Sunday 19 January 2020

Writer Rupert Thomson: 'I think the death of my mother was a trigger for all of this'

Rupert Thomson (60) is a writer. His novel 'The Insult' was chosen by David Bowie as one of his 100 must-read books of all time. Born in Eastbourne, he lives in south London with his wife, Katharine Norbury, and their daughter, Eva Rae (16)

Writer Rupert Thomson became a much more introverted child when his mother died when he was eight.
Writer Rupert Thomson became a much more introverted child when his mother died when he was eight.

Ciara Dwyer

Most mornings, I'm up at 5.56am. I'm not a natural early riser. Before I had my daughter, I was the kind of person who would go to bed at 2am and get up at 9am and be at work at 10am. Of course, children change that. I have one daughter, Eva Rae. One of the deals I've done with my wife in return for working seven days a week, which is what I do, is that I have to do the whole early morning thing.

My wife Katharine stays in bed and I bring her a cup of tea. She has just written a book of her own - non-fiction - and she teaches creative writing. I switch on the radio - the Today programme on BBC Radio 4. It's the way I get the news, because I stopped reading newspapers. The reading that I want to do is always either fiction or material to do with what I'm writing. Also, I prefer not to know what's going on in the literary world, because if you keep up, you end up finding out all the prizes you haven't been shortlisted for, and that creates envy, misery and disappointment. It's better to stay away from all that. I think of that brilliant quote from the singer Liam Clancy to Bob Dylan. He said, "Remember Bob, no envy, no fear and no meanness". That stayed with me. I think of those three things, particularly the envy.

I'm a little bit under the radar. People keep saying to me - 'Why haven't you won this award and why aren't you better known?' But the huge advantage to being under the radar is that your time is your own. I have this theory that the world is out to try and stop you doing what you want to do. So, you have to fight tooth and nail for your own time, and create space and time in which to work.

I drive my daughter to the bus stop and then I go to the leisure centre, where I swim a kilometre every morning. It has become an addiction. My wife got me into it, because one of our first dates was in a swimming pool. She asked if I wanted to go for a swim. I was late, so I never actually got to swim, but I watched her swimming instead. Now, I swim seven days a week and the day doesn't feel right without that. It's not just the physical exercise, which is a counterpoint to the fact that I have to sit in a chair for eight hours. The body is so used to doing the lengths that the mind can float free. It's like doing two things at once, so it slows my life down. I used to slow my life down by living in different countries and moving every six months. That was a great way of making your life seem longer and richer.

But children are so conservative and don't like change. We lived in Barcelona for six years and we moved back to London in 2010. I have porridge and honey for breakfast and then I get on a bike and ride three miles to my office. Our house is too small to work in. I work in an office building, and there are other people with ordinary jobs there.

I'm probably the only writer there. I have to make sure that I don't fall into conversation with anyone because I don't want to know anyone in the building. I've been working there for five years and I still don't know anyone. I know it sounds weird. I'm actually a very sociable person, but just not when I'm working.

My latest book, Katherine Carlyle, started with the idea of a young woman who felt she didn't exist, and had to kind of bump into the world to make herself feel real. She was conceived by IVF, but was a frozen embryo for eight years before she was born. I was using it as a metaphor for how she is feeling, and she relates it to something which has happened to her which is a bit of a mystery, because, obviously, she can't remember it. The IVF thing wasn't there in the beginning. I thought the idea came from nowhere, but then I suddenly realised that this is the most autobiographical book I've ever written. My daughter had been IVF, and she was also frozen, but only for three months. But that made such an impression on me at the time. It's such a weird process. When we got to freezing things and then the idea of thawing, I couldn't believe that it would work because it seemed so extreme and traumatic. A lot of people who had IVF babies have responded very well to the book.

I wanted to be a writer from a very early age. Sometimes when I look back, I think the death of my mother was a trigger for all of this. She collapsed when she was playing tennis, and died. I was eight. It changed the kind of boy I was; I became much more of an introvert and books became much more important. And the urge to explain things to myself started there as well. I sometimes wonder whether I would have been a writer had she not died. Also, because of her death, I've always been aware of the shortness of time.

Every afternoon, after lunch, I go to sleep for 40 minutes. I lie down on the floor on my back, like a dead bishop, with my hands clasped over my chest. Then, when I wake up, I probably do the best two hours of work that day. I've got a theory about being connected with the unconscious; having been recently asleep and deeply asleep is really good for the work. After a day's work, I cycle home and I usually do the shopping on the way. We just think about what we want on the night and we get it and cook it. If I'm in the middle of writing a book, I don't particularly want to read. I watch a lot of movies. My daughter says that everything I watch has subtitles. That's probably true.

I try to be in bed by 10.30pm, but it doesn't always work out. I love to sleep. I remember when I first met my wife, we would go to bed at 2am and get up at 9am and we would sleep solidly for those seven hours, never once waking up. But there is something about having children, it's like people in a war, you sleep with one ear open all the time.

'Katherine Carlyle' by Rupert Thomson is published by Corsair/Little, Brown, €19

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