Inspirations – Mr Rosenblum’s List
I grew up listening to my grandfather and his friends tell their stories. When I was very small I’d quite literally sit at his feet as he settled in his battered armchair and talked with his old friends. There was always coffee in a thermos flask, luncheon sausage and poppy seed cake and often a game of cards – but most of all I remember their voices. They all had that Mittel-European accent. You hear it less and less often these days, but that accent signalled a survivor, someone who had been born in one world and now lived in another. As much as wanting to write a story inspired by my grandparents’ experiences, I wanted to capture their voices.
The ending of your book implies a moment of transformation, of finally feeling ‘at home’. Was that the experience of your grandparents? And how has their story affected yours and your parents’ identity and life?
I think while the book does suggest that moment of homecoming, it does not occur without a cost. When for instance Jack and Sadie’s daughter, Elizabeth, changes her name from Rosenblum to the English ‘Rose’ Jack experiences a profound sense of loss.
My grandfather and his brother split their family name, Schwartzscheld, in two, taking one half each: my grandfather becoming Mr Shields and his brother Mr Black. They were pragmatic men, relieved to have English names in post-war Britain and I am not aware that they experienced any great nostalgia for the broken name. Yet, it always made me feel incredibly sad. Names are important in Jewish culture and, in a way, I felt cut off from my family’s past by the splitting of the name. In an early draft of ‘Mr Rosenblum’ the breaking of the name was actually the very first scene I wrote.
How did you find the writing experience and how long did it take you to complete the book?
I love writing – it is one of my greatest pleasures in life. I am currently sitting in the summerhouse (glorified shed) at the bottom of the garden, watching three very fat pheasant peck around the snowdrops in the apple orchard. I wrote several drafts of ‘Mr Rosenblum’ over the course of about a year or eighteen months, but the manuscript spent more time marinating at the bottom of a drawer than being actively worked upon. I find that I do need time away in order to gain enough distance to be really objective. ‘The Novel in the Viola’ has been much quicker.
Your writing contains a deep love of nature, land and place. How much does setting influence the way you write your characters and plots?
I love to write about the English countryside. I pace the fields beside my cottage as I’m thinking and the mud and trees and hedgerows always seem to find their way into the story. The landscape around here is brimming with legends, which are quite literally buried within the fields in the forms of dykes, hill forts and ancient burial sites. It is a vanishing world – both in terms of place and people who remember the old stories – and I like to preserve this in the stories I choose to tell.
Has your research ever take you in unexpected directions?
It has certainly sent me wandering through the Dorset countryside – and I did once glimpse a very large wild pig rooting for acorns in one of the oldest woods. I really enjoy research – whether it’s talking to the farmers about the land and their stories, or reading nineteenth-century folklore journals. The most exciting part of the research for ‘Mr R’ was discovering the list itself in the British Library. It was a moment of pure serendipity, and I wanted to leap about and shout – only I would have been told to leave the reading room.
Which writers’ works inspire you to roll up your sleeves and write?
I can read Jane Austen in a continual loop – I love the precision of her language and they may have been written two hundred years ago, but I recognise her characters. She’s also funny and I love writers who make me laugh: Michael Chabon, Nathan Englander. When I’m writing about nature, I turn to the poets: Seamus Heaney, Ted Hughes and of course Thomas Hardy. Poetry is like a really good stock: it’s language boiled down so that only the tastiest stuff is left.
Considering the innumerable artistic avenues open to you, why did you choose to write a novel?
I also write screenplays with my husband, David. These are great fun and we love working together. In fact, we’re about to start (on Monday!) the screenplay for ‘Mr Rosenblum’s List’ for Film 4. Writing a screenplay is far more collaborative – you’re part of a team. I enjoyed the freedom of novel writing – I was alone in the summerhouse but was writer, director, set builder and, as I wrote, I played every part in my imagination.
What do you hope people take away with them after reading your work?
I want people to have enjoyed reading the story. I believe reading should be a pleasure, even if the book’s themes have hints of darkness. The questions of assimilation and homecoming are complex ones, and I hope that the novel does not suggest easy answers.
I also hope that Jack makes people laugh and they learn that trying to move molehills (even with a miraculous mechanical contraption) is very hard work.
What advice do you give aspiring writers?
If the thought of doing anything else can make you happy, do that. Writing is a difficult career. In fact it’s more an affliction or an addiction than a job. If you read this, know the odds are against you and you don’t care – you’ve got to write anyway, then the chances are that you’re a writer.