Rosemary Sutcliff was interviewed by Giselle Green for The Independent newspaper just before her death in 1992.
“IT WAS in the Great fire-hall on Barra, in the Outer Hebrides and a terrible storm was brewing up outside. They had just pulled the wicker-work shutters across the membrane of the windows in case the storm blew its way in, but the draughts were still getting in everywhere. You could hear the booming of the waves pitching against the beach . . . the hangings and skins of sailcloths with dragons painted on them billowed up all over the place as if they would come to life. . .”
Rosemary Sutcliff folds her hands over her chest: ”Then my supper arrived. I looked up into a clear, calm evening, and my first thought was – ‘Thank heavens that awful wind’s gone!’ ”
A historical novelist for both children and adults, with 53 books to her credit, it is easy to see how, as one reviewer said: ”For Rosemary Sutcliff the past is not something to be taken down and dusted. It comes out of the pages alive, and breathing now . . .” She is perhaps best known for her ”Roman Britain” trilogy: The Eagle of the Ninth, The Silver Branch and The Lantern Bearers. Tales of the Dark Ages, the Arthurian and Viking eras have all had their place alongside her Roman novels. Often, these have been re-tellings of well-known legends and heroes, but with new twists. Currently, she is working on the saga of Bjorni Sigurdsson, a tale of Vikings in the Hebrides.
A bright, dark-haired woman with an interest and attentiveness that makes her seem 30 years younger than her actual 71, Rosemary Sutcliff received an OBE for Services to Children’s Literature in 1975, and became a Fellow of the Royal Society for Literature in 1982. This New Year’s Honours List brought her a CBE. She has also been an invalid for most of her life after contracting a rare form of juvenile arthritis at the age of just two, and is confined to a wheelchair.
Originally, she trained as an artist. ”My writing always involves seeing things and describing what I see,” she explains. ”It’s like a film show and I’m the one who has to crank the thing up and keep the show going . . .” But she shakes her head emphatically at the suggestion that it all sounds painless, even enjoyable. ”No, it’s not really. Writing is perhaps just one degree less frightful than not writing!”
She stops, breaking off for a moment. On the low window ledge, a row of cherished teddy bears jostle for space. Beneath them, a bookcase full of formidable titles – historical research. Other reference books are piled up high on her desk. ”I do write every day, though,” she adds. ”I feel guilty if I don’t. I feel as if I haven’t really used the day unless I’ve got something down on paper to show for it.”
What she has to show is a lot of books and a lot of honours: the Carnegie Medal, the Lewis Carroll Shelf Award, the Hans Christian Andersen Award and many others. ”I’ve just been booted upstairs,” she says mischievously, referring to the CBE, but it’s plain that she’s chuffed as can be.
When Sutcliff’s first completed work – a re-telling of the Celtic and Saxon legends – came back from the Oxford University Press with a rejection note she was surprised, since she had never submitted it. A family friend had sent it off on her behalf. The publisher went on to suggest, however, that she try her hand at a version of Robin Hood for them – and so Sutcliff had her first commission. That was some 40 years ago. Since then her books have been translated into Czechoslovakian, Scandinavian, Russian, Afrikaans and Japanese. To what does she attribute her far-reaching appeal? ”I don’t honestly know.” She pauses for an instant. ”It’s a fascinating thing, this business of a writer’s voice . . . I’ve always said that I belong to the minstrelsy in that I simply find a story that I want to tell.”
Where some would-be writers for children have to struggle to put themselves in the shoes of their younger readers, Sutcliff has always kept the channel to her own youth open. ”I think that’s what makes a writer for children,” she reflects. ”I have very little idea what makes the difference between one of my children’s books and one of my adult books. I have this thing . . . I don’t write for adults, I don’t write for children. I don’t write for the outside world at all. Basically, I write for some small, inquiring thing in myself.”
Much of Sutcliff’s own childhood was spent, after contracting Still’s disease at about the age of two, undergoing arduous and painful treatments. She has needed a wheelchair from a very early age. And yet, she suggests, this sort of deep-felt pain can inspire writing. ”Beatrix Potter wrote all her gorgeous stories when she was very lonely and not very happy – after she married, she never wrote another thing. Nothing worth reading, anyway.”
It was an extension of that feeling – that creative energies must be jealously guarded and channelled – that led Rosemary to give up painting. Ideas for her writing, though, she finds easy to come by. ”The best ideas come in a sort of brainwave,” she says. ”I think the most dramatic of all was the one I got the Carnegie Medal for, which was The Lantern Bearers. I was in the kitchen, making toast actually, and it just sort of flew in at the window . . .”
She smiles, obviously relishing the memory of how the whole plot, complete and uncalled for, came into her mind in a flash.
”I wasn’t even thinking of the Romans at the time. I was working on something completely different. Needless to say,” she laughs. ”I burnt the toast.” She does not take notes. ”The idea will simmer in my brain mostly. And I don’t go looking at it too much because otherwise it tends to deaden down the one I’m working on at the moment. By the time I come to write it, it has become more or less familiar and it’s got quite a shape to it. Fortunately, I have got a very good memory. And it’s a visual memory: I was taught how to look at things … And I’ve found this really useful because I know just how things will look . . . how the colour of sunlight gleaming off a sword will change, depending on whether it’s a warm sky or not . . .”
She usually spends three months researching a novel, though she is always having to change things when she writes. ”The other terrible temptation,” she adds, ”is to try and use everything you’ve found out in the research. That can be absolutely fatal, because you really only need to use about a tenth. It’s rather like an iceberg . . . It has to be there, because it gives you the freedom of the period. But you don’t use it.”
In a way, she reflects, if you’ve really sunk yourself deep enough into the period, this needn’t be difficult. It becomes much as if you were writing a contemporary novel, where you assume a knowledge of modern life. ”You tell the story as you would for the people of its own period.” Being, as she puts it, ”a storyteller”, means that the idea for the story is what usually comes first. Characters come afterwards. Nevertheless, it usually takes her about three drafts before a novel is completed to her satisfaction.
Just over a year ago, Thames Television put out a four-part dramatisation of one of her Viking stories, Blood Feud, under the title The Seadragon. Was she pleased? There is a pause. ”That was rather sad, really. Because it’s a story that covers an awful lot of ground. When they did this dramatisation they didn’t have enough money to travel to do it on location – so they had to alter the end of the story completely. It made a jolly good adventure but it wasn’t remotely connected with mine, most of the time.”
It’s an indication of how little Rosemary Sutcliff has ever really needed to change her style or method in order to bow to ”market demands”. She has always been, it seems, in that most enviable position for any writer: what she writes, naturally, ”in order to satisfy myself”, is what people have wanted to read.
The sinking midwinter sun slopes in through the low window behind her. On a ledge, a solitary maid in a long flowing gown sits fragile and yet free upon her charger. I look at her.
All those years back, awarding her the OBE, the Queen said: ”I believe you write books?” I wonder what she might say this time around. A beam spreads across Rosemary Sutcliff’s face. ”I expect she’ll say – ‘I believe you still write books?’ ” She grins.
Source: The Independent (London), April 18, 1992; Weekend books page 26