I am so pleased to welcome Lilian Pizzichini to the virtual armchair and the gentle inquisitorial glow of the standard lamp today.
I think, unless you've been away for a month or so, or perhaps this is your first visit to dovegreyreader, you can hardly have missed my renewed enthusiasm for reading the novels of Jean Rhys since I read Lilian's wonderful portrait of Jean's life, The Blue Hour. I can't quite believe what a reading trail this one book has opened up for me as I work my way towards a re-read and a new understanding of Wide Sargasso Sea. So I feel I have much to thank Lilian for and my thanks again to her for taking the time to answer our usual questions.
Lilian as I read The Blue Hour I felt I came to know Jean Rhys as never before and I'm wondering if you could tell us about the Jean that you met as you wrote, why you chose her as your subject, the pains and pleasures of writing the book, in fact we'd love to know as much as you can tell us about this process and how you went about it.
The Jean Rhys I got to know as I wrote The Blue Hour was a brave
soul. A lot of the time, however, she struggled with uncontrollable spurts of
anger. The more life proved to be difficult and the more people proved
themselves to be unpredictable, the more despairing Jean became. I saw her
courage as being her determination to bare her soul - in all its darkness - and
to write her vision truly. She returns again and again to a psychological
moment filled with hopelessness. I cannot believe humans exist who do not have
these moments. Jean Rhys the writer gave them a voice. She gives us all a voice
in these moments.
Jean the woman could be great fun. Her letters bear witness to her high spirits, wit and empathy. She found it easier to keep her intimates at a distance - so she was a sensitive soul, too.
I chose to write about Jean Rhys because I empathized with her - I find my coping mechanisms for life have been faulty at times and I have experienced depression. More than that, I knew what it was like to come to England at a tender age having lived, bathed in heat, in the Caribbean. It took me years to get over the shock of cold. It was such a joy to find someone else who wrote about that sudden break with the past so beautifully. Like Jean, I love warmth, cats, laughter and luxury. This was the Jean Rhys I got to know - someone who was funny but who found life difficult - and she wasn’t afraid to let everyone know about it!
You asked about the pains and pleasures of writing the book: Jean Rhys lived so long!
There was one point where I simply had to break off for a year or so because I was exhausted. I think she herself felt like that at times! By the time I had finished the book I was so relieved she was finally dead. Again, I think that was how she felt on facing her death. It was hard to live with that sense of life being a slog rather than a joy. The pleasure of having written the book is realising that life does not have to be like that.
We are incredibly inquisitive here at dovegreyreader and so we have to know all about your writing day, is it 9am the dishwasher empty and gallons of coffee before you start, we've had writing socks and writing jumpers do you wear writing slippers, special writing spaces,rooms with a view, fountain pen and ink or PC, anything you can tell us about your writing life.
My writing day starts in a jumble of ideas, associations and
shopping lists that are designed to distract me from the day’s business. I wake
up and take a few hours to clear my head. I practise Buddhism so this
involves chanting for at least an hour. What comes into my head during this
time is some clarity and focus. Then I get on with the daily admin of watering
the garden, shopping, phoning friends, etc, replying to emails. Once all this
has been dealt with I can sit in front of my beautiful iMac and face the work
At the moment I’m constructing a novel based on the life of Lady Mary Grey. She was Lady Jane Grey's youngest sister, and a hunchbacked midget. She had a brief (thank God!) and extraordinary life but is a mere footnote in history. She is, in short, completely overlooked - as she was during her lifetime.
A lot of my writing is about giving voices to those who are not heard.
With Lady Mary, I see another brave soul who had real spirit and a mischievous nature that led her to marry a commoner (shock horror) who was six foot eight. The incongruousness of her choice is what intrigues me. She was put under house arrest for her boldness and when she was finally released insisted on dressing like a bumble-bee at Queen Elizabeth’s court. To my mind, she is adorable and deserves to be celebrated. So my thoughts are Tudor-bound and it’s a question of getting some structure. This is what I find hardest of all - structure! That’s why biography is so much easier than fiction: they’re born, they live, they die, that’s it. End of.
Who must we read, who do you recommend and who do you enjoy reading?
We must read Jane Austen! She is my favourite writer. Like Jean
Rhys, Jane Austen had a lot of rage but hers is measured out in irony. Her
prose carries a great load but it is weightless. She says so much but as
Virginia Woolf said, it’s hard to catch her in the act of greatness. Her
lightness of touch is astounding. Her profound understanding of human nature is
an endless delight. I no longer read her for the romance but for the
satisfaction that her heroines find their home - where they are appreciated and
can thrive. This is something Jane Austen did not achieve for herself -
as far as I understand. But this sorrow is dealt with pragmatically and with
unstoppable humour. She is pure genius.
Marcel Proust is another hero - I remember reaching the end of In Search of Lost Time and feeling I had undergone a spiritual experience. Maybe I was just relieved it was finally over but, really, there was more to it than that. He made me feel time; he made me suspend disbelief as few others can. I have had many Proustian moments and I feel indebted to him for learning about myself through reading his work. I like St Augustine, too. I love his meditation on time, and I love poetry generally. I like measuring out my life in coffee spoons!
I’m reading Ted Hughes’ Crow series a lot at the moment. I worked in a men’s prison and the Crow reminds me of a certain type of man - the type Jean Rhys liked. I’d like to write about my experiences in prison at some point. It sounds a strange thing to say but I found real beauty in prison: as writer-in-residence I encouraged prisoners to write about their lives, and what I found is that once people have everything taken away from them they have nothing left but their honesty. The depth of this honesty is rare, and it was a privilege to be part of its unfolding.
I’m also reading Sir Thomas Wyatt for his Tudor-ness and Nature poetry generally - R.S. Thomas in particular. I imagine Lady Mary watching the birds from her window so I’m doing the same.
I don’t read much contemporary fiction.
I reviewed it for years and I simply got tired of it. I have recently tried to read Iain Sinclair’s book on Hackney and Roberto Saviano’s Gomorra - but my inclinations keep taking me back to watching the magpie outside my window and reflecting on Tudor times.
Don't miss the next post for the chance of a prize draw copy of The Blue Hour