Please remember my name

Jane Rogers. If you don't know her by now, it may be because she is the wrong sex.
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The Independent Culture
Jane Rogers's writing has come a long way in her first 13 years. "Virago turned down my first book - no, actually it was even worse than that: they lost it! Then when I rang them to say that Faber had accepted it, they were quite indignant, and implied I should have told them it was being submitted elsewhere." She laughs. She laughs a great deal; when she isn't laughing, her small, pointed faceis fierce with concentration. She is not conceited and certainly not materialistic, but she does think that by now she ought to be better known. You may not yet have heard of her; but perhaps Promised Lands, an ambitious and wholly successful account of a colony of early settlers in Australia, will change that. The colonists' story is intercut with that of Olla, a present-day refugee from Poland, mother of a profoundly handicapped child. If this novel doesn't turn up on the Booker shortlist, I shall be highly indignant on the author's behalf. As, it must be said, will Jane Rogers. If there's any justice in this world, Promised Lands will be her breakthrough book.

But then, that's what she thought about the previous one. Since 1982 Rogers has published five highly acclaimed novels. Only one, Mr Wroe's Virgins , came close to making her famous, chiefly because she adapted it into a BBC2 drama series. Yet still she has not become a household name. Does she mind? Yes, she does rather.

"When my first book sold I bought a bike. The advances have got a bit better since then, but I couldn't possibly live on my writing. After The Ice Is Singing, I felt quite" - she hesitates, searching for the precise word - "spiky. I felt I'd written a good book and that nobody had noticed, and that if I'd been a man, people would have noticed. Money matters in that you feel, 'I'm writing as well as anyone else and they seem to live off it and I don't.' I don't fantasise about making a lot of money but, obviously, one would like good sales. I feel I have got to the stage now when I should be able to just write and not have to do other things [she teaches creative writing at Sheffield Hallam University]. It will take me at least two years to write this next book and you can't live for two years on the advances I get."

No matter how good or well reviewed a book may be, its potential buying audience is tiny. Only a fraction of the reading public regularly buys new, literary novels in hardback. No wonder publishing houses are in trouble, with buyers of "literary" fiction so few and far between. If a book takes off, its sales may rise to between 10,000-30,000 copies. Otherwise, apart from major prize-winners (Booker, Whitbread), literary novels seldom sell more than a few thousand in hardback; many never rise above a few hundred. Jane Rogers adds that, in this respect, women fare even worse than men.

"People expect one to have read the latest Julian Barnes or Martin Amis, yet not women writers who are equally good. I have a sense that women's names are not known; I have a hunch that if you looked at literary editors on newspapers and the literary mafia, you'd find they were mainly men." I cite Mary-Kay Wilmers, who edits the prestigious London Review of Books, and Miriam Gross, Liz Jobey, Jane Mays ... all these are powerful women literary editors. Many top agents are also women: Pat Kavanagh, Alexandra Pringle, Felicity Rubinstein ... indeed, publishing is unusual in employing both sexes pretty equally. Rogers is unconvinced.

"Men writers get more publicity. It may be that women write their books and then quietly get on with life at home, whereas men do interviews, write reviews, go to literary parties and generally keep their name in the public eye. Women are less clubbable."

Could it be that the subject matter of women's fiction is sometimes too home-and-children oriented for male readers? "Domestic subjects are as much men's territory as women's. Feeling protective and possessive towards children is just as much men's province as women's." She cites a fan letter from a men's literary group in Australia as evidence.

Jane Rogers's books range far beyond motherhood. They are notable, in fact, for intellectual ambition and scope, yet it is true that a passionate involvement with children is a strong theme in her work. "Certainly, if anybody asked me, 'What's been the most important and interesting experience of your life?' it would have to be: having children. Motherhood is the thing we do that's most red in tooth and claw, we with our easy lives in the Western world. The terrors we have for our children ... I've not known such terrors on my own behalf. Having children has led me into extremes of emotion. I think motherhood borders on lunacy a lot of the time."

Her father was a doctor and an academic; when she was reading English at Cambridge he was offered the anatomy chair at Adelaide, and her mother and four siblings followed him out. She has visited Australia so often that her voice has a faint "Strine" twang, but at 20 she had just met Mike Harris, the man to whom she is now married, and stayed behind to finish her degree in English. After that, she taught until her first book was published and (the two events were almost simultaneous) her first child was born. Now she and Mike - also a writer - work part time and share the care of Kate, 13, and Lawrence, 10.

Like every novelist, she takes moments, glimpses, details direct from life; but her books are formed in the creative imagination. The new novel is set in Australia at the end of the 18th century and was triggered by information about William Dawes, who built the first observatory in Sydney in 1788, at a museum in some remote mountains in New South Wales. The research was not difficult, as the early colonists kept detailed diaries; there was plenty of material.

Why did she feel the need to add a contemporary strand to the book? "I wanted to have a modern perspective. Whites have destroyed that country; they have rendered even the desert unfit for anything by putting the wrong sorts of animals on it to graze, they have eroded it." She is passionate about the corruption of the Aborigines. "I was also very intrigued by the notion of the 'natural' woman vs the 'rational' man. Olla was an extreme contrast to all the other voices and views. She represents the forces being unleashed now by people coming out of the death camps and refugees from central Europe."

Her next book is under way, after an abandoned attempt. "I've got an idea about a woman whose story I want to write; a murder story, which I've never done before, about the murder of a mother by a daughter."

n 'Promised Lands' by Jane Rogers is published by Faber (pounds 14.99)