My guest at the writing desk today is novelist Jane Rusbridge. Her most recent work, Rook, was one of my books of the year last year (read about it here), and both it and her first novel The Devil's Music stand out for the sensitivity of the writing and the subtle shifts of the narrative - an ever-changing play of light and shadow.
Although hard at work on her next book, Jane has kindly taken the time to give us this glimpse of her writing room at her West Sussex home.
Jane, your writing features places you know well and settings close to you, but please tell us about the location in which that raw material becomes words on a page: is your desk purpose-built or just a convenient surface, and do you have a room of your own in which to work or do you 'camp' in a corner of the house?
I write in a small room with sloping ceilings which used to be a spare bedroom. I’ve painted the walls a vibrant cobalt blue, a colour I have a ‘thing’ about. I’m convinced it affects my brain somehow. My desk is from Ikea, glass-topped with unpainted trestle legs. I like its simplicity, but what I really love about the design is being able to slide interesting bits and pieces underneath the glass surface where they can catch my eye. Lee Jeffries’ amazing series of photos in the IoS for World Homeless Day has been there, under the glass and folded to show one man’s face, since October 2011. He has inspired something I’m currently working on, as I thought he might. Esther Morgan’s poetry collection Grace is also there on the left, ready for me to dip into and savour in a spare moment. The down side of this desktop is the grate of a mug on the glass, which puts my teeth on edge, so my mug mat is essential. It’s from Brighton and the image is of two blue and white deckchairs on a pebble beach.
Do you surround yourself with research and reference materials, or perhaps objects and pictures which have particular meaning for you, and can you work with 'clutter' around you or do you find you need clear space?
I work with a bit of clutter, but my clutter – often piles of books and notes which relate to what I’m doing at the time. At the moment there are some preparatory notes for a talk on my creative process which are on top of an ‘ideas’ writing notebook, on the left. On the right, there’s a book about Anglo Saxon magic which I’m using for research, a diary and another notebook, the cheap sort with spiral binding which means I can rip out pages. I like big pages to use for messy sideways scribbles about anything at all in my life including, when necessary, the need to buy loo roll.
Although I’m not very tidy, I am particular about what stays on my desk for any length of time. In fact, I behave pretty much like a spoilt brat now I have my own writing space and am fussy about what’s even in the room - never ever any washing or ironing, for example. The painting of a bull was commissioned for a WritersInc anthology cover and given to me for winning their ‘Writer-of-the-Year’ award with a story inspired by the minotaur’s mother. The painting is a reminder of the enormous encouragement that win gave me. The framed photo near the printer is of my husband, taken before I knew him. Behind where I sit, there’s a wall of floor-to-ceiling bookshelves.
Please tell us about the view you have from your desk, and any pictures or objects you like to have in your line of sight.
The room has two windows, both with views good for daydreaming - mostly beech trees on hills in the distance. As for objects, just in sight from where I sit are a few things which have significance for me: three stones from Triopetra in Southern Crete, one of my favourite places in the whole world; a scallop shell which reminds me of my mother, because she used to give them to us to play with when my sister and I were little; a chalky flint from the Sussex Downs; a linoprint by David Page on a Christmas card from a friend. I’m currently a bit obsessed with trees and forests, and I love the image of a snowy copse.
Now to working methods: when you begin a project, is it with notebook and pen or do you go straight to the computer?
I write messy and random jottings, research notes, ideas, words by hand in a variety of notebooks. Later in the drafting process when it’s time to focus on plot, I use a notebook for scribbling structural plans and outlines. I always have several notebooks of different sizes on the go especially at times like this, at the beginning of a project, when I want to have one always to hand. When I start writing ‘properly’, by which I mean in sentences and paragraphs, it goes straight onto the computer.
Do you ever go elsewhere to write, for example, to a café or library, or do you pick up your pen when you happen to be on a train? Is a change of location helpful?
I am way too easily distracted by eavesdropping, people-watching and the contents of books to write properly in cafés and libraries; also, too self-conscious. Imagining, for me, is a private act in which I need to lose myself. Sometimes I find exercises in workshops can be challenging for this reason. On train journeys I plan to write or read, but often end up gazing out of the window and daydreaming – still ‘work’. (How lovely to be able to say that!) The same happens when I’m a passenger on long car journeys - ideas pop up and I need to scrawl them down in my littlest notebook, kept in my handbag. It’s exciting and urgent when that happens, because usually it’s a breakthrough of some sort.
Is sound - or the lack of it - important when you're working? Can you carry on regardless despite the usual domestic interruptions?
Although I can work when other people are at home (luckily), I love the luxury of an empty house. I ignore the phone and the door bell when I’m writing and like to be removed from the hustle and bustle, shut away in silence. When working on early drafts of Rook however, I played certain pieces of cello music over and over again, with the volume up high. This drove everyone else in the house a bit mad but Nora, the main character, is a cellist and I knew next to nothing about cello music when I started writing. Listening as I wrote helped me to soak up the variety and quality of the cello’s sound, to feel the vibrations of lower notes, the tension of higher ones, and to be more in touch with the effect of the cello on my frame of mind.
What tends to distract you most when you're supposed to be writing?Talking and listening to all the lovely writers and readers on twitter is my biggest distraction. It’s scarily easy to fall into the habit of flitting about there when I’m stuck instead of staying focused. Wordless occupations are much more helpful when I need to think so I’m planning some redecorating projects and a couple of months off twitter soon, to give myself more headspace.
Can you tell us something about your work-in-progress?
I’m researching at the moment and it’s exhilarating. With this novel it feels important not to start writing too soon (usually, I dive straight in) so I’m gathering notes together to catch images and ideas as they push up. My mind keeps returning to some quite specific settings (a forest; a nunnery; a chalk stream) and three (I think, central) characters who are becoming clearer. Other than that, it’s too soon to talk about it.
What would you say were the most rewarding aspects of the writer's life, and what are the downsides, if any?
There’s a release in discovering you can escape the boundaries of your own life through imagination. That sense of freedom, combined with the pleasure I find in research, is one of the most rewarding aspects of the writer’s life for me. Plus, on top of that, I love meeting readers, reviewers, other writers, and all the people in publishing who love books!The main downside for me is anxiety and a sense of vulnerability – the fear of not being able to write another novel or, if I do, that no one will want to read it. I’m a bit of a worrier and it sometimes gets in the way.
Finally, the many hours you've put in at the writing desk have resulted in acclaimed work; what advice would you give to aspiring writers, or to those already in print and hoping to build on that beginning?
I’ve only written two novels, so I think of myself as an aspiring beginner. As for advice, we all know perseverance is crucial. What helps me to keep going when it gets tough is to find a way to remind myself that what is important is the joy that comes when my writing is going well. The rush of excitement, the experience Aminatta Forna describes as a ‘perfect storm’, when everything suddenly comes together and the heart of the story is revealed is a kind of ‘magic’. There’s nothing like it. Sometimes reading poetry or a brilliant novel reminds me what I love about working with language; sometimes taking the pressure off by putting aside a current project and going back to Dorothea Brande's‘morning pages’ – that is, ‘free’, uncensored writing about whatever comes into my head – can help too.
Many thanks to Jane for letting us into her beautifully blue writing room and for this fascinating glimpse of her desk and of her working methods. I am one of many who are greatly looking forward to reading her next novel when it is published, but if you've yet to discover her first two, I can highly recommend them.