Why Rose is staying put in East Anglia

Hot news! (Well, ish.) Author Rose Tremain has dropped the idea of leaving East Anglia - and she's working on a sequel to Restoration, the novel that propelled her into the big time and led to a film starring Hugh Grant and Meg Ryan.

Steven Russell

Hot news! (Well, ish.) Author Rose Tremain has dropped the idea of leaving East Anglia - and she's working on a sequel to Restoration, the novel that propelled her into the big time and led to a film starring Hugh Grant and Meg Ryan. Steven Russell reports

THERE'S a photograph in the EADT archive of Rose Tremain at her Suffolk farmhouse near Laxfield in 1976, the year her first book came out. It shows how times change: instead of the laptop once might expect to see today, the desk is dominated by an old typewriter. The author remembers well the secondhand Adler bought in Tottenham Court Road for, “I think, eight quid, and I had it for absolutely years”.

Sadler's Birthday, that first published story, was written on it. It was begun in 1974, in a London flat. Writing was one of those things that could be fitted in with motherhood - with a bit of compromise. “I had one of those baby rocker seats. Poor little Eleanor, being put in her rocker, under my desk! She'd look up and see the wrong side of a piece of wood! I rocked her with my foot as I was working. But that's what you do when you have young kids; you have to find the time and fit it in. If I'd had four kids, or six like my sister, I would never have been able to do it.”

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Rose was a university student in Norwich in the mid-1960s and returned to East Anglia in 1976, when she, husband Jon and their daughter moved into a farmhouse at Ubbeston, near Halesworth - though only after a lot of restoration work brought it up to scratch. “That was rather a momentous year for me,” she confirms. “We moved, the house was finished - well, quasi-finished - Eleanor would have been four, and went to the little Cookley and Walpole primary school, very sweet, and Sadler's Birthday came out.”

The break-up of the marriage brought a move to a cottage at Halesworth - in about 1978, she thinks. Rose was there until moving briefly into Norwich, to a house off busy Unthank Road, when Eleanor was 11 or 12. She found it very hard to work in a city environment, however, and in about 1985 moved to a house 10 minutes' drive from the centre of Norwich. She's still there, living with partner Richard Holmes, a biographer. Theirs is a perfect literary arrangement: he works upstairs, she down. “We have one part of a Regency house; not huge, but the rooms are big, and that's nice. It has an illusion of grandeur,” she laughs.

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Heading towards 35 continuous years as an adopted East Anglian, then. So how come the bombshell last autumn that she and Richard might up-sticks to Somerset?

“Oh, well, yes, we're not now! We had a brainstorm in the middle of last year. We have family connections in north Somerset. I suppose over the years we've been toying with the idea of moving our lives down there and then in the autumn what we did was think 'We've been talking about this for so long; we'd better go and see if we actually like the look of it or not.'

“We've spent a lot of holidays there, and Richard's sister lives down there. There were quite a few things calling us there. Then, quite by chance, we did a bit of house-hunting and found a rather beautiful one. It was an Elizabethan court house just on the edge of a village, which we rather fell in love with.

“I think we had this rather romantic view of just being able to walk out of your gate into the hills and go for walks, which we can't do here.” Their neighbourhood on the edge of Norwich “has been very encroached upon, with the business park. Being completely free of the city, which was the case 20 years ago, is no longer so. We have quite a big garden, so when you're in the house you don't see or hear the city, but once you go out onto Yarmouth Road you know you're not in the country.

“So the lure of the Quantock Hills was great and would have changed our lives in that way. But, to cut a long story short, the house was afflicted with the kind of damage you don't want to hear about when you're buying - dry rot - so it was absolutely unworkable.

“It just made us realise how appreciated and loved is the house we've got, just outside Norwich, and how beautiful the garden is, and how comfortable we are there, and how relatively easy our lives are to organise. We spend a lot of time in London and we're only 10 minutes from the station.

“We also came to realise it would have made quite a lot of time demands on us. With this house that we found was a very beautiful vegetable garden. When I lived in Suffolk, before I was so busy, I used to grow vegetables, and really loved doing that when my daughter was little. But, again, it's a romantic dream. No way do Richard and I have time to grow vegetables!”

She admits it would have been a jolt to have said goodbye to East Anglia after all these years. “You think you can foresee what you'll think about it, but actually it's very hard to, isn't it, until it becomes a reality and you're leaving something to which you're very, very emotionally and physically attached. So it's a great relief we're not doing it. This is a brainstorm we had; but we're staying put!”

That near-move is intriguing, because it raises questions about the sense of “place” in her writing. It's very strong in Trespass, her new novel - established by the hills and gorges, dark woods and still valleys, of the C�vennes region of southern France.

The author knows the area well, “a national park that's both beautiful and very slightly alarming, which for a fiction writer is quite alluring: something violent might easily happen. Which is what I was after: this moment of terror. The access roads are perilous and there is a kind of . . . well, I hesitate to use the word incestuous, but there's a sort of closed-in feel to it. Some of the villages, such as the one I've imagined in this book, do feel cut off in a very acute sense from what the rest of the world is thinking and doing”.

The speculative question is: would a move to Somerset, and its different terrain, have electric-shocked Rose's mindset and influenced her future style, content and ideas in a way that East Anglia wouldn't?

“I think my mindset as a writer, as you call it, is so manifest and disciplined, and 'there' by now, that I don't think it would have altered it too much. I think what might have happened, because the garden would have been more demanding, is that it would have called me every day: 'Come and weed me! Come and water me!' Whereas the garden at my house is manageable. It would have been both beautiful and a distraction, and anything that is distracting from work time . . .

“I have had a long career, and there is still more time left to do some good work, but I need to be very focused on it. So it might have disturbed that focus.”

Focus isn't something Rose is short of at the moment - and she's certainly not resting on her laurels, either, after Trespass. “Normally at this point in the cycle of writing and publication I wouldn't be anywhere near the next book, but it just so happens that I am this time.

“I can't really believe I'm doing this . . .” She laughs. “I'm going to do the thing I've really wanted to do for the last 10 years but have kind of resisted, which is to write the sequel to Restoration.

“Sequels sometimes don't work; the answer is, they have to be as good as, if not better, than the original. But a lot of possibilities present themselves to me. It's 20 years since Restoration, which means that my character who was 40 is now 60 - which is very old for the 17th Century. And, of course, it's the tail end - the rather poverty-stricken, credit-crunch tail end - of the reign of Charles II. So the atmosphere of the country and the feelings of slight malaise and despair in the country are perfectly right, I think, for where we are now.

“I think the mindset of my central character, Robert Merivel, who I've always adored - and I think the readers adore him, too, because he's chaotic and self-indulgent, but also very humorous and self-mocking - that black humour is my favourite mode.

“So that's what I'm going to do. I put this idea rather tentatively to my publisher, thinking they'd say 'Oooh . . . well . . . sequels . . .' but they didn't say that at all. They realised they had a wonderful platform on which to launch it.”

Rose is now “reading around” the 17th Century and won't start writing in earnest until the autumn, at least.

So - and I'm being a bit mischievous here, because I already know roughly what she thinks - there might also be a Restoration II film further down the line?

“Well, I hope they make a better film! There were wonderful things about it, not least the way it looked and some wonderful performances, but they never got the script into good shape. There was no logic in it. So the whole experience of that film is not wonderful for me. It could have been - with that cast, with the amount of money they spent, with that designer - it could have been fantastic. And it just missed.

“They tried to turn it into a romance, which it isn't. They tried to make the young woman, the wife he couldn't touch, the centre of the story; and it isn't. I kept telling them at the beginning, and they got fed-up with me and just went their own way!” Probably, she muses, she was a bit na�ve and could have negotiated more control beforehand.

We won't hold our breath about a second film, then . . .

“Who knows? I'd better write the book first!”

An Essex Rose

Rose Tremain appears in Colchester on March 16 as part of the Essex Book Festival. The talk is at The Sixth Form College, North Hill, at 7.30pm. Box office: 01206 573 948. Web: www.essexbookfestival.org.uk

Rose Tremain

Born London, 1943

Read English at University of East Anglia, 1964-67

Taught at a boys' prep school in Hampstead; worked in publishing; and taught on UEA's creative writing MA course 1988-95

Awarded a CBE in 2007

Selected work: Sadler's Birthday (1976), Letter to Sister Benedicta (1978), The Cupboard (1981), The Swimming Pool Season (1985), Restoration (1989 ? won Angel Literary Award, Sunday Express Book of the Year award and shortlisted for the Booker Prize for Fiction), Sacred Country (1992), The Way I Found Her (1997), Music and Silence (1999 ? won Whitbread Novel Award), The Colour (2003), The Road Home (2007 ? won 2008 Orange Prize for Fiction)

Trespass is published in March (Chatto & Windus, �17.99). Aramon Lunel, an alcoholic haunted by his violent past and living in a French farmhouse, lets his hunting dogs starve and his land go to ruin. Meanwhile, his sister, Audrun, dreams of retribution for the betrayals that have blighted her life. Into this closed world comes Anthony Verey, a disillusioned antiques dealer from London. In his 60s, he hopes to remake his life in France ? but a frightening series of consequences is set in motion.

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