Mother Writer Interviews: Jane Rusbridge
[This article is generously cross-posted from Alison Wells’s blog, Head above Water.]
Alison Wells: My four children are between 10 and 3 years old. As a novelist and short story writer, I was interested to find out how other women writers with young children manage their writing time and find creativity among chaos. In this series of interviews we hear from writers from Ireland, England, France, the US, and Australia who are at various stages in their writing careers.
Jane Rusbridge lives near in a tiny village in the South Downs, West Sussex. She has been Associate Lecturer of English at the university in Chichester for more than 10 years. Her debut novel, The Devil’s Music, was published by Bloomsbury in 2009 and was longlisted for this year’s International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. Bloomsbury will publish a second novel, Rook, in 2012.
How many children do you have and in what age range?
I have three daughters: Katie, 28, Stephanie, 26 and Natalie, 22, and also a stepson, Sam (25) and a stepdaughter, Rose (22).
Had you established your writing regime before the children or did it happen alongside them?
I was a primary school teacher, but went back to university in my late thirties when my youngest started school because I’d always wanted to do an English degree. That’s when I started writing. I loved every aspect of the degree: books, books, books! It took 6 years, part-time; studying had to fit around work — I ran my own preschool group for four year olds — and the children. My divorce happened during that time, which was unsettling for the children, so I didn’t use any form of childcare. The children were all teenagers by the time I’d finished. The degree was something I was doing just for me, my dream, so everything else always took precedence.
What impact has having children had on your writing career?
To begin with, any writing had to fit into ‘spare’ time, squeezed in between work and family commitments. With 5 children this involved quite a bit of juggling and sometimes months went by when no writing got done. However, winning the university prize for creative writing was a big turning point which gave me enough confidence to start to send work out. Gradually, writing became more than a ‘hobby,’ more than just ‘fun.’ It got serious! All the same, writing was still something I did only for myself and so always came last on my list of priorities. The Devil’s Music took a very long time to write: 7-8 years at least.
How have you organised your writing time and space?
About 10 years ago, when the house was still filled with teenagers, my husband bought me a shed which we put at the bottom of the garden. I painted it blue. Having a special place away from the general hubbub of family life and allocated to my writing made a huge difference in two ways. Firstly, writing took on more importance — the blue shed was there for only one reason: for me to write. Secondly, the walk down the garden to my shed removed me, mentally, emotionally and physically, from the house where there was always washing to put in the machine, food to cook, family mess to tidy. Once I was in the shed, I was there to write and think; nothing else.
These days, with the children now adults and only Natalie living at home, I am able to devote much more time to writing and writing-related activities: research, organizing and travelling to events, social-networking. My writing career is pretty near the top of the priority list now. I teach much less, just the occasional freelance workshop and only part-time at the university. Nevertheless, it’s easiest to manage everything if I stick to a routine, so I set aside big chunks of time — whole days — for writing. A novel is a very big ‘thing’!
Is it possible to maintain a balance on a daily basis or do you find yourself readjusting focus from work to family over a longer time-span depending on your projects?
Family life is very important to me — my children all live close by and we see all lot of them. I do manage a balance but perhaps because writing is (mostly) unpaid work and it’s also work from home, there’s still that difficulty of writing not quite being considered a ‘proper’ career in other people’s eyes in the way a 9-5 office job would be. When I had small children at home I used to welcome anyone dropping in for tea or coffee at any time — not now! I’ve had to be firm with friends and make that clear. Not always easy! Quite a lot of compromise is necessary: there’s a tension between wanting to spend more time writing and the need to spend time with family and friends or to carry out practical tasks involved with running a home. I do much less housework than I used to. If I need a mental break from writing I’ll get the Hoover out or clean a bathroom — but writing takes precedence. That’s a reversal: writing used to be left until housework and everything else was done.
How do the children react to your writing or the time you spend on it?
They’ve always been supportive, even when they were tiny. We’ve always read to them a lot so they all value books and stories. They were very excited about my novel being published — I think they thought I’d suddenly become famous!
What do you find most challenging in juggling your role as a mother, your writing and university work?
The desire to write, to talk or think about my writing all the time, is very strong, but I’m aware it’s also pretty antisocial. I censor myself sometimes, so that my husband and the children don’t get bored with me wittering on. Luckily, because I teach creative writing, that’s a good outlet for lots of talk about books, reading and writing.
What was your proudest moment?
My proudest moment was a couple of weeks after I sent out the manuscript for The Devil’s Music to three agents: two of them phoned to say they were interested. I cried!
At what stage of your writing and family life did the agent representation for The Devil’s Music happen and what was the build up to it?
In 2006, I had a lucky year and I won prizes in several short story competitions. A chapter of The Devil’s Music was published in the Children’s Voices issue of Mslexia and editor Jill Dawson made some lovely comments about my writing. However, after almost 5 years, the 80,000 words I’d written of The Devil’ Music were still all over the place. I began to think maybe I couldn’t write a novel after all.
By coincidence, or perhaps synchronicity, one of the prizes I won was an Arvon course, tutored by Jill Dawson, with her friend Kathryn Heyman. On this course we were asked to set ourselves a series of goals to achieve within a certain timeframe. I gave myself one year to finish The Devil’s Music, or accept I was a short story writer, not a novelist. Kathryn Heyman liked what she saw of TDM at Arvon and offered to mentor me.
Gut instinct told me this might be my lucky break, that this could be the time to give writing priority in my life. By this time, two of our children were at university and, although the others were still at home, I was no longer tied to school runs and after school activities. My husband had started to do a lot of the cooking. I made two big decisions: to take six months off work (I’m an Associate Lecturer at Chichester University) and to spend a chunk of my savings on a mentor.
I’m so glad I did. In 2007, before my one year deadline was up, not only was The Devil’s Music finished, but two of the three agents I sent the manuscript to, phoned to say they were keen to take it on. This was my most joyous moment — and exciting beyond words! Every morning for weeks I woke up not quite believing it was true, and walked around with a big grin on my face.
Devil’s Music took almost 8 years to write. How did you hold onto the story of your novel and maintain the drive for that particular novel such a long period?
Working on something as large scale as a novel, with only squeezed-in bits and pieces of time for writing fitted between work and children and running a home, is undoubtedly hard in many respects, but I needed to take that long to write The Devil’s Music. Even when you’re doing something else and not consciously thinking about writing, what you’re working on never leaves you, does it? It’s always ticking over in your unconscious, at the back of your mind. I only discover what I am writing ‘about’, and the best way to tell a particular story, through a long, cyclical process of writing, redrafting, researching and redrafting — a slow process for me, whether I have time to write or not. I did sometimes think I wasn’t going to manage it, that life would be so much easier if I gave up trying to, but the initial desire to tell the story of the little boy at the centre of The Devil’s Music never went away; he haunted me.
Do you think women face particular challenges in career/family life balance or is it something that both men and women face in equal measure?
Certainly my generation of women, born in the 50s, faces more challenges than men when it comes to balancing writing and family commitments. Perhaps it’s a generalization, but there’s still the expectation that women should take the burden of responsibility for childcare and domestic chores.
Something has to give when wearing many hats, what is it for you?
I used to do a lot of gardening and decorating and cooking. Now I don’t! For the past 4 years or so my husband has done all the cooking — but then he is MUCH more interested in food than me. I’d eat boiled egg and toast every day to save valuable writing/thinking time. I do, when he’s away. When the children were younger, being a ‘good’ mother often seemed to include aeons of time revolving around food: I’m glad not to have that anymore!
What would you say to parents who want to write or further a writing career?
If writing is your passion, it’s very important to give it space in your life — important for you, and for everyone around you. If there are ‘sacrifices’ (money, time, friends even), only you can decide if they’re worth it.
More information on Jane and the Devil’s Music.