Rose Tremain: ‘The fear, when I was teaching, was that I would wind up not being able to write anything’

The novelist explains why she had to abandon the classroom in favour of her own writing and talks about her new collection of short stories

Rose Tremain, an outstanding novelist with more than a dozen books to her name, rises above easy categorisation. Tremain, who was born in 1943, first became an unmissable presence with Restoration, the 1989 novel shortlisted for the Booker prize, set at the beginning of the reign of Charles II. Her historical writing is in no way genre-bound and neither is she. She is also author of the hugely empathetic Orange prize winner The Road Home (2008), about an eastern European trying to make his way in contemporary London. And she is a masterly short story writer: The American Lover, written over the course of a decade, and her fifth collection, is a treat. Not one story leaves the reader short-changed. We meet in her Regency house outside Norwich, in a beautiful sunny room with sash windows looking out on to sloping lawns.

Your short stories involve turning points in people’s lives? Can you identify turning points in your own?
The stories are not thematically linked but if there is a link, that is it. When we think back, our lives often turn on a sixpence. I think of the moment I decided to become a writer. I was 12, at boarding school. The tennis courts were a long way across a hay field. I was a dreamy girl, lagging behind everyone else – “Come on, Rose, hurry up...” – it was June, late evening and I became aware of how beautiful it was: the smell of new-mown hay, the sun beginning to tilt, and I remember thinking: I want to capture this or it will slip away. It came to me that what I should do was write it down. I realised writing was what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to take it and reshape it.

Any other turning points?
One important emotional one. When I met Richard Holmes [the biographer] in 1992 and we started living together, I had been through a turbulent time. Richard is a calm, undramatic person and a stoic – which I am not. There are things that had haunted me, particularly my relationship with my father, which had been agonising. At 48, I willed myself not to mind. I believe one can do this. There is a certain amount of habit in one’s own suffering and one can break the habit. One can alter one’s emotional landscape.

Your father was an unsuccessful playwright [he abandoned the family when Rose was a child]. Was he jealous of your success?
I don’t know. He was detached from thinking about things he found difficult. But his behaviour suggests he was. I started publishing in 1976. Actually, I was lucky to be doing my early work then. Nowadays, I would have been dropped long before I had a book that was successful. Restoration was my first success in terms of sales. Writers are given less time now in which to emerge as being substantial.

You famously told your students at the University of East Anglia that they should ‘write about what you don’t know’. Have you ever written about yourself?
I’ve been resistant to writing about my own life. But “Extra Geography” [a short story] is based on something real: a schoolfriend and I, bored one afternoon, decided it would be fun to get a crush on a geography teacher, but in real life we never got near a kiss – don’t worry – although we did leave a flower by her gate.

Were you glad to give up teaching?
The writer’s mind is in conflict with itself – there is a knowing, technical side and a dreamy side. The technical side is endlessly censoring. The fear, when I was teaching, was that the bossy side would censor the other and I would wind up not being able to write anything.

You once described turning 60 as a Rubicon in which you ask yourself: are you in the right place? Are you?
I think I am. I’m doing the thing I want to do. I am with someone I love. I have a happy relationship with my daughter and son-in-law and adorable grandchildren. But growing older has involved letting some old friendships that were no longer sustaining drift. I’m interested in the importance of friendship. I want to write about it in my next book.

The American Lover is published by Chatto & Windus (£16.99). Click here to buy it for £12.99


Kate Kellaway

The GuardianTramp

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