In an earlier post, Rupert Thomson and I discussed the strong bond between his life and his fiction. The link between his life and his work is drawn again in his newest work, Katherine Carlyle. The story follows a nineteen-year-old girl whose mother has died of a rare ovarian cancer caused by the IVF used to create her. Angered at her distant father, she disappears without saying a word to travel, explore and eventually test the boundaries of her father’s feelings.
Rupert’s wife, then girlfriend, had been unable to have children, but due to medical advancements in the mid-90s discovered it was possible through IVF. After the death of his mother, due to his father’s disability, Rupert had already played parent to his younger brothers throughout his childhood and was unsure if he could do it again. He went to Rome to work on a book and his girlfriend asked him to think about it while he was away. Considering the outweighing cons of having a child, he simply wrote “love?” on his piece of paper.
He returned to England with his answer; which was yes. “I thought freshness of vision was something that was really important to me as a writer and as a person, it’s a bit like if you’re offered the choice of stale and fresh – who’s going to choose stale?” Observably, many productive writers choose not to have children because of lost work time and financial strain, “of course it does all those things but the upside is this extraordinary kind of emotional expansion that you get,” Rupert tells me, describing a parent’s love as “like no other, it’s maybe even the purest one, the strongest one, the most primal one.” He soon after explained that; “I didn’t want to be someone who was stuck in their ways, I wanted to be someone who was changing, constantly changing. So I said yes.”
Rupert’s wife suffered from ovarian hyper stimulation during her IVF treatment; the drugs she was injected with caused her ovaries to produce too many egg sacks which in turn caused fluid to build up inside her. Rupert mentioned one evening where he stayed up all night to weigh his wife each hour, in case the fluid was building up too much, which was potentially fatal.
“It was at that point I started to think – is this unnatural, have we embarked on something that could damage her – could this be dangerous? It was also that point I began to think about Frankenstein in a peculiar way – can I trust the science? Is the science too weird?” In Rupert’s talk, which I was lucky enough to see, he discussed both the strain of parental relationships and the scientific creation of a child in Katherine Carlyle which he likened to a modern and loose version of Frankenstein.
He saw three “little grains” of the embryos placed in his wife’s womb on the ultrasound. He imagined them as: “spaceships in a dark uncertain universe, their mission is to connect, to develop, to survive, and will they or won’t they? And of course two of them didn’t but one of them did, and that one was my daughter – but it seems suddenly so difficult and so dangerous, that whole process, so the longer it went on the more worried I got. I still can’t quite believe it worked.”
The IVF creation of Katherine in Rupert’s book is often drawn upon in reference to her emotions and journey. Due to the parallels between the book’s themes and his life, Rupert’s wife did not want him to finish the book on the basis that what he often wrote came true. Eventually she encouraged him to finish it, but afterwards she did in fact develop a rare IVF-caused ovarian cancer with a strong chance of fatality – as is described as the mother’s cause of death in the Katherine Carlyle. She had been right about a prediction, but it was not the prediction she had originally feared. Thankfully, she survived.
Rupert has said before that writing is a moral process, since it encourages empathy with other people’s viewpoints. “It sort of goes back to telling stories, telling stories is the oldest thing, writing fiction is really just a recent form of what people have been doing since the dawn of time where they would just tell each other stories that you learn from hearing about the experience of someone else.” An inspiration of this moral exploration through viewpoints for Rupert was As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner. “Each chapter is headed by the character’s name and he goes into each different character – it’s like a demonstration of empathy because you see the same situation, which is the death of a parent, but you observe this really primal fundamental sort of human situation from all these different viewpoints and all these different characters, most of whom are very emotionally involved in what’s going on.” He says, “I love that idea of voices, the fact that you could do that in fiction – it’s not ventriloquism because you actually become that person, I always feel.”
Rupert can be taken at his word. While writing Katherine Carlyle he “travelled as her” through Russia where he met two young women by chance who invited him on an expedition. The three of them drove to an abandoned mine up a mountain in the middle of the night. He knew instantly this was the sort of thing that would happen to Katherine, “It’s like method writing, I sort of become the character and the things that happen to me are valid to be used because I feel like they’re happening to me because I’m thinking about her.”
I finally asked Rupert if Katherine Carlyle encompassed a father’s fears for his daughter, to which he responded:
“I’m writing as the daughter looking at her father, so you could say I’m looking at myself – I’m asking questions about myself. I’m asking what kind of father am I, what I would do in a crisis, how would I behave, but from my daughter’s point of view. Because the father’s a curious character because the father may be entirely innocent, the father may love her to distraction, it’s just he may not be able to demonstrate it. He may be grieving for his dead wife still; he may be in an extreme emotional state. So the things she says about him may not be true but they are true because they’re her version of what’s going on. So in that sense I think I’m returning to those things I thought about when I first was given that option of being a father or not being a father. Writing as the daughter, I’m quite tough on the father figure, but there’s this moment towards the end where she suddenly sees him clearly for the first time and it suddenly occurs to her that he might be really, really upset, beside himself at her disappearance. So the book is autobiographical in all sorts of ways.”
Don’t forget to pick up Rupert Thomson’s fascinating and acclaimed new novel Katherine Carlyle, published by Corsair.
Rupert performed at this year’s North Cornwall Book Festival, held in St Endellion.