The Books Interview: Chance of a lifetime

In real life, as in her fiction, Rose Tremain knows how to create a destiny from happy accidents.
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The Independent Culture
It is one of the mysterious processes of fiction that one idea will stay in the mind while a thousand others slip away. The idea that stays energises the imagination, and provides the seed for the novel.

Rose Tremain's new book Music & Silence (Chatto & Windus, pounds 16.99) first took root in her mind when she was in Copenhagen nine years ago. She had decided to visit Elsinore when, along the way, she saw "an amazing castle rising out of the mist". This, she was told, was Frederiksborg, and there was a famous legend attached to it.

King Christian IV of Denmark loved music, but he was a man with sudden changes of mood. So he devised a cellar where his orchestra would play, the music rising to the chamber above through ducts. When he had tired of a cantata, he would just kick the trap door shut. A picture came to Tremain's mind of the powerful man in the lighted room and of the musicians left in the dark as the trap door slammed.

She discovered that the musicians' cellar was in fact at Rosenborg, an exquisite dolls' house of a castle that Christian built for his consort, Kirsten Munk. ThereTremain found two portraits - a large ugly man with an elf-lock, which was Christian, and a finely dressed woman with flaming hair, a white face and angry eyes: Kirsten.

That was the beginning of Music & Silence, which is set in the years 1629-30, but ranges in memory through the lifetime of its protagonists. It is an ambitious and hauntingly atmospheric tale that transports us to the 17th century, the period in which Restoration, the best known of her books, was set. Tremain's American publishers, who find her constant new departures unsettling, will no doubt be relieved that they can bill it as a repeat of the earlier success. It's got the 17th century and it's got a King.

Because of Restoration, Tremain is sometimes thought of as a writer of historical fictions, but Music & Silence is only her second, out of a total of eight novels. Her range in time and place is wide. She explains: "You're with a novel a long time, including thinking time and research time. For me, to be released from the tyranny of the day-to-day present with its petty cultural and political concerns is a great liberation.

"I am always seeking that liberation. Sometimes it is enough to go to another country. For my last book, I went to Paris, because my imagination felt freer there. The world is available to me if I lived in a bigger and wilder country, like Australia, I might perhaps not feel the need as a writer to find other countries. There would be an immediate landscape with which to engage. But it is hard to engage with any originality with the England of 1999.

"Recently I was chairing the Betty Trask Awards, and I was made quite miserable by how minute in scale most of the novels were. Out of 50 novels I read last summer 20 were identical, with themes of flat-sharing, first love affairs, drugs and anorexia. The reader should get two kinds of pleasure from a novel, the pleasure of recognition and, in opposition, the pleasure of surprise, of coming across something new.

"It is the search for this other place that motivates me. Reading and travelling fill up the larder for my imagination. With historical research it is very enjoyable to have this great reserve of things that actually happened, together with things that may or may not have happened. My view on research is that you need to do it in a scholarly way, then I think you have to forget it. There has to be a period where it undergoes a transformation, and in the end a lot of episodes are absolute invention."

Having recently completed a historical novel, I was fascinated at how the historical and fictional aspects were interwoven, especially with the character of Kirsten Munk - an engaging monster of a woman, whose self-obsessed diaries are a comical tour de force. Yes, she did get drunk at one of the royal banquets and roll around on a pile of logs, says Tremain. She did have a German lover called Count Otto and she was eventually sent away in disgrace in a fishcart drawn by "four mismatched nags."

Of course, Tremain adds, with a hint of a smile, there's a lot of Kirsten in me. The contrast between Tremain's austere appearance, her fine-boned Englishness, and the libidinous characters in her novels is striking. Think of Merivel in Restoration, always being caught with breeches down; Lewis in The Way I Found Her with his adolescent fantasies of the older woman; Mary, the transsexual, searching for love with another woman in Sacred Country.

Tremain - looking for a connecting thread between her main characters - decides that they are all outsiders, observers, displaced in some way. The outsider in Music & Silence is Peter Claire, an English lutenist who joins the Danish royal orchestra. He is ill at ease in the Danish court, searching for some meaning to life. He meets Emilia, a lady-in-waiting, and senses their linked destiny.

Tremain then gives us the classic hook in fiction. The two are separated before they can declare their love. Emilia is sent away with the disgraced Kirsten, and Peter Claire remains bound to the King. As the story unfolds, it seems they are to grow ever further apart, and that the fairy-tale romance of the angel-faced lutenist and the shy, self-contained girl will, after all, end in real-life disappointment. As with Manzoni's The Betrothed, set in the same era, you are on tenterhooks up to the last few pages. Will they, won't they, meet again?

She wasn't sure, either, of the outcome, says Tremain, but wrote without knowing whether they would find each other, or be sundered in a Romeo- and-Juliet way. She is always aware of the arbitrariness of life.

With her own, she is conscious of how things could have been, and the much happier reality of how they are. She was the child of a broken marriage and went through two divorces herself before she met the biographer Richard Holmes, with whom she has lived for seven years.

The turbulence began at the age of 10 when her father, a playwright, left home for another woman. It took her mother ten months to tell Rose that her father wasn't coming back. Apart from a brief period during her first marriage, Tremain has not seen him since, and he has never seen her daughter, Eleanor, now 26 and an actress.

Her first marriage was to Jon Tremain, whom she met at the University of East Anglia. They divorced after 10 years. Her second marriage to a cousin, Jonathan Dudley, ended in 1990 after 14 years. She has always explained the failure of both marriages as due to her own restlessness.

At the University of East Anglia she found another influence in her life: the novelist Angus Wilson. Tremain was taking English Studies, and says "There was no course in Creative Writing at that time, but Angus, with his characteristic generosity saw some kind of promise, and when I had finished my first novel, he wrote a recommendation. It was rather in response to what happened between me and Angus that Malcolm Bradbury started the course in creative writing."

Between 1988 and 1995, Tremain taught creative writing at UEA. "You can't teach people to write, but you can teach them to be better at writing, to find their voice, their strength and their weaknesses. I learned a lot from being with young writers. I enjoyed the sessions, but I gave it up when I started worrying about what it was doing to the imaginative or dreaming part of my mind. Writing fiction is a synthesis of two parts of the mind, one of which, the dreaming part, knows nothing, and the other side which is rational and logical. I started feeling that the process of teaching brought out the analytical part to the point of censoring my ideas."

Her meeting with Richard Holmes came about in 1992, when both were invited to the Adelaide Festival. Holmes, like Tremain, was recovering from a broken relationship. "We were both walking wounded, reconciled to being on our own. Because of complications over tickets and visas, the British Council had to get Richard to pick them up for me at Australia House when he collected his own and bring them to the airport. On the second leg of the journey from Singapore we were seated next to each other - and that is how it began. The strange thing is we had almost met on previous occasions, and just missed each other, once at the Hay-on-Wye Festival, once at a Guardian fiction prize party. But the moment of meeting would not have been right then." Now they live most of the time in her Regency house just outside Norwich. Its spacious rooms, calm atmosphere and large but secluded gardens makes it a perfect writers' retreat.

"We have breakfast together and sometimes don't see each other again until the drinks hour. I find cooking a wonderful antidote to sitting at your desk, and I usually stop work at 7.30 and go to the kitchen. Richard comes staggering in at eight with a blasted look, and we're both a bit speechless for the first hour. With the second drink, we begin to unthaw.

"When I see Richard I can tell by how he looks how his day has gone, and neither of us mind if we can't say much for a while. Sometimes it is helpful just being able to talk to someone who will bring an intuitive understanding, but we don't bang on about our work. I find it hard to imagine how I could have lived with a non-writer."

Clare Colvin's `The Masque of the Gonzagas' is published next month by Arcadia

Rose Tremain, a biography

Born in 1943, Rose Tremain grew up in London. She went to Francis Holland School and the Sorbonne. After reading English at the University of East Anglia, she worked as a teacher and editor, then became a full- time writer. Sadler's Birthday, was published in 1976, followed by Letter to Sister Benedicta, The Cupboard, The Swimming Pool Season, and two story collections, The Colonel's Daughter and The Garden of the Villa Mollini. Her novel Restoration (1989) won the Sunday Express Book of the Year Award, and was made into a film. She won the James Tait Black Prize for Sacred Country (1992), and has since published Evangelista's Fan (1994, The Way I Found Her (1997) and now Music & Silence (Chatto, pounds 16.99). From 1988 to 1995 she taught creative writing at UEA. She has written for radio and TV, and is writing a screenplay for Sacred Country. Rose Tremain is twice divorced, with a daughter, Eleanor, 26. She lives in Norwich with the biographer Richard Holmes.