For Books’ Sake Talks To: Helen Dunmore
2nd Feb 2012
FBS: What were your influences in writing The Greatcoat? I have visions of long winter nights reading endless ghost stories!
HD: You are right: I love reading ghost stories. Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, Emily Brontë’s brilliant blend of the earthy and the supernatural in Wuthering Heights, Daphne du Maurier’s conjurings with Rebecca’s haunting presence, Rudyard Kipling (At the End of the Passage, They), Elizabeth Bowen (The Happy Autumn Fields, The Demon Lover)…and many, many others.
FBS: Parts of The Greatcoat were truly shiver-inducing. What have you read that has scared you?
HD: Many things, but there are six lines in Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner which always do it for me:
‘Like one, that on a lonesome road
Doth walk in fear and dread,
And having once turned round walks on,
And turns no more his head;
Because he knows, a frightful fiend
Doth close behind him tread.’
FBS: You zoom from ancient Rome to early twentieth century Cornwall, from sex trafficking to the Russian Gulag. The amount of research you have to do must be immense. What have you enjoyed learning about the most, how do you start your research, and where do you get your ideas?
HD: I don’t think that ’zoom’ is quite the word. My books develop very slowly, and I think about them for years before starting to write. In almost every case, research has built on a foundation of previous knowledge and interest.
For example, when I started to think about writing Zennor in Darkness I had been studying and reading D.H. Lawrence’s work for years, and had read all his novels and short stories, most of his poetry, his letters, biographies of Lawrence, Frieda Lawrence, John Middleton Murry, Katherine Mansfield and so on.
I already knew and loved St Ives and Zennor, where the novel is set, and had a strong interest in the history of the First World War. It would have taken me years to research this novel from a standing start.
Difficult to say what I’ve enjoyed learning about the most. Research is so absorbing that it’s easy to put off starting the book. However, the art lies in knowing what to leave out; never to freight the book so heavily with one’s carefully garnered knowledge that it sinks under it.
FBS: For Books’ Sake focuses on writing by and for women, and I know you have spoken passionately in favour of the Orange Prize. With the recent high profile wins for women writers (such as in the Costa Book Awards), do you think the male dominance of literature in the media and in the shortlists may be turning around?
HD: I have seen this happen in the field of poetry. It has changed beyond recognition. When I started publishing poems in the mid-1970s every magazine and anthology was dominated by male poets.
Editors of poetry lists and poetry magazines were also overwhelmingly male, and the word ‘poetess’ was still in use. Now we have Carol Ann Duffy as Poet Laureate, and Jo Shapcott is the most recent recipient of the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry.
Whatever one thinks of such titles and awards, it is significant that they are now going to women as well as to men.
FBS: Speaking at Ilkley Lit Fest a couple of years ago, you talked about being an avid reader. What are you reading at the moment, and which new authors have taken your fancy recently?
HD: As usual I am reading and re-reading. Yesterday I re-read My Antonia by Willa Cather for perhaps the twentieth time, and I am reading for the first time a collection of stories by Lucy Wood called Diving Belles.
HD: I’m not yet sure. Those characters remain very close to me, but, as I said earlier, it takes me a long time to develop a novel in my mind.