Nantes University 2007

 

 

 

 

Bernard Sellin

You have selected passages form three or four books, and what strikes me is the variety of these books; it seems to me that usually when you have an author, you easily identify a style. With you one never knows what to expect. Is it done on purpose or is it inspiration, something that calls you? 

JG: That is not done at much of a conscious level. Analyse too much and you take away the naturalness of what you do and end up playing chess, by which I mean controlling or directing instead of creating. Or worse, manufacturing your idea of so-called career moves. Starting with an agenda is anathema. Analyse what you are trying to achieve only when you have to! Of course of course dissect fully when you reach the end for drafts two, three and so on, when the shape requires it. But not at the beginning. 

 

On Foreign Parts:

JG: A number of my main characters are at the end of their tethers. Cassie Burns as in casser - to break - and Burns - well, raging like a fire) begins in a bad mood. External things - her friend, the boat, regulations - get the blame, and the progress of the novel unravels its truer source in flashback photographs. Before all that, however, is a chapter zero revealing the early death of her father. The book leads Cassie from the past and into a sense of now - which is where she should be. At the same time, the book moves from a standard past third-person past tense narrative (used to relate the present) into the present tense first person to reflect the shift. Cassie casts adrift her foreign past, as it were, and being lost in the things she does not speak as much as she is adrift with the foreign tongue of her holiday destination, where, at least ostensibly, her best friend has come to lay ghosts of the past to rest. If we never find the words for our griefs and joys, we get lost. Locked out - like Cassie and Rona from the hostel room - even from ourselves. It was a hard book to write (partly because I had my son in the middle of writing it!) and when I got back to the words a year after giving birth, revisiting the past seemed more natural. 

 

On Clara:

JG: Clara has a voice more determined but every bit as anger-suppressed. The lives of many musicians is tough slog, often dull, quite physical work to produce good technique and interpretative skills - interpreting the intentions of others, that is. Those who do it for a living have been liveried servants for the rich till more or less the mid-19th recently. Artisans like Farinelli, the great Italian castrato, knew what the price of making art could be. I feel too many people talk about music - partly because it does not use words - as mystical, separated off from daily realities. It is made by people made by people. People who need to put food on tables, find money to pay the rent; who suffer from bad backs, bad breath, sciatica, sore fingers and low pay - a truth stripped away from the paying public. The dicky bows and posh frocks that reflect the former liveried status of performers seem to mask effort. I wanted to put that reality back, to suggest the music happens despite the lives of its players as well as through them - again, the process of overcoming to stay alive. To get by. Clara, the greatest piano virtuosa of the nineteenth century, the equal of Thalberg, Anton Rubinstein and Chopin, the greatest friend Johannes Brahms ever had, was famous by the age of thirteen. By sixteen, she was Royal and Imperial Court Virtuosa to the Viennese Emperor, the first non-Catholic and the first woman to be granted such public esteem. Then, famously, she met someone  troubled, talented and unfashionable who changed both his and her life. She bore him eight children in a fourteen-year marriage, had three or four miscarriages, continued to compose, built upon her already established career. After his premature death in Endenich asylum, she looked after her children without accepting charity. Now, being that kind of heroine - the unfashionable kind - makes a woman hard to write. Bad boys are easy. Writing Liszt, for example, was easy. Overbearing dominating, exasperating but wholly necessary Herr Wieck was a delight to write. The Good Girl was tough.

 

How did you proceed? 

JG: There are four false starts in Clara which to some extent reflect the four years during which she makes first attempts at being. Clara did not speak till she was four years old and I saw the four kick-starts as the silent years, recorded in her head. Writing Clara was very unusual in that every other book I have written came in pieces which had to be put into the right order down the line. This one was more chronological (though I admit the birth of her baby comes after he arrives, at least for the reader). Proceeding meant three years of research - histories, biographies, diaries and letters, medical tomes, autopsy reports and books about social politics, social habits and the religious mores of the time. Fashion, interior design, the books Schumann read and the music they both wrote. Immersion.

 

I was impressed by the research. You read 200 pages before you realise she has spoken not a word. You know her well but it comes as a surprise. 

JG: Creating a psychology is always the same process. Evidence suggests she did not speak much in general. Even in private conversation with her husband, apparently, they whispered! My job was to go from an utterly silent child to a woman who was enjoined to talk for others. She always said that she did her real talking at the piano. And that is why the notes have to be there, on the page, too. Her father, Wieck, fortunately, spoke enough for four people and the perspectives of others are what often fill in her story. 

 

How do readers react to its less experimental style of Clara?

JG: I think it does experiment, though the invasions into the text by music is hard to detail. Invasive devices occur for Robert. Clara was a rationalist. Experiment with text ought to make the reading more visceral, not more intellectual.

 

 

On Rosengarten (written in collaboration with sculptor Anne Bevan) 

Where did Rosengarten start? 
JG: Where life begins! Birth as a subject is too big - I say nothing revelatory if all I have to say is how astonishing it is - so in Rosengarten, I turned to one of the component parts: rescue. The implements - those devices which bring to birth babies and mothers in trouble - have had a bad press from one type of feminist critique, and I wanted to look at them more closely. I was also led by the research for Clara - the facts of how many women died giving birth in the 19th Century. Hospitals were a last resort that women tried to avoid: one in four babies died after hospital delivery. Research for Monster, which hinges upon the birth of Mary Shelley, crossed the same territory.

 

That interface of life and death is intrinsically interesting. For Rosengarten, those implements designed to saves life drew me. Many of the doctors who instigated medical change were men and their quest has as much to do with science and the possible as humanitarian interest. And of course, processes that have always involved intense secrecy are a magnet. Routinely, such implements are left undiscussed in ante-natal classes. I like demystification. 

 

The final piece that started the work was a visit to Romania where, in birthplace of Vlad Dracul, I found a set of obstetrical implements. The care taken to preserve them moved me a great deal.

 

pipelines, Rosengarten, the shifts in typography in the novels - what about the importance of the visual in your work? 

JG: I prefer a page to look interesting. Especially if you are asking a reader to do something difficult - for example, to follow you into difficult states of mind. The reader must be willing to engage with you, to trust, and sometimes, adding a visual pun or playing with text can make it clearer, hinting at the look of something, so often absent on the page. And if that interests and engages me, maybe it will interest and engage others. 

 

On Monster (with composer Sally Beamish)

Can you speak a little about the challenge of writing a libretto? 

JG: It is much shorter to write than a novel! And you are not alone. I knew was going to give my composer (Sally Beamish) something she could write music for. It matters to the result that the collaborators meet physically and not just via an exchange of emails to find types of text she responded to. She was very open to this, but we were more or less actively prevented from adding in the sings and the director to the process. Scottish Opera were a nightmare to work with and the piece, though it was staged and the cast did superbly well, was unfinished in both our eyes. What was staged was a work in progress. I would love to sort that one out one day. 

 

More generally

I want to ask you about the part played the the body in your writing. What is it you dislike about dentists? 

JG: They cause pain! (Laughs.) Nothing is wrong with dentists but they are a wonderful metaphor for bodily invasion! Our complicity in our own assault is astounding.

 

Are you a Scottish author when you are in London, or a British author?

JG: (Laughs). I have been aware of being Scottish exotica - like a venison sausage or a deep-fried Dundee Cake - in some places. The place I am most Scottish, oddly, is England. In the rest of the world, I am just another foreigner and it comes as a bit of a relief, to be honest. It does get wearing from time to time that what is more prominent in British culture is not the more thoughtful work of Scottish artists of all kinds. There are still some dreadfully class-bound, tartan-bound, football-is-culture caricatures out there, perpetrated as much by some Scots as anyone else. The Scottish government sometimes seem to have little appetite for complex culture and the legacy of a previous Labour vision for the Arts as a cheap form of welfare work is not going to recede any time soon. 

 

Do you write poetry at all? 

JG: Not if I can avoid it, but I do. I have always been interested in things that refuse to fit as poems or prose, prose with music inside it, prose that uses space and typography as much as poetry but in less formal ways. In all the books, I have been aware of writing what appears as prose with the internal rhythms more associated with poetry - explored heavily in Clara and This is Not About Me - a new book. 

 

You told me yesterday you had started a new novel. 

JG: Half memoir and half novel. And it goes back to Scotland. Originally, I thought it would take off where Foreign Parts finishes, but I see it is really about a child. I guess it begins with looking at the place I came from, in a distant way and in a close way. What family is and what family means. I was a late child - my mother was 40 when I was born and my grandmother was 71. I knew nothing about the family because they were all adults when I was tiny, adults not giving the game away, keeping their mouths shut. What I find when I look back is cover-ups, half-truths, lies and evasion. Things not spoken - back to Cassie again. I found out my grandmother had been a dynamite worker and lost her eye to an explosion, my mother was a bus conductress and my sister was a mystery wrapped in an enigma. And angry. How people are made - landscape, people, accidents - is its territory. The book is partly memoir, partly novel, and possibly partly something else by the time I finish.

A few exchanges from a conference held at Nantes or at least its informal Q and A. Camille Manfredi and Bernard Sellin directed the debates. The comments on Foreign Parts, Clara, rosengarten and other work are here for the use of students and other readers interested in process.