Rose Tremain in Conversation

Rose Tremain in Conversation

Event: Forty Years On – Rose Tremain in Conversation with Maggie Fergusson

Venue: British Library

Report by Eleanor Baggley

Rose Tremain has published 14 novels, five collections of short stories, and has worked in radio, television and film. Her novels and short stories have been translated into various languages and won many prizes. In 2008 Tremain won the Orange Prize for Fiction for The Road Home, a novel that explores the migrant experience. Lev, the protagonist of that novel, has held space in my mind ever since I finished the book cooped up in a plane flying somewhere over the Channel that year. Tremain is an incredible writer whose novels span history and the whole of the human experience, which makes it no surprise that listening to her in conversation with Maggie Fergusson (Literary Director at the Royal Society of Literature) was an absolute treat indeed.

The starting point for the evening’s conversation was the recent release of Tremain’s latest novel, The Gustav Sonata. Blending her skill for historical fiction with her love of music, The Gustav Sonata is shaped around the sonata form with each ‘movement’ propelling the story forwards. It is little surprise that music is such an integral part of Tremain’s life as she learnt to play the piano under the instruction of the musician, Joyce Hatto.

In writing this novel Tremain was interested in the idea of neutrality, be that in people or countries. She ‘wanted to create a neutral person who manages to have a heroic life at some cost to himself’, and this idea is embodied by the central character, Gustav Perle. The setting of the novel – Switzerland shortly after the Second World War – adds an extra depth to this idea of neutrality. Tremain talked of wanting to explore the ‘Switzerland of the mind’, which we all have but don’t know very well.

Swiss watch


Tremain wanted to explore the ‘Switzerland of the mind’

Tremain also talked of the book as a Swiss watch, which is an idea that the conversation returned to several times throughout the evening. This is the idea that the book is on its surface very easy and suggestively simple, but underneath there is far more complexity. She wants there to be gaps for the reader to fill with their own imagination and experiences. This is quite clearly an important part of Tremain’s writing as reviews of any of her novels talk of reading between the lines and finding what’s hidden.

The conversation soon moved away from The Gustav Sonata and focused on writing and creativity. Tremain’s experience as a creative writing teacher shone through as this discussion progressed, but so too did her obvious love for the process of writing. To her, creativity is both a therapeutic tool and an antidote to emotionally difficult situations, such as her own childhood.

A member of the audience asked Tremain whether she is aware of any key preoccupations in her writing, as each novel and each collection of short stories is a move away from what she has previously explored. Although she did not necessarily feel that there were any key preoccupations – aside from a slight preponderance for writing about friendship over romantic love and an unavoidable optimism – she talked of there being an recognisable emotional shape to each work, which, she has realised, is the shape of a sickle. Characters start on a journey likely to cause problems, then there is a sudden plunge, a negative event, but by the end there is some kind of equilibrium. It is this equilibrium, Tremain suggests, that we’re all striving for. I have never heard an author speak of the ‘shape’ of their work before and I found this gave such a captivating insight into Tremain’s life and process.

This event marked the start of a new partnership between the Royal Society of Literature and the British Library. I have no doubt that this will prove to be a powerful pairing and I look forward to attending future events. The quality of this particular event bodes well for the burgeoning partnership and was a brilliant way to kick of the RSL’s Autumn/Winter season. For now, whilst I wait patiently for the next RSL evening, you can find me with my head buried in The Gustav Sonata and Tremain’s entire catalogue of work.

Report by Eleanor Baggley

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *