Her first novel, The Mathematics of Love was short- and long-listed for several prizes. Her second, A Secret Alchemy reached the Sunday Times bestseller lists. Prizes for her short stories include the prestigious Bridport. With a PhD in Creative Writing, and an ability to examine the craft in fine detail, she’s much in demand as a teacher. Her blog The Itch of Writing has an international following. And of course, Jericho Writers snapped her up long ago as one of their senior editors.
Her impressive family tree includes Charles Darwin, Josiah Wedgwood and Ralph Vaughn Williams.
So why did she have to ditch the novel she spent three years writing about its members? This is not a book about Charles Darwin, just published by Holland House Books, tells the whole story with wit and honesty.
You come from a fascinating family, but you could see some of the pitfalls of writing about it. How did your agent finally persuade you to try? And what made you persevere when it proved so difficult?
I could see the professional logic of at least trying to write a novel based on my family – and I didn’t (unusually) have another writing project already bouncing up and down in my head demanding to be developed. So I decided to get stuck in and see whether any people and any stories in the family felt like novel-material. There were people like Erasmus Darwin and the Lunar Society – Tom Wedgwood, the first photographer – the Victorian writer and intellectual Julia Wedgwood – but none were right. And then I did indeed find a group: my grandfather’s generation. They embodied my own abiding fascination with creative work, and creative thinking: there was war, and theatre, and art and sex and marriage, and all the things that get me excited in the writerly sense. I got to the point of really wanting to do it.
And I persevered partly because I went on feeling the creative excitement about what you might call the non-fiction appeal of the material: the real lives and ideas. And of course the professional logic of writing about Darwins was there. But, also, in writing I am incredibly stubborn, even though in the rest of life I’m a slapdash cutter of corners and easily run out of energy and interest. Once I’ve developed a project and am writing it, I just can’t give up, however difficult it’s being or wrong it’s going. If I can see any possible way that I might try to work through the difficulties, and get it right, then it holds onto me and doesn’t let go. I have to go on until it’s absolutely clear that I’ve reached the limit of how good and finished I can make it.
What were your biggest obstacles?
First, how very well-documented these people are. They were all part of the Cambridge circle based round Rupert Brooke that Virginia Woolf dubbed the Neo-Pagans”, and they were related as family as well as friends and creative collaborators with her and the Bloomsburys. In memoirs and biographies alone there were books on artist Gwen Raverat, composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, poet Frances Cornford, the fourth Josiah Wedgwood who fought for causes such as divorce law reform and Indian independence, my physicist grandfather Charles, geneticist Ruth Barlow, Gwen’s sister Margaret who married Geoffrey Keynes – two more books there, or rather four, because Robert Skidelsky’s biography of Geoffrey’s brother John Maynard Keynes runs to two volumes, and that’s before you’ve read Judith Mackrell’s wonderful Bloomsbury Ballerina, about Maynard’s wife Lydia Lopokova. My great-aunt Gwen Raverat even wrote part of a novel based on the love triangle of her, her not-yet-husband Jacques, who was in love with Ka Cox, who was mostly in love with Rupert Brooke, who wasn’t sure who to be in love with at all.
But every time my imagination took the characters I needed to claim as mine, and began to run with them, my Inner Historian would interrupt, “But are you allowed to do that?” Coming from a family of academics, teachers, scientists and lawyers, where evidence and logical argument are enormously important, it was incredibly hard for me to refuse the authority of all those books. But, of course, if you let your imagination be shackled like that, you’re never going to turn out anything but the dreariest sort of biopic docu-drama. And if I did get seduced by the genuine non-fiction interest of the history, the narrative drive died on its feet.
And it wasn’t just about having too many external facts. The essence of fiction is to recreate lived experience: to bring to life your characters’ subjective experience of existing, their consciousness, thoughts and feelings. Historians and biographers can only inform us – Tell us – about those, but fiction’s chief job is to evoke them: Show us. With many real historical characters the Telling is all we have, and even that is often quite basic, which leaves huge, blank spaces which the novelist can write on. But with this lot the dozens of memoirs and thousands of letters expressed their writers’ lived experience: these people had already written on the blanks, and with infinitely more “authority” than I could claim. They’d left no space for me.
You identified several interesting characters with very eventful lives, yet your agent asked, “But where’s the story?” Could you explain what she meant?
Real life has no story: it is just that stuff happens. But we are creatures existing in time, our conscious lives shaped by beginning, middle and end. We have a powerful need to feel that the “middle” has some kind of reason and purpose to it: some sort of logic for why stuff happens the way it does. We make that sense by interpreting events as a chain of cause and effect: Because of X, we did Y. But Z got in the way, so we had to do A instead, which meant we ended up at B. That’s a story, and since so much in life happens randomly and isn’t easily tidied into that form, what humans want in fiction is a story which does have that form: the causes are likely or at least possible, the effects are convincing, and the chain as a whole is satisfying, and ends in a way that resolves and makes sense of what’s happened.
The problem with the family was finding real-life events that could make a satisfying chain of that sort, without my having to change too much of the actual history. Yes, this was fiction, and when aspiring novelists ask me if they’re “allowed” to do this or that with their historical material, it’s usually me saying “Your book, your rules – and you can’t libel the dead.” But in my case, if I was taking family names and then weaving a largely fictional story round them, then I wouldn’t be honestly trying to evoke the lived experience of these real people. I would just be using my name and my family’s names as the bait of a bait-and-switch. It’s bad enough to have people assume I only got my fiction published because of my name – yes, I’ve had that said to my face, and so has my agent. But it would be appalling if people could say that because it was true.
You researched and sometimes began writing about individual after individual. How surprised were you by the number of dead ends? ( Is a certain number considered par for the course?) Did you have a specific process to root around for ideas? How did you know when to stop?
I suspect if you asked any novelist researching a particular milieu for real people to build a novel on, they’d say a certain number is par for the course, though I don’t know how many. I did know some of the material, because I’d given a few talks on creative thinking in the family, so I began with what I already had, and followed up anyone who seemed to have that glow of possibility around them – I’m sure lots of writers know the hum, the hint of a force-field, that you sense then. But of course those facts have to mesh with what you know of your own strengths and passions as a writer, and what will stretch you and keep you excited, while not being impossible.
An analogy I used in This is Not a Book about Charles Darwin is that possible story-stuffs are gametes – they contain one side of the double-helix – and your writing self is the other gamete, and you’re looking for things which will pair up to make a new set of DNA for a new creature. I usually stopped when I’d realised either their DNA wasn’t story-like, or mine wouldn’t pair with it.
What kept you sane?
An incredibly patient agent, but chiefly my writer friends, some in a little writer’s circle, and more from a long-ago writer’s forum before any of us were published. We mostly see each other on Facebook, and they’re like the parents from your National Childbirth Trust group: you’re the same generation and have been there for each other, and can be honest about even really difficult career and writing stuff that you wouldn’t admit to anyone beyond the group – and certainly not tweet about. There was more than one York Festival of Writing where I smilingly would say to dozens of writers and publishers that the writing was going fine, thank you, when in fact I was reeling from another email from my agent saying that she was sorry, but the novel really, really wasn’t working. When it’s like that, you need some writer-friends you don’t have to smile with.
Also, that stubbornness, I think: just the way, each time it was clear that the novel really wasn’t working, my writer’s brain went on saying, “Why not? Is it because of X? Or you didn’t do Y?” Problem-finding is key to all craft, as Richard Sennett describes: once I’d found the real problem, the solutions started to show themselves: “What if you did Z?” and “How about trying A?” And on I went.
It helped that from all the writing and blogging and teaching I do have quite a bit of craft: a lot of different ways of thinking about process, and a lot of technical understanding. If I can work what the story needs, then I will be able to put the right new words on the page. But you can have all those skills, and still not make a novel that works if there’s a fundamental problem with the premise of the thing, or – as with the family novel – a fundamental problem with your relationship to the project.
What inspired you to turn your experiences writing the novel into a memoir? Were you following any other authors? Did you find such honesty difficult or natural?
Eventually I realised that I would never be able to write a novel about the family: that the impossibility was built into the project, and then my stubbornness melted away. I was still interested in how creative thinking shows up in at least some of the family, generation after generation, and I knew that the chances of selling something based on my family were good. But for a long time I couldn’t see how non-fiction could work, because I’m not a biographer or a historian. So I tried other fictional forms – radio and stage plays – but I’m a beginner at those and quickly gave up.
The difficulty in writing it as non-fiction was to find the spine of it: not a story, exactly, but a narrative structure that the reader would happily follow. I really didn’t want it to be about me – I don’t find my own life very interesting, so why would would anyone else? And though I knew the narrative would build towards my getting very ill partly from the stress of the novel going wrong, I absolutely wasn’t going to write a sickness memoir. But if it wasn’t me, then who, or what? Even the most interesting family members wouldn’t sustain more than a chapter, and mostly what was interesting was how they all connected with each other, and with their times.
It was reading Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk which was key. It showed me how ruthless you can be in cutting away everything about yourself except for what’s absolutely essential to the needs of the story you’re choosing to tell. I realised I didn’t have to write about myself, I only had to write about my writing self, and that was suddenly entirely possible: the spine could be my journey through my family, as I looked for a novel, and then wrote one.
I wrote the first draft in six weeks, with all sorts of other bits of writing appliquéd onto that narrative. I spent another year revising it and getting feedback and finding the pictures, and so on, but the published book is basically how it always was. When it came to selling it, I pitched it as “As if the Geoff Dyer of Out of Sheer Rage” – which is about failing to write about D H Lawrence – “tackled a project like Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes” – i.e. a sprawling family in history structured by story of the writer’s going in search of them.
How has this experience affected your writing now?
I’m trying to make a novel work at the moment; it’s a very longstanding project that I was beginning to work on even while the family novel was going wrong, and I still love it dearly, when I’m not swearing at it. But I’ve always loved other kinds of writing – a bit of poetry, thinking about writing, explaining things on my blog This Itch of Writing, and Get Started in Writing Historical Fiction, and even in my MPhil and PhD theses.
Fiction can’t fulfil the part of me that loves that kind of writing, but now This is Not a Book About Charles Darwin has got me really excited about the possibilities of creative non-fiction and the personal essay, which is all about individual, subjective explorations of experience and ideas: place and time, art and people. An essay I based on a chapter of the book was longlisted for the Notting Hill Essay Prize a couple of years ago, and the freedom of the form is incredibly exciting, compared to fiction: you aren’t constrained by the need to shape everything into that causally related chain of events a novel needs. I haven’t found the right subject yet, but I’m working on it!