Today Jane Rusbridge, author of The Devil’s Music and her latest novel Rook, joins me to provide insight and understanding into her literary world.
Alexa Radcliffe-Hart: I had the fortune to be taught by Jane and one of the main writing points she impressed on us was that of following your intuition and your obsessions. I remember seeing Jane at WordFest, Cambridge’s Literary Festival, around two years ago where her then obsession was rooks – look where this has led her! Jane, how did the rook obsession begin?
Jane Rusbridge: My ‘obsessions’ give me clues as to what to write about. Or perhaps that’s too self-justifying? Perhaps it’s just that I hugely enjoy finding out more about random things, and the unconscious ‘prompt’ theory is just an excuse. Whichever it is, research into something new seems to allow space for synchronicity to works its magic.
My preoccupation with rooks grew from noticing them busy building nests in the trees overhead as I drove to and from work one spring. I asked my husband if there were more that year for some reason. He said no. He isn’t that keen on them, being a farmer, so he had a bit of a rant which included some stories about the pet rook his mother kept in the kitchen when he was a child. He hated that rook.
I read Mark Cocker’s eloquent book Crow Country , published that summer, and found his passion for corvids infectious. Cocker set me off to search Norfolk for the place he describes – without naming – where you can see thousands and thousands of rooks come in to roost. Standing beneath a sky beating with wings, surrounded by the rooks’ exuberant cacophony, was exhilarating. I wanted to capture that for my final scene.
A week or so later, in Bosham church, I saw the baby bird depicted on the memorial stone for Cnut’s daughter. It looked to me like a baby rook. And so it began …
ARH: Which just shows how much beauty and inspiration can be found in synchroncity, given the chance. I’m fascinated with the process of imprinting that underlies within the novel, was the purposeful, i.e. did you research this particularly, or did it naturally occur?
JR: On the whole, I dislike birds in captivity and have never handled a tame rook. However, we used to incubate and hatch duck eggs when the children were small, so I have witnessed birds imprinting at first hand. The ducklings would greet the girls when they came home from school and follow them around the garden, peeping madly.
Esther Woolfson, in Corvus: A Life with Birds, describes how her imprinted rook behaves towards her. Unless you are prepared to commit to that relationship in the way she has, it would be cruel to take one on as a pet, for whatever reason. A rook can live for 30 years – it’s not just for Christmas.
ARH: The parallels that are drawn between Nora and Rook are exquisite and heart rendering. A silent rook would not survive as Nora cannot without music. How did Nora’s characterisation as a cellist develop?
I was a musical child, playing the piano from age about 5 and later the flute; singing in various choirs. At 12, something happened and, for whatever reason, my confidence vanished. I more or less stopped playing. When I started writing Rook, I was reading neurologist Oliver Sach’s book Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain. It got me thinking about our mental connection with music, and I’m guessing my own loss, combined with reading Sach’s case studies, could be why the first thing I knew about Nora was that she was a musician who had thrown in her career.
She was a concert pianist, until someone told me the cello is the instrument closest to the human voice. This was a bit of a nuisance. I knew nothing at all about the cello. But she had to be a cellist because, at the beginning of the novel, Nora is ‘silenced’ by her experience – just as Rook has been – and her story untold. She won’t get her ‘voice’ back until she plays again.
ARH: It’s the characters that make you work the hardest as a writer that make you the most passionate. As a reader of Rook, one of my favourite characters is Harry, with his silent strength and colourless paintings. The use of colour throughout is clearly important from the lack of in Harry’s paintings, Rook’s black plumage and the eyes that haunt and follow Nora: “colours spray like exploding dahlias”. How and why is colour important to you as a writer?
JR: Our relationship with colour is another ongoing preoccupations of mine. I have a big ‘thing’ about cobalt blue – why on earth is that? What does that shade of blue ‘do’ to me? And then there are colour ‘fads’: at the moment it’s grey-green everywhere: doors, windows, skirting boards, garden furniture, crockery in Ikea…
Though at first not intentional, once I’d noticed that black/white had become a kind of motif, with the rooks and swans, and Harry’s sol y sombra, the colour thread was developed consciously with redrafting as a way of sewing the various narrative strands together a little more. And the book, in more ways than one, is about being haunted by ‘shadows’, about living a ‘colourless’ life.
ARH: Your preoccupations clearly make your writing all the stronger and as a reader, we too are drawn in. There is beautiful imagery between the rookery and the church, the deathly atmosphere and abandonment almost interchangeable between the two. And of course there is the depth of the historical facts and archaeological background which is delicately woven in. Research must have been vital to the novel. How did you find out about these subjects and research them?
JR: Research was literally ‘vital’ to the novel in the sense that it brought the story to life. I began in Bosham church with a pamphlet written by local historian John Pollock, who argues that a stone coffin unearthed in the 50s contains Harold II’s remains. And then, as I experimented with scenes and characters and voices, I read widely: the church archives, which were full of stories; about Saxon warriors, the Godwins, and Bosham’s nautical history ; about rooks, cellists and mud.
ARH: It’s wonderful to hear that within research, you can follow so many paths in order to develop your writing and the characters. Even mud!
As a writer, I found it was important how Nora’s thoughts spring up from the narration to hang in the air, ever present. The swift manoeuvre of past and present guides the reader through Nora’s mind without force or confusion to the reader; shrinking both time and distance. My last question, what advice would you give to writers looking to tackle such expanses of time and information whilst relaying such interesting characters?
JR: I started, as I usually do, with writing random scenes and no firm idea of the characters. With Rook, there seemed to be many stories vying for attention. I played about, experimenting with the 3rd person, thinking about which tense to use for the bulk of the narrative, finding out about my characters.
We are often ‘told’ not to this with a first draft, but I edit imagery, words and sentences as I go along. Getting the language as good as I can manage helps me think better. I discovered that when Nora distanced herself from something, it worked best in the past tense, whereas Ada’s memories of her past are often so vivid to her they take over, so need to be told in the present tense to suggest that.
It’s tedious when people make pronouncements about the present tense being a ‘fad’. We have different tenses, why would we not use them? Why should we not try them out as tools? The present tense is nothing new. Not liking novels written in the present tense is merely a question of personal taste. In Rook, I wanted to maintain fluidity between past and present tenses as way of suggesting, through form, the connections between Nora, Ada and Edyth, whose stories are connected even though separated by time.
My advice? The chaos of a first draft can be frightening but don’t let that stop you. Make a mess, experiment. Allow yourself time to see how things come together as you write.
ARH: Wow, that’s excellent advice! Thank you so much for giving us insight into the writing process as well as Rook.
If you’d like to read my review of Rook, please check it out and feel free to add your comments!