In nine acclaimed but varied novels, Rupert Thomson never tries the same thing twice. He has written historical fiction, surreal political allegories, character-driven novels with classic unreliable narrators (like The Insult, which features a blind man who believes he isn’t blind.) The Book of Revelation, which takes off from a central harrowing incident of torture and humiliation, explores the aftermath of trauma. In Soft!, a sleep experiment turns people into unwitting shills for the soda industry—it’s cutting satire that anticipates the world of “Sponsored Tweets” and big-data marketing.
"People have always tried to put me in a box,” Thomson recently told The Guardian, “but I think in the end, I just don't fit.” In our conversation for this series, Thomson explored the reasons why he’s always pushing himself towards new terrain. Early on, he located his mission statement in a poem that urges us to go beyond the familiar, celebrating the restlessness that has characterized Thomson’s life and art.
His most recent book, a historical novel called Secrecy, is another departure: Set in 1691, its fictionalizes the life of Gaetano Zumbo, a medical wax sculptor famous in his day for his eerily precise anatomical models of plague victims. In the novel, the sculptor meets an enigmatic woman while he wrestles with a secret commission—Sicily’s Grand Duke wants him to build a life-sized, “perfect” woman out of wax—and at the same time guards his own dangerous secret. Rupert Thomson spoke to me at the offices of his publisher, Other Press. For now, he lives in London.
Rupert Thomson: I grew up in a small town on the south coast of England. I saw it as a deadening place. I hated the narrowness of it. Everyone seemed the same. I felt—and still feel—that people are the most important thing, and the range of people I was surrounded with seemed so limited. By the time I was 15, I couldn’t wait to get out.
One source of joy was a bookshop on the high street. Like so many kids, I escaped through books. I devoured everything I could get hold of. At the time, I wanted to become a poet—this was the dream—and I started buying volumes from a series called Penguin Modern European Poets, which featured work in translation. I started reading people like Italy’s Eugenio Montale, Poland’s Zbigniew Herbert. One book especially—I still have a strong visual image of the cover, which was a kind of orange fern draped across a white background—had an impact on me: poems by the Russian writer Yevgeny Yevtushenko.
Yevtushenko was descended from Ukranians who were exiled to Siberia. He was born in this remote place called Zima, a town on the Trans-Siberian Railway. If I thought I was born in the middle of nowhere, well, look at him. In a sense, he couldn’t have been put any farther away as a child—and I, by comparison, was close to the heart of everything. But I recognized the longing I saw in his poems: a desire to move beyond the familiar towards somewhere new.
Yevtushenko left Zima when he was 17, and his long poem “Zima Junction,” is about leaving home and coming back again. He published it in 1956, when he was 23. By then, he’d spent time away, and in that time, his life had changed completely: he’d been to Moscow, he’d spent time with artists, he’d started to learn to write. In the poem, he imagines coming home as a very different person, talking to members of his family and people he used to know, while trying to reconcile the distance between youth and adulthood, between rural life and the society he’s come to know.
In the final pages, Zima Junction—the local train station itself—addresses the poet, speaking to him with the wisdom of an elder. I love the way the station implores the poet to move beyond his home towards unknown, uncertain horizons:
Don't worry if you have no answer ready
To the last question.
Hold out, meditate, listen.
Explore. Explore. Travel the world over.
Count happiness connatural to the mind
More than truth is, and yet
No happiness to exist without it.
Walk with a cold pride
Wild attentive eyes
Head flicked by the rain-wet
Green needles of the pine,
Eyelashes that shine
With tears and thunders.
Love entertains its own discrimination.
Have me in mind,
I shall be watching.
You can return to me.
There’s so much extraordinary advice here, about happiness, love, travel, people—almost everything you need to think about, and all in the space of a few short lines. I’ve always been struck by the generosity Zima’s personified train station extends towards the poet in wishing him off. As it speaks of the need to leave your origins, your roots, and strike out on your own, the junction assumes the voice of the ideal parent—in the way that the parent who truly loves the child will send the child away, make it possible for the child to leave, whereas the insecure parent will try to make the child stay close for the parent’s own sake. “You can return to me,” it says, imploring him to move outward and explore beyond home’s borders—“Now go.” There’s a maturity, a selflessness about this vision. It’s got the destiny and the heart of the poet in mind, and only cares about what’s good for him.
But the junction recognizes a push-pull tendency in all of us: the tension between comfort and risk. On the one hand, it’s safer to stay home—where you’re known and loved, where it’s harder to get hurt. Once you got out into the world, anything can happen. But the station is saying, don’t think about that now. Home will always be there; you can always come back. For now, take the risk, take the gamble, and become someone. Yevtushenko uses “explore” twice—as if once isn’t strong enough, as if we need that extra repetition to embolden ourselves to move forward.
We should be, in other words, wide open to experience—despite the risks. It reminds me of something the photographer Diane Arbus once said: “My favorite thing is to go where I’ve never been.” She was talking figuratively about her photographs, of course, how she yearned to always go somewhere new with her work. And I agree with her. You kind of hope that every book is going to provide a new challenge. But I also take her line literally. I like to move, I like to see new places, I don’t like to stay in one place for two long. It’s no accident that my first novel was called Dreams of Leaving. For me, living in new places makes my life feel longer and richer. I used to have a theory that my life felt longer than other people’s because I move around so much. When I’d come back to London after six months away—I might have been in Tokyo, Sydney, or New York—it would have felt like a lifetime to me. But my friends in London would say—“god, it seems like you only just left.” For them, the time passed like nothing—it was the same old, same old. It’s a testament to how going where you’ve never been—pushing yourself to “explore, explore”—can broaden you and make your life feel longer.