Forty Years as a Writer by Rose Tremain

Posted on 18th May 2016 by Rose Tremain
On the eve of her new novel The Gustav Sonata's publication, Orange and Whitbread-winning author Rose Tremain looks back on forty years of writing and the unexpected places it has taken her.

Rose Tremain’s has been a long and illustrious writing career; among her many other awards and honours, she has received the Whitbread Award for her 1999 novel Music and Silence and the Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction in 2008 for The Road Home. Forty years after her debut The Sadler’s Birthday, her new novel The Gustav Sonata is out in hardback today.

The Gustav Sonata tells the story of Gustav Perle, whom we meet aged five, growing up in post –WWII Switzerland. Likening his character to that of William Stoner from John Williams’ rediscovered classic, The Guardian writes: ‘[Perle’s] quietly damaged life will be dramatised for us in three acts.' Of those three acts, Ian McEwan has written: 'The Gustav Sonata is beautifully rendered and magnificent in its scope. It glows with mastery.' 


A question people frequently ask me – knowing the age I am, which is 72, and the number of books I’ve published, which is 20  – is ‘am I ever going to retire from writing.’

Retire from writing?

I try to explain that, for me, the question is way off track.  It’s like asking me if I’m going to retire from being.  I don’t want to get pretentious about this, but writing isn’t just something I do, like hoovering, or growing parsley, it comes about as a necessary condition of my existence and the way I think about the world.  If, for some physical reason I couldn’t write, I think I would probably die within a very short space of time. 

I was a writer in my mind at the age of ten.  At school, I wrote plays and stories.  How life presented itself to me as a child was as a dreamlike thing, which had to be seized and reimagined on paper to be made real.  The idea that, one day, I could make a living out of this process was impossibly wonderful.  In all the years that went by until the publication of my first novel, Sadler’s Birthday in 1976, it never left my mind.  Now, forty years have passed, and I’m still on this journey of inquiry and discovery.   It still has moments of wonder.

Over the forty years, I’ve found myself in some amazing places, largely without moving from my desk: 17th Century London, Paris in the 1940s, the New Zealand goldfields in the 1860s, Russia in 1910, the field of Agincourt in 1415, Copenhagen in the 1630s and, most recently, in my new novel, The Gustav Sonata, Switzerland before, during and sometime after the Second World War.  Switzerland is a place that I have travelled to frequently in my life, but I didn’t go back there specifically to research this book.  I did a lot of reading and looked at hundreds of pictures and then let a ‘Switzerland of the mind’ rise up and accommodate my story.    I’ve always believed in the colossal power of the imagination not just to evoke place or time or season, but to understand the hopes, loves, disappointments and dreams of people who may be quite unlike myself.  In this act of empathy, for me, lies all the fascination and beauty of  a writer’s life. 


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