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(This is a lightly edited transcript of the interview; to view the whole interview, please click image above)
Cynthia Rogerson: I’m Cynthia Rogerson. I write novels and short stories. I’m from California and live in the Highlands. I’ve been there for a long, long time. Probably almost thirty-five years.
Kirsty Gunn: And Cynthia’s here today to talk principally about her wonderful new novel, Wait for Me, Jack, which she writes under the name Addison Jones which is actually part of your own name so it doesn’t feel like a pseudonym at all, does it?
CR: That’s right.
KG: Which has had terrific reviews and we had a lovely event here in Dundee when you read from it and spoke about it. And, Cynthia, I wonder if we might start with a comment that the novelist Tim Pears said about this novel. He said, “This is a proper love story.” And that’s because you’re doing something quite interesting with the love story-story, aren’t you?
CR: Well, I suppose I’ve never been that interested in what leads up to a marriage proposal or courtship. I think falling in love is quite – I won’t say it’s painless but it’s easy. It’s what happens after that when people start living together that interests me. And I wanted to write a story about two people with a very imperfect relationship but which really was a love story. A love story that is not about pretty sunsets or holding hands or always making up after every row right away. A long relationship full of loose ends and raggedness and lots of attempts and lots of failures and now and again a really shiny moment. Two people who don’t let go of each other despite of everything. That’s what interests me.
KG: And you do this by creating a story that is unspeakably fresh and new because you are writing in reverse. We begin with Jack and Millie as very, very old people, together, bumbling around in their domestic world and then the story unspools and you go back to the beginning. So that the book finishes with their first meeting.
CR: Yeah. I decided to write it in this kind of re-wind fashion because I didn’t want it to be a story about what will happen – will they stay together or not? I wanted it to be a story of why they stay together and what lead to each event. I also visualised their marriage as kind of a big mound of years and I wanted to just kind of excavate it: just keep scraping away til I got at the source of their discontent, their happinesses, their children, their stories. And I wanted it to be in a random way. So, many chapters aren’t about dramatic events and I have the date and the time on it to emphasise that just sort of randomly took a slice of a day out, like an archaeologist might from a big excavation, to say, Ah, let’s see what Jack and Millie are doing Saturday, ten thirty am in 1943, for instance. Or actually, ‘53 it would be..they weren’t together in ’43. And I thought if I examined it, minutely enough and with enough realism, it would tell the reader much about their whole life. Just by looking at what they did on one ordinary day.
KG: That’s a fabulous insight as to your creative approach and practice and I’d like to talk a little bit more about that later. For now, can we return to that theme of taking a whole life and starting the novel at its end. When I read it, Cynthia, I felt that fizz of excitement that’s all about, Oh, my goodness, this is a new kind of story, where a writer is daring to take on the frailties of old age and mortality and those kinds of split seconds before death.
Then, lo, in the way of these things, I felt like you were the crest of a wave. Because we were just talking earlier – I’ve just finished Mike McCormack’s Solar Bones which is a similar kind of premise – a whole life unrolling..
CR: Is it?
KG:…in the space of those few moments before death. I’m also thinking of Robert McFarlane..Robert McCrum, I do beg your pardon, his terrific new memoir, Every Third Thought, which is a contemplation of mortality and the way we might weigh up our lives. So it seems that you are doing something really exciting. All your books have a kind of domestic, I would say, edge to them, that you take these kind of quite quiet lives and to use your own word, “excavate”. Would you regard yourself as a writer who’s interested principally in the domestic world?
CR: Domestic’s a funny word because we all live in houses. We all have – even people who are living alone and don’t have any relationships have domestic lives. So I’m interested in people rather than.. I guess that’s more character led than plot led. I am interested in what connects people and what doesn’t connect people. It’s called “domestic”, probably because they’re not genre books. And I’m primarily interested in the man-woman relationship. Also parent and child and friendship, of course, but I think it’s fascinating and my obsession with it will never end I suppose. There’s such a huge variety of kinds of relationships and all of them – just little things about ourselves and the way we relate to other people, I think, I find..
KG: Yeah, and your books have that lovely kind of combination of the sweetness of life, celebrating those small moments that occur, as you say, inside houses, inside rooms, between two people, those quiet moments..and then there’s always, as we have the hint of, I suppose, in titles: I Love You, Goodbye is the name of another novel; Letters from My Deathbed, another. So there’s this kind of awareness of mortality all the way there at the edge, just making us know that that sweetness and that smile comes with sadness.
CR: Yes. Well, not necessarily even sadness all the time because I think the brevity of life and our awareness of mortality informs everything we do and not in a morbid or sad way all the time. But there is something especially poignant, that I guess, about everything we do and say. That’s why I’m more interested in the undramatic times in the periods leading up to, the periods leading after dramatic events. So in the book, Wait for Me, Jack, I don’t have any chapters in which people die or get married or are born. I have the moments leading up to them and the years and moments following them. Because I think anticipation and memory are – my characters anyway, it’s where their lives are lived more intensely than in the actual moment.
KG: Gosh, that’s beautifully put. And I think that’s why your novels are so exciting, is that you take that risk of, in a way, not investigating the area that so many novels do because so many novels are predicated upon those moments of drama..
CR: And they are exciting and I enjoy reading them in other people’s novels but I’ve found, in real life, that isn’t the case that when things are happening, when an important life-changing event happens there’s a kind of almost detachment or numbness that I experience and maybe lots of people experience and it’s memory, remembering it or re-living it or being afraid of or looking forward to it, leading up to it, where the emotion is most intense.
KG: Okay. That’s fascinating. Can I ask you, does that translate, that kind of attitude, into a sort of practice? In other words, when you’re imagining, say at the point of Jack and Millie having their first child, do you imagine that in detail in your mind and then deliberately write around these events or is it something that come quite naturally?
CR: I think I had in mind that they had certain tragedies in their lives and I wasn’t going to write about them directly. So when I talked about their ordinary events – their meals in restaurants, their hardships and things, it was with the knowledge of something that they’ve survived. So, of course, it informed how they thought and reacted to things. But I didn’t set out purposely to do that. I think it just happened naturally.
KG: You talked earlier about this kind of excavation process and I think that’s really fascinating that you just lit upon a certain day, even a time of day. The book is quite precise, isn’t it?
CR: Yeah, it was quite fun. The publisher said Why do you have these? Do we need these? And I thought, We’ll, yeah, because I want to remind the reader that this is a specific point. That we’re..this is an entry-hole into their lives…we’re going into their lives at this moment. And like a frozen..like a photograph, like a frozen frame and then, Bing! Then the cameras roll out again and we can watch what’s happening with them.
KG: That’s lovely. Cynthia, you’re a very well established writer of short stories and novels and, of course, you won the VS Pritchard award and your novels have been serialised on radio. You also publish short stories. Do you feel, with every new project, there’s a sense of taking some great risk with what you do? You’ve just suggested, by this kind of almost filmic process that you just described there – that seems to me different to the other work. In addition, you’re launching yourself as Addison Jones instead of Cynthia Rogerson. Can you talk a bit about the similarities and differences between this novel and past work?
CR: Well, I do try a different form with each novel – a slightly different form – and although my themes continue to be relationships, I don’t want to keep repeating myself. Yeah, each novel has been different and I Love You, Goodbye-it was four first-person narratives. I just wanted the reader to hear the thoughts and voices of these four people who’re not me, obviously. And in my next book, I’m setting myself a challenge that isn’t original at all, but I want to have a story that takes place in a day, a novel. I’ve already got a title: Day For Departure…Day Of Departure.
KG: There you go again! A classic Cynthia Rogerson title!
CR: I just thought if it’s going to be a day, all sorts of leavings and I’m just going to minutely examine a day. You can have a whole lifetime in a day..it’s.. if you look at any day, and you just..nothing’s ever boring in any day .. I’m just going to look at the day and it’s going to have two main characters, probably one first person and one third person.
So, I’m quite excited about that. I’ve never tried this and it’ll have a character – I thought I would like to draw on my own experience in this respect: I’ve always been saying goodbye; hello-goodbye, because I have two homes – in California and in Scotland. And it’s that day that you leave either place. The day you go in is a whole different show – it’s also intense. But the day I leave California to come here is a very dense day. Very layered. To wake up in one country and go to bed in another and there’s all sorts of.. and everything you do is heightened and…but the other half of the story will be of someone who’s departing from this life and knows it. Because the time has come and all the signs are there, it’s the last day of their life. So I think internal monologue section will be that person and there might be other strands. I literally only have notes for this now but I am quite excited. Everything is kind of feeding into it so I’m making notes all the time.
KG: This is really interesting, especially for our students. So this is your writing process then, to imagine and start a kind of note-taking process. How long does that go on for?
CR: Until I get a big chunk of free time to sit down and write a first draft. So, I’m making little notes to myself and I might not use any of them but it’s making me remember that I’m doing this.
KG: Can I have some specifics, please, Cynthia? Do you have a special magic notebook or magic pen?
CR: Do you know, I have a folder on my desktop, on my laptop, that says, “Day of Departure” and it just has little quotes that I pick up in books or poems that I might want to use in it, or ideas. And things I overhear. Almost every day there’s something I add to it. I guess it’s a bit like a rag bag if you’re a person who’s crafty – and I am not – but you might want to pick things up you might want to use later? You think, Oh, that scrap of … might do for this that I make it later. So, only it’s words instead of actual things, so..
KG: How long does that process tend to go on before you find that magic bit of time when you can sit down and write the first draft?
CR: Well, typically, six months maybe. Because I’m usually busy doing something else. At least six months. And it doesn’t always result in a novel. I’ve had folders that sit there on my desktop for years with all the makings for the beginning of a novel which I have never begun. But this is the one that is currently interesting me.
KG: How lovely! I’ve just read a terrific quote by Kafka: “A writer who is not writing is a monster waiting to be unleashed upon the world.” I paraphrase him a little bit. How are you when you’re only getting to add to that folder; and not getting to sit down at that desk and write the novel?
CR: Do you know,
KG: Are you a monster of insanity?
CR: I do feel I’m much better to live with and much happier when I am writing, in the process of writing. And that’s why novels are quite good for me to write because they last a long time. I can get cranky in the middle of writing a novel though, because now and then it goes flat and then I lose faith in myself . Then I think, oh, this isn’t real. No one’s going to believe this character or this story. But mostly that’s actually a better time than the publishing bit, or the whatever. Everything that comes afterward, I might, so far in my life, it’s not been as good as the times when it was really going well when I was writing and I thought I’d nailed something I’d been trying to nail for a long time. Then I just sit by myself at my desk and cackle. Think I’m genius!
KG: (Laughs) I love that. I love that image of you sitting at your desk, cackling. Do you have, once you start that process, a very kind of hard and fast routine – that you’ll be there at the computer at nine o’clock and you won’t get up til twelve or whatever?
CR: I totally recommend that discipline to people. I think it’s good but my life has too many other commitments so what I do is I just wing it and every day, whenever I have a spare space of time on a train or sometimes when my husband’s watching television, I’m on the laptop right next to him because I don’t want to, you know, be too isolated.
CR: I can’t say that commercially popular stuff is always crass or shallow because some of it is absolutely fantastic. So the public does like it and when it does slip through the net and gets out there..
KG: No, I mean that Mike McCormack novel I was just talking about, Solar Bones, it’s described as the novel in one sentence. Like, that’s become its little attachment. So, of course, everyone thinks, “Oh, that sounds tiresome. And tiring.”
CR: Oh, it’s all one sentence? No punctuation?
KG: Hm. Commas.
KG: But the thing is it’s actually… the last thing that you notice about it. And in the same way, your book being “women’s fiction” is the last thing you notice about it.
CR: Yes, once it gets that label, it’s easy to dismiss because if I read a review that said that, I’d think that’s just gimmicky. Like the Eimear McBride. I really wasn’t into it at first. I thought, this is just…we all know that they can talk this way but why write it, you know? But then, I got past that and understood it.
KG: This is the thing. Those definitions hold us all up as readers and writers. Cynthia, can you also talk about your role at Moniack and also you’ve been here – we’ve loved having you as a Royal Literary Fellow at Dundee – can you tell us a little bit about your role, that part of your life?
CR: Yes. It’s impossible to make money from books. At least for writers at my level. So, I work as a writer and I worked at Moniack for ten years and mostly as a programmer there. Programming Director which was a dream job. Absolutely dream job. And then I got a Fellowship with the Royal Literary Fund and worked at Dundee University for a couple of years. And I still love it here. It’s fantastic. Really interesting working with students. And I tutor on courses and I’ve been visiting book groups at book shops.
KG: Well, none of that surprises me because your approach to writing is direct, full of wonderful common sense, creativity and a kind of kindness that I think pervades your work and pervades your relationships with young writers starting off in their writing lives.
CR: Well, I have been very much encouraged by writers as I’ve come along writing too and it’s good to give back a bit. I’ve been inspired by writers here in Scotland and in America, but mostly here in Scotland, and I’ve been given a lot of feedback and support and I’m always happy to do that for other writers.