Litro #153: Open | Q&A: Author | Jane Rogers


I recently had the extremely good fortune to be able to interview one of the most decorated writers in the UK, Professor Jane Rogers, about her creative process. Over a long and prestigious career, Rogers has won numerous awards including the Arthur C. Clarke Award, the Somerset Maugham Award, the Samuel Becket Award, the Writers Guild Best Fiction prize and the BBC National Short Story Award. She has been longlisted for the Man Booker, the IMPAC prize and the Orange Prize and she has also been nominated for a BAFTA. It was heartening to hear that even a seasoned writer like Rogers can still feel uncertainty about whether a story has legs or not and that, on occasion, she still abandons a story without completing it.

NK: What does the first thrill of discovering a story feel like? How do you know that this is the story/novel you’re going to be writing?

JR: I wouldn’t really describe it as a thrill, because it isn’t a single moment. For me, a novel idea gradually comes together over a long-ish period of time. With Conrad and Eleanor I knew I wanted to write about a long marriage, but many different strands had to fall into place before I could be sure it would be a novel.

The first goes back to my schooldays. Around the age of 16 I was told, probably in confidence, that a friend’s father had disappeared. He had left home and not told his family where he was going. I’m not sure how much I embroidered this in my own imagination, but what I thought was that he was fed up with his family and unhappy in his life, and that he was looking for a new life. It seemed to me a much more romantic and a much more radical thing to do than leaving for another woman or man. It was open-ended, and he might or might not return. The idea of his vanishing has stayed with me and has changed meaning over the years of my adult life, as my own father later left my mother, and as I myself felt the pangs of uselessness that came with teenage children growing up and needing me less. So that was always something I wanted to understand better, by exploring it in writing.

Other elements of the novel, for example the interest in IVF and stem cell research, came from earlier research I had done for a TV drama that was never made.

When I sat down and started writing Eleanor’s story, I was very unsure that it would properly develop into a novel. And yes, that is precisely why I wouldn’t call it a thrill! It is mainly uncertainty about whether it actually is a novel, and I seem to feel that uncertainty right up until a first draft is completed. So the real answer is, I don’t know that this is the story I’m going to be writing!

NK: Do you enjoy research? How do you know when to stop?!

JR: Yes, I enjoy research very much, and have done it for most of my novels. Historical research for Mr Wroe’s Virgins, The Voyage Home and Promised Lands, and scientific research for The Testament of Jessie Lamb and Conrad and Eleanor. I like learning things, I guess, and writing a novel gives a specific focus to what I need to research. With Mr Wroe’s Virgins I didn’t know when to stop, and I spent a year or more trying to learn everything I could about life in 1830, from British foreign policy to apocalyptic sects to what kind of underwear people wore, and how to make oatcakes. Eventually I realised it was impossible to know everything, and then I wrote, and did some checking up afterwards. Since then, I think I’ve come to realise there is a kind of tipping point. I keep on doing research until somehow I reach a stage where I certainly don’t know all there is to know, but I feel at home in the world of that subject. Then it is possible to write about it.

NK: We’ve talked before about ‘story totems’, about whether there are particular objects that connect you to a story or to your writing generally.

I have a number of beloved objects which I keep on the windowsill above my writing desk, and I often stare at them while I’m concentrating on writing. But I don’t think any of them specifically connect me to any one of my stories; it is more that I think of them as part of the landscape while I’m writing, and in a way they are talismans. Mostly they are gifts from people who are close to me; there’s a little wooden frog my son brought back from Madagascar; two tiny bronze women – one reclining, one kneeling to chat to her – made by my sister Helen; a clay echidna, whose prickles sometimes crack off, sent by my Mum from Australia; a wooden snail whose curly shell is made from a violin, given to my daughter when she was 3, by a good friend who is a violin maker. There are a few other things too, and a lot of pebbles. I love the shapes and feel of smooth pebbles, especially from beaches and rivers, and I do pick them up and fill my pockets, wherever I go. That suddenly sounds rather Virginia Woolf-ish! I fill my pockets because I love the feel of the pebbles, not to weigh me down! The pebbles are probably the most useful while I’m writing, because there are a few favourites which I like to hold and turn in my hand as I’m thinking and trying to move on with a story. I suppose they are rather like worry beads, only bigger. There are far too many pebbles in my work-room, and I sometimes have to take a bag-full and deposit them in the garden, to make way for new ones. It’s quite nice to come across some of the old ones in the garden from time to time, when I’m weeding.

My short stories are often inspired by a single event or image, or indeed something I have read. But it’s more common for a physical object from my life to take up residence in a story and make the story real for me. For example, when I was commissioned to write a story about Alan Turing (‘Morphogenesis’ appears in Rogers’ Comma Press collection ‘Hitting Trees With Sticks’) I needed a scene between the teenage Turing and the boy he loved, Chris. I found a way of anchoring that in reality by having him present Chris with a fircone from his pocket, using it to demonstrate a mathematical point. The real fircone was sitting on my windowsill at the time, and looking at it carefully and focussing on it gave me the way into the scene.

I suspect most writers do this, though. Good, precise writing is always a result of careful observation.

NK: Are there particular artists that trigger creative responses for you?

JR: I love visual art and yes, there are certain works that have been important while writing particular stories. There’s a wooden sculpture called Infant by Barbara Hepworth which I loved when I visited St Ives, and the postcard of it lives by my desk; likewise, a Samuel Palmer picture which must be about 20 years old now. I’m not sure that they exactly ‘trigger’ creative responses, but they help me to try and be true to what I want to say.

NK: I think a lot of writers feel doubt and are often plagued by a sense of futility (‘Can I really do that all over again?’). Does that still happen for you and, if so, how do you deal with it? How do you deal with periods of creative drought?

JR: Yes, indeed. But I know the only way to deal with it is to plough on. And when I really can’t write, I do something else. Gardening, walking, cooking, reading. I do sometimes give up on things, but I am very stingy and like to recycle stuff, so stories which I have abandoned are sometimes resurrected years later, and finished off.

NK: You’ve had a long and distinguished career. What are your thoughts about longevity as a writer? How does one keep the pot full, the fire lit?

JR: I don’t know! You do what you know how to do. Writing is, in the end, a job like any other. I suppose one of the things that makes me want to write is reading the work of other people. I find other writers inspiring, and I can name specific novels which helped to inspire specific novels of mine. For example, Waterland by Graham Swift inspired The Ice is Singing. Philip Roth’s American Pastoral and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go inspired The Testament of Jessie Lamb. William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury inspired Mr Wroe’s Virgins.

NK: Is your creative process familiar to you now over so many novels? Or are there aspects of it that still surprise you? Has it changed?

JR: It’s difficult to say. I think I usually write my way into things. That is to say, I do a lot of writing which is not kept, which is no use, but which I seem to need to write my way through before I get to the voice or idea or language I’m after.

NK: I wondered if you would say a few words about truthfulness/truth-telling in fiction. For me, the mark of a real artist is the drive to voice the truth even if it feels self-exposing or difficult. It feels to me from your work that you don’t shy away from telling the truth. Is this a conscious choice?

JR: Yes, I think telling the truth is the whole point, really. As a reader, you can tell when a writer is being honest, emotionally honest, honest about the way her or his characters think and speak and react. Which is not to say they are familiar or easy to understand, but they have integrity. Hemingway says every writer needs a crap detector, and to my mind that is about truth. For example, easy descriptions are crap: The golden sunshine poured down over the meadow sparkling with beautiful flowers. If you want to write truthfully, is sunshine golden? Does it pour? Can a meadow sparkle? What are ‘beautiful flowers’ and how can I make the reader see them? What colours and shapes do they have? Truthful description is specific.

I know your question is about bigger truths and yes, I’m trying to understand the things I write about, so it would be stupid of me to be dishonest because then I would never understand them, and sometimes a drive to truthfulness does lead into some dark and difficult areas. But for me, exploring and understanding difficult things is the whole point of writing, and it starts in the language, in the sentences, the words.

9781782398233Jane Rogers’ tenth novel, ‘Conrad and Eleanor’, an intricate and nuanced portrait of a dysfunctional marriage as it unravels, is released by Atlantic Books on June 2nd.

Book Club Review: The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers

What are Book Club Reviews?
This is a new series of book reviews on Litro. It’s exactly what it says on the tin: book reviews by book clubs in London or elsewhere in the world. The idea is to have the opinion of more than one person to help you make a decision on whether to read a book (the opinion hopefully more discerning after being subjected to discussion), and also to go beyond Amazon reader reviews. So, have a book club and want to get involved? Contact me.

The Post-Apocalyptic Book Club

Headed by Leila Abu El Hawa, the Post-Apocalyptic Book Club (they also have a Meet-Up group) gets together every month in central London, reading dystopian and post-apocalyptic novels. They've burnt through an impressive 45 books since they started in 2009, including classics like Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham, I Am Legend by Richard Matheson, and more recent novels like Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, The Road by Cormac McCarthy, and The Hunger Games (they've only read the first in the trilogy so far, so look out for the next two!)

Leila (center) and her group members at one of their meet-ups

What's great about them though is that they also organise events, such as the Dark Societies series in collaboration with Waterstones: a panel discussion or interactive Q&A with authors of dystopian fiction. The first of this series was with Naomi Wood, author of The Godless Boys.

The Club also holds similarly themed writing competitions, and has just published an anthology of writing by their members, which is available for £1.54 (inc. VAT) at Amazon UK; any money made from sales will go towards the running of the group.

I've been to one of these post-apocalyptic meet-ups and like how, after the discussion, we all take our turns to rate the book and give reasons for why we rated it as such; then at the end, Leila records the average rating. This is probably one of the best-organised clubs I've been to, and I think Leila probably has a little Club diary by which she can tell you, in the Club's four-year history, which book attracted the most numbers of people, which rated the most highly, or which caused the most arguments.

Last week, the Club met up to discuss The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers. This is their review for Litro.

Published 5 July 2012 by Canongate, UK.

Introduction by Leila Abu El Hawa

The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers is a tale told from the point of view of an ordinary 16-year-old girl, set in the world of today where a scarily plausible CJD/AIDS-like disease, the “Maternal Death Syndrome”, horrifically wipes out pregnant women and could possibly result in the end of all human life.

Jessie has always led a normal life, but as her parents’ marriage starts to fall apart and the horrific disease weaves its deadly trail around her, she decides something must be done. She wants to volunteer for the sinister Sleeping Beauties programme, by which girls are put into a coma so they can bring to term frozen embryos which then receive a new vaccine against MDS. Her parents, of course, object (even though her father is a research scientist trying to find a cure for MDS), and take drastic measures to stop her. Are her actions heroic or are they simply a result of an impressionable and innocent young girl determined to have a cause?

This novel was longlisted for the 2011 Man Booker prize and won the 2012 Arthur C. Clarke award for science fiction—impressive considering it is Rogers’ first venture into speculative fiction.

This book polarised the group and gave us a lot to talk about. You’d think that the science of the disease and its global consequences would dominate conversation, but it was Jessie’s voice and character and her relationship with her friends and family that created the buzz for discussion, which follows the book’s more inward, intimate focus on Jessie’s personal life.

Twenty-eight people attended the meeting and the book scored an average of 6.34 out of 10.

First published in 2011 by Sandstone Press, then on 5 July 2012 by Canongate.

Reviews by Club Members

Andrew Baguley, 56, actor.
Role within group: The New Guy
Rates book: 6/10
Favourite dystopian book: The Stand by Stephen King

Testament is a lovely Sci-Fi idea. Ok, it’s been done by Children of Men and other books but this story of death by pregnancy via AIDS-like CJD is a new and clever twist. That’s the good part. The bad part: the book wallows in slow plot development and takes forever to get to its point. It’s easily a hundred pages too long. The main voice is Jessie, whose character arc is promising, but once she’s made her mind up it plateaus. After some middling teenage fiction dramas, I really wanted to know more about how the world is coping with the existential threat to the human species, but apart from a few men being nasty, life seems to go on much as normal with people planning holidays and buses running on time. The only time my emotions were affected was when I read about the hopeless life of the dysfunctional aunt. This book could have been a hugely moving testament to human struggle and impossible choices, but instead it reads like teen fiction and struggles to find a home in the science fiction genre.

Jill Griffiths, 41, business systems analyst.
Role within group: The Devil’s Advocate
Rates book: 8/10

Favourite dystopian book: Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro for atmosphere; A Scanner Darkly by Phillip K. Dick for humour

Initially, I struggled with this book. I felt that the complete breakdown of society around an event that directly affected only a relatively small number of the population was unrealistic. On reflection, having seen the reaction to CJD which touches only a tiny proportion of the population, I now accept the state and public response as plausible. As MDS advances, state resources are poured into research centres and the controls around ethical testing are under extreme strain as a cure is sought. The value of individual life, human and non-human, is questioned, and this sets up fault lines between special interest and protest groups that have suddenly gained huge teenage followings.

At the heart of the story is an idealistic teenage girl on the brink of adulthood making some drastic decisions, which her father opposes. The strong relationship between a father and daughter, where reason is used as the main channel of communication and as a way of showing mutual affection and respect, becomes a trap for both of them. Her father’s reaction is entirely believable, although almost certainly criminal even in times of crisis. This was the key point of tension in the book club discussion—some felt that Jessie was mature enough to make these decisions without adult intervention, others felt that she needed to be protected from herself. Interestingly, the difference in opinion didn’t fall cleanly along age or gender lines. Almost all of us could identify with being an idealistic teen; few (if any) of us have had the experience of parenting one.

Abraham Orchard, 33, in marketing.
Role within group: Trouble with a capital “T”
Rates book: 4/10
Favourite dystopian book: On the Beach by Nevil Shute

Not liking a book is sometimes different from thinking it’s a bad book, though this can be an easy trap to fall into.

I’m not sure the author intended to add to the current crop of books bulging with adolescent female first-person narratives; I prefer to think that the clichéd setting is simply a backdrop for humanity’s war for survival. Think of Jessie’s story as a parable of today’s children finally freed completely from parental control by the doctrine of individual rights, struggling to make major decisions in a very tough world. Indeed, the falling away of any parental support seems to be something that happens to almost all of the adolescent characters in the book.

Younger readers might take something positive and real from the way Jessie and her friends’ react, but overall I found their actions too stereotypical and the adult characters weak, flawed, and like the setting, rather too much like a backdrop. It makes me wonder whether at that age I too saw the people around me as quite so unimportant, corrupt and incompetent. Perhaps I had more faith in the world or a better relationship with my parents.

If nothing else, this book has been thought-provoking.

James Murray, 27; I write things, design things, and think about things.
Role within group: The Optimist
Rates book: 9/10
Favourite dystopian book: Earth Abides by George R. Stewart

Much of how you might feel about this book hinges on a single choice: would you, if you believed it would help to continue the human race, give your living body to science? There are two major complications to this question:

1) The procedure is uncertain—it might fail or it may be rendered pointless by a scientific breakthrough; and

2) The person making this choice is a 16-year-old whose motivations are constantly thrown in doubt: is she really a heroine, or is she just running away from a complicated world where her parents don’t have enough time for her, where her friends are dysfunctional, counter-productive, and deluded?

It’s a fascinating subject for debate—Do you think Jessie is rational? Would you follow her into her chosen fate? Would you support or condemn the people who allow or prohibit her from making her decision?—but a problematic one. It’s easy to try to put yourself in Jessie’s shoes, find they don’t fit, and cast them away along with the rest of the novel, but you’d be missing out. This is not a straightforward apocalypse: it calls on its characters to redefine it, to step up to the challenges of a radically changed world. It drags you into the debate. Really, it’s everything I look for in apocalyptic fiction.

Carina Wardrop, 30, physiotherapist.
Role within group: The Peacekeeper
Rates book: 6/10
Favourite dystopian book: On the Beach by Nevil Shute

While reading the book, I found myself wondering if I would make the choice that Jessie did and I felt at times that the ideas and thoughts she had were not really realistic for a 16-year-old, and for that reason I couldn’t really identify with her. The supporting characters were sometimes more interesting than Jessie, although we only see them through her eyes since the book is written as her journal. Her parents’ relationship is tumultuous and although they both obviously love her, they don’t seem to show much interest in what she’s doing with her life, until it’s too late. Her father’s desperate reaction to her decision, I felt, may have also been tainted by guilt, as it was his very adult discussions with her about the volunteers that may have pushed her in that direction. A lot of the other characters in the book seemed a bit stereotypical—the man-haters, the animal rights activists, the kids who want to run off to the country to escape, the pervert, the friend/boyfriend—but I still enjoyed reading about them through Jessie’s eyes. In some ways I wish the book were written further down the track so we could find out what eventually happened… Did the scientists prevail and find a cure or did the sacrifice of the volunteers actually save the human race in the end? Overall though, I found the book very easy to read and thought-provoking.

BBC National Short Story Award 2009

This week the BBC announced the shortlist for its annual National Short Story Award, and tonight the fifth and final entry on the list was read out on Radio 4. You can read about the entries online here. More excitingly, you can listen to them here. And even better, you can download them and put them on your iPod or mp3 player to listen to on those rainy winter commutes to work.

The judges have done a good job of creating a shortlist diverse both in terms of subject matter and style. I spent Friday evening listening to them one by one, and each bears its own distinct mark. “Other People’s Gods” by Naomi Alderman takes a humorous look at personal religious belief, and the conflicts it can provoke with its more organised cousin. “Hitting Trees with Sticks” by Jane Rogers also has its soft, light moments, provided in this instance by an endearing narrator whose memory is decaying severely, although the humour is laced with the sadness that comes from her acknowledgment that she is growing old and unsure of her place in the world. “The Not-Dead and the Saved” by Kate Clanchy is a smoothly-paced, heart-rendingly sad study of terminal illness; if you do put that one on your iPod for your journey to work, you might not want to listen to it on a Monday morning. Nevertheless, set yourself in good stead for it and it will move you right to the bone marrow. Lionel Shriver’s “Exchange Rates” explores the relationship between a father and his adult son, and contains this fantastic line: “There are only two bargains in the UK: marmalade and breakfast cereal.”

My favourite, though, the one that really jumped out, was “Moss Witch” by Sara Maitland. I’m always drawn to stories that make me imagine strange and beautiful things. Call that magic or fantasy or what you will (in my opinion the means is the same as that employed in any other kind of fiction), one of the reasons I like to read is to picture things hitherto unseen. Maitland’s story ticked all those boxes, but her prose is equally enchanting. On top of all that, her narrative takes a few neat twists that you might not expect. Favourite bit?  The moss witch’s hands.

The winner will be announced on Monday, so you’ll have the weekend to place your bets.