The white, windowless publisher’s meeting room where Rupert Thomson is telling me about his new novel, Katherine Carlyle, would suit its eponymous narrator. Cool, enigmatic, and determined to leave no trace as she travels from Italy to Russia’s icy northern reaches, Katherine is another intriguing creation to add to those in Thomson’s previous nine novels. Our conversation touches on Egon Schiele and Gerhard Richter, whose paintings play a symbolic role in the novel, and Katherine’s story, a profound, unnerving meditation on love and existence, is the canvas to which Thomson applies colour and beauty. His intention, he says, is to “combine minimalism with richness and give the reader a sensual experience and a fast, tense read”.
Thomson has been consistently hailed by critics since his debut, Dreams of Leaving, appeared in 1987, and his 10th novel, which was published this week on his 60th birthday, arrives with praise from, among others, Anne Enright and Philip Pullman who calls it “a masterpiece”. Thomson’s fiction tackles a wide variety of subjects, from Myra Hindley in Death of a Murderer (2007) to 17th-century Italian sculpture in Secrecy (2013), but the differences between his books are, he says, superficial: “If you look deeper they all reflect certain concerns and preoccupations.” These, I suggest, include damage, recovery and departure, but Thomson says: “I’m with Werner Herzog who said: ‘I’m not interested in themes, only stories.’ Self-consciousness is dangerous for a writer. You have to be a little naïve.”
Growing up in Sussex, Thomson always wanted to be a writer. “Like many bookish teenagers of my generation, I thought I’d be a poet,” he says. “At 12, I copied out Thomas Hardy’s poems and I still believe that, by copying out work you love, you learn something.” TS Eliot made a big impact on him but an attempt to write a novel in his early twenties failed because “I had nothing to say”. After university, he worked in advertising, winning awards and promotions, and he comes across as somebody who would succeed at anything he turned his hand to. His confidence is illustrated by his response to working with an editor who heavily annotated his manuscripts: “I took on board about 15 per cent of what he said, thought about it, then took the story in another direction.”
His first novel, which he wrote after deciding he was wasting his talent in advertising, took four years to complete but, nowadays, early drafts come quickly. “Writing fast, I pick up things I wouldn’t pick up if I edged along,” he says, “because I’m prepared to gamble.” In its finished form, however, Thomson’s prose shares the precision of the poetry he loves and his imagery is striking. In Katherine Carlyle, Rome’s Colosseum under moonlight resembles “a big piece of bone picked clean by vultures” while a man’s naked body looks “raw and urgent”. Does he, then, rework sentences repeatedly? “Yes, I move from being an intuitive, reckless writer to a methodical, meticulous one.”
At the beginning of his new novel, readers are plunged into an abstract prologue which describes “a simulacrum of the reproductive process”. This is how Katherine comes into being in the early-1980s, via IVF, except her frozen embryo is stored in a tank for eight years before being implanted inside her mother. The extended interval between conception and life makes Katherine uncertain of her place in the world and, by the time we meet her in present day Rome, she can say: “I’m 19 but I’m also 27.”
Thomson draws a stark portrait of a precocious but troubled young woman whose mother is dead from cancer and whose father is away, working in Syria as a foreign correspondent. Left to her own devices, Katherine says she’s “experimenting with coincidence” when, instead of going to study in England, she travels to Berlin under a new identity. Thomson enjoys the narrative possibilities of Katherine’s naivety: “She’s not entirely aware of what she’s doing,” he says, “but she’s right to try to break the spell she’s fallen under which is the belief that she isn’t loved. To do that, she must go to the very limit.”
Katherine is testing her father’s love, running away in the hope he’ll pursue her, putting herself in dangerous situations with unsavoury men and, eventually, exposing herself to hostile elements in remote places. “This novel is more deeply rooted in my personal experience than any other I’ve written,” says Thomson, who travelled around Russia to research the book’s second half. “My daughter was an IVF baby and that experience made a deep impression on me. The most important things linger in the back of your brain and that’s the bit I’m drawing on.”
I mention Thomson’s mother, who died when he was eight, in relation to Katherine’s grief and he says: “There’s something eerie going on too.” Meaning? “I don’t usually talk to my wife about works in progress but, in 2006, when I started Katherine Carlyle, I told her about it. She said: ‘I don’t want you to write this book.’” Thomson’s wife, Katharine Norbury, is an acclaimed memoirist, so what was she worried about? “She said: ‘The trouble with you is that a lot of what you write comes true.’ She gave examples where things I’d written about subsequently happened, out in the world and in our family.” I’m laughing but Thomson insists that Norbury’s concerns were serious: “With Katherine Carlyle my wife feared I was predicting the possible death of our daughter.”
This is no spoiler – and Thomson’s teenage daughter is alive and well – because early drafts of Katherine Carlyle were “much darker” than the finished version. But Thomson did as Norbury asked, setting aside the novel and knuckling down to finish his memoir, This Party’s Got to Stop (2010), a haunting account of the tumultuous months in the mid-1980s which defined his relationship with his younger brother. All the time, though, “the forbidden book” was playing on his mind: “I could feel the manuscript heating up in my filing cabinet, saying: ‘Write me now.’ In 2012, I told my wife I had to write it.”
How did Norbury feel about the new draft? “She read it and said: ‘I think this could be brilliant. I’m going to allow you to do it on one condition.’” What was that? “She wanted me to change the ending, which was helpful, because I already knew I needed a different ending.” There we have it: an unusual, funny and fascinating insight into the creative process and the marriage of two writers who, even when one was fearful of the other’s plans, ended up collaborating on a book which is – as Norbury anticipated – brilliant.
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