookend’ the story with two vividly imagined episodes featuring real historical figures – are you tempted to write a full-blown historical novel?
JR: Those two episodes were absorbing to write, but the ‘voice’ which came to me so powerfully when writing them is intense and would probably be difficult to maintain for a whole novel. However, the Bayeux Tapestry and Norman Conquest are proving to be preoccupations which still refuse to leave me alone, so there may be no choice but to try a full historical novel!
PJ: You have five children and you teach - where do you fit writing into the day?
JR: Writing wasn’t part of my life at all until my mid-thirties, by which time my youngest child was at school. I’m lucky enough to have worked part-time, not full-time, for quite a long time now, so there have usually been snatches of time here and there with no children around. However, it was a struggle to fit writing on to my To Do list; often it got left out altogether, for weeks or months at a time.
During the years the children were all teenagers and I was working on The Devil’s Music, what helped more than anything else was the shed my husband bought for me. We put the shed at the bottom of our very long garden and I painted it blue. The walk down the garden – a tiny mental, physical and emotional breaking away from household commitments – helped tremendously. The shed gave writing both space and a place, literally and figuratively, in my life.
I have taken a break from university teaching this last academic year. The children are all in their 20s, my youngest has left home and I have my first baby grandchild, so the balance of life has changed again. This past year, I’ve got into the habit of being very single-minded, of assuming my weekdays are mostly for writing, researching or writing-related tasks and networking; I don’t bother with domestic To Do lists anymore. I lose track of time and often forget basic necessities like buying milk or loo rolls. The house always needs vacuuming. Never mind.
PJ: Do you find that your teaching feeds your writing - in what way?
JR: What feeds me is the wide reading done in preparation for teaching at university level, some of which will be outside my ‘comfort zone’. Also, talking about books and writers, about the craft, about what works and what doesn’t, all kinds of inspiring conversations you can have with keen students or colleagues. Writing exercises which we do together are often mentally freeing; energy fills a room where everybody’s imagination is stimulated at the same time, and we’re all scribbling down our imaginings and perhaps sharing them afterwards. I miss that.
PJ: This is your second novel – was it any easier to write than the first?
JR: No. Not easier, but different. A real bonus of having a two book deal with Bloomsbury was the confidence it gave me, and the chance to work with talented professional editors from a very early stage.
PJ: Which fiction writers have inspired you to write?
JR: Inspiration mushrooms continuously with each encounter with a writer whose work thrills me in some way. There are many, and I have to include poets: T.S Eliot and D.H. Lawrence when I was a teenager; contemporary poets such as Vicki Feaver, Helen Dunmore, Stephanie Norgate, who I came across in my thirties; later, fiction writers like Jeanette Winterson, Michael Ondaatje, Maggie O’Farrell, Julie Myerson, Patrick McGrath and early Ian McEwan; more recently, Evie Wyld, Sarah Hall, Katie Ward and the poets Philip Gross and Esther Morgan have delighted me with what they’ve achieved with language and form.
PJ: What are you reading at the moment?
JR: Suzanne Joinson’s A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar
PJ: What would you say to someone embarking on a second novel?
JR: Dwell on your own creative process. Get to understand it a little. Develop the intuition and courage to trust your ‘wild mind’, as Natalie Goldberg calls it, but also the instinct to know when you are letting yourself off the hook too easily. Persevere. Remember – you know there’s nothing like it.
Find out more about Jane Rusbridge, here
Rook is published by Bloomsbury, get a copy, here
Read a review of Rook, here