Beth Miller

Writing and tea

Interview with Rachel Cusk

I compliment Brighton-based writer Rachel Cusk on her sunny home, with its yellow-painted living room, but she says in fact they’re moving soon. “We’ve been here seven years and we feel like a change.” Though there’s a lot she likes about Brighton – “the faded glamour. There’s a romance to it. I like the sea, love the Downs” - she wants to be nearer her sister in London. 

Do her daughters want to move? “One does, one doesn’t.” Rachel knows and likes Lewes: “My impression is that all my friends there are ten years older. Maybe I’ll go and live there in ten years’ time.”

We have tea at her kitchen table. She is very attractive and looks younger than her age (mid-forties), wearing jeans and a black jumper, her dark hair in bunches. What will she be talking about at the Monday Literary Society? “Memoir and autobiography, and the perils of writing such things.” Though primarily a novelist, her 2001 memoir A Life’s Work was about her experience of having a baby. “When writing it I was pregnant with my second child and there was no detachment, no thinking how will this make me look, which I might have thought if I’d waited even six months.” She was widely criticised for the level of personal detail in both that book, and the more recent Aftermath, an account of her divorce. Does the criticism affect her? “Yes, profoundly. I took a real battering. It’s a kind of bullying. I have the same mental attitude to it as a person being bullied, but that’s dangerous as you can see yourself as a victim.” She doesn’t understand the backlash: “I can’t imagine being as offended by any book in that way. It’s depressing to think that people are so full of anger and hatred. Many people who criticised Aftermath hadn’t read it, just an extract in a newspaper. But when you make yourself a public figure by writing something, you become a sponge for toxic things in human nature.” She feels Aftermath in particular has changed people’s perception of her; she’s no longer known simply as a novelist. “My identity has become a controversial autobiographer and that wasn’t who I was. Hopefully I can become someone else.”

Would she still write Aftermath in the same way now?

“I couldn’t have written it differently at the time. I absolutely would do the publicity differently. The decision to serialise it in the Guardian… I was very clear I didn’t want to condense it, to use different extracts together. But that’s what happened. Now, I wouldn’t have any extract printed. Then no-one would have been bothered except my ex-husband.”

Which of her books is she proudest of? There’s a long pause, before she says, “Am I proud of any of my books?” After some more thought she says, “Arlington Park, in a way. I was more in step with others than I ever have been and really able to get a grip on the social terrain [middle-class suburban life]. It’s my least personal book. And also A Life’s Work. I hated it for ages because people were so mean about it but it’s been a good child!”

What’s next?

“I’m not working nearly so much. A book of short stories for Faber. And I’m writing a novel that’s proving very difficult. I’m trying to find a new kind of fiction writing, one that belongs to a more Spartan phase of life. I can’t write in a new way till I’ve processed everything so I’m still writing in my old style.” What are the pleasures in writing? “I have more control over the writing as I get older. I’m not so mystified. And people finding a book and really relating to it, that’s what you want. I still trust that. Writing is a difficult job – there’s no structure, no holiday pay! And too much time on your own, with sometimes massive exposure at the end. I would rather be a normal person.” Is a writer not a normal person? “Maybe I’d rather be a member of society than a commentator.” She enjoys teaching creative writing at Kingston University. “I like helping people express themselves, it’s very satisfying.”

Does she have any regrets?

She laughs. “Oh yeah! Well, you can’t regret what you’ve written, even though it feels like I do. Wanting to be a different kind of writer is like wanting to look different. It’s your destiny. I’d like to have lived in a different era, a more civilised, glorious time to be a writer, when publishing was less market-driven and money-obsessed. But to write truthfully as a woman about your own experiences: that’s still a turbulent undertaking.”

Beth Miller. Published in Viva Lewes, February 2013.