The Books Interview: Journeys across the border

Julia Blackburn takes literature to a land where fact and fancy mix. Sara Wheeler tracks her down
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Is it a novel? Is it a travel book? Is it a biography? You're never quite sure with a book by Julia Blackburn. This seems, to the author, to be a perfectly natural state of affairs. "My whole life blurs the boundaries between fact and fiction," she says. "Categories are irrelevant".

Blackburn's career took off in 1994 when she published Daisy Bates in the Desert, a rich stew of travel writing, memoir and biography swirling round the eponymous Daisy, a feisty Irish fantasist who knocked about in the Australian bush in the first half of the century. Daisy reaped a bountiful harvest of reviews, a quantity of foreign rights sales and a loyal following.

For the book before that, The Emperor's Last Island, Blackburn travelled to St Helena in search of Napoleon. Her interest was piqued, she claims, when she saw the great man's pickled testicles displayed in a museum in southern France. In the book, Napoleon's story unfurls like a sail as Blackburn's ship steams towards his island.

Given her refusal to be pinned down by fact or fiction, it's not surprising that she has set her new book in the medieval period. She was attracted to the way it fails to separate the real world from that of the imagination. Saints walk on and off the pages of The Leper's Companions (Jonathan Cape, pounds 14.99) without anyone turning a hair, and miracles happen alongside acts of horrid brutality.

The book - Blackburn's second novel - follows a small band of medieval pilgrims from a Norfolk village to Jerusalem. The group are joined by a shadowy narrator who has dropped in from the modern era. Blackburn is much taken with this notion of the elasticity of time. "Everything kept reminding him of something else," she writes, "the elements deceptive and the past breaking through into the present while the present sank back into the past".

Writing is in the family; her father was a poet. Thomas Blackburn separated from Julia's painter mother when their only child was 12. As he drank a lot and took amphetamines, it was a wild kind of childhood. But Julia was clearly fond of her dad, who died in 1977. She recently edited a selection of his poems, For a Child, which the Warwick-based Greville Press is bringing out this month.

The title poem, written for Julia, begins "And have I put upon your shoulders then,/What in myself I have refused to bear". And so it turned out to be. Thomas's daughter has been writing for as long as she can remember, cobbling a living together from freelance editing, ghostwriting and copywriting, initially in London and subsequently, after her children were born, in Suffolk. She says she didn't have the confidence to write fiction for many years, and that it never occurred to her that she would be able to earn a living from proper writing. But she does now. She turned 50 last year, and is published in ten languages.

Her Dutch husband and their two children went with her both to St Helena and Australia. The family home is a comfy old house in north Suffolk, a few miles from the sea and a few more from the Norfolk border. There is a large, rambling garden, and a boisterous lurcher called Mink. Blackburn blends in with the happy detritus of rural family life - hairy dog baskets, discarded wellies and seashells queuing on the windowsill - and when we go out for a walk she wears an old blue woolly hat. There is a touch of the Luddite about her. She still writes her books on a manual typewriter.

Critics have compared Blackburn's work with that of Bruce Chatwin, who died ten years ago. It's difficult not to see parallels, both writers clothing skeletons of fact in the ample flesh of their imaginations. In style, too, the pair are remarkably similar. Both favour sketchily drawn characters, short books, short chapters and short paragraphs, and both display an aversion to the subordinate clause.

Unlike Chatwin, however, who famously began his travel book In Patagonia with the fiction "in my grandmother's dining room there was a glass-fronted cabinet and in the cabinet a piece of skin," Blackburn never makes anything up in her travel writing. She bridles at the suggestion. "There is nothing invented. It would never occur to me to make anything up!"

But she does admire Chatwin. "I've got terribly excited reading his books, I have a sense of coming home. I get bogged down with some bits, like the Grand Guignol of The Viceroy of Ouida, but I like the freshness with which he approached each subject. He might be slightly dodgy in some of his fictions and factions, but his integrity in actually writing is without question. It's an honour to be compared to him."

She has none of Chatwin's studied self-awareness, though, and it's simply not possible to imagine myth-makers getting to work on her. For a writer so powerfully drawn to fantasy, Julia Blackburn is reassuringly down to earth. A woman who has to do the school run, buy the dog food and wash the smalls can't be running off to Paris every five minutes to stock up on moleskin notebooks. "I see books very much as companions in the times I am writing them," she says, "so to me they represent stages of my life. They are all part of my autobiography, and I can read myself and things that I was going through in the books."

In the case of The Leper's Companions, she was going through a great deal. Her marriage had come apart. "The story became very literally a way of getting out of the present by going into the past and thinking about things I couldn't think about directly because they were too close to the surface - and too dangerous, I suppose. By seeing things through the metaphor of a medieval time, I could go through all sorts of adjusting processes."

Then, having completed a first draft , she became very ill. "When I was in hospital going under with the anaesthetic I suddenly thought, I know what's going to happen to the leper! I'd been holding on very tight in my own life, and when I was ill I had to let go. I saw, in hospital, what my connections were with the people I'd been writing about. That was when the book took its present form and I decided that the narrator should go along with the other characters on the pilgrimage."

She says she never knows where a book is going when she starts it. With The Leper's Companions, as the whole pattern of her life changed, so did the book. It was originally planned as short stories, then the biography of a medieval pilgrim - and it has turned out to be a typically Blackburnian hybrid. "It's quite funny," she says rue- fully, "that one works flat out for three and half years and at the end of it you have just 216 pages."

Part of her, now, is living at the cusp of the 18th and 19th centuries. She's writing about Goya. During a visit to Madrid at a time when she was "unskinned", she saw his black paintings, learnt that he became stone deaf - and found her next book. Julia Blackburn's writing takes off when she leaves her notes behind and lets her imagination take over. "You get to the end of the research and say, right, now we're ready to begin. It's making the material your own that counts."

Making it your own: this is the key to Julia Blackburn's success. She does it instinctively; other writers have to discover it. Patrick Leigh Fermor once had the ultimate travel writer's disaster: he lost the notebook recording his journey. Yet the book which emerged, he said later, was one of his best.

She smiles when I relate this anecdote. "The pleasure of writing," she remarks sagely, "is knowing the material well enough to be able to go without maps."

Julia Blackburn, a biography

Julia Blackburn was born in London in 1948. She took a degree in English from York University and worked as a freelance writer and editor before devoting herself full time to her books. She has two children, is divorced and lives in Suffolk. Her six books include Charles Waterton (1989), The Emperor's Last Island (1991), Daisy Bates in the Desert (1994), and two novels: The Book of Colour (1995), which was shortlisted for the Orange Prize, and The Leper's Companions. She has just edited a volume of her father Thomas Blackburn's poetry, entitled For a Child and published this month by The Greville Press.