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Christopher Rush

Christopher Rush

Christopher Rush was born in St Monans and taught literature for thirty years in Edinburgh. His books include A Twelvemonth and a Day and the highly acclaimed To Travel Hopefully. A Twelvemonth and a Day served as inspiration for the film Venus Peter, released in 1989. The story was also reworked by Rush in a simplified version in 1992 as a children’s picture book, Venus Peter Saves the Whale, illustrated by Mairi Hedderwick, which won the Friends of the Earth 1993 Earthworm Award for the book published that year that would most help children to enjoy and care for the Earth.

Getting to know Christopher Rush

1. Do you have a favourite character in the book? Odysseus himself. He is like all of us – flawed, not altogether admirable, and yet literature’s greatest survivor, overcoming impossible odds to return to his wife and slaughter his enemies.

2. What was your inspiration to write this story? / Was there a particular moment of inspiration that pushed you to write this? My original inspiration was a remarkable schoolmaster, Alastair Mackie, who taught me English. He was a poet and translator, and fixated on Odysseus as a metaphor for the human struggle. We shared our writings and our translations, and he encouraged me to become a writer. Now I’m 70, and I pinpoint my inspiration for the book to those glorious teenage years.

3. What is your favourite scene or moment in the book? The ending – when Odysseus moves to a transcendental plane and leaves life with its wars and conflicts far behind him. He is making his last voyage. It’s what we all long to do – to be free.

4. What inspired you to become a writer? Apart from my schoolmaster, the books I read as a child, and in my teens: RLS, HG Wells, and later on Shakespeare and all the greats. But place had a big effect on me too. Born in a small fishing village, St Monans, the sounds and scents and shapes of the sea worked their magic on me. I like to think that that magic now forms part of Penelope’s Web. The sea was never wine-dark in the East Neuk of Fife, but I made myself believe it was. That willing suspension of disbelief is of course what helps writers to write.

5. What keeps you motivated as a writer? Impecuniosity. Dire necessity drives my pen.

6. What’s your favourite book, and why? War and Peace, We condemn war and yet something in us wants it. And peace isn’t the answer we think it is. People grow tired of peace. This paradox informs Penelope’s Web.

7. Do you have a routine when you’re writing (i.e. silence, a particular genre of music, only working in the morning, only working in your underpants?) My routine: starting in the very early morning, preferably by 5 o’clock, and ideally doing a 12 hour day, which can spill over into 15 or even 20 hours. Yes, I like music to wash over me while I write, usually Tudor church music, ethereal, uplifting, tranquil, specifically Byrd and Tallis. Some of us work drunk, some sober, some early, some late. Larkin growls about ‘the shit in the shuttered chateau’ who does his 500 words and then switches to sex and booze for the rest of the day. But that is rare. Most of us, like myself, work incredibly hard. And I still do it longhand, with pencil and rubber.

8. What advice would you give to anyone who wants to be a writer? Don’t. Unless you can write bestsellers, or at least make ends meet. More seriously, be prepared not for inspiration – which may never come – but for craft. Inspiration is the application of the seat of the trousers to the seat of the chair, as Mark Twain said. So be ready for long hours at the desk. Dickens said that he spent a set time there, no matter what. It was his job, and you can’t just get up and leave your job, just because it’s not going too well. ‘I always sit there for the length of time.’ I found that a wonderful model for a writer and I’ve always tried to emulate it.

9. How easy was it for you to find a publisher? It varies. I’ve had a number of publishers. Some came easy, some went bankrupt, some died. One, Robert Maxwell, went into the sea, and all my titles followed him and were pulped. I had to start again. Will, my novel about Shakespeare, was rejected by 18 publishers, then published to great acclaim. Never give up.

10. What’s the best experience you’ve had while writing a book? Finding myself roaring with laughter at my own jokes – in Last Lesson of the Afternoon. And then discovering that readers laughed out loud too. One wrote to me that she ran out into the garden and laughed and laughed. Then cried with relief.

11. Who are you generally writing for? I suppose I write for readers who are not looking simply for stories but who love words. I care most about language, and I try to use it in such a way that will give my readers real pleasure, and also make them more aware, more human than they were before they read me. If your book hasn’t changed the reader, even in some small way, then was it really worth writing?

12. If you weren’t a writer, what would you be? A painter. I wish I could work with materials, but I’m clumsy, and a menace with tools, or with anything practical. I’m stuck with words. I live among them.

13. What one thing would improve your life? Decent royalties. Not vast, but just sufficient to keep the wolf from the study door.

14. Where would you like to be right now, anywhere in the world? Back in the East Neuk, staring out to sea.

15. Are any or your characters based on yourself or people you know? All of them. When writers come out with that legal line about their characters being purely fictional and not based on anything in real life, they are of course lying. It’s almost impossible not to weave life into art. It is for me.

16. If you could swop lives with one of your characters, who would you choose and why? Odysseus. I’m a stay-at-home by nature, not given to travel. Odysseus is the opposite, the great adventurer. Tennyson said that old men should be explorers. I’d like to experience that wanderlust – for a while. All my travel happens only in my head.

17. Have you ever regretted how you ended a story and wish you could change it? No, I’ve always followed my writer’s instinct, and instinct is the logic that drives the story to its end.

18. If your book was a film, who would you cast for the lead character? Ian McKellen, without a doubt, would be old Odysseus.

20. Why are books important in your opinion? Herodotus tells the story of a king who was conquered, captured and enslaved, along with all his family. His captors made him sit and watch his family’s humiliation. One by one they were paraded in front of him in shackles and in tears. He didn’t crack. Then, at the end of the line, came his oldest servant. It was only when he saw this old man in chains that the king finally broke down and wept. Why? Why for the servant and not for his wife and children? Herodotus doesn’t say why. But that’s the point about great stories. They make us ask questions about ourselves, questions to which there aren’t necessarily answers, but which extend our awareness of ourselves. That’s why books are important. They enhance our humanity, they change us for the better.

21. What are you reading right now? The proofs of Penelope’s Web! When a book is on the go, I find it very hard to read anything else for pleasure, though Amazon has just delivered a couple of books about Ben Jonson, and my wife has just bought me Umberto Eco’s Baudolino. So I may escape from Odysseus for a day or two.

22. Which authors do you particularly admire? Surprise, surprise: Homer, Aeschylus, Shakespeare, Dickens, Emily Bronte, Hardy, Tennyson, Dylan Thomas, Philip Larking, I’m pretty traditional.

23. If you had a superpower what would it be? To make blind Homer sing to me – of Alexander’s love and Oenon’s death. Ah, but Dr Faustus wanted that superpower too. And look what happened to him! I reckon I’ll be content to remain an ordinary mortal.

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Penelope's Web
Penelope's Web