"It's a moment of pure, exquisite terror, and I thought— that's what I want to realise in this book... unexpected, apparently unexplained terror, and then work backwards to show how this terror comes about."
Rose Tremain is describing a scene from Claude Chabrol's 1970 film "Le Boucher" a young teacher has taken some children on a picnic under an overhanging rock, there's a close-up of a little girl eating a baguette when suddenly blood starts dripping onto the sandwich. It's a visceral image, and one which provided the visual inspiration for Trespass, her 11th novel (Chatto, March).
The book is a tale of betrayal and revenge set in the wild Cevennes region of southern France. In an isolated farmhouse lives Aramon Lunel, an alcoholic with a violent past. His sister Audrun, with whom he has a disturbed relationship, lives nearby. Into this closed world stumbles wealthy English antiques dealer Anthony Verey, looking for a property, who inadvertently sets off a devastating chain of events. vIt's a novel which explores how characters cope with what Tremain describes as "the last third of their lives".
With his business failing in London Verey decides to create a new life abroad. "People do often make a last throw of their lives in this way I think; they take themselves somewhere that they don't know at all but by doing that think the landscape or the culture will refresh them in a way or will enable them to make a new start. Occasionally it works but very often it doesn't."
This clash of cultures is key— the sophisticated, urbane Anthony "sleepwalks into something which is completely the other end of the spectrum; people who've never moved from this village, who don't understand how the world works, who are turned in on themselves". In this insular community Aramon is guilty of what could be described as monstrous transgressions in his past, but he also evokes pity in the reader. Tremain remarks that she's never been very keen on fiction "which is out to punish the characters" and it bothers her when writers take "an authorial stance which is very punishing".
Trespass is minutely plotted, tense as any thriller and Tremain comments that one of the hardest things "was to understand literally moment by moment when to reveal something and when not to reveal it. And on the whole my instinct was to not reveal things until quite late. That was quite fun, just paying out the rope, inch by inch."
Chatto is positioning Trespass as a new departure for the author. "I've always taken a new direction which in a way has driven the publishers mad" she laughs. "But I think that at long last, people are beginning to see that perhaps as a strength of my work rather than a weakness. As I've often said, the process of writing a novel is—or what I like it to be for me so that I don't get bored— is a journey of discovery."
Trespass is also her first novel since winning the Orange Prize in 2008: "I'd been patiently waiting for somebody to give me a prize for a very long time... to not have to put on the loser's smile was quite a relief." She was also glad to have won for The Road Home, a story that provoked a lot of controversy.
"A lot of people said I had no right to write it because I wasn't an immigrant myself; it was not my own story and so on." A ridiculous charge for any novelist and Tremain concurs: 'It either works on an imaginative level or it doesn't... that's my whole raison d'ecirctre, going into spaces that I don't normally inhabit, exploring them and trying to bring something out which enables people to feel a greater empathy. I think that's one of the justifications for writing fiction— you can make real to somebody something which they find very difficult to understand."
Before the Orange Prize Tremain was probably best known for her historical novels Restoration and Music and Silence but she is not a fan of the label "historical novelist". I wonder if she thinks Wolf Hall's Man Booker win will have given the term more gravitas? She thinks it probably has, but says we need a new term for historical fiction: "They are just novels that have a past location and are therefore not swept away by the tide of present day life so fast. This is the great agony of trying to capture the present in a novel— it's a very slow thing to write and present life moves on in a hideously unexpected and overtaking kind of way".
Her next book will be a sequel to Restoration (1989), her fifth and breakthrough novel which achieved significant sales and a place on the Booker shortlist. Provisionally entitled A Man of His Time, Tremain is excited about returning to the character of Robert Merivel— "of whom I am inordinately fond" — to pick up his story 20 years later at the tail end of the reign of Charles II. It's a period with lots of parallels to today. "It will either be the big masterstroke, or a total failed self-indulgence," she laughs "and I don't know which. But what I really look forward to is being back in that voice, because it amused me so much." It will be a welcome relief after the darkness of Trespass.
"I was saying to Penny [Hoare, her editor of 30 years standing] the other day, when you get to where I am in my career— I'm very, very uncompromising. I just think 'that's what I want to write' and no other thing."
- Stephen May | "I do think, whether you like my book or hate my book, that I'm doing my own thing"
- Hector Tobar | "I'm very honoured that my book has found a home in the UK, because I wrote it hoping to explain Los Angeles and California to the world."
- Jane Green: "I'm now writing about women in their 40s. I don't think I'm a chick"
- Harriet Lane | "I've lost so much because of this autoimmune thing—not just some sight, but a really enjoyable career and a confident sense of the future"
- Benjamin Wood | "I didn't want to just regurgitate the same sort of story about students having a wonderful bally-hoo time in their colleges"