Rosie Thomas needed to find some new experiences to write about.
Packing a bag and heading for the airport may not sound the ideal way to get started on a new novel – but oddly enough that’s the route that seems to work for me.
When I began as a writer I stuck very firmly to the conventional advice ‘write what you know’. My first dozen novels circled around my own life – I was young then – and so the themes were falling in love, marriage, young families, friendships and betrayals, the pain when marriages start to go wrong, and the heartaches of divorce. All this mirrored my own experiences. But then, round about the twelfth book, I began to feel that I had used up all my experiences and I had nowhere new to go, either in my life or in my fiction.
My literary agent sighed. ‘What do you want to do?’
Without a thought, without even knowing what I was about to say, I answered ‘I want to see Everest’.
‘What’s stopping you?’
Nothing, of course, except my own fears. In the end I went, and that one small adventure changed all my perspectives. I saw women hoeing in the fields with a baby strapped on their back, or mending the dirt roads with pick and shovel. I talked to strangers, slept in a tent, forgot about lipstick. And I was hooked. It took another expedition, this time actually to attempt an 8000metre peak, before I was ready to write White, about a tragic ascent of Everest. And as soon as it was done I was off again, to spend some winter weeks alone on a Greek island and begin The Potter’s House.
In the years that followed I wrote and travelled and travelled and wrote, until the two seemed completely interdependent. Sun at Midnight followed a summer season spent living on an Antarctic research station, and Iris and Ruby grew out of a brush with death I had in the African desert, followed by a solitary trip to Egypt. Cairo isn’t all that comfortable a city for a woman travelling alone, but the difficulties I encountered somehow made it easier to imagine myself in the shoes of Dr Iris Black, and her recalcitrant granddaughter Ruby.
Constance is set partly in Bali and in Uzbekistan, and The Kashmir Shawl, of course, reflects a long journey I made through Ladakh. It was in Leh, the capital of Ladakh, where I heard the story of a death by rabies. I crossed the Himalayas to Kashmir and the lakes of Srinagar to research the book, but I was in the high mountains in the first place because that’s where I like to be – as I discovered long ago on that first very trip to Nepal, when it seemed that inspiration had deserted me.
The most recent books, The Illusionists and Daughter of the House, also have exotic settings. But this time instead of setting off around the world I took myself backwards in time, to the gaslit streets and the tawdry glitter of Victorian London. I enjoyed the excursion hugely but now my feet are itchy again. At the end of last year I went a long way, travelling almost without knowing where or why, until I came to Easter Island. Exploring there and reading the history, I knew I could never have imagined such a place, or dreamt up such a tale.
I’m not planning a book set there: no fiction could be wilder than the reality. But the strangeness of it, the geographical isolation and the desolate sites, seemed to open my eyes in just the same way as that first Nepal trip did. I don’t know yet what it might become, but there is an idea there….
An idea! And so, here we go again.
The unexpected arrival of her willful teenage granddaughter, Ruby, brings life and disorder to 82-year-old Iris Black’s old house in Cairo. Ruby, driven by her fraught relationship with her own mother to run away from England, is seeking refuge with the grandmother she hasn’t seen for years.
An unlikely bond develops between them, as Ruby helps Iris to record her fading memories of the glittering, cosmopolitan Cairo of World War II, and of her one true love – the enigmatic Captain Xan Molyneux – whom she lost to the ravages of conflict.
This long-ago love has shaped Iris’s life, and, as becomes increasingly apparent, those of her daughter and her granddaughter. And it is to affect them all, again, in ways they could not have imagined.
Rosie Thomas is the author of a number of celebrated novels, including the bestsellers Sun at Midnight, Iris and Ruby and Constance. She was established as a writer after her children were grown and then discovered a love of travelling and mountaineering and has climbed in the Alps and the Himalayas, competed in the Peking to Paris car rally, spent time on a tiny Bulgarian research station in Antarctica and travelled the silk road through Asia. She lives in London.