Rupert Thomson on Trauma, Death, and the Power of Fiction vs Nonfiction: Part One

By Rosie Connell

Rupert Thomson is a current and prolific novelist with varying pieces of work to his name, each piece unified by a continuous thread of traumatised characters and the deep insights we can gain from them. His work has been widely acclaimed by critics and the public alike; his book The Insult was listed in David Bowie’s top 100 must reads. An ex-punk who has taken everything under the sun and been everywhere there is to go, Rupert is now a husband and father living in South London for now, and he has experienced his own share of trauma. In this interview we discuss Rupert’s turbulent childhood and its relationship to his work.

Rupert’s mother, young and healthy, tragically died while playing tennis when he was only eight years old. “I feel like the death of my mother was a kind of trigger for my work, I sometimes wonder if I would have been a writer at all had she not died – that’s something I’ll never know of course.” I sit with Rupert in the bookshop tent with hot coffee on a brisk but sunny afternoon in St Endellion. Instantly personable, he is surprisingly soft in his manner and smiles often and warmly. This makes me feel as if we having a friendly and informal chat, despite the recorder in my hand.

Rupert is open to discuss the common theme his books share, which occurs throughout his work very naturally. “The books are almost meditations on the effects of trauma, or meditations on convalescence – in that sense I can trace the books back to those early deaths I suppose, it’s dangerous to go much further than that because you begin to sound like a cod psychologist.” Rupert’s highly praised memoir, This Party’s Got to Stop, details the deaths of his parents and the tremors they left behind in the lives and relationships of him and his two younger brothers. The story surrounds the three young men as they move in together for “one crazy summer” after their father’s death in the house they grew up in. His mother’s death features up front in the book; “I realised suddenly that the memoir circles her death, because when my father died twenty years later we grieved in a similar way to the way we had when we were really young, i.e. not at all really. You know when children suffer a kind of tragedy they tend to carry on as if nothing has happened.”

Thomson was told by his aunt that as a child he would run in from the garden and call for his mother after she died. “That broke her heart, but for me it was just a moment where I’d forgotten that she wasn’t there,” he says. Rupert acknowledges his traumas as an almost hidden material to be unearthed and examined abstractly through altered eyes. “I buried the pain I guess, I pushed it far, far down into a very dark corner of my mind – but then, of course those are the corners, those are the parts of yourself that you mine for fiction, I think that’s the kind of places that fiction comes from.”

While writing his memoir Rupert found the woman who was on the other side of the tennis net when his mother died. He asked her to take him to the tennis court but they discovered it had been turned into a car park. She took him there and pointed out the exact spot where his mother had died. “I had a sort of hallucinogenic experience, not a visual one exactly but it was almost as if I could feel her shirt, the sports shirt she was wearing to play tennis, I could feel it under my hand – so I felt like in writing the book I got really close to her, but there was no closure,” Rupert doesn’t believe in closure, he tells me. “I think when things like that happen to you, you carry them with you all your life, you have different feelings to them, different attitudes to them throughout your life. It’s not something you can just neatly tie up and put away.”

Although there could be no closure to these events, Rupert did gain something important in writing the book. “My memoir changed my life,” he says; writing his memoir was an opportunity for Rupert to find his estranged youngest brother Ralph after twenty-three years of no contact. Rupert eventually found him in Shanghai, where he lived with his wife and family. “Now we’re back in contact and he’s in contact with my other brother, and now we’re all really close so there was a kind of therapeutic aspect to the book I wasn’t expecting.”

This was not the only time Rupert’s life has been drastically altered by one of his books. It was through the process of having his book Dreams of Leaving adapted for the screen, that Rupert would meet his future wife and mother of his daughter. His now wife was then in a relationship with the man Rupert met in Los Angeles to organise the project. It turned out she had read Rupert’s book where she lived in London and recommended it for the adaptation. He claims that “the books I’ve written have often had profound effects on my life, effects I couldn’t possibly have predicted.” It appears Rupert’s life and books have a somewhat back and forth relationship, and it is clear to see why he relates his fiction as part true.

Rupert doesn’t feel exposed by his memoir; rather he sees it as a restricted angle on a few fragments of his life. “I’ve often had the feeling that I give away more in fiction than I do in non-fiction. I know it sounds like a paradox but a memoir is also a form of lying or concealing of the truth because it’s about all the things you choose not to say,” although every event in Rupert’s memoir genuinely happened, much of it had to be cut out before publication for sensitivity to those involved. “The X rated version is somewhere else, never to be seen,” he tells me, “whereas in fiction of course you can do exactly what you want, there are no restrictions, you have absolute freedom – so I often feel like there’s more – that writers of fiction give more away about themselves than writers of non-fiction do.”

The variance of his work in terms of genre is vast – The Book of Revelation sees a male dancer subjected to rape and sexual torture at the hands of three cloaked women. In Divided Kingdom a dystopian Britain’s population is divided into the four humours: blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm. Death of a Murderer covers a policeman tasked with guarding Myra Hindley’s body. Rupert doesn’t care for classifying his books superficially by genre; he is more concerned with the emotional core of each story and the testing of his characters when faced with trauma.

“I used to use this image of a jazz musician – Django Reinhardt. Amazing, like a gypsy jazz guitarist from the 50s, he was always a guitarist and then his caravan caught fire and the fingers of his fret board hand – so his left hand – was damaged in the fire. As a result of which they were kind of deformed so as a result of this kind of deformity, or physical trauma, he played a different kind of music and that was the music that made him famous. He could only play certain kinds of chords and certain kinds of melodies happened as a result of the damage, of the physical damage. That’s what my characters do; I’m interested in the kind of extraordinary music they might make through result of what’s happened to them.” Perhaps unknowingly, Rupert seems to touch back on his first comment and I realise just how personally self-reflexive his work may be. 

Be sure to catch the follow-up part of this interview, where we discuss the relationship between Rupert’s life and his latest character and novel Katherine Carlyle.

Photo credit: Daniel Hall Photography