by Evelyn Somers
Jane Gardam’s first novel, A Long Way from Verona, was published as a children’s book, partly by accident, though it turned out to be a happy accident. In an August 2013 interview, she told Jared Bland of The Globe and Mail, “All my novels are about the influence of early childhood.”
Gardam has had an interest in the unhappy childhoods of Raj orphans, about which she has gained a great deal of knowledge from both direct sources and by reading the work of Rudyard Kipling. The damage done to British children who are left behind when their parents go to work for the empire in Asia is the backstory of her trio of novels about the barrister Old Filth. It’s a subject she has spoken about with conviction, in an interview on The Leonard Lopate Show: “It’s still going on; the children are sent back whose parents work in India to be educated in England becauuse it’s considered so much safer. In fact, for about two hundred years we’ve sent our children home from India, and I think most of the time we need not have done . . . terrible things happened. . . .”
Gardam is often asked in interviews about the trilogy, which has established her reputation (albeit belatedly) in the United States as one of Britain’s best contemporary novelists. Less often, she has spoken about craft and about her boldly experimental narrative techniques—which is unfortunate. I’d hoped she might redress the imbalance and offer some insights about her Whitbread-winning epistolary novel The Queen of the Tambourine (1991), the Gardam novel I first fell in love with. But her time for our e-mail correspondence was short, and she had a lot to say about her more recent work. Regardless, we are delighted to present the following Q&A with this gifted and prolific author, now in her 86th year.
Evelyn Somers: You have published a number of books for children and teens, and your first published book was for children. Did you write for both young people and adults from the start?
Jane Gardam: My first books were published as “children’s books” by a sort of accident. They weren’t really “about” children—they were really about me! At a dinner party in London I sat next to a publisher who said, “Send your work to me,” and I sent it (maybe stupidly) to him c/o “The Children’s Book” department. The editor there (after I had said, “Please, could I know at once”—and after I had rung up!! said to her secretary, “Find this mad woman’s stories and let me see them, and then we’ll send them back.” Then she read them and said, “We’ll publish them.” This was to be the best moment, and the beginning of everything. I was so lucky.
ES: I’ve read that you began writing seriously as soon as your children were all in school. How intentional was that—in other words, had you previously wanted and planned to write books?
JG: Yes. My children were at school by this time. I left my job on a literary weekly called Time and Tide after my first son was born. I was surprised by my intense certainty that this was right and that I was not the feminist most of my friends were. All I knew was that I was in some way bound to write books. Hearing the first books, Beatrix Potter’s, read to me by my mother at five, I knew what I was going to do.
ES: You have written mostly fiction, although you have published a memoir. As a writer, do you consider yourself more an observer of life or an inventor of stories?
JG: Do I consider myself more an observer of life or an inventor of stories? The two went together.
ES: You often write about children suffering emotionally or being abandoned. Does that interest come from having been a parent, or from having been a child?
JG: My writing about abandoned or emotionally damaged children comes from the knowledge as I grew up that my father and grandfather had been damaged as children. Today my Victorian grandfather would have been put in prison for his wild behavior towards his children. But mostly I learned about the damage to children from books about the children of the British Raj, that for 200 years sent their little children “home” because they would not have survived the climate of the Orient the UK governed. But their psychological misery is quite certain. I have had many, many letters about this from old people—mostly men, for the girls seem to have found life easier—saying that they would have been better people if they had been able to stay with their parents. Most important has been the story of Rudyard Kipling, and his terrifying, horrible account of the separation in his story “Baa Baa, Black Sheep,” which all should read.
ES: One thing I’ve admired greatly about your work is how boldly you dispense with traditional chronological narrative. I’m thinking of Eliza’s mad letters with no recipient in The Queen of the Tambourine. And in the Old Filth trilogy you move so easily between places and times and are confident that the reader will follow you. Are you conscious of being somewhat experimental?
JG: Yes. I do dispense with traditional chronological narrative. It enlivens the book and keeps me alert. Yes, I am conscious of being experimental: I wish I’d done more.
ES: Do you every worry about losing the reader?
JG: I never worry about what the reader thinks.
ES: Reviewing Last Friends for the Times Literary Supplement, Elizabeth Lowry called you a “laureate” of the demise of the British Empire. Each of the stories in the trilogy about Sir Edward Feathers features a different main character, but they all cover the same period at the twilight of the empire. When you were writing them, did you think of them as novels about history?
JG: I don’t believe that I realized that I was writing of the twilight of the British Empire. I was very lucky as a child to be surrounded by a generation of great-aunts (few great-uncles: men were notably fewer than women about the world when I was young. All dead in the War) who believed that the Empire was Camelot!! I never believed this, but I knew that there were magnificent, honorable people who did. I went to the university on a History, not an English Scholarship. Nobody will persuade me that The Empire was altogether bad. In fact, I loved the crazy idea of Empire and I’m glad it was ours. But I’ve always written about people in a landscape. Their souls, and deepest secrets, and not their politics.
Click here to read Lisa Peet’s feature piece on Jane Gardam.
Evelyn Somers is a fiction writer and the long-time associate editor of the Missouri Review, as well as a freelance book editor of all prose genres, from scholarship to young-adult fiction. Her own fiction has appeared in venues as various as Georgia Review and The Collagist. She lives with her husband and teenagers in central Missouri, in a former apartment house that is the inspiration for her blog Big Strange House. You can follow her on Twitter at @evelynsomers13.
Image photo credit: Victoria Salmon