OB: Was it a surprise, or the realisation of a long-held ambition, to appear on the 1983 list?
RT: I understand, retrospectively, that there was quite a scramble among publishers to get their authors on this list, but I – who was living in rural Suffolk in 1983, had published only two books and knew very few people in literary London – was blithely unaware of it, so my inclusion came as a complete surprise. I remember being very pleased that Claire Tomalin, who was one of the judges, described me as ‘an interesting and honourable writer’, but it didn’t change my fortunes. That change only came six years later when my novel, Restoration, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and was sold in 25 countries.
You also won the Orange Broadband Prize for fiction by women in 2008. What do you think of the claim – made by AS Byatt, among others – that it’s a sexist prize?
Most prizes exclude one or more categories of people. (The Booker Prize excludes writers from the United States but is not labelled ‘anti-American’. Several prizes exclude writers over the age of thirty-five, but are not labelled ‘ageist’.) So, by this same token, I’m perfectly OK with a prize for women writers, judged by women, and I feel the ‘sexism’ label is facile. To be fair to AS Byatt, I think the underlying point she’s making is that women writers don’t need a women-only prize, and she’s right in this assumption. Across the English-speaking world, there are a ton of extraordinary women novelists, who always hold their own in the annual awards poll. And The Orange Prize, incidentally, has produced some excellent winners – Andrea Levy and Marilynne Robinson among them – as I’m sure Byatt would admit.
You seem as comfortable in contemporary settings as you do in historical ones. If you had to take one kind of book to a desert island, which would it be?
I think, on a desert island, what I’d really appreciate are long books: books as day-by-day companions, to combat loneliness and fear. We have some brilliant contemporary authors who write on the big canvas, yet I feel that desert-island panic might be better combated by novels set in the past, preferably by long-dead authors who had never experienced central heating or modern dentistry. Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Balzac’s Eugénie Grandet and Trollope’s The Eustace Diamonds (all with vibrant and courageous female protagonists, to spur me on to valour and fortitude) would be among my front runners. Reading contemporary novels would remind me, hour after hour, of the world I’d lost and might never regain. Tolstoy, on the other hand, reveals to me a universe I may never manage to understand in its entirety, so when I get to the end, I can happily start at the beginning again.
Your latest novel, Trespass, focusses partly on a property dispute in rural France, while the previous book, The Road Home, followed a Polish economic migrant through his new life in London. What gave you your interest in place and belonging?
I have always been interested in the plight of the exile – in all the forms that exile can take. I was ‘exiled’ to boarding school at the age of eleven, after my parents split up and my mother married someone else and we moved out of London. At a stroke, I lost my father, my house, all my school friends and also – and worst of all – my beloved Nanny who had cared for me all my life till then. ‘an acute fear of losing all that is precious to me from one day to the next…’ So perhaps my interest in this subject stems from that – from an acute fear of losing all that is precious to me from one day to the next and finding myself once again in a world whose rules are hard to comprehend. But I note that exile almost invariably involves a journey of some kind, both internal and external, and of course the journey is an elementally good starting point for a novel, mirroring the act of embarkation on the book, freighted with possibility but also with a high degree of danger.
Today’s young writers are working in a world rather different to the one you started out in. Any tips for them?
When I began writing in the 1970s, most writers seemed to live almost invisible and silent lives. Now, we’re expected make ‘appearances’ across the globe. We could spend as much time ‘appearing’ as we spend on the work itself, if we chose. But young writers shouldn’t think about their future visibility. They should remain in the interior world of the book and not look up. A writer will only survive today if what matters most to him or her is the work. The rest of the stuff we do – literary festival talks, panel discussions, TV interviews, podcasts and the like – is just door-to-door selling.
Photograph by Howard Middleton-Jones