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  • Helen Rappaport

    Wed, 23 Sep 2009 03:21

    Born in Bromley, England, Helen Rappaport studied Russian at Leeds University, but ill-advisedly rejected suggestions of a career in the Foreign Office and opted for the acting profession. After appearing on British TV and in films until the early 1990s she abandoned acting and embraced her second love -- history -- and with it the insecurities of a writer's life. Between 1999 and 2003 she wrote three books back-to-back for a leading US reference publisher: Joseph Stalin: A Biographical Companion, the award-winning An Encyclopedia of Women Social Reformers and Queen Victoria: A Biographical Companion. In 2007, Helen wrote No Place for Ladies: The Untold Story of Women in the Crimean War. She followed this with Ekaterinburg: The Last Days of the Romanovs and her latest book is Conspirator: Lenin in Exile.

    The Book Depository: Why were you as an ordinary person interested in a figure such as Lenin? In Russia there is still much variance in how people regard him, though of course, in the main the assessment of him there is as a leader, and not as a man.

    Helen Rappaport: Lenin interested me as a subject because I wanted, as a woman, to get behind the political facade and try to see him as he really was, as an ordinary human being. There are many political biographies of Lenin available -- some good, some incredibly boring and impenetrable. There is also of course a huge amount of Soviet-produced hagiography that is now totally worthless because it doesn't tell us the truth about him.

    I wanted to tell the human story of how Lenin lived with Nadya in exile on a daily basis. It seemed to me that the only place I might find honest answers about him was in Europe, before the revolution and in the memoirs and reminiscences of people in exile, who were free to say what they thought and not forced to write laudatory material about Lenin under the constraints of Soviet Realism.

    It is nevertheless still very hard to get at the truth about him -- so much was hidden from the record in order to preserve his highly sanitised public image as a Great Leader. But by searching for material about his life in exile I did get a picture of him; how he lived; where he lived; how he and Nadya coped financially; how they existed on a day-to-day basis, and how Lenin interacted with the people around him. It struck me very forcibly that it was the women who remained the loyal constants in his life, while Lenin quarrelled, one by one, with all his male political colleagues. Nadya, her mother Elizaveta Vasilievna, Lenin's mother Mariya Alexandrovna, and his sisters Mariya and Anna, as well as his lover Inessa Armand -- all these women provided an essential back up team to Lenin in his years in exile and I wanted to say something about their contribution.

    The Book Depository: How long did you spend collecting information for your book; what sources did you use: archives, documents, memoirs?

    Helen Rappaport: I spent 15 months researching and writing the book. I decided not to visit the Russian archives, as all the material there is to see about Lenin has now been found, since the fall of communism, by historians such as Dmitri Volkogonov and Robert Service. My book was about Lenin mainly outside Russia and so I concentrated on searching for material about him during 1900-1917 in France, Germany, Switzerland, Finland, Poland, England, Italy, etc. This meant I had to cover a wide range of sources in several languages: Russian, French, Italian, and English are languages I know; but I needed help with sources in Finnish, Polish and Swedish. I decided as part of my research to visit the two countries that Lenin spent time in, about little has been written in English in the West -- Finland and Poland. I visited Poland with a friend who is a Polish speaker and we travelled south from Krakow to the Podhale -- visiting the places connected with Lenin's story at Nowy Targ, Bialy Dunajec, Poronin and Zakopane as well as walking in the Tatra mountains.

    In Finland I was given wonderful help by the Lenin Library in Tampere, the last library devoted to Lenin that is still open full time. They were very helpful and drove me down the south-west peninsula of Finland, following Lenin's trail from Turku to Prostvik when he escaped out of Finland after Christmas 1907.

    The Book Depository: What interested you as a woman about Lenin? What struck you about him most forcefully and aroused your distaste about his behaviour as a man? What was, for you, new about what you discovered and why? How demanding was Lenin about how he lived -- where and in what kind of accommodation? How did he dress, how did he spend his time? Did he go to the theatre or concerts, what books did he read, who was he friendly with? So many questions!

    Helen Rappaport: I cannot say that I discovered anything startlingly new about Lenin, that I didn't have an inkling about before I started. It was rather that I got confirmation of some the things I had thought about him. He was incredibly self-disciplined and very driven -- he drove himself to physical and mental collapse on numerous occasions in his relentless quest for political supremacy over his rivals. I suppose I admired his determination, his iron will but I hated his cruelty and ruthlessness. He didn't care what damage he did to other people along the way. His one obsession was the Revolution -- at any price -- and he would not tolerate any disagreement with his particular vision. If his political colleagues ventured to suggest a different point of view he would never compromise and always fell out with them. It always had to be his way and nobody else's.

    I suppose like other great dictators in history he was a monomaniac. If you put him on a psychiatrist's couch today he'd probably be diagnosed as a compulsive-obsessive. He was very modest in his personal needs -- never ever wanted much for himself. He hated extravagance, ate very simple food, his clothes were shabby, he lived in very small, cramped flats with only the most basic furniture. Some people think Lenin and Nadya lived comfortably in exile, but that is not true. They were both very frugal and their only occasional indulgence was a trip to the theatre or the opera. For most of the time Lenin worked obsessively on his political writings and his journalism. The one thing he and Nadya both did enjoy and took time out for was walking -- particularly in Switzerland. Lenin also loved the Tatra mountains of southern Poland. Fresh and air exercise were a great obsession with him -- he believed in keeping himself fit and well so that when the time came he could lead the revolution.

    Having said all this I am not convinced that the public image of Lenin as a moral puritan -- who did not drink, did not smoke and did not have much of a sex life if any -- is the correct one. There is, I am sure, a darker, sexual side to Lenin that has been totally suppressed in the Russian record. I do believe that whilst he was in Paris he went to prostitutes -- there are clues in French sources about this, but it is very hard to prove. We do at least know now that he did have an affair with Inessa Armand, which left her very wounded and bitter. I do so wish we could get to the truth about Lenin's relationship with her -- and possibly other women -- but I suspect that no Russian ever wrote it down because it would have been immediately censored. The only place where I did find evidence of a different life is in French sources. The answer may yet lie there.

    The Book Depository: When you had all your research and began to write the book what was your primary objective? What did you want to convey to the reader? Will the book come out in Russia?

    Helen Rappaport: My main objective in the writing the book was to say something new about the real man -- not the leader of the Soviet Union during the years in power, but during the crucial period of his exile when he was working towards revolution and the political domination of the Bolsheviks. But I also felt very strongly that it was time to offer a woman's perspective on Lenin. Till now, all the big books about the Soviet leaders -- Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin -- have all been written by men. I felt a woman's perspective might bring something new to the story. I felt particularly passionate about foregrounding the role of Nadezhda Krupskaya who is so consistently marginalized in Lenin's story and who deserves more credit for the crucial role she played in keeping him sane and healthy during those long years in exile.

    People also underrate the tremendous practical help and moral support of his mother and sisters -- who sent money, books and food parcels from Russia. Lenin's mother in law Elizaveta Vasilievna followed him and her daughter around in exile for most of those 17 years, sharing their cramped living conditions and working for the party, and yet her contribution is hardly mentioned. Lenin's sisters in Russia took enormous risks in supporting his work and suffered repeated arrest and imprisonment for the cause.

    Finally, I wanted to say something about the many unnamed and unsung women in Russia, especially during the revolution of 1905, who took enormous risks working the Russian underground as couriers of illegal literature and bomb carriers. Their names are hardly ever mentioned in Russian sources, but in my book I have tried very hard to say something about them too.

  • Jayne Joso

    Tue, 15 Sep 2009 02:45

    Having lived and worked in Japan and China, Jayne Joso now divides her time between London and Wales. Soothing Music for Stray Cats is her first novel. Joso's first children's book, How do you Feel? was recently published by Benesse in Japan and her first play, China's Smile, commissioned in celebration of China's Children's Day, enjoyed a long theatre run and was later televised. As well as fiction and drama, Joso has a huge fascination with Architecture and has written for publications such as Architecture Today magazine and German publisher, Prestel Art.

    Mark Thwaite: What first gave you the idea for writing Soothing Music for Stray Cats?

    Jayne Joso: Well, several things. I wanted to explore writing a novel as a man; I wanted to explore using music and fiction as a way of fathoming things, you know... understanding and dealing with life; and I was very interested in writing about suicide, mainly because it's a subject people quite naturally shy away from discussing. I wanted to explore how people react, and the often overly simplistic ways people have of pigeonholing those who feel that way. I wanted to look at the effects on those who are left behind and write a character trying to better understand what suicidal feelings are, and then trying to work out if it's possible to see when someone else is really close to the edge. Although the book contains quite a lot of humour, and I think is predominantly warm, I needed it to be somewhat discomforting otherwise it wouldn't be affecting. I wanted to open things up a little rather than close things down or oversimplify... or I felt I would be doing a disservice to the families and friends of people who've taken their own lives. I could talk about this for hours, but I guess that was the most potent set of feelings and motivation behind the book.

    Mark Thwaite: Soothing Music for Stray Cats is your debut novel, Jayne, but it isn't the first thing you've written, is it...?

    Jayne Joso: No, I've written 3 other works of fiction, novels, though one is more of a novella. Soothing Music is the first to be published, and it looks as though Perfect Architect will be next. I've also written a wee children's book; plays; journalism; and ghosting. Am also partial to the writing of postcards (wink).

    Mark Thwaite: Tell us a little about how you came to get published.

    Jayne Joso: Oh... 'rejection', that fits into ye olde pain bucket doesn't it? Suffice to say, it took longer than I wanted, and was harder than I thought. Glad it's over.

    Mark Thwaite: Your lead character, Mark, uses music and literature to help make sense of the difficult things in life -- do you!?

    Jayne Joso: Sure, life for me would be very much harder to navigate if it wasn't for reading great lines and listening to top lyrics. Some of my best friends are fictional, but that's the beauty of it, reading is a very intimate relationship. I think George Eliot said something about how we meet characters in fiction we might aspire to be, or aspire to meet... I think novels are often populated by characters who are better/wiser than ourselves...

    Mark Thwaite: Mark feels very "real" -- how difficult was it to make him so convincing and authentic?

    Jayne Joso: I don't know to be honest, is my clumsy answer. I walked around with him in my head for a very long time before I wrote him. Once his 'voice' was clear to me, I felt I could get on with things. But I needed to feel I knew him really well, that I knew his life, thoughts, feelings and so on to any situation, in or outside of the book. I think of it almost like method acting... I now know Mark better than I know myself.

    Mark Thwaite: What was the trickiest aspect of writing your book? How did you overcome it?

    Jayne Joso: Research into suicide. Makes you blue. Writing my kids' book, which was all about happy feelings, was perfectly timed (slap in the middle of writing the novel) and a beautiful antidote. It also helped me feed light stuff and humour back into the novel.

    Mark Thwaite: How do you write? Longhand or directly onto a computer, straight off or with lots and lots of editing?

    Jayne Joso: I fill a couple of notebooks longhand before I touch the keyboard. And when I type I re-write constantly. Soothing Music took me roughly two years.

    Mark Thwaite: Did you know how Soothing Music for Stray Cats would end before you began, or was writing the novel a journey of discovery for you?

    Jayne Joso: I always know the ending at the start even though I might decide to change it. Endings are really important to me.

    Mark Thwaite: You've lived in China and Japan -- tell us something about your time there?

    Jayne Joso: How long have you got? Perhaps I'll just mention that this novel was influenced by the slightly different cultural landscape of suicide in Japan... hence the Japanese character, Kazu, who shows up later in the novel.

    Mark Thwaite: What do you do when you are not writing Jayne?

    Jayne Joso: Nice ordinary stuff, sleep is a favourite; swimming, walking... going to gigs... anything from: Ian Brown or Glasvegas to Don Giovanni.

    Mark Thwaite: Did you have an idea in your mind of your "ideal" reader? Did you write specifically for them?

    Jayne Joso: No, not at all. (I'd like millions of readers, would like to think they were all ideal!)

    Mark Thwaite: What are you working on now?

    Jayne Joso: Finishing a play, and working on the edits for the next novel, Perfect Architect -- which is loads of fun.

    Mark Thwaite: Who is your favourite writer?

    Jayne Joso: I admire loads of people... Nabokov, Virginia Woolf, Italo Calvino, John Steinbeck, Pynchon...

    Mark Thwaite: Do you have any tips for the aspiring writer!?

    Jayne Joso: Yeah, and this is a quote from another writer, whose name I cannot recall, sorry... 'Only write if it is essential to your wellbeing to do so.' Other than that, enjoy! Or play guitar.

  • Andrew Robinson

    Mon, 10 Aug 2009 08:41

    Andrew Robinson was literary editor of The Times Higher Education Supplement from 1994-2006 and is now a visiting fellow of Wolfson College, Cambridge. He is the author of The Story of Writing, The Man Who Deciphered Linear B and Lost Languages: The Enigma of the World's Undeciphered Scripts.

    Mark Thwaite: What made you want to write about Writing and Script?

    Andrew Robinson: I suppose any professional writer is bound to have at least some interest in how writing began, spread around the ancient world, and then developed into the writing systems we use today -- ranging from alphabets to the Chinese and Japanese scripts. After all, without scripts, there would be no writers, not to mention no history or science. For me personally, my serious interest began while I was working for Granada Television in the 1980s. In 1989 I did some preliminary research for a television series on the origins of writing. The decipherment of the Mayan hieroglyphs of Central America was then at an exciting stage, and I spent time with some of the American scholars at the forefront of the research. Although the TV series never got made, I became fascinated by the subject and wrote my first book on it, The Story of Writing, which was published in 1995. I followed this with two more books on writing: The Man Who Deciphered Linear B, a biography of Michael Ventris, and Lost Languages: The Enigma of the World's Undeciphered Scripts. I also wrote a biography of the polymath Thomas Young, The Last Man Who Knew Everything, who was the first to make real progress in deciphering the Rosetta Stone and Egyptian hieroglyphic. Before the VSI I wrote an essay on writing systems for the forthcoming, million-word Oxford Companion to the Book. So the VSI comes after long immersion in the subject.

    Mark Thwaite: How long did it take you to write and research Writing and Script?

    Andrew Robinson: The book is based on about two decades of reading and research in the subject -- starting in 1989. The main challenge, as with all VSIs, was to distil what I knew into a concise but still accessible format. But having been a journalist for many years, as well as an author, I had a good idea of what aspects of writing and script interest the general reader, and I didn't find the distillation difficult. In fact, I wrote the book fast, within a couple of months.

    Mark Thwaite: How do you write? Longhand or directly onto a screen? Straight off or with lots and lots of editing?

    Andrew Robinson: When I started writing in the 1980s, I used to write longhand. Amazing to recall, at one time I wondered if I would be able to write directly on a screen. Now I can't imagine not having a computer to write. But I still do almost all of my research notes with a pencil. I edit on screen, print out, read, amend by hand, then produce a revised version on screen -- again and again. Wasteful of paper, I'm afraid, but I can't absorb a text properly on a screen. Having been literary editor of The Times Higher Education Supplement for a decade or so, I guess I find it easy to detach myself from my own writing. Editing is enormously important to me. I pity those ancient scribes who could draft their writing only on a clay tablet, papyrus or some other intractable or expensive material. Just imagine having to start all over again, if you wrote the wrong hieroglyph in the finished version!

    Mark Thwaite: The VSIs are very compact -- how did you go about squeezing all your research into such a small frame? Was there anything important you had to leave out!?

    Andrew Robinson: A recent reference work on the world's writing systems (which happens to be published by OUP), runs to almost 1000 substantial pages. So there's no question of including all of the world's scripts in a VSI. If you tried to, you'd end up with an unreadable catalogue. You have to be brutally selective among the scripts, without leaving out any of the minor scripts that rightly fascinate people, for example runes and the rongorongo script of Easter Island. On the other hand, scripts generally belong to families, for example, the European alphabets, and the Far Eastern scripts influenced by Chinese characters. Moreover, all scripts -- whether they are Egyptian hieroglyphs, the English alphabet or Japanese kana and kanji -- are mixtures of phonetic and non-phonetic signs. All full writing is based on spoken languages -- there is no such thing as a universal writing system, and there never will be. So, despite the diversity of appearance, there are groups of scripts you can focus on, and an underlying single principle of operation. In the end the subject falls quite neatly into sections, such as: how writing began; how it developed and diffused; how scripts like cuneiform disappeared from use; how they were deciphered; the life of scribes and how they physically wrote; how computers have changed writing -- and, crucially, not changed it.

    Mark Thwaite: Do you read the critics? Have you learned anything from their responses to your book?

    Andrew Robinson: This particular book is only just published. I certainly read the critics, usually with trepidation. It's extremely interesting to see the range of responses one gets as a writer. I recall a review -- which writer does not? -- in The Economist, which loved my book The Man Who Deciphered Linear B for being swift and demanding, while another reviewer in Time magazine disparaged the book for the very same reasons. Perhaps I learnt from such comments in writing the VSI.

    Mark Thwaite: What was the most difficult aspect of writing Writing and Script? How did you overcome it?

    Andrew Robinson: With so many scripts to choose from, you have to accept that it is better to pick well and discuss a few scripts in some depth, rather than skating over a large number of scripts and boring the reader who has never heard of them. I think I've chosen a mixture of famous scripts, like Egyptian hieroglyphic and Chinese characters, which everyone wants to know about, and relatively obscure scripts with interesting stories attached to them, like Minoan Linear B and the Hangul script of Korea. The most important solution was to give the reader compelling ideas to latch onto, such as "Did writing start in one civilisation and spread, or in several civilisations independently?", illustrated by attractive examples -- rather than a catalogue of scripts. There are also rather more illustrations in this VSI than in some other VSIs, because you really can't describe a script -- you have to show it, if it's important.

    Mark Thwaite: Did you have an idea in your mind of your "ideal" reader? Did you write specifically for them?

    Andrew Robinson: My 'ideal reader' for a VSI would be the person I was when I first started working on the subject in 1989: intrigued but not informed. Most of my other books have been written for the general reader, and I like this challenge. But with a VSI, I am acutely conscious that many readers will be students, so I think I also have a responsibility to be accurate and unbiased, without being dry.

    Mark Thwaite: What are you working on now?

    Andrew Robinson: I'm in the middle of writing a book on exceptional creativity in the arts and sciences, to be published by the trade science imprint of OUP, with research support from the John Templeton Foundation. One of the geniuses I discuss in the book is Jean-Francois Champollion, who deciphered Egyptian hieroglyphic in the 1820s, after 'borrowing' a few ideas from Thomas Young, the first decipherer of the Rosetta Stone (whose biography I wrote).

    Mark Thwaite: Who is your favourite writer? What is/are your favourite book(s)?

    Andrew Robinson: I wrote a lot about modern Indian culture to begin with. The person who has influenced me most is probably Satyajit Ray, whose biographer I am. Best known as a classic film director, Ray was also a bestselling fiction and non-fiction writer, illustrator and music composer, and one of the great artistic figures of the 20th century. He is certainly my favourite creative figure, but if I had to name a favourite writer, it might be V. S. Naipaul, both for his fiction and non-fiction. Whatever one may think of Naipaul as a man, he showed me the power of writing if the writer dedicates himself to writing -- and he's also marvellously witty.

    Mark Thwaite: Favourite quote?

    Andrew Robinson: I rather like -- which I have used in my Lost Languages -- "The worm thinks it strange and foolish that man does not eat his books." (From Fireflies, epigrams by Rabindranath Tagore)

    Mark Thwaite: Do you have any tips for the aspiring writer?

    Andrew Robinson: Try not to spread yourself too much in the subjects you choose. And combine writing with a day job, at least to begin with.

    Mark Thwaite: Anything else you would like to say?

    Andrew Robinson: Let's hope the Roman alphabet survives for another millennium.

  • Nikki Gemmell

    Tue, 21 Jul 2009 04:37

    In France, Nikki Gemmell is described as a female Jack Kerouac, in Australia as one of the most original and engaging authors of her generation, and in the US as one of the few truly original voices to emerge in a long time. Her latest work is The Book of Rapture.

    Mark Thwaite: The Book of Rapture opens with three children waking up in a basement room of a large city hotel. They have been drugged and taken from their beds in the middle of the night... You have 3 kids, Nikki, so does a story like this begin by exploring your own worst nightmare?

    Nikki Gemmell: I wanted to write something along the lines of a thriller with this book, and of course, a thriller needs a gripping scenario - one that would wrench not only my own heart but the reader's. You can't move a reader unless you, as the writer, are also moved -- so I wrote about fears that are close to me. I cried as I was writing some of these scenes. It's a nightmare scenario. But I also wanted to write a book that's infused with love, that's uplifting and sings with hope.

    Mark Thwaite: Your novel deals with our belief in -- and relationship to -- science: tell us a little about your heroine and her work...

    Nikki Gemmell: The protaganist is a scientist who's involved in the field of genetics -- and warfare. I've taken as my cue Salman Rushdie's rallying cry for novelists: "A writer's work is to name the unnameable, to point to frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world and stop it from going to sleep." I like provocative books that force the reader to face uncomfortable truths. The Book of Rapture is about a scientist who develops a weapon of mass destruction like no other -- and documents the moral journey she goes on. It's a book of our time that's looking at the conflict between science and religion. It asks questions like: Are human beings incapable of ethics and morality without inventing a god? Have we outgrown religion? Does goodness evolve? If science does destroy religion -- what moral code do we then live by? Have we outgrown the religious approach to the world? What can science tell us about love/heroism/sacrifice/laying down one's life for another (I wanted a book full of the heroism of the human.) Religion is about how humans should behave; science has no such fences. I'm fascinated by that.

    Mark Thwaite: You published your first novel, The Bride Stripped Bare, anonymously, back in 2003. Aside from writing The Book of Rapture what else have you been doing over the last 5 or so years?

    Nikki Gemmell: Living! Actually, The Bride Stripped Bare wasn't my first novel -- I'd written three before it: Shiver, Cleave and Lovesong. Over the past five years I've written a non-fiction book ("Pleasure: An Almanac for the Heart"), had a baby, raised two other kids, moved, and kept a husband (fairly) happy -- although he would have liked me to learn to cook at some point! But basically I've just plunged into life, which I think is a healthy thing to do as a writer. Raising a family constantly gets in the way of my work, but in a good sense. Being a mum puts you at the coalface of living, and I feel like that's a great place to be as a novelist. It's all fuel.

    Mark Thwaite: How long did it take you to write The Book of Rapture?

    Nikki Gemmell: Too long! I never know how long I'm going to take and go on a huge journey with each book -- they change enormously as I'm working on them. Everything from the characters' names to the ending to the title. The Book of Rapture was written over five years. I have to work in short bursts, around the kids, which is why the books take so long (and perhaps why the chapters are so short.) It always feels like I'm stealing time from other people when I'm writing; there's such a selfishness to it, but I need to do it too -- it makes me feel calm and strong, it stills me down.

    Mark Thwaite: How do you write? Longhand or directly onto a computer, straight off or with lots and lots of editing?

    Nikki Gemmell: I'm always carrying a notebook with me and am constantly jotting down ideas and observations, scraps of dialogue, quotes, possible titles, even drawings of interiors I'd like to use somewhere (a door handle, a light.) Then I mine these journals -- pour them into my work. At this stage I write directly onto the laptop but I'm a massive tinkerer, I never know when to stop. So I'm constantly printing out a draft and marking up each page with the changes, then retyping everything. The kids always have so much scrap paper for drawing -- the back of various drafts I've been working on. I just can't keep them all. The Book of Rapture went to about twenty drafts. At one point it was three times longer than it is now. I constantly pare back to accelerate the pace of the book. I have a horror of the reader becoming bored; want them gripped.

    Mark Thwaite: What was the most difficult aspect of writing your book? How did you overcome it?

    Nikki Gemmell: I find the entire process of writing difficult. Haven't found the magic formula. Every time I start a book I feel like I'm still learning, and the journey isn't getting any easier. The bar's getting higher, the stakes are being raised, and I'm always trying something new. I think the only way to overcome the difficulties of writing is to keep on going. Just do it. Tenacity is all, and persistence. Don't give up. Don't let the heart- sinkers of the world talk you out of it. When I first told my (ex-coalminer) dad I wanted to write books he said "waste of time, that." Thank God I didn't listen to him. I feel so lucky to be doing what I really want to in life. If he'd had his way I would have been a suburban solicitor wearing a sensible skirt.

    Mark Thwaite: Did you have an idea in your mind of your "ideal" reader? Did you write specifically for them?

    Nikki Gemmell: My readers are incredibly diverse -- male, female, young, old -- and I love that. Adore it when they write to me, love the dialogue between reader and writer. I don't write specifically for anyone. All I can say is that my heart has to be in whatever I'm working on -- and I'm always trying to be as brave as I can in terms of honesty. Through honesty, you connect.

    Mark Thwaite: What are you working on now Nikki?

    Nikki Gemmell: A new novel -- early stages -- can't say too much because I know it'll change so much. They always slip away from me and turn into something I wasn't expecting. But in a good way. It's always a big adventure and I'm never sure where it'll end up.

    Mark Thwaite: Who is your favourite writer? What is/are your favourite book(s)?

    Nikki Gemmell: Ooooh, so many! Ones I use as a tuning fork for my own writing: Micheal Ondaatje (especially his daring little Coming Through Slaughter), Marilynne Robinson (the luminous Gilead), Carol Shields (so much truth and beauty in her work, ie Unless), Cormac McCarthy (for scenes in All The Pretty Horses and The Road that effect me so much I can barely read them -- but to have that kind of visceral power as a writer; well, I can only salute him), Houellebecq (the audacious Atomised, for its daring and delicious grubbiness and unflinching honesty.)

    Mark Thwaite: Favourite quote?

    Nikki Gemmell: "Make it new." Ezra Pound

    Mark Thwaite: Any tips for the aspiring writer?

    Nikki Gemmell: Write as if you're dying. It's a great motivator.

    Mark Thwaite: Anything else you would like to say?

    Nikki Gemmell: I've just glanced over my shoulder at the gentle rustling sound that's been coming from the corner of the kitchen while I've been absorbed in these questions. My two year has opened a packet of chocolate biscuits, taken a bite out of every single one and smeared herself from forehead to toes in chocolate. I better go. Cheers!

  • Stephen Romer

    Mon, 20 Jul 2009 04:35

    Stephen Romer was born in Hertfordshire in 1957 and educated at Trinity Hall, Cambridge. Since 1981 he has lived in France, where he is Maitre de Conferences in the English department of Tours University. Stephen has published three previous collections of poetry with Oxford University Press and is the editor of the Faber anthology Twentieth-Century French Poems. He regularly writes on French literature and modem poetry for the Guardian and the Times Literary Supplement. His latest collection is Yellow Studio.

    Mark Thwaite: Is there a unifying theme to your poetry collection Yellow Studio Stephen?

    Stephen Romer: The lineaments of a unifying theme, in any of my collections, is usually discerned a posteriori , rather than conceived at the outset, poetry being discontinuous in its nature and realization. This is clearly less true of the fifth and final part of Yellow Studio, the poems of elegy to my father. What held the book up, in fact, was any satisfactory sense of a "unifying theme", or rather, of an emotional centre. For whatever reason, there is undoubtedly some desire in me for thematic cohesion. When I came into possession of my father's diaries, it was not long before I felt I was in possession of the emotional centre, though to write about my father so intensely and intently came as a surprise to me, and was directly caused by these diaries he kept as a young man. They held me in a kind of enthralled magnetic orbit for several weeks. Later on, when I came to ordering the book, I did realize there were intimations of a private space, connected with childhood, and leading directly to memories of concentrated moments of composition; very concretely, in fact, they are the places where I have lived and live in now. The Yellow Studio of my title, is not just Vuillard's, but my grandmother's, my mother's, my sister' s, my former wife's and her father's -- they were/are all painters! The "humane/heaven of drapes and turpentine", celebrated in the title poem, is no fantasy, it is always redolent for me of creativity, ever since I stole into these studios on my own and looked at the objects, the paint-spattered books of Old Masters, the vinyl records. When I was about 17, my portrait was painted simultaneously by my mother and my sister, in a yellow studio, with Eliot reading Four Quartets as accompaniment -- "The distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight" is for me that studio, and that time. And the yellow room in section 5, where I wrote and dreamed, is related to these "studios". They represent, along with the room I describe in "Dismantling the Library" and "Dismantlings 2", a place of safety, privacy and mental concentration. There are, clearly, other themes running through the collection -- but the title I chose indicates where I think the heart of the matter might be.

    Mark Thwaite: How long has it taken to bring this collection together? Is this a usual timeframe for you?

    Stephen Romer: My previous book, Tribute, came out in 1998, and the two previous to that, Idols and Plato's Ladder were 1986 and 1992. So a timeframe of around six years was extended into ten on this occasion. This is partly an accident of the publishing process -- there is, naturally enough, a bit of a log-jam; also, I withdrew the book once since I was aware, as I have said, that a crucial part was missing. I was also doing other work during that time span, including my French anthology for Faber. The completed book took me, for all practical purposes, eight years to complete.

    Mark Thwaite: What was the most difficult aspect of writing your collection? How did you overcome it?

    Stephen Romer: There were many difficulties, of different degrees of fiendishness! Getting started again, after publishing a collection has "cleaned you out" is always, in my experience, a slow process. The slim file of work written since Yellow Studio came out, I have titled Poems 2009 -- !, the exclamation mark being a rueful indicator of my almost disbelief there will be any more... Thom Gunn, apparently, would not let a book go for publication until he had a follow-up completely, or very nearly, finished, such was his fear of post-partum depression... The love poems in Part 1 I did have to hand, or some of them, and they made a natural sequence to those that make up the bulk of Tribute. But part of the difficulty with these was the sense of an "afterthought", although the poems in Part 1 do not, I hope, in fact feel that way to the reader. Ordering this collection was very hard, for some reason. There were to have been six sections, with a further "family" section, but these would have overburdened the book with poems of that kind; so I dropped about twenty poems or so. This radical cull, though painful at the time, in fact enabled me to overcome the chief difficulty which lay in its ordering.

    Mark Thwaite: Was there any particular poem within the book that caused you more problems than any of the others? Why was this?

    Stephen Romer: The long poem, "Jardin Anglais: a Malentendu for Two Voices" described by most critics as "obscure" -- despite my best efforts to clarify the thing! -- was undoubtedly the hardest to write. And even now, I concede, there is some obscure material in it, or under it, but it is crucial to the poem. It is partly about not being able to drag certain matter "into the sunlight". The poem began as a dialogue between a man and a woman, and the matter of unreciprocated desire. But the male voice too much enveloped the female voice -- it reserved for itself the ironies, in a way that in fact distorted and disabled the balance of the thing. It was also originally written in several blocks, alternating roman and italics, to distinguish the two voices. And the visit to the "jardin anglais" was only the prelude to the further difficulties of an overnight stay I had nearly abandoned the whole thing, until in a final effort at salvage, I banished the male character altogether, and replaced him with the voice of a rather tiresome, wheedling and lecherous French tour guide thereby shifting the emphasis entirely to the woman's voice. The much shortened, final version of the poem emerges from an obsession with Gerard de Nerval, and his habit of idealizing women, combined with places in the Loire valley, which is where I live, combined with reading about Catherine de Medicis at Chenonceaux and Marie Antoinette at the Petit Trianon.

    Mark Thwaite: How do you write? Pretty much straight off the bat or with lots and lots of editing?

    Stephen Romer: There is no rule to this. Poems have been "gifted" to me straight, and required little or no editing. On the other hand, sometimes I have had to wait months, or even years, to make the necessary adjustment (once a poem hinged on changing the modal "must" to the modal "can", and it took me about two years to realize it.) Usually, I work intensely and single-mindedly at a poem when it first "arrives", re-writing until I have something approaching what I want. I then leave it to mature, and will return to it when it comes to the question of its publication.

    Mark Thwaite: Is poetry inspiration or perspiration for you?

    Stephen Romer: Mark Twain's old adage remains true for me. I do believe in inspiration, however, and without it, without the strange stirrings of language, of something being galvanized with extreme rapidity usually, into an arrangement, but beyond my conscious control -- I will not set anything down as poetry. I do, however, write notes fairly continuously -- things seen, things read, things heard. Sometimes things heard on the radio, or read in the media, that drive me mad with rage and frustration! Usually with a bearing on the excesses of political correctness, or Health and Safety. I also believe, perhaps eccentrically, that the poetic vein, once struck, is quite soon exhausted, and though one works it for all it is worth, a poet usually knows (or ought to) when it has run dry. Then he or she should stop.

    Mark Thwaite: There is a lengthy homage to Gerard de Nerval in your collection -- why is Nerval so important to you?

    Stephen Romer: For two reasons, one accidental, or local, the other psychological and deep-rooted.For many years I lived in the ancient medieval town of Senlis, near Chantilly, to the North of Paris. Nerval's strange childhood -- abandoned by his mother who followed his father on the Napoleonic campaign to Russia, and died during the retreat -- was spent in the region. His finest single text, Sylvie, takes place in the forests around Senlis -- Ermenonville, Halatte, Chantilly -- and around the beautiful Abbaye de Chaalis and Mortefontaine. I read Les filles du feu and wandered around those forests. On the deeper level, Nerval for me is the absolute Romantic, more so even than Goethe, or Rousseau (also a denizen of Ermenonville) or Baudelaire. He is Byronic in his love of women, but you have to imagine a hopeless Byron, one who never gets the girl. Perhaps he is closest to that other tragic, god-haunted figure, Holderlin. Nerval lives essentially among occult books and fantasms -- his famous "mad" text "Aurelia" confesses to how dreams can "leak" into conscious waking life. Something in particular that fascinates me, for whatever reason, is how he continually superimposes the image of one woman upon another (which is why he loses them all), and below them all there is, presumably, the ultimate "model" of the eternal feminine, and in all likelihood, the lost mother. He is like Laforgue's Lord Pierrot, who "dies among his books". Nerval is devoid of any trace of worldliness, and as such, he is naturally fascinating to poets. I suppose he is, in that sense, the ultimate "poet's poet".

    Mark Thwaite: What do you do when you are not writing?

    Stephen Romer: I seem to spend an inordinate amount of time "not writing", and absurdly, getting anguished about that fact I earn my crust teaching Eng Lit and Lang at Tours University in France, and have taught (French Lit) in the US. I have spent an inordinate amount of time, recently, trying to create something resembling an English lawn on recalcitrant and rebellious French soil. If I could, and perhaps one day I shall, I would like to travel widely and at great length, as once I had leisure to do. Recently I organized an exhibition of my sister's paintings in the studio/study I have here -- very satisfying to achieve an ambition I have always had, of having a place to exhibit painting. Lit crit, reviewing, judging poetry prizes; concerts, plays, exhibitions. None of these activities consist of writing, though they do conceivably "feed" it. A great deal of my time is spent on an activity that is correlative to writing: the art of translation. This undoubtedly affects, in some way or another, my own practise as a writer.

    Mark Thwaite: You live in France: how does this affect your writing? Have the rhythms of the French language affected your prosody?

    Stephen Romer: A question I am often asked, and one it is hard to answer. There is no dobt in my mind that I remain an English writer; I have only on very rare occasions tried writing poems directly into French, and the result was dismaying. I disliked myself as a French poet intensely. I was taken over by other voices in a way I can perhaps now struggle against more manfully in my native tongue. The experience of aiding and abetting the translation into French of my own poems only confirmed my stubborn linguistic identity. "L'eternel sachet Lipton" has a beauty and an elegance that "the eternal Lipton's tea-bag" does not share -- but then beauty and elegance was not what I was after. In terms of subject however, or in the way I think of so many things, being in France goes to the heart of my preoccupations: about art, love, politics. The image of the writer is more strongly defined, and somehow full of savour, than comes across in the English tradition: words like spleen, ideal, fatigue, chambre, ennui, usure... there is a whole vocabulary of Gallic angoisse that is second nature to me now, just as in French there is (or the soldiers at Verdun had) three colours for their depression -- but, again, the word cafard is so much stronger -- le gris, le noir, and worst of all le cafard vert... This undeceived but still romantic France, the France of the outcast, impossibly sensitive poet, but also of the terroir and the vigneron is the place that inspires me, not the dogmatic, statist, forensic, technocratic France, that is the other side of the coin. The willingness and capacity to theorize (but I use the word strictly in the most humane sense, not deconstruction etc.) emotion, and in particular eros (think of Proust or Barthes) -- and their respect for the notebook, and for the journal intime as a genre in its own right, have also influenced my writing. On another level,the sheer physical quality and beauty of their books, especially poetry books issuing from small presses, never fails to delight. I don't think the rhythms of French prosody have affected my language; on the contrary, my prolonged experience of translating out of French has taught me to respect the light, unaccented, anapestic rhythms of French poetry, and to appreciate all the more the no less admirable, accented, consonantal weight of English. Only Samuel Beckett seems to have been able to handle these two different geniuses with equal dexterity, wit and panache.

    Mark Thwaite: Do you have an idea in your mind of your "ideal" reader? Did you write specifically for them?

    Stephen Romer: There is no clearly defined "ideal" reader in my mind. Inevitably I write for my contemporaries, and one undeniable desire (or hope) is to be read (even enjoyed) by those whose work I myself enjoy and admire. So I suppose they are somewhere in the picture, but never present in any censorious or applauding way at the time of writing.

    Mark Thwaite: What are you working on now?

    Stephen Romer: A major translation project -- a collection of "French Decadent Tales" from the fin-de-siecle threatens to keep me very busy for the next months. I am strugglng with a long-ish poem on another French poet who fascinates me, as he has fascinated others before me, Jules Laforgue. And there is an undefinable, and probably unrealizable "prose work" on Eros, that has been a very long time coming ! I suspect I am in fact writing a French book, but in English. And then there is that as yet very thin file of new poems, which I hope and trust will be added to incrementally.

    Mark Thwaite: Who is your favourite poet and your favourite prose writer? What is/are your favourite books?

    Stephen Romer: I can only answer this impossibly exclusive question by speaking of my current enthusiasms. I am re-reading Ezra Pound, with ever renewed delight, at his edge, his verve, his astonishing technical variety, his ravishing visual gifts and his perfect ear. No prose writer has affected me more in recent years than W.G. Sebald. Sylvie by Nerval; Lustra by Pound; Austerlitz by Sebald; Fragments d'un discours amoureux by Barthes; Quidams Diary by Kierkegaard.

    Mark Thwaite: Have you any tips for the aspiring writer?

    Stephen Romer: There is the classic one, but it remains classically true: read as much as you can, and not just work by your contemporaries, in your chosen medium. Also, show your work to others, or undergo baptism of fire in a workshop (and not the kind where no one dares to say what they really think). Young writers have to learn to see their work from the outside, and as it were, "in the round". One of the hardest disciplines is to rid onself of "blind spots", ie what may be blindingly obvious to you may be no more than obscure gibberish to someone else. (Unless obscure gibberish is what you're after.) Remember also Pound's motto, Dichten = Condensare: keep it concentrated.

    Mark Thwaite: Anything else you would like to say?

    Stephen Romer: I think I have probably said enough... Thank you!

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