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Jane Feaver
ACCORDING TO RUTH is a fantastic first novel, beautifully written - did it come out fully-formed or was it a long time in the making?
Thank you. It took a long time to get going and the idea was probably on a back burner for a decade at least. I was working full time and bringing up a child on my own which gave me every excuse not to put pen to paper (when, really, there is no excuse). Once I got going, finally, it took me about two years. I don’t think I ever set out to write a novel – that would have been too daunting. It felt more as if I were making a patchwork, gradually adding and adding without looking too much where I was headed.
The novel has an interesting structure: it is told from the points of view of four of the characters but, as the title suggests, only Ruth tells the story in her own voice. Why did you choose this form of narrative?
I began with Ruth and had a clear sense of her voice. First person is tricky to sustain but the pitfalls of the form I felt could be used to advantage when applied to a solipsistic adolescent. After a while, I found the straight-jacket of the first person too frustrating. I wanted to be able to get out of and around Ruth. But I also wanted to maintain the distinction between Ruth’s voice – which I saw as an ‘unadulterated’ voice - and the adult voices and adult perspective on the world around her. I wanted Ruth’s voice to be the ‘home’ voice and decided, in order to maintain that partiality (but allow myself the freedom of third person), that the other voices would be mediated through the adult Ruth/author.
John is the only significant adult who doesn't get his own slice of the narrative. Why did you keep so much of his actions and motives a mystery?
I kept the father a mystery, partly because to the children and even to the other adults in the novel, he’s a rather distant and perplexing figure. His absences are often unexplained. I wanted the world of the family – however dysfunctional – to be the containing world of the novel. The father’s betrayal of that world is therefore beyond comprehension. He functions in the book perhaps as a sort of black hole – a powerful presence or absence, whose power is derived in part from a lack of understanding on the part of those around him.
Lizzie’s writing was “ graffiti, a basic urge, so that moving the pen, even to scribble, even in hopelessness, was a tiny and comforting proof to herself of her presence in the world." To what extent does that represent your own experience of writing?
I do believe that the physical act of writing, or making a mark of any sort – singing, or gibbering, for that matter - is a very primitive and necessary urge. I suppose writing and painting are the two activities, unique to human endeavour, that have nothing, on the face of it, to do with survival. From the outside, perhaps, there is something both comic and tragic in the compulsion to persist.
It seems that the damage to Ruth of the family break up is deep and lasting. Do you feel that she was at a particularly vulnerable age to be learning the hard lesson about the art of losing?
I think at any age it is a hard lesson. But everything in adolescence is heightened by the turmoil of physical and emotional change. Although, in the natural order of things, an adolescent may feel a strong desire to abandon family life and make their own way in the world, the family is inevitably - at this crucial juncture - the only reference point for future relations and development. For a younger child, perhaps, there is time to create alternative structures.
What authors do you particularly admire and which ones have influenced your writing?
This is a hard question because I am a magpie reader with a terrible memory for writing. I need to re-read some of those who I know I’ve loved in the past but couldn’t tell you a thing about – Barbara Comyns and Elizabeth Taylor are two who spring immediately to mind. I love the intelligence of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s writing. Reading Eudora Welty and Flannery O’Connor sometimes makes me want to give up on the spot because they have already done everything and anything I’d aspire to do. I still believe that women are under rated, or at least, a certain league of women writers. Jane Gardam comes into that category. Raymond Carver was a bolt from the blue at a certain point and teaches an extraordinary amount through his writing. Reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go also felt like a learning experience that managed too to rattle the soul. Recently I read Joseph Conrad’s Typhoon, the most brilliant piece of writing about the sea I’ve ever read. Philip Hensher has been a mentor-figure for me at Exeter University – a brilliant writer and critic who in the flick of a wrist can weed the spurious out of a piece of writing.
Jane Feaver

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