Jane Rogers Interviewed by Anna MacGowan for Multistory, 2005
Author Interview for Houghton Mifflin Island publication, 2001:
Q. What were the starting points for this novel?
A. The novel grew from a number of different sources; and changed enormously as I worked on it. The first and most central inspiration was probably the opening line of Dostoevsky's Notes From Underground: 'I am a sick man . . . I am an angry man. I am an unattractive man. I think there is something wrong with my liver.' I became obsessed with the idea of trying to write a character, Nikki, who would leap off the page and drag the reader into her own angry and peculiar world, a first-person narrator whose voice would be so insistent that the reader, who might neither like nor sympathise with her, would find it difficult to stop listening to her. I was interested in starting at that point and seeing her change; in finding a way for her to escape from the prison of her own deranged view. A second starting point was fairy tales, which I've hunted and collected in different versions for years. I love the way Angela Carter used them in her work, the ways she finds to play with them. I've been thinking for a long time about writing fairy stories in conjunction with other kinds of story, and did make use of one in my third novel, The Ice Is Singing. Transformation is central to many fairy tales; frogs turn into princes, young men into swans, old hags into beautiful young maidens, and so on. Since Nikki's story is one of transformation - and therefore in itself a kind of fairy story - it seemed appropriate to echo that theme by using other genuine fairy stories in the novel.And the third, very important, catalyst for the novel was visiting an island in the Hebrides.
Q. Is there a real 'Island', and why is the island setting important?
A. Yes there is a real island, near the isle of Skye, and it is crucial to the novel. I wanted an island setting for much the same reasons that other writers have often turned to islands; an island is away from the mainland, away from everyday reality - it can have its own rules, it can be magical. I had The Tempest very much in mind when I was writing Island; the island is a place where old wrongs can be righted, and where glimpses of other worlds are possible. The island is also a place where weather, and the forces of the natural world, can play a vital role - as happens when Nikki and her brother Callum are capsized and driven back by the storm, when they attempt to escape. The real island is haunted by memories of the crofters who were driven off their land by greedy landlords. The outlines of their demolished stone homes can still be traced under the grass, today; and their histories and stories, and the sadness of their expulsion, all fed into the novel. The island is also important for its particular silver-grey watery beauty and huge skies, which Nikki can't see at all when she first lands. She sees a grey stony place, the very opposite of a tropical island paradise; gradually its beauty is revealed to her as she is taught about it by her brother.
Q. Are the characters based on anyone real?
A. No. But of course they contain different elements of a number of people I know, and aspects of my own experience, pushed to extremes. Nikki sets out to kill her mother, which I'm glad to say is not something I have ever done; but I can remember thinking, once or twice in my childhood, that I must be adopted, because my real parents would inevitably be nicer, kinder, more understanding and loving, than these two strange adults that I lived with. I know from talking to other people that most of us have thought something similar at one time or another. And Nikki's belief that she would have been a different and better person if only her mother had been different, spring from that sort of feeling, pushed to an extreme point. Her childhood has been a history of unhappiness and rejection but the last thing I wanted was for her to demand sympathy, or to whine. I wanted her to be dark and funny about the sad things, to be able to be ironic about them, never to wallow - and I needed to be inside her voice, to have found my way into it through my own experience, to see that it was easy for her to have contempt for the notion of sympathy, and to see how she would laugh at it and reject it. Callum, her brother, is very loosely based on Caliban; he belongs to the island and knows it intimately, also he is under the compelling and possessive power of another person (his mother, who is a distant echo of Prospero.)
Q: Where do the fairy stories come from, or did you invent them?
A: The first, about the brother and sister who hide from a wicked stepmother figure by three magical transformations, is straight from the Brothers Grimm; I've read it under the titles Fir Apple and Fundevogel. The second, Table Rock , is a tale from the Hebridean island where the book is set, and its combination of lost-child-found and of selfless love immediately made it central to the novel. The story of the bull who turned into a rock is also local. The story about the Little People and the ashplant comes from an island off the coast of County Cork, in Ireland; and the Seven Swans had its starting point in a Hans Christian Anderson tale, which haunted me as a child and which I have turned on its head for my own ends. The Viking Bay story grew out of the discovery of a Viking comb made of bone, which was found on the beach there. Salt is the only story which is entirely my own invention, although even that was based on a newspaper item about a woman who was imprisoned for poisoning her children.
Q. Your last two novels were historical; why in this one have you moved back to a contemporary setting?
A: I was interested in writing a novel which would contain thriller elements; there is a murder, there is a motive, there is an apparent murderer, there is a race against time and against the sea. I wanted to use a story which could twist and turn and always present the reader with genuine questions, in a way which is not entirely possible with historical fiction. With history you are to some extent bound by the facts and by readers' knowledge of history. Also I wanted to combine two ways of writing which are very different - the intense psychological realism of exploring a character like Nikki, alongside a more formal, magical or mythic kind of storytelling. The latter is timeless, neither historical nor contemporary, and yet if used in historical fiction it would probably seem to be yet another historical voice. I wanted the magic to feel contemporary, part of today's world.
Jane Rogers Interviewed by Anna MacGowan for Multistory, 2005
Your novels are often about building communities, being isolated/imprisoned within them, or trying to escape them. What interests you about these ideas?
I think writers often set books in closed communities because it helps to hot-house relationships and emotional responses. My natural instinct as a writer to use restricted communities has been influenced by my political interest in Utopian ideas, so I have tended to explore situations where people are attempting to put ideals or visions (religious or political) into practice. If someone wants to change the world, they need to be in a specific community to try to carry out their ideals. The notion of escape from the external factors which constrain and define a life (class, poverty etc) has also always interested me.
For instance, in Mr Wroe's Virgins, the closed community of the Israelite church and in particular, of Wroe's household, allowed me to explore big ideas about religious faith and apocalypse as escape from misery on earth, contrasted with ideas about workers' education and unions as ways of alleviating misery on earth. Also, putting seven women into Wroe's household removed them from their traditional roles. Ironically, the constraints of Wroe's household provided them with the freedom to develop which might have been difficult in the larger world.
What's the community in your latest novel, The Voyage Home?
In one strand of the story, it's a mission station in 1960's Nigeria where the protagonist, David, takes charge of the mission and tries to change it. A small community like this is a microcosm, through which a wider world can be explored. In the other story strand, the setting is a ship, a closed community which becomes a nightmare world from which the heroine, Anne is unable to escape. The two settings/communities are opposed in that David seems to be in control of his and Anne has no control in hers; one is land, the other sea; one is sunny and apparently happy, the other dark and stormy and terrible. But I won't tell you what happens!
When you're writing, do you feel you inhabit the communities you create?
I don't exist in them, but they become very real and important to me. I do thorough research into the physical detail of life in the period, I need to know what people ate for breakfast and wore next to their skin. I immerse myself in letters and diaries from the period.
You've worked in schools, a children's home and a psychiatric hospital - how have these enforced communities influenced you?
Working in a children's home was a significant experience and provided the background setting for my first novel, Separate Tracks . It's also probably a contributory factor in my abiding interest in orphaned and abandoned children, who seem to surface from time to time in most of the later books.
Do you 'hear' the voices of your first person narratives? Have you met them?
This is hard to answer. The voices emerge after numerous stabs at my sense of what they should be, that's to say, after a lot of attempts. They're not based on real people, or at least, they only contain fragments of real people. The starting point for the voice of Nikki in Island was Dostoevsky's narrator in Notes From The Underground .
Our characters sometimes tell us stories. How does telling stories help you understand the world?
The device of characters telling stories is central to two novels, The Ice Is Singing and Island . In both books, the central character is in an extreme emotional state and telling stories is a way of articulating and exploring dangerous emotions whilst holding them at a safe distance. In Ice , by telling stories about other people who are experiencing some of the emotions she doesn't want to acknowledge in herself, Marion can begin to come to terms with her own feelings. The emotions are also distanced, which makes them less likely to be melodramatic or self-pitying. In Island , the stories also provide a counterpoint to the narrator's insistent first person voice and, since they are all fairy tales of a kind, they provide an alternative vision of the world.
Telling stories does help me understand the world. The impetus behind a novel is often to explore or try to make sense of something I find difficult. In The Voyage Home , it was partly to look at the influence one generation has on another, the optimism of the 1960's and the lack of it by the end of the century.
Storms, blizzards, fog and intense heat often overwhelm and trap the communities and characters in your novels. Why does the weather get such a main part?
I've never really been conscious of how important it is in my books, but you're right! I guess it's because it pressurises the characters and pushes them to their limits; and sometimes because it's an example of a power beyond human control. I love playing with the symbolic associations of extreme weather and using it to reflect or oppose characters' moods and situations.
When and how did you first get published?
In 1981 I approached two agents, one told me my novel Separate Tracks was not marketable, the other told me she was sending it to an editor at Faber. He read it over the weekend and bought it on Monday.
You're a professor of creative writing. How can writing be taught? Who taught you?
No-one can teach someone else what to write, but an experienced writer can help students explore ways of writing, and make them more aware of the choices they are making and the effects those choices might have on a reader. I think the most useful role I play as a teacher of writing, is as a critic of students' work. Every writer needs a careful, constructive, but brutally honest reader. For some lucky published writers, agents or editors play that role. For writers working towards publication, that kind of thorough feedback is hard to come by. I haven't done a writing course, but I'd still claim that other writers taught me - through their writing. And that surely is the most obvious way that all writers learn, through voracious reading and exploration of how other writers have written.
Photograph by Laurie Harris
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