Rowan Somerville

Rowan Somerville was born in the West End of London in 1966.  He was educated by Jesuits and took an honors degree in Literature from the University of Edinburgh.  He has since recovered  and worked in film, television and radio and he now lives in Paris and various parts of Ireland. He has published two novels The End of Sleep (W.W. Norton, 2008) and The Shape of Her (Phoenix, 2008). We encourage you to email him (see below).

INTERVIEWER

You just moved to Paris. Do you think you write differently in Paris then in London?

ROWAN SOMERVILLE

Writing differently… I wish I could absorb a little Joyce in Dublin, Tagore in Calcutta, Zola in Paris. But no, it’s just a question of mundane things for me, the quality and length of my concentration—a quiet room, a clear head and discipline, that seems to be what affects my writing most—not the exteriors. The biggest struggle is the battle against the unruly child.

I love traveling , it is a great privilege of modern life. Especially from Europe. I know it’s wrong with the aviation fuel etc. I love walking too but it’s so slow and it doesn’t whoosh you off into another world like a plane. What a thing. Every time I take off in hundreds of tons of metal I think “what a miracle.” Such liberty. To so quickly be somewhere other, where most things mean something else. Ahhhh…

Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding.
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind

INTERVIEWER

You know how I feel about poetry. Where did you write The Shape of Her and what were your days like?

ROWAN SOMERVILLE

It began in Ireland in Donegal, in Ramelton—one of the best villages in the whole world. Sometimes known as Ra-melt-down, sometimes Ra-mental but always with nothing less than admiration, affection and a sipeen of potchin. Then off to an Island in Greece, selected all but randomly. It was a strange and lonely time in Greece. I’d left Ireland because my lovely girlfriend and I had broken up—amicably, but all the more painfully for that. So I was alone on this beautiful island but the sea was dead. Not a fish bigger than your eyebrow in it. No sea weed, no green, just a post-apocalyptic top algae and occasional lonely celapods. I rented a house from a man who ran a near perfect bar in one of the faultless village harbors. He’s a brave and wise man, the last person in the world after Bob Dylan you would imagine being gay and he, 8th generation islander let it be known to anyone who asked that he was, and had always been homosexual. Hard in a small, exceptionally traditional and homophobic culture but he pulled it off with aplomb. I admire and love that man in every way but the physical and I rented his great aunt’s tiny house in the village, a minute white thing with so much bougainvillea it look like the kind of gift my dear friend would never have wrapped. It had a great deal of charm but village life is all hustle and bustle, all radios and domestic ranting, all screaming of babies and 6 am drills. The only silence comes between 3:30 and 6, then it is dead, heavy with heat and sleep. For me, a shit time to write.

I was saved by a woman called Jax, beautiful rich and canny—she rented me the ‘shack’ next to her palace on a vertiginous cliff overlooking a magnificent view. All I had to do was look after Batman the deaf (feral) cat that had been adopted by her aged father, Robin. This was a wonderful place, but I was stricken by unacknowledged grief which I had decided was “a bit of a cold.” In retrospect my behaviour was rather like the Monty python soldier who is lying in the sick bay with a bleeding stump instead of a leg, telling his commanding officer “it’s only a scratch sir.” This kind of bravery is extremely unlike me. When ill, I make Woody Allen look hardy. On this occasion, I was so sunk into my work and denial that I endured 7 weeks of pneumonia without realising I was seriously ill. I never slept for more than three hours and would leap up at 3:30 am (my lungs wheezing cacaphonically) drink a coffee and pretend to start my day as if it were morning. This was my brilliant idea. I would conquer insomnia (which was the only diagnosis I was prepared to grant myself other than—a touch of asthma—which I don’t get, my brother gets but I don’t—but I do, and he doesn’t anymore) by getting up as soon as I couldn’t sleep. Instead of desperately willing myself to sleep I would proffer my overly strong coffee to the Gods at 3.57 and shout… See coffee… hahaha. Maybe I was a little unhinged. I didn’t get to know about the pneumonia until I was in England.

Anyway, I wrote quite a lot there, and then back to Ireland that winter, a different place, Connemara, on the side of a mountain called Devil’s Mother. Really though, the house was called Devil’s Mother’s Cottage—two apostrophes. How do you like that, as if there wasn’t a recession on. Okay, that’s enough, surely.

INTERVIEWER

The story is broken up into three parts, the past of the female character, the past of the male character and their shared present. I especially loved your description of the young boy’s life at a boarding school. Almost Dickensian. It felt very lived, you must have gone to boarding school yourself.

ROWAN SOMERVILLE

Yes I did go to boarding school. Maybe I’ve also been a young sexually obsessive and dysfunctional man on a beautiful island like the other character and his similarly wounded paramour as well. And obviously I’ve been a young girl teetering on the precipice of puberty. All true.

INTERVIEWER

You know I have a fascination with how people learned to love literature. What did you study at that school? Did you have a good literature teacher? What do you remember from his or her lessons? What did you read?

ROWAN SOMERVILLE

Literature was my imaginary friend and s/he has remained faithful. I learned to read very early, almost as if I were born able to recognise words. But it took me a long time to write and I still cannot spell at all. Letters are not useful elements of words for me. Words are the things in themselves, letters never helped much.

I had extra lessons with a teacher whose job it was to instruct me in how to write and spell, she was a septuagenarian Cambridge literature PhD (and there wouldn’t have been too many women in thirties Cambridge). I think she realised that I would never learn to spell or write neatly and we would mainly discuss books. She was a great inspiration, reading me child friendly snippets of magnificent sometimes heavyweight writers—Dickens, Thackeray, Jane Austen, George Eliot. When I came to them they were familiar as old friends. Later I had other wonderful teachers… Peter Hardwick, David Barlow. The greatest inspiration has been the authenticity and talent of writers themselves. I am indebted to all my teachers, past, present and future. My book is dedicated to them but although they helped me, eased my passage… literature can be self-taught. Love, interest, delight—that is the greatest teacher.

INTERVIEWER

You won the Literary Review’s Bad Sex award for your “lurid insect imagery.” And you took it all in good humor. But the graphic, sometimes icky, sex had a specific purpose didn’t it? Not just gratuitous.

ROWAN SOMERVILLE

My good humor you mention was in fact Bollocks. I was annoyed. The whole “award” is a last gasp of England’s dying upper class culture, a terror of real women, hidden guilty yearnings for “other boys.” You cannot ever show bullies that you are upset, so I went and collected the award, the literary review was paying me back for saying in the Guardian newspaper that the bad sex award was a risible annual publicity stunt and they were “a bunch of schoolyard bullies pointing and tittering because someone said penis.” This was months before the shortlist and obviously it was provocative of me. So no playing victim. I’d berated them for their Benny Hill sexuality and they kindly gave me the bad sex award. Everyone is still alive and the leaves seem to have grown back on the trees.

The thing is the sex in the book had a purpose. In fact I had a private rule. Not one caress or yearning that did not serve as narrative, as characterization. The lurid insect imagery described the sex of an emotionally wounded person unaware of his wound—rather than being an attempt to capture Eros. The award is judged by staff members of the lit review. The two I had spoken to had not read the book which they gave the award to.

However, the novel is jam packed with sex. It is about sex after all but it’s about bad sex, sex between wounded people. There we are. But at least it got me onto NPR’s All Things Considered, which for me was marvelous as—uncool as I am—I love the programme to distraction. I used to drive along the sage bush tracks of New Mexico back roads listening to, not The Doors but All Things Considered. So thanks for that.

INTERVIEWER

What is a good writing day for you?

ROWAN SOMERVILLE

Four hours that feels like one, delight, excitement and even pride (I get maybe three of these a year).

INTERVIEWER

What’s a bad writing day?

ROWAN SOMERVILLE

A hundred thousand self deceptions.

 INTERVIEWER

Do you have a way of tricking yourself into a good writing day?

ROWAN SOMERVILLE

Yes, I need to relate to myself like a rather naughty toddler, a well intentioned and even sensitive wee soul who nevertheless needs very clear boundaries. Thus, I sit down and I am not allowed up for an hour. I don’t have to write but am not allowed to do nothing else. No Internet so-called ‘research’ either. It’s writing or staring round the room. But nothing else, no tidying of neglected corners, no reordering the record collection from traditional genre to alphabetic or some new system that occurs. I can write what I like but it has to be writing or sitting. In this way my inner-self knows that there is no exit and might as well get on with it. After an hour it’s like a moment of celebration, tremendous treats all round, stand up, listen to some music. Make tea. If I have done something good I will have a particularly good tea, a rare oolong, empress Darjeeling, a sencha, otherwise there is every day tea (still amazing) actually. People think the English drink a lot of tea, but the Irish drink even more. But the best tea I have ever found comes from the States, a company called In Pursuit of Tea. Don’t get me on tea. I’m so boring on tea.

I used to walk up the mountain outside my house in Ireland, it was called Devil’s Mother’s Mountain, to get my water for tea from the stream. Now I’m in Paris and I yearn for that stream, I yearn for that mountain too. Shush now… what was the question? Yes, writing. Four hours ideally.

INTERVIEWER

Have you been reading anything?

ROWAN SOMERVILLE

God yes. Always, so much all at once. Ok, here’s the last bunch (really though):

Various of the stories in Girl with the Curious Hair – David Foster Wallace, a proper grown up great writer, original… sometimes boring, but undeniably a great.

Walden and Civil Disobedience – Thoreau… less known on our side of things than to the US, to me, wonderful, I whooped a few times I can tell you… so good on Fashion: “Rhe head monkey at Paris puts on a travelers cap and all the monkeys in America do the same” and “…the principal object is not that mankind may be well and honestly clad but unquestionably that corporations may be enriched.” Yeah, baby. 1845! And maybe my favorite: “There are nowadays many professors of philosophy but not philosophers.”

Okay and then the Biography of Gaudier Breszca (sculptor killed at 21 in the first World War). Good to read because I’m a fan but not (to me) a great biography.

Then Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte. Hadn’t read it before…amazing page turner, fluid narrative, moral juggling of six balls and a chandelier (and free as an iBook). Quite a bit of skipping to tell the truth.

Then Portnoy’s Complaint, my first Roth. Wrong and strong baby. This was at perhaps the most challenging part of my life and I am so grateful for the laughter it afforded me. What a writer, I honestly cried laughing.

Ok and the best one is now, now I’m reading The Moviegoer. I did not know Walker Percy existed two weeks ago. I found it randomly on Amazon. My sweet lord the world is full of masterpieces. He is his own special literary deity: “am I mistaken or has a fog of uneasiness, a thin gas of malaise settled on the street.” My oh my, he makes me happy, I am delighted to be alive and read such things.

I loved Franzen’s Freedom. I mean all this rubbish about comparisons to War and Peace etc… honestly, get ahold of yourselves…but good, so good. Freedom is a thoroughly enjoyable and relevant experience but if you want a novel in the US to be international and GREAT like Ulysses or Anna Karenina, the themes have to be grander.  There is a lot of parochialism amidst US lit culture. What I mean by this is that too often America=universe. That being said, the greatest proponents of  English prose in the past forty years have been and are, American. In Ireland, sure there’s Toibin and McCabe and the thick seam of history and the UK has many but now, right now, we don’t have your Bellow, Dellilo, Franzen Foster Wallace, Roth, Morrison, Doctorow,  I thank God for them without knowing if there is one.

That’s it for the past few weeks.

INTERVIEWER

And then?

ROWAN SOMERVILLE

Then there is Nabokov. Lolita wow. The skill, the poise, the poison… a love story, bollocks.  It actually said “a love story” on the Penguin edition. So deluded. What else comes to mind…ah, yes my beloved Wallace Stegner. He seems to be ignored compared to how wonderful and BIG he is as an author. Of course it may be because a classic like Angle of Repose is so hard to get into. One has to run at it, stay with it patiently and diligently while it shapes your brain, teaches you to be it’s reader, demands that you sit quietly and listen. Stegner is like that.

You know how sometimes when you meet a much older person, someone really ancient, they can seem a little dull because everything is so slow and deliberate, even repetitive but if you stay, a world of wisdom opens that is wonderful.

INTERVIEWER

So you’re reading eBooks. Do you have a Kindle?

ROWAN SOMERVILLE

I have an iPad. I had a Sony reader and it was completely awful, looked lovely but was abominable service, rubbish interface. I enjoy my iPad, it’s my best toy…so wonderful for a traveler like me. I have started reading gems I missed like Jayne Eyre (marvellous). And then there’s the travelling. I can swan around with a library. Ok it’s not the same as a book, its sort of like renting  no tactile pleasure and you can’t read in the bath unless you are really brave but generally I am all for the technology. Also the Buddha was kind enough to describe 84,000 ways of becoming enlightened and there’s maybe only three of them available on eBook which is annoying and ridiculous.

INTERVIEWER

What are some of your favorite opening passages of great books that you’ve read, in the bath and otherwise?

ROWAN SOMERVILLE

“Floating upwards through a confusion of dreams and memory, curving like a trout through the rings of previous risings, I surface. My eyes open, I am awake.” Wallace Stegner (crossing to safety). Another American-to me one of the greatest, unfashionable I’ve been told. Well fuck that, he’s a prince to my pauper. Angle of Repose? Yes a little hard to get into (I had half a dozen runs at it before it would let me in. But ‘La Vache” as they say in France (I think they do, I heard it today but I’m so often confused here).

Now, shall we not forget “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed. A yellow dressing gown, ungirdled, was sustained gently behind him on the mild morning air. He held the bowl aloft and intoned…” from Ulysses.

Then there’s the green hat of Ignatius riley in Confederacy of Dunces… HEAVEN.

INTERVIEWER

Have you gotten any strange fan mail?

ROWAN SOMERVILLE

Lets get this in perspective. I have had twenty three emails in all. One made me cry, because it was the whole reason I wrote. If you wish to write to me and make it 24 its rowan@rowan.com

INTERVIEWER

When does The Shape of Her come out in the US?

ROWAN SOMERVILLE

It’s not. No publisher has bought it in the US.  It didn’t help that I fired (sounds so dramatic) my agent on day of publication thus preventing foreign sales. What to do.

INTERVIEWER

What are you working on now?

ROWAN SOMERVILLE

I am working on a book about the human heart, suicide bombers and the quality of mercy. It is called A Pound of Flesh and it will be the best thing I have ever done except for participating in bringing two daughters into this world and helping that old woman onto the train he other day.

 

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