Rook. The Ebb and Flow of Life Within the Shifting Sussex Sands.
I rarely ask for an interview from a writer before I have read the book I am interviewing them about. At the very least, know something their previous novels. Not so with Jane Rushbridge.
Firstly it was the look and the feel of the book that drew me to it. The cover was picture of a girl on a hill of thick grass looking up at a myriad of black birds in flight and the simple word ‘Rook’ across it. It was a paperback, but substantially made and with end flaps that could be slipped between the pages as a bookmark. I’ve already made it clear on a previous post how much the look and feel of a book affects my decision to open the cover. I only had a brief skim over the prologue of ‘Rook’, but the aftermath of a great battle was depicted in such an intimate way, I could smell and feel it through the character’s eyes. It was that kind of immersion that set me off on a marathon read. I had a pile of coursework to do, but I convinced myself I didn’t want to offend the author by leaving her waiting weeks for my questions. One day, when my course is finished I’m going back to it again when I can luxuriate in the writing, without the constant nag of assignments.
The battlefield is usually something visualized on a large scale with the fighting underway. You created something very intimate down to small details of anatomy and aromas. Why did you decide to do this?
I didn’t decide in the sense of applying logical thought. Inspiration for the scene came from historical accounts of Edyth, Harold II’s hand-fast wife, being called to identify his headless body which she did by means of ‘private marks’ – perhaps tattoos or love bites. That was the detail which intrigued me.
I didn’t consider writing about the fighting itself. The savagery of the battleground is shown in the aromas and textures of his mutilated body but, yes, it’s an intimate scene between lovers.
It was written very early on. The imagining of such a scene forced a focus on concrete imagery which links love and death, a theme which was to be central to Rook, though I didn’t know it at the time. I did, however, know the novel would explore secrets, very possibly secrets related to love affairs and secret burials, which is probably why my mind latched onto the mention of those ‘private marks’ on Harold’s body.
The novel is very lyrical, however too much can not only slow the pace down, but make a reader feel engorged. How do you keep the right balance?
Both through teaching writing for many years and my own development as a writer, I’ve noticed that beginners (big generalization coming up!) often fall into one of two camps with first drafts – those who tend to underwrite (insubstantial imagery; lack of allusion, suggestion and so on) and those who tend to overwrite (too much detail; too self-consciously poetic).
It doesn’t matter which you are, as long as you notice. I tend to be the latter, but as my editing skills have grown I’ve learned to be more ruthless about selecting and discarding during redrafting, with an eye on pace and narrative movement.
However, to a certain extent the ‘right balance’ when it comes to lyricism will depend on a reader’s personal taste. As a reader, I enjoy prose which stretches language, makes language work on many levels, as poetry does – and I write for myself as reader. One of the writer friends I exchange work with is the poet Melanie Penycate. I value her feedback especially. It helps me to focus on checking my ‘voice’, at a word by word level.
How are you able to make the many detail observations that come up in the book? Do you keep a notebook of things you see?
I notice odd things, such as the way the hair lies over a watch strap on a man’s wrist, or light shining on clods of mud. I’m observant and enjoy observing. It’s a useful skill for writers (I hope), though observant may just be another word for ‘nosey’ in some contexts. At parties, I’d usually rather look around, watch and soak up the atmosphere, than join in. The recollection of sensory experiences comes easily, which is perhaps why writing a child’s voice for The Devil’s Music was so pleasurable. So no, I don’t write all these things down; they are stored somehow as visual/aural/sensory images which drift back into my head as I write.
The book is a collage of memories and images. How did you know where to put them?
By trial and error; mostly error. Writing Rook was a spectacularly messy process; even for me. To begin with, there was just a mass: tangled, subterranean and muddy. The key uniting thread seemed to be underground, partially hidden – the dead and buried, both people and secrets; misunderstandings.
To begin with, I wrote random scenes as they came into my head, then many drafts. Gradually links and connections emerged. I juggled everything around, a lot. I cut and pasted, with scissors and Sellotape, moving half a page, or highlighting with marker pen an image or phrase that needed to go from one scene into another. This is not simply plotting, but more to do with discovering and lifting up details and associations between different storylines until everything seems to fall into place.
To some, that probably sounds an appalling way to write. And it is, at times. But when synchronicity finally comes into play, it’s exhilarating. What’s magical is that sense the story already existed in some strange way, all you’ve done is the unearthing. You hope the story has emerged undamaged by your interference.
Do you see the scene like an unfolding picture as you’re writing it?
No, not quite. I’m not observing, or watching from the outside, I’m right in the scene as I write, I’m in the head of the character from whose perspective the scene is told, looking out through his or her eyes.
Are you aware of any rhythms when you’re writing (e.g. short, punchy sentences, longer, slower ones) or do you write without being conscious of it?
A mixture of the two – I’m constantly aware of the importance of rhythm, but will also tweak when editing.
You use two main points of view, the mother, Ada and the daughter, Nora. Why use these points of view and not just one narrator?
I think of Rook as having 3 points of view: Ada, Nora and Edyth. The three different perspectives were essential because each of the women has a secret. The secrets, which are gradually revealed to the reader, link the three women’s stories. They are unaware of this, because their secrets are not revealed to each other. So there’s a tension there, in what remains unknown.
Very little is set right back in the past of Harold’s time, why bring it in and why so little of it?
This grew from the original idea to explore connections forged between people through their personal stories – not only in the present, but in the recent and distant past. Which is also why, at the beginning, I quote from Heaney’s Human Chain collection, ‘The dead here are borne/Towards the future.’
Edyth’s 1066 story, like Ada’s and Nora’s, involves a lover and a secret burial. However, the main story is Nora’s, and always was. I had no desire to write a dual narrative, half 1066, half contemporary. For me, the 1066 sections are like bookends, supporting the stories held within the contemporary narrative, part of which revolves around the mystery of Harold II’s burial place, and the possible discovery of his remains in Bosham.
You move from past to present, then back again in such short space of time. How is this achieved smoothly?
I could write an essay on this, but I’d better summarize! In our thoughts, we constantly move backwards and forwards in time so, in theory, we are used to that shift. The challenge for writers is to make the shift as invisible and smooth as possible so the readers slips in and out of the past almost without noticing. All it needs – she says breezily, as if it’s easy – is some kind of associative link between the passages in the present and those in the past.
Why choose a cellist and not another type of musician?
I blame this on chance, an overheard remark about the cello being the instrument which produces a sound nearest the human voice. The novel was going to be about ‘untold’ stories; there was no choice: Nora’s instrument had to be a cello from that moment on.
How are you able to understand the demands and nuances of a cello?
Probably only an experienced cellist fully understands the demands and nuances of a cello. However, I researched some basics from which I was able to begin to imagine. I spent a lot of time:
· listening to cello music, in the car, at home, while I wrote
· watching films about cellists – e.g. ‘Hilary and Jackie’ (about Du Pre)
· watching YouTube performances (both famous cellists and beginners). Also watching cello master classes
· visiting the Royal Music Academy, sitting in on lessons, taking notes, asking the young cellists and their teacher questions.
· reading Mstislav Rostropovitch: Cellist, Teacher, Legend by Elizabeth Wilson (Faber, 2007)
· reading Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain by Oliver Sachs.
· reading music reviews of cello concerts, to learn a little about how cello music is described.
· reading a basic ‘Learn to Play the Cello’ manual.
And, finally, I could identify with the drive required to be a professional musician. The cello teacher at the Academy talked about the way music can swallow your life, how a professional cellist always needs and wants to be better, constantly feeling torn between the need to rehearse for hours each day and the desire to have ‘a life’. In the thick of putting together a novel, it’s the same for a writer.
Jane has teamed up with two other authors Isabel Ashdown and Gabrielle Kimm, to form the Three Sussex Writers. All three of them live in the Chichester area of West Sussex, and have all studied Creative Writing at the University of Chichester, where Jane also teaches. The Three Sussex Writers team up for readings, literary festivals and creative workshops and will often work locally to support fundraising events.