Q&A with Rose Tremain

We’re now well under way with two weeks of BBC Woman’s Hour coverage of our 20th anniversary. This morning 2008 Chair of Judges Kirsty Lang discusses her year’s winning novel The Road Home by Rose Tremain, an important and heart-wrenching book about the economic migrant experience.

We caught up with Rose Tremain on the inspiration behind The Road Home, where her creativity comes from and what she’s working on next.

Where did the initial idea for The Road Home come from?

When I was a child, growing up in London in the 1950s, our house had a coal hole at the back, outside the kitchen.  It was a small, blackened space where my sister and I were never allowed to play.   Years later, in 2005, I saw a TV programme about a homeless Eastern European immigrant who had a made a temporary shelter in what had once been a coal hole and his dilemma and his fortitude, together with my memories of a forbidden place, immediately made me want to write about this.

In The Road Home you write from the perspective of an Eastern European migrant – did you do any specific research to write the book?

I now live in East Anglia where a lot of migrants come to find seasonal work in the fields. I found an obliging asparagus farmer who let me talk to his workers (mostly from Poland). I reassured them that I didn’t want to ‘steal’ their own stories, but just get a good understanding of how they felt about the work, how they felt about England and what they missed in their own country.  It turned out that their main worry was for their parents generation, who had found it difficult to adapt to life after communism and from this knowledge I conjured Ina, Lev’s mother, who is an angry and disorientated soul, constantly calling for Lev’s return.

Lev feels like an outsider for much of the novel. Does this emotion have any root in your own experiences?

I have always felt that to be exiled would be a terrible thing.  I think my love of ‘home’ has always been very strong – possibly stemming from being sent away from home to boarding school when I was eleven.  I’ve done a huge amount of travelling in my life, but I’ve never felt deeply attached to anywhere outside of England.  So I think it wasn’t difficult for me to identify with Lev’s feelings of disorientation and exclusion.  Exile is a lonely and fragile state of mind.

Your books are hugely diverse in place and subject matter (17th century Denmark, the New Zealand gold rush, early 20th century Suffolk) – do you deliberately challenge yourself to write this way?

Even as a child, I had an imagination that was in wild overflow!  (I wrote three plays while I was at school.)  So I think it isn’t surprising that I seek out a new subjects for each piece of work.  For me, writing is not just about telling a story, it’s also about learning a story.  I’ve described the process of writing as a ‘journey of discovery’ and I still feel this to be true.   I hope these journeys are not over yet.

Your portrayal of the London cultural scene through Lev’s eyes is quite scathing – does this reflect how you actually feel in any way?

It’s not the whole ‘cultural scene’ I’m attacking, just the art world.    This is a place stuffed with a thousand emperors, wearing nothing.  When will this cash-driven idiocy end?

Can you tell us what you’re working on at the minute?

I’ve just finished a novel, The Gustav Sonata, set in Switzerland before, during and after the second world war.  Though the lifelong friendship between two men, it asks the question, what does it do to a person – and to a country – to pursue a quest for neutrality and self-mastery when all life’s hopes, sorrows and passions continually press upon the borders and beat upon the gate.

Be sure to tune in to Kirsty Lang discussing The Road Home at 10am on Radio 4 today. Or alternatively listen online here.