The late Helen Dunmore talks with me and Jim Crace on The Writing Life.

English novelist and poet Helen Dunmore has died aged 64. I only met her once for this conversation at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in 2004. With Birmingham writer Jim Crace  we spoke of their different routines and talismans and attitudes to the blank page in the solitary space of the writer’s room.

And rereading it today what jumps out is Helen’s idea about interruptions:

One of the difficulties I’ve had with identifying how I want to write comes from having three things that I needed to do-one, earn a living; two, take care of children; three, write. So all those things have been together and they’ve all been working against each other. When I started I thought that was a problem. It was always going to be seen as a problem because it tends to be seen as a problem. You know, all these other things are getting in your way, but I’m not sure it works like that at all. My feeling now is that it isn’t like that. All these things contribute and develop and go towards the work. You’re not this person struggling to carve your writing out of other things; your writing is made from those things.

Yes, your writing is made from those things.


Ramona Koval: Hello from the Edinburgh International Book Festival, Ramona Koval here for Books and Writing. And this week, a conversation about the writing life: a very entertaining and candid account of what really happens behind the closed doors of the writer’s room-because each author has their own story, and you’ll hear two very different stories from the two authors who joined me on the stage.

Helen Dunmore is a poet, a novelist for both adults and children, and a short story writer. She’s won the McKitterick Prize and the Orange Prize, and her new book, Mourning Ruby, is a story of love, loss and the memory of a child who died. Jim Crace is also a much awarded novelist, both in the UK and internationally, and his books have been translated into 28 languages. In his new novel, Six, he writes erotic, sweet scenes in the life of a man who makes every women he sleeps with pregnant. After each writer had given a short reading, I asked them what they thought of this part of the writer’s life-the public performance.

Helen Dunmore: When I first started reading, which was a long time ago, it was more that 25 years ago because I began as a poet on the circuit, and the first few I did I was very nervous, particularly because most of the audience seemed to be drunk. Those that weren’t drunk were not interested in poetry so it wasn’t too easy to get going. But after the apprenticeship with poetry readings in some strange places, including, in one case, a steamer in the middle of the Bristol Channel where everybody was drunk including the captain, so we seemed to be just going around and around, and I was allegedly giving a reading on the bridge at the time. So this is pure pleasure-lovely tent, people sitting, no one … not too many people drunk-this is great.

Ramona Koval: We’ll breathalyse them on the way out. What about you Jim?

Jim Crace: I used to fear them. Then, for a whole period, I used to love them, and now I’m beginning to hate them again.

Ramona Koval: Why?

Jim Crace: Nothing personal. I think it’s because when you start writing you hope for all of the attention that most writers don’t get. Most of the books that are written are never going to be published, and even if they’re published, most of them are only going to sell to your cousins, which is why Catholic writers always do better than the others. What I really dreamed of was not having all these foreign translations, not having all this attention, not doing the readings, but just being able to show my mum my first book in hardback. I thought that there would never be a more joyful moment, and indeed there wasn’t a more joyful moment. But the trouble with writing is that once you’ve had your first job for a moment, the next one has got to be bigger, and so, you know, I wanted a fatter book to show my mum and her neighbour, and then I wanted readings, and then I wanted British Council tours. I think you’re hungry for those things but when you get older, in any profession, I think you lose your hunger, and I think that’s basically what’s happened with me. I’m going to be 60 next year, and I think that I want other adventures. It’s a terrible thing to say. I’m looking forward to stopping writing and having other adventures; that’s the truth of the matter.

Ramona Koval: Do writers ever really stop writing though?

Helen Dunmore: I’m trying to think of examples of people who have just said, ‘No, I’m not going to do it anymore.’ We were talking earlier in the Green Room about this fear of the slide that I think a lot of writers have because it is such a violently competitive business, and there’s always a sense of-oh, we’ve had you-it’s almost like you’re a part of a menu, isn’t it? You have been eaten and people have had a taste, and maybe they want a different taste. What you hope is that you have readers who are genuinely responding to what you’ve written; at least that’s what I hope. If I have some readers, that’s what I’m doing it for, you know, for those readers. That’s not totally true…I’m writing initially for writing, but if there were no readership I think I would find it fairly depressing at this point.

Jim Crace: I’d never lift a pen. If I weren’t published, I don’t think I’d ever write a word. I need to be driven on by the idea that it’s going to go out somewhere, I think. But the truth of the matter is that most writers don’t have long careers. The average published writer’s career is one book, and then the second book is less successful and you never hear of them again. Some very lucky writers … I think we’re very lucky; we’ve had very long careers. I’ve published nine books and I’ve had quite a lot of attention, and you’re nine, ten, eleven; I can’t remember, you’re that sort of number, aren’t you? But we both know, and every writer is a fool if they pretend that this is not true, that at some stage we will go into a kind of decline. You see writers that go into those declines that have been famous in the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s but are now no longer admired or thought important, and they become bitter. What you want to avoid has got nothing to do with writing; it’s got to do with life. You want to avoid bitterness when you’re retired, when you’re older. So this is why I think that it’s going to be a smart move to give it up completely and not write any books to be ignored and to be sneered at, but to say, ‘I turn my back on it.’ But you’re not going to do that Helen?

Helen Dunmore: I don’t think I will. I don’t think I could bear to, really, because I feel I’ve still got so much I want to write. I don’t think I could bear to stop. Also because it’s so bound up with my identity that I can’t remember not writing, I can not remember it. I started writing poetry when I was really small, about seven or so, and it’s been the music of the words and the seduction of it really. And I’ve been working this summer on a story, which I won’t say much about it, but it just completely captivated … I’m just captivated. It’s very faulty, it needs a lot of work, it has had a lot of work, but it is very, very seductive to me-the act of going into the story. I think if that stopped happening then I wouldn’t pretend I felt it if I didn’t feel it. I would think, ‘No,’ because I’m sure if I can feel it’s not there then everybody else can feel it’s not there.

Ramona Koval: What sort of a seven-year-old were you, that you picked up a pen?

Helen Dunmore: Well, I was quite tomboyish in fact. I was very physical, very running about, quite strong, several children in the family, but I was a very enthusiastic reader and writer.

Ramona Koval: Did you know writers? Did you ever see anyone writing?

Helen Dunmore: No, I didn’t know writers but I read a lot. I didn’t have a vision of how I could become a writer but I read a lot of books, and I just remember getting this enormous joy … I can remember lying on the floor and writing these, probably very poor, poems-because they were all in rhyme and form and probably quite imitative-but they gave me enormous joy, and I worked on them, I crossed bits out and worked on them. So it was a pattern that began very early.

Ramona Koval: Did you get encouragement from teachers and parents?

Helen Dunmore: From my parents I did, and I can’t remember from teachers … I don’t think that it was quite so creative at school then. I don’t think that that was such a high priority. But it was the pleasure, I think it was the pleasure. That was it-it was the pleasure.

Ramona Koval: And what about you Jim? What sort of a little boy were you?

Jim Crace: Well, short. And I was a liar. I used to lie and I still lie really, not to mislead anybody but to entertain people. And even after all these years, I’m still baffled when some people feel put out and discomforted by me because they think that somehow or other I’m having a go at them by telling them something which isn’t true. Whereas, from my point of view, I’m being generous-spirited, giving them a story, and we all ought to do that. Nobody is grateful of the person who tells the truth. You don’t want to go into the pub, and somebody walks in the pub and you say to them, ‘How was your Spanish holiday?’ and they tell you the flight number and the motorway that they went down, how long it took. You don’t want that. You want them to pack it all up. You want them to take the Spanish waiter anecdote that happened to somebody else and something that almost happened to you two years before, and you want them to put it together into an anecdote which is entertaining. That’s what we want. That’s what human success is about, it’s about being narrative, and so I don’t feel any embarrassment about being someone who always liked to tell a tale. We should encourage lying. All go home and tell a lie to your loved ones today. If you were a short boy from North London, as I was, in a pretty tough school … although I never wrote anything and I didn’t come from a household that had many books, but nevertheless I found that my weapon was language, and that people were frightened of me or they wanted me on their side (the bullies at the school) because I could do bizarre things with words and say unusual stuff and wind up the teachers without them knowing it. So it was my form of physical bullying, is writing, I think, and stopping other people beating me up.

Ramona Koval: And you became a journalist …

Jim Crace: Yes, but I didn’t tell any lies as a journalist. I’m a very puritanical-minded person in fact, and so when it comes to politics and non-fictional activities I always (I’m trying to make myself out to be some kind of saint-I cheated on my expenses, is that okay?) but I always played a very straight bat with that. So when I turned to writing fiction, it was almost as if I’d put myself on hold when I was a journalist for 20 years, I’d put my lying sensibilities on hold, and then I found that I could make a living out of it when I turned to fiction. So that has been fun.

Ramona Koval: And Helen, what about you? What sort of sensibilities did you have as a young woman?

Helen Dunmore: I don’t think I would ever describe them … No, I think it’s a great mistake to look back at yourself with your present vision because when I look back at poems I wrote which I published and probably have still got collected and I wrote them probably almost 20, 21 … in fact I can remember writing quite a lot of them. The first poems I published I wrote when I was living in Finland and I would lie on this bed and write these poems, and I sent them off to magazines in England and one or two of them published them. So those poems belong to another person really, and I can’t disown them and say, ‘Well, I don’t feel like that now,’ and I can’t own them either. Those are things I could write then but I can’t write now, and it’s the same even with a novel that I wrote ten years ago-that belonged to that period, that belonged to that person. I can read it now, I can read from it, I can talk about it, but the person who created it no longer exists.

Ramona Koval: It’s supposed to be a private thing to write. You’re usually doing it by yourself, and this whole idea about inspiration, and there’s a romantic idea that the writer is in a garret and is inspired and is frenzied with this inspiration, and writes. Is that what it’s like? Jim, are you frenzied?

Jim Crace: Yes. Well, I’m very self-conscious about striking attitudes and talking about the ‘muse’ and writer’s block and all of those pretentious things. I say in public that I believe in ‘stop making a fuss and get on with it’. But, of course, if it were that simple then everybody would be writing very successful novels, and it isn’t simple. I don’t think there is such a thing as the muse. I think that the truth of the matter is that we are, as I’ve said earlier, we have been narrative animals for thousands and thousands of years. No other creature in the universe (of the 97 million creatures in the universe) no other creature in the universe can re-invent the past in the way that we can or imagine the future in the way that we can. We do that all the time. Most of our conscious moments are doing one of those two activities. We are the only narrative creature in the world, and it’s been there for Darwinian eons, so it’s a kind instinctive activity. So what I feel when I’m writing is that I need to take some level of skill to the writing, but the skill that I have and I can take to the writing responds to ancient formats. Suddenly you realise that you’re not pushing a weight uphill. When you start writing a novel it feels to me that I’m pushing a great weight up a hill, and at some point that heavy stone turns into a balloon, and that’s the moment when the instinctive story telling side takes over. So, most of my time is waiting for that moment to come.

Ramona Koval: And how does it feel when it comes?

Jim Crace: A big relief, particularly if it comes early. A big relief because then you know that most of the problems … even if you’ve only written three pages of a book, you know that the biggest problem is now behind you and that the book has its own velocity and its own muscle. But sometimes that moment doesn’t come until the very end of the book and then it’s quite distressing. And more and more often the moment with my writing, the ‘balloon moment’, is coming later and later; which is maybe why I’m growing out of love with writing fiction.

Ramona Koval: But writing non-fiction?

Jim Crace: Oh no, I want to give it all up really. I don’t wish to be flippant about it, but Helen was saying earlier about … the two most important things to you were your family and your writing, but you might know that there’s a writer in this country who’s said that you can always tell a serious writer from an unserious writer, because if you say to the serious writer, ‘Which would you prefer to keep, your children or your books?’ the serious writer will always say, ‘The books.’ And I find that a deeply offensive view of things. Now, on my list of priorities, children are, of course, before my books, but as I get older there are more and more things that are in front of my books, that are more important than my books, other than my wife and my children. The list is actually getting quite flippant-I wonder whether tennis is more important to me than my books. How’s your list, Helen?

Helen Dunmore: I don’t think of it in terms of lists at all. I mean, I’d quite like to go back to Ramona’s question about this whole idea of inspiration and how you handle your work in time, because this is one of the really frequently asked questions that people are interested in and they want to know how you do it. I think all writers that I know are quite defensive of that space and quite defensive of how they get the time and how they get the momentum to do their work. One of the difficulties I’ve had with identifying how I want to write comes from having three things that I needed to do-one, earn a living; two, take care of children; three, write. So all those things have been together and they’ve all been working against each other. When I started I thought that was a problem. It was always going to be seen as a problem because it tends to be seen as a problem. You know, all these other things are getting in your way, but I’m not sure it works like that at all. My feeling now is that it isn’t like that. All these things contribute and develop and go towards the work. You’re not this person struggling to carve your writing out of other things; your writing is made from those things.

But I do use very quick stimuli to get me deep into work quickly and one of them is music, and for nearly every novel I’ve written there’s a particular piece of music or type of music that I’ve used as a kind of key to get myself into writing. The other thing is allowing the process to be as bizarre as it really is, you know, realising that everything you do … you don’t have to be in front of a computer, you don’t have to be writing with your hands-you can be walking, you can be cleaning, you can be doing a lot of other things and you are really there. And I suppose liking solitude too, liking solitude, which not everybody does like. I’d say I’m a very sociable person if I have solitude, but without the solitude I’m not a sociable person.

Ramona Koval: People often think that writers who are doing the dishes or making cups of tea or in the garden are actually not writing, and want to visit you. Is that what happens to you? Do people recognise it when you’re working?

Jim Crace: I think people think that I’m an outpost of Costa Caf I have a converted garage at the front of the house, which I’ve converted into an office, so if people walk past they can see me in there. There is a feeling that they can just knock at the door and come and sit down for a chat because I don’t do anything for a living. It’s actually hard to convince my family of this as well. Still, it has its compensations; it’s great to be at home, it’s great to have people calling in on you, and most of the time I’m not working anyway when I shout at them for coming into the room. Someone asked me recently what my typical working day was, and it was lounging around in the garden until I hear my wife’s car drawing into the drive, and then there’s a very, very quick clear out of the garden and then dash into the front place and she comes in, ‘How did you get on today Jim?’ ‘Oh, it’s been hell.’ But I prevaricate terribly. I’d like to know what the trick with music is. You say you start your working day with a kind of disciplinary piece of music?

Helen Dunmore: I listen to music all the time I’m writing. I don’t always hear it but it’s my wall of sound, it’s like Phil Spectre, you know, it’s a wall of sound. Also I don’t work at home. I did work at home for many years, but I don’t, I work in an office about two miles from the house, and I sometimes walk there or sometimes drive there or get a bus. Once I’m there-it’s very nice-it’s a flat on the eighth floor, it’s got a fantastic view, it’s a very small place, it’s got a little balcony, you can see for miles and miles and miles, and nobody comes there at all because nobody knows where it is, apart from my family. Very occasionally somebody will come and ring on the bell downstairs. Also the flat has a little life of its own because there’re all the other people and the people who run it. It’s quite separate from home and it’s in the middle of the city so you go downstairs and there’s a bookshop, there’s a coffee shop, there’s anything you want, and it’s a very good solution for me.

Ramona Koval: So you’ve got that transition between leaving home and moving through something to work. That must be hard, going into the front converted garage, because you haven’t gone anywhere.

Jim Crace: It’s not a hard life really. I know we’re supposed to pretend it’s hard. It’s not hard. I just feel very, very lucky. My walk to work is 14 steps from the bedroom to the front place.

Ramona Koval: Do you get out of your pyjamas?

Jim Crace: No. It’s wrong to complain. All the prevarication is my fault. If I wanted to I could tell these people not to come in, they’re not welcome. Everything that goes wrong is down to me, really, and I guess I do publish a book every two years so I am getting it right but I am also guilty of that … you know the Cyril Connolly book Enemies of Promise? He made a list of things which stop people writing their great work, and they were; the pram in the hall, the bottle in the larder, the deckchair in the garden … I’m making these up, but it was that sort of thing, the widow next door, the trip to the pub, the editor’s phone call-all of those things. Well, I read this list once and I scored 12 out of 13. So I do prevaricate a lot and my tendency is to prevaricate, prevaricate until I’m into a panic, and then to produce a book very quickly, which my editor thinks has taken two years to write but in fact it’s been done in two months.

Ramona Koval: When you actually come out of the rooms and there is a book and you have to come to writers’ festivals, but you also have to do book signings and take part in all kinds of things…What about that part of your life?

Helen Dunmore: Well, I think there is more and more of it, and I think because I work in three different forms-I work as a children’s writer and a poet and a novelist, and sometimes the publisher of each one forgets about the others, so they’re quite outraged that I would do this instead of doing that, for them. In fact, children’s events are so different from this kind of adult event, and the letters you get from children are very different from the ones you get from adults, and the poetry world is a completely separate, convoluted, intense and …

Ramona Koval: … desperate world.

Helen Dunmore: You said it. I think it has a great charm as well. It has a great charm, the poetry world, because people are not particularly making money, although admittedly they are coming to blows over grants and so on. So there are all these different things, and I must like it because I do it all, and I do a little bit of reviewing and I do some radio stuff. I like to review because I like to read other people’s books, I suppose. It’s a way of making you read things you wouldn’t read otherwise. I sometimes get tired but I don’t get bored. I’ve done other jobs where I’ve been very bored, so I think I agree with Jim, it’s a great life.

Ramona Koval: What about when you come out, Jim?

Jim Crace: Well, I live in Birmingham, so going anywhere’s a treat. Helen and I, I think we’ve been all over the world promoting our books and it’s never boring; it’s always interesting. It’s a strange, conflicted life, though, isn’t it-the life of being public and schmoozing and pretending to be a personality when you’re not really, and trying to come up with explanations for your book before the critics have told you what they’re about. And this very, very quiet life in which you are in the room entirely by yourself. It’s an odd existence, and that side of it isn’t romantic at all. I remember one year my daughter, when she was tiny and had just started to learn how to do joined-up handwriting and was very pleased with herself, and she, like me, loved stationary … if I’m in Brazil or Singapore I go into the stationary shops and just like to buy whatever stationary they have there, you know, it’s a childish activity but not against the law. She loved stationary, and this particular Christmas she bought one of those blocks of note pads, two and a half inches by two and a half inches in different colours, and very proudly gave it to me for Christmas and put it on my desk so that I could use it for my notes. And just to initiate this note pad, on Christmas day she went in and she wrote on the top sheet, ‘no messages’. And then on Boxing Day she went in and she turned it over and she wrote, ‘no messages’. And she kept this up until about 13 January when she grew bored. But it was the same sentence that she wrote on every piece of paper. I think that that, actually, should go into the museum of the writing life because even though most of us encounter writers … the only time I ever meet writers, for example, is when I come to festivals. Most writers spend that kind of life in which they are alone in a room and there are no messages.

Ramona Koval: Do you have a stationary fetish too?

Helen Dunmore: Not at all.

Ramona Koval: What do you have on your desk?

Helen Dunmore: Nothing of interest, I have to say. Just a computer, couple of pencils, nothing fancy. Usually a blank wall, I like to look at a blank wall.

Ramona Koval: What about you Jim?

Jim Crace: Oh, loads of stuff. But when I have a book going there’s usually something physical that stands for the book. So with the current book I’m writing which is called The Pest House and is about America’s medieval future-the idea that the western world, the modern world, will collapse so that instead of what is now the national becoming intergalactic (which is what most science-fiction has done), it becomes the local again; we are crouched around the fires again-science has failed. I have a piece of metal which is rotting away as I write every day. It’s amazing … I found it on the beach in the Isles of Scilly and it’s the part of a boat, and when I took it out of the sea it was relatively tough and compact and it wasn’t flaking, but within a week of putting it in the atmosphere it started to fall apart, and it’s sitting on my desk at this very moment, collapsing. And that stands for the book that I’m writing at the moment, so there’s always something like that which is my kind of talisman I guess.

Ramona Koval: You’ve both had novels set in the past, and you talked about research. Jim, you’re a well-known liar. You’re a liar about biological systems and technical things. Do you do any research?

Jim Crace: No. There are different attitudes towards research. I think fully researched books should be called non-fiction. But there are novels which need to be researched, but I think a good piece of advice which was given by another writer who said that you should do the research but not keep the notes when you’re writing , because the great fear is that if you makes notes about an historical period; when you start the writing, you’re just going to be like playing pinball machine, you want to give a little bang on all the little notes that you’ve made to reward the effort. But I don’t even do that. What I’m interesting in is seeing if I can present lies as if they are true, and true things as if they are made up. That’s a special little trick that I do, and there’s a reason for it. I’ll give you an example. I was describing in my first book, Continent, there was an instance of some cadavers, some pregnant women who had died, and their bodies were being fed on by beetles that were eating their flesh. Now, my passion is natural history and I know that there are many beetles that would, indeed, live on flesh-I was only looking at some when I saw a dead porpoise last week in the Isles of Scilly-and they have Latin names, or they have names which don’t clearly express what they do. So if you use a Latin name for a beetle, it might be an absolutely true Latin name, it might satisfy the biologists and the zoologists but it alienates your readers because all it’s doing is-you’re thumbing your nose at the readers by using a bit of Latin which doesn’t give them any information. So in that instance I invented a fly called the Swag Beetle, and the word ‘swag’ if you think about it, has got the sense of swagger about it, it also sounds like rotting, it’s halfway between ‘bog’ and ‘swamp’, it’s also got that sense of something being stolen, you know, the swag bag that someone puts over their shoulder, I think it means something different in Australia…

Ramona Koval: It does.

Jim Crace: And so if you encounter as a reader the non-existent Swag Beetle on the body of a dead women, then you exactly know the nature of that creature, and for me that’s what making things up can do. That’s what language can do, that’s what vocabulary can do. It can come up with a totally persuasive narrative which is entirely untrue, but we should not feel self-conscious about that in the way that we do in the 21st century. It’s only in the 20th century and the 21st century that we feel awkward about that. If you look back at traditional forms of fiction, that’s all they ever did, but you didn’t have to take somebody who was encountering the Minotaur legend for the first time and say, ‘But I ought to warn you, there’s no such creature as the Minotaur. These caves don’t exist. This story didn’t happen.’ People before our fact-obsessed centuries were fully at ease with the made-up fiction, and so I see myself as a traditionalist rather than a conventionalist I suppose.

Ramona Koval: Except some critics don’t understand that, do they?

Jim Crace: Oh critics! They don’t, no. I suppose the worst moment was when I’d invented another insect. I’d invented a major character in my book Being Dead, a creature called the surfhopper or something; I can’t remember what it’s called. But the film is being made into a book and the American director phoned up and said that they were going to have to film … they thought they were going to film in New Zealand but now they’re going to film in the Isle of Mann, which was a relief because I don’t suppose there would be any surfhoppers in New Zealand. And I said, ‘Well, no, you’re right, there wouldn’t be.’ And he said, ‘But now we’re going to be in the Isle of Mann it’ll be fine, won’t it?’ ‘Well, no it won’t.’ So I explained it to him, and the transatlantic phone went very quiet for a moment and he said, ‘I’ll get back to you.’ And I’m still waiting.

Ramona Koval: Well, we’ve run out of time for this lovely conversation we’ve had this afternoon, and please thank them now for their lovely presence.

Jim Crace and Helen Dunmore. Jim’s book Six and Helen’s book Mourning Ruby are both published by Penguin. And that’s all from Books and Writing this week, which is produced by me, Ramona Koval, and Michael Shirrefs.


Mourning Ruby
Helen Dunmore
Penguin, 2004
ISBN 0-14101-501-2
Jim Crace
Penguin, 2004
ISBN 0-14027-599-1

One comment

  1. The news that Helen Dunmore had died hit me very hard. I enjoy her books and I reviewed one before it was published. Despite being a writer, I find it difficult to read other people’s work — this wasn’t the case with hers. I’ve now read most of her books. My sadness comes from a need to think that these talented people are ‘out there’ doing there thing — Take great strength from that thought. Thank you for posting this transcript.

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