Helen Dunmore: A poet in need of her space

She is a prolific and prize-winning writer of poetry, fiction and children's books. But, she tells Katy Guest, she and her characters need their own space
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The Independent Culture

Walking through her publisher's just-refurbished offices on the way to our interview, Helen Dunmore seems concerned. Penguin's boxy headquarters on the Strand have been knocked through and cleaned up, the tiny offices made into acres of efficient open-plan. Don't they mind losing their personal space?

Having a room of one's own is a concept clearly very close to her heart. As soon as she started to make it as a writer she found an eighth-floor office in Bristol, a just-long-enough walk from her home and family. It is the perfect solution. Walking "to work" gives her the perfect space to think through ideas: "I believe strongly that writing is not just what happens when you think you're writing." And in the office itself she can get on with it. "There's a sense of being semi-available when you live with others... of shared spaces. Particularly for women, and particularly when you have young children: even your body is a shared space."

Dunmore's children, one step-son plus a son and a daughter, are old enough now to have their own spaces – but you get the impression that sharing her life with other people has been more a blessing than a curse. Her father is the eldest of 12, and Dunmore has three siblings and dozens of cousins with whom she shared adventures and stories as a child. Her father read to her, and there was poetry, music and voices in the house. She can't imagine what it must be like to be an only child.

Her family life had a big effect on her work, she says. And not just in that both are unusually prodigious. Since she published her first collection of poetry, The Apple Fall, in 1983, there have been eight further poetry books, 19 books for children, three short story collections and now 10 novels, with the publication of Counting the Stars next week (Fig Tree, £16.99). And she didn't even start on the novels until 1994, when she was 42.

A theme runs through her work of families in which the relationships have somehow slipped. Everywhere there are sibling relationships (such as the incestuous one between Catherine and Rob in A Spell of Winter), strange half-siblings (like Sapphire meeting her mer-half-brother in the Ingo tetralogy for children) and adults parenting children not really theirs. Anna does it for her little brother, Kolya, in The Siege (2001), the bestselling story of a family's struggles during the siege of Leningrad. In Counting the Stars, she realises now, the hero is fathered and mothered by a freed slave. He writes about his lover that he loves her almost as a father does a child.

There is a long tradition for the heroes of children's books to be orphans, of course. But, I wonder, does the modern step-family open up new relationships for writers to explore? Not necessarily, says Dunmore. "I think cases such as Anna's, in which she accidentally becomes a parent [when her mother dies in childbirth] are historically quite accurate. There were lots of occasions when people were not brought up by their two biological parents. Maybe the family has no money, so the child is brought up elsewhere. Even in Jane Austen's family the children were essentially given away [in Jane's case to a wet nurse]. Charlotte Brontë's mother died and the aunt moved in to look after them... I think my stories are reflecting a historical reality."

The hero of Counting the Stars, a novel even more historical than her previous books, is the Roman poet Catullus – about whom we now know tantalisingly little. He lived in Rome between about 84 and 54 BC, the age of Cicero, Suetonius and Caesar; he was believed to have an older, married lover called Clodia Metelli; and he wrote famously smutty poetry about her, beloved of young Latin scholars everywhere. It seems a gift for a writer like Dunmore. Research, she says, "is like getting to know someone very, very well on a desert island. And then the boat comes and you sail away and don't see them again." It helps that she has been getting to know Catullus since she studied Latin at school, and has loved him ever since.

"I just find him absolutely intriguing," she says. "He's got terrific control technically when he writes. And yet the content is so transgressive, so bold, so fearless really. He lays bare his emotions. And yet at the same time he's also being very artful. And I think he brought into literature for the first time a lot of things that we take for granted: the relationship described in detail; the uncontrollable passion; the woman who is not idealised but is shown warts and all." That would be Clodia – the Lesbia of Catullus's poems – whose presence and tantalising absence gusts through the novel like an insatiable Italian wind.

As a poet, and a linguist, Dunmore may be in a position to appreciate Catullus's poetry better than most. She's good at picking up languages by ear, she says, and speaks several more or less well: French, from school; Russian, which she loves; Finnish, since she taught there after university; and Latin. "I love its economy and the way the words have that superb capacity to turn one way and another, within a poem," she says, turning the imaginary words like small, live fish in her hands. "It's a very dynamic language." Like Catullus, she has also moved around a lot within her own country. She can imagine how his language became more Roman when he moved to the capital. She can understand how that helps a writer. "He was quite a word-maker," she believes.

Dunmore is herself a word-maker – so much so that a fellow poet once described her writing as "almost synaesthetic" in its sensuousness. Sensuousness she does, in spades: this new novel is as stuffed full of food, sex and appetites as any of her previous books, but still mercifully avoiding the sort of Nigella-ish finger-licking that might be off-putting. But she is not synaesthetic, she says; that's just what literature does. "You might have the stimulus of water in your hands and you're trying to create a pattern – syllabic, musical, verbal – that will not just describe that but will also reproduce it to the reader so they feel it is happening through the language."

Dunmore may be unusual, in that she didn't start writing novels solely as a way of keeping body and poetry together. It was a key moment, she recalls, "finding that I could write fiction in exactly the same way that I could write poetry". Since she discovered that the forms are not different species – more like branches of the same tree – she has been unstoppable. Her poetry (it "feels different – more like composing music with its cadences and phrases") won the Alice Hunt Bartlett Award in 1987. Her novels have been shortlisted for the Whitbread and the Orange Prizes (The Siege) and won the Orange Prize in 1996 (A Spell of Winter). Her children's books draw excited letters from all over the world. Her most outspoken readers are small children and older women, she says. They have a very wide emotional range, and "They don't like clichés."

So beloved are Dunmore's characters by her readers that it is reassuring to know that she too finds it tough to leave them and move on. She recalls hearing a recent interview with JK Rowling, who confessed that Harry Potter et al live on in her own imagination. "I think that's a very writerly thing to do," Dunmore laughs. "Sometimes when I go past the house where I set Zennor in Darkness, where Clare and her father lived, I still almost expect to see them there. Even though their garden has been made into a parking space and there's a garage where she grew the vegetables. I think that's just the way it is: once they are created they never quite die away."

In her fiction, particularly The Siege, Dunmore has been celebrated for chronicling "women's lives". But the writers who inspired her, the Pushkins, Tolstoys and Lawrences, are more overtly political. Does she feel an obligation to write about Big Ideas? "I think I have written quite a lot about the way people try to struggle to carve out some kind of life, some kind of space where they can live their lives without interference and derision and the fear of the higher-ups," she says thoughtfully. "Without interference from poverty, or back-breaking work, or a system that won't let them be free." In her poem, "Glad of These Times", she is glad "Because I did not die in childbirth/ because my children will survive me... I lock my door with my own key..." And with that she makes her way back to her own space, uncluttered by anything but the stories that live on in her head.

Biography: Helen Dunmore
Helen Dunmore was born in Yorkshire in 1952, studied languages at school and then English at York before living in Finland for two years. She published her first book of poetry, The Apple Fall, in 1983, and has since published many books including poetry, fiction, short stories and children's books. Her 1995 novel A Spell of Winter won the first Orange Prize and The Siege (2001), was shortlisted for the Whitbread Novel Award and the Orange Prize. She has taught Arvon writing courses and taken part in the Poetry Society's Writer in Schools scheme, as well as other teaching posts, reviewing for several publications and judging prizes such as the Whitbread Book of the Year. She lives and works in Bristol with her husband and their youngest child.