Julia Blackburn has written ten books of non-fiction, the most recent of which, Time Song, was shortlisted for the 2019 Wainwright Golden Beer Book Prize.
Her family memoir The Three of Us won the 2009 J.R. Ackerley Award, and her two novels, The Book of Colour and The Leper’s Companions, were both shortlisted for the Orange Prize. She lives in Suffolk and Italy.
Hi Julia, welcome to Famous Writing Routines, great to have you here with us today! Your work spans a wide range of genres, from memoir to biography to historical research. How do you approach writing in different forms, and what do you think are some of the unique challenges and rewards of each?
I don’t think I have a system in my writing. I come across a subject that touches some sort of nerve of connection and then I let the idea evolve until I have found a voice with which to begin. I often try to set the tone and the scope of a book in the opening chapter For Threads (2015) there was almost no information to go and so I started with a joke about a rifle leaning against a wall, gone.
The Emperor’s Last Island (1997) begins with the memory of a car crash I had witnessed in Spain in which a general had been wounded and he was so important, that no-one could decide what to do with his unconscious body. Dreaming the Karoo (2022) has the story of my first encounter with this subject in 1974 and the absurd delay between then and now. Having got a first ‘hook’, I usually move forward chapter by chapter, with no clear idea of where I am heading. It’s part of the delight of the work.
In your bio, you mention the importance of the “visitable past” in your work. How do you approach researching and writing about history and the past, and what do you think are some of the ethical considerations that come with this type of work?
I have always been fascinated by the way that long-since dead strangers can become as familiar (or as distant) as friends or acquaintances. This comes from reading about them and the times they lived in and there is also the huge impact of entering the ‘visitable past’ in the places they once knew well.
I remember seeing the farmhouse where Goya stayed with the Duchess of Alba after the first shock of becoming deaf; seeing the bathtub in which Napoleon spent so many hours during the final years of his life on the island of St Helena.
The ‘visitable past’ can also be a confrontation with what has vanished: the country called Doggerland which disappeared under the North Sea some 6000 years ago; the desert landscape of South Africa’s Little Karoo north of Cape Town which is now a sort of wasteland but was once a sort of oasis for vast herds of of springbok, ostriches, elephants, as well as being the ancestral homeland of a people known as the //xam .
I am not sure what you mean by ‘ethical considerations’, but if you are referring to the Karoo book, then I made a point of not speaking about the //xam, but letting them speak for themselves, using access to a 19th century archive that recorded their thoughts, memories and beliefs. I hope I remain respectful throughout
People have described your writing as spare, haunting, and incisive. How do you strive to create these effects in your writing, and what message do you hope readers take away from your work?
I don’t strive much, which is not to say that I don’t struggle and doubt when I am busy with a new book. I try to be simple and honest and to let things speak for themselves. I always read my work aloud as part of the editing process and that helps me to pick up anything that sounds pompous or unnecessarily complicated. The message? I am not sure that I have one.
Your work often explores the experiences of marginalized groups and forgotten histories. How do you think that writing about these topics can help us better understand the world we live in, and what advice do you have for writers who are interested in exploring these themes in their own work?
I have often written about people who are caught up in a predicament of one sort of another, including those who are categorised as belonging to ‘marginalised groups’. I am interested to see how the human spirit comes through and how we learn to survive in spite of the difficulties put upon us.
My first book The White Men (1979) was an anthology which told of the responses of Aboriginal peoples to the arrival of the white settlers, missionaries, traders and anthropologists. The stories put words to what had been done under the often brutal process of colonisation. Primo Levi wrote of the importance of bearing witness to terrible events ; by speaking about them you dignify the memory of people who suffered and had no voice. You enable them to be seen.
The only advice I would give to anyone interested in that sort of subject is to be honest, but not bitter. We cannot undo what has been done, but we can acknowledge it and the act of writing can perhaps become an act of restitution.
You mention the singer Billie Holiday in your bio and draw a connection between her approach to music and your approach to writing. How do you approach finding the right tempo and mood for each piece you write, and do you think that writing is similar to music in this way?
The connection I was making between me and Billie Holiday comes from her saying, I never sing the same song twice and I never sing the same tempo. One night it’s a little bit slower the next night it’s a little bit faster, depending how I feel. One thing I do say, the Blues, are part of my life.
All my books have run alongside the story of my current life and I am aware that each one would have been different if I had written it at a differed time. I started the memoir The Three of Us when my late husband had come through some very fierce cancer treatment. I suddenly felt I had nothing to lose and was ready to unravel the narrative of my childhood and my early relationship with him, without fear, on the principle – to quote another Blues singer – I don’t know where I’m going but I do know where I ‘bin.
Can you tell us about your writing routine? What does a typical day look like for you?
At present my writing routine is not very clear. I recently remarried. It’s a new chapter in my life and I am just beginning to find the book that will accompany me. Once a book is truly on its way, then I tend to work most days, for about four or five hours and if it’s going well, it might be for longer. I never want to be precious about my writing time. When my children were young I would stop as soon as they came home from school and I still don’t worry if I am distracted, or take a holiday, or do nothing on a day when I thought I would be doing a lot. I need to trust that I remain the same person and so I can always pick up where I left off .
If you could have a conversation with any author throughout history about their writing routine and creative process, who would that person be?
These days I feel very close to the 16th century French essayist Michel Montaigne. I visited the tower in France where he did his writing when I was on honeymoon last November and that was like a sort of meeting. Montaigne was brilliant at translating the wandering perambulations of thoughts into words and I am trying to lean on him as an inspiration and a guide in my next book. I have made a tentative start .
I’d love to know about the books you’re reading at the moment. What have been some of your favourite recent reads?
Books I am reading at the moment are: Annie Ernaux’s The Years, she knows all about following the wanderings and wonderings of thought; The Collected Works of Billy the Kid by Michael Ondaatje, I’ve read it several times before, but it never ceases to delight and impress me; Ronald Blythe’s Next to Nature and Anne Carson’s The Beauty of the Husband.
What does your current writing workspace look like?
My best work space is a little wooden hut at the top of the garden with just enough room for a table, a wood burning stove, a bookcase and a bed. But it has no internet so at times, as now, I work in my kitchen.
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