Jane Rusbridge's second novel Rook follows her 2009 novel The Devil’s Music, which was published to critical acclaim and long listed for the 2011 International IMPAC Literary Award.
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?
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, when everything about the process was unfamiliar and new. Rook ventures a little further inland, along a creek path, across wheat fields. With novel three, I’m getting adventurous, since it looks as though it might be set in forests on the Downs, and away from the sea.
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 Cnut, King Harold, and the Bayeux Tapestry. How long did you spend researching the background to the story?
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 Chichester Harbour 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’.
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.
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?
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, and was niggled by the one-sided telling of both. 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. 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. What she recounted moved me, so I read around the subject, wept over images and, most importantly, met with women who’d been through at least part of Nora’s experience. That simple realisation of the difficulty of voicing this particular secret was the key to finding the ‘voice’ for Nora’s most distressing scenes.
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?
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.
Rook by Jane Rusbridge is out now, published by Bloomsbury Circus.