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.
But “Zima Junction” isn’t just about being open to new places. It’s contains another piece of advice I’ve found crucial in my life and work: be open to people. “Love people,” Yevtushenko says, “Love entertains its own discrimination.” I think he’s saying that if you remain open, if you invest your emotions in others, love will lead you the right way. You can’t choose who to love, or how—but if you remain open to experience, love will teach you a great deal about yourself, and can help lead you in the right direction.
My new book, Secrecy, is about the tension between love and solitude—the irreconcilability of being in love, and being alone. I think this is a tension artists feel especially keenly. You need the time alone or otherwise nothing can ever get done, but at the same time, you need people in your life in order to grow. Though the demands of friends and family can be difficult to balance with one’s work, I’ve learned that choosing love over solitude can be important for the artist.
I remember a moment where I faced a very clear choice. When my wife—my girlfriend at the time—told me that she wanted to have a child, she was living in Belfast working for the BBC, and I was going off to Rome. We had the conversation right about the day before I was leaving, and she said go to Rome, think about it, and let me know what you come up with. And I literally did this: I got a piece of paper, and wrote two columns for pros and cons. I thought I’d do the cons first. I filled up the whole page with cons as to why a child would not be a good idea, or might complicate things: Loss of freedom, loss of sleep, loss of money, on and on. I looked at my list and thought—well, that’s pretty heavy.
Then I asked myself, well, what would be positive? What would I get out of this? All I could think of was love. I put the word “love” in the other column. And then I put a question mark with it, because I remembered that not all people love their children.
I looked at the list, and then I told her “Yes”—for the sake of one questionable word. It was a totally lopsided tally, but that one word—even with a question mark next to it—was so strong it outweighed the others. One thing that decided me was the sense of what I’d be if I said no to a child. If you see yourself as a house, it’s like saying no to being a much bigger house. It’s like that I want to stay this particular size, with this number of rooms, because I know them—whereas, if we build outward, anything could happen. I reacted against the fear implied in that. I thought—I’m not going to say “No,” because that would be like saying no to life. Like saying no to risk, to gamble—it feels small.
There are plenty of writers who advocate total ruthlessness when it comes to one’s work. And I try to be very disciplined. I work seven days a week. Friends will ask me to lunch, and I have to tell them—“well, I don’t really do lunch.” I bring my lunch with me and I work throughout the day, every day. But you have to be open to the experiences that really matter. Though having a child would mean a certain about of sacrifice on my part, not having a child would mean I was restricting myself emotionally. I would never know the love a parent has for a child—and even though I’d already imagined that emotion in books, I wouldn’t know the particular way it would take root in me. Some emotions are completely unpredictable, and some things you can’t prepare for in life, no matter how much you think about them—parenthood is one of them. You want to be surprised by what happens to you, and if you have a child you’re going to be. “Love people,” Yevtushenko writes: Being willing to accept love into your life will make you a better person. And it makes you a better writer—I do believe that.
Even more broadly, “Zima Junction” asks us to move from the known into the unknown—from home to away, from ourselves towards others. It’s a call for us to move beyond our comfort zones, geographical and psychological, and explore new places that may threaten or frighten or challenge us. This idea relates directly to the way I think about writing and art.
For me, writing begins as a foray into what’s totally unknown. I write completely intuitive, flat-out first drafts with no research and no control. I try to write my way into some kind of psychological truth; I’m picking up something without knowing quite what I’m picking up, in the confidence that I’ll learn something new by the time I’ve done 10 drafts. I give myself absolute freedom the first time around: freedom to fail, freedom to wander, freedom to not know what I’m doing. I just have to get to the end, whatever end it is, knowing it may change.
This is what you do when you write a first draft—you write into your own apparent ignorance. Someone said to W. H. Auden, “Is it true that you can only write what you know? And he said, “Yes, but you can only know what you know once you’ve written it.” To me, a first draft feels like a journey in two directions. On the one hand, it’s like driving along a motorway at night with no headlights: you can crash, you take wrong turns, it’s dangerous, you don’t know where you’re going to end up. At the same time, it’s like going down a mineshaft into yourself, as deep as you possibly can. Those things—covering ground and diving deeper—seem to happen simultaneously when you write a first draft.
It’s a frightening process—I seem to go through a place with every book where I wonder if I’ve wasted all my time, if the idea is totally flawed, and I’ll never bring it off. But the same way that “love entertains its own discriminations,” creativity does, too: You have to trust your instinct and your intuition. If you don’t, then every decision that you ever make is going to have to be rational. That’s impossible. Every page of a book has a million decisions on it, so if you don’t trust your intuition, you’re lost, you’re hamstrung.
But the time comes to think rationally about your work again, and this is where “Zima Junction” comes in. “You can return to me,” the voice of home says, in the poem’s final lines—and you do go back home creatively as you leave the wandering, more frightening territory of subconscious exploration, and retreat to the more comfortable, safe terrain of rational thought. I start out 100% intuitive, and move to a place three years later where I’m 100% rational—by the very end, looking at things like moving commas, deleting unnecessary words and phrases. By the time I finish, it’s rational, intellectual work—and intuition and the unconscious are really not playing a part anymore.
I could never be one of those writers who outline in advance. But going against myself, I’ve got a new idea—a dangerous idea—because I think it could develop into about 10 books. I’m not sure if I want to commit to it or not. And because of the nature of the idea, I wonder if I shouldn’t see if I can be one of those writers who plans a book and then writes it, just to see what that feels like. It goes against everything I believe in—but I ought to try it at one point, since it represents another form of the unknown.
In a career, a writer faces all the tensions addressed in “Zima Junction”: between comfort and risk, love and isolation, home and the unknown. It’s a challenging balance, and it’s very hard work, but the writing itself makes it worth it. It’s an odd decision to spend so much time alone, working in a room by oneself. Once, someone asked me how long it took to write one of my books. The standard answer would be three years. But I realized I could work out how long it took exactly—because I keep a record of how many hours I work each day. (Filling in a number at the end of every day creates a kind of accountability; it’s a way of forcing myself to do the work.) Well, this particular book had taken over 6,000 hours. And you start to think: here’s a man whose stayed alone in a room for six thousand hours. And he’ll do it again after that, and then again. Some people might say that’s saying no to life in a certain way—and yet it’s not. Because somehow the world that you enter when you write is even more alive than the one you’re paying no attention to while you do it. If I’m in the middle of a book, when I’m at my most obsessed with it, the person who comes to the door is less substantial, more ghostly, than the people I’m writing about.
I live for that kind of excitement. To go somewhere I’ve never been. And in two senses, too: I can explore in life, like anyone can, but I can explore the page as well, behind closed doors.