For Books’ Sake Talks To: Jane Rusbridge

18th Dec 2012


Novelist Jane Rusbridge has been making waves in the literary scene since her début novel The Devil’s Music was published by Bloomsbury in 2009, followed by ROOK earlier this year.

Praised by many a critic as poetically masterful, as well as historically and regionally accurate, Rusbridge has gained a huge fan following in a relatively short time.

Alongside the likes of Sue Townsend and J. K. Rowling, Rusbridge’s writing career didn’t begin until later in life. I asked her how she found starting a career that many begin in their late teens.

“After I’d been writing for a year or so, my husband bought me a shed. That was one of the things which helped me to find the space – literally as well as metaphorically – for writing. That blue shed at the bottom of the garden, glimpsed from the kitchen window, was also a reminder of how important writing was.”

One of the fascinating aspects of Rusbridge’s work is the over arching theme of history in both The Devil’s Music and her latest novel ROOK. Has she always been a history buff? How important is research in her writing?

“An interest in history has crept up on me! With ROOK my initial research preoccupations were music and the human brain, secret burials, mud and rooks – the historical element came slightly later, but grew from them.

What happened was that I revisited Bosham Church one day and saw that the memorial stone for King Cnut’s daughter has what looked to me like a baby rook engraved on it (it’s a raven, but I didn’t know that at the time). The rook/burial connection with what I was working on already prompted me to buy and read a pamphlet written by Bosham historian John Pollock.

His theory, based on interpretations of historical documents, is that Harold II is buried at Bosham, under the chancel arch, in one of the stone coffins discovered in the 50s. The original thought was that this grave had been vandalised because there was no head, but Pollock points out that this is what happened on the battle fields – soldiers were decapitated.

I was totally convinced by the details of Pollock’s argument and wanted to believe he was right, but as I read other historians’ accounts it became clear there are many different theories as to where Harold is buried, all argued and presented as if they are facts.

[Another book] which was especially useful was 1066: The Hidden History in the Bayeux Tapestry by Andrew Bridgeford, which suggests there is so much we still don’t know. It’s that quality of the ‘unknown’ I wanted for ROOK.

Once I had a general feel for the era, I began to select ‘facts’, taking bits I wanted from here and there in the way that you do as a fiction writer.”

Alongside the fascinating historical insights, Rusbridge breaks a whole host of literary clichés. The absent parent as an emotional crux to characters may have become a common trait, but Rusbridge has breathed new life in to the issue, and has been praised by readers and critics alike for doing so.

“With The Devil’s Music the inspiration was an extract from a case study by the child psychologist D.W. Winnicott I came across by chance in the university library while looking for something else. It was about a boy who was preoccupied with string.

Afterwards, I couldn’t get an image of this boy out of my head – Why? I don’t know, but Winnicott’s case study had irritated me with its authoritative and one-sided point of view. I wanted to discover the boy’s story, so I started with his fascination with knots and began to write from his point of view rather than the psychologist’s.

Only once I’d written about 20,000 words in the child’s voice did the mother’s story become important. I knew she would leave. At the time, for research I could only find one book about mothers who live apart from their children, Mothers Who Leave: Behind the Myth of Women Without Their Children by Rosie Jackson, which is an in-depth discussion of the myths and realities…

The issues surrounding absent parents are complex. It’s time to move on from the judgemental cruelty of stereotypes and one-sided sensationalism of stories in the tabloids. They are not helpful.”

An aspect of the novel that fascinated me the most was her method of writing in the second person. I’d never come across a piece of literature that had managed to use this technique so successfully or naturally, at least not since the Modernist era. When I told her this, it turned out to be yet another natural, almost prophetic choice for her.

“I’d never written in the second person before, but it was an instinctive choice for the mother. I loved the slow, introspective pace, a contrast with the boisterous first person narration of the child.

The second person can make a highly individual experience feel more universal. Perhaps this was the unconscious reason behind my choice, because I knew at that stage that the mother might leave. The second person carries a sense of detachment from the self even while pulling the reader more intimately into the story to become the character whose perspective it represents.”

At the beginning of the novel, the mother is a passive rather than active character, dominated by the will and wishes of her husband. Further into the story, she suffers from depression, falls in love with another man and leaves the family home.

Any or all of these things might threaten reader empathy, so I needed a way to tug the reader in close. John Gardner’s useful term ‘psychic distance’ describes the distance readers feel between themselves and the character, the second person being the most up close and subjective.

All these qualities made second person narration a good fit for my purposes but, even so, uncertainty remained. The problem, pointed out to me several times, is that it can alienate readers. This was my first novel.

Could I trust my instincts? Why not use more conventional third person narration? I was asked more than once, by experienced writers. It was sensible to consider their advice. So, at one point, I set about rewriting the entire novel in the third person.

However, when it came to translating the second person into third, the mother’s voice was dead in my hands. Only through such trial and error did I grow to have confidence in my intuition.

Oddly, after writing many scenes from the mother’s perspective in the 2nd person, I knew her intimately but had no idea of her name. I hadn’t even thought about it. Then I realised: leaving her unnamed for most of the novel echoes her loss of identity within the stifling confines of her marriage.

In the postscript, narration moves into third person and, as the reader learns of the cathartic changes she has made to her life, the mother is finally named.”

It could be easily suggested that from her former career as a teacher, Rusbridge could be tempted to teach through her writing, to provide a compass for the reader to follow through life. The themes of underachievement and disappointment run as an undercurrent through her work, and so I felt compelled to ask if they were there as a message for the reader, or if they’re present for another reason altogether.

“I don’t aim to deliver a message to readers, no. However, I’m conscious that what’s important to me is that the underside, or untold side of an experience is voiced – as with Nora’s story in ROOK, and the mother’s in The Devil’s Music.

Along with other irritating Must/Must Not rules of writing, beginner writers are often told a character must not be ‘passive’. Well, I am extremely interested in why somebody moves through their life in a passive way, and what then prompts them to become active.

I became aware of this when I began writing ROOK and realised that Nora, like Andrew in The Devil’s Music, was going to be another character not living life to the full. Something has knocked Nora sideways; what is it? And how will she get back on track?”

The Devil’s Music and ROOK can be purchased from Foyles, Amazon or your local independent bookseller in hardback, paperback, or for Kindle.

Gina Kershaw