When the multi award-winning novelist Rose Tremain, CBE, enters Lecture Theatre 1 on Wednesday 17th of October, a ring of applause erupts from the audience. Christopher Bigsby introduces her as having lived in Norwich for 35 years, and as a publisher of 14 novels and 20+ radio plays. Her novels are set everywhere from Denmark to Australia, written from the 17th century till present day, her wide repertoire earns her another large round of claps.
The conversation moves on to discuss some of the topics that feature in her novels, such as transgender issues in her work Sacred Country from 1993. Rose explains how she wants her writing to be “believable irrespective of context, gender etc” claiming, “we all have a buried, better self, it’s about discovering that self.” She discusses the criticism faced for writing a transgender novel as a cisgender author, claiming “if you can project imagination, empathy, so that it can be convincing, you have the right to do it.”
Christopher turns his attention to her most recent memoir of 2018, Rosie: scenes from a vanished life. The book is written in the context of a post-war Chelsea, depicting childhood trauma and a tense relationship with Rose’s own mother. He playfully reminds her of how she once said that “there are enough memoirs… I’m not going to write about my mother”. Rose explains her change of heart, explaining she wanted to write it before it was too late. After talking to her daughter, she discovered that “I owe it to myself to try and understand it better.”
Rose talks of how she was banished to the nursery for a lot of her childhood, and thus there were instanced where she saw her father “so infrequently”, she didn’t know who he was. Themes of exile are often present in Rose’s work, including The Gustav Sonata from 2016. Rose admits her childhood wasn’t completely loveless, and that she had a “surrogate” mother in the form of her nanny, Vera Sturt, who was “everything you want a parent to be”.
To the audience’s delight, Rose then reads a section of her story, detailing her heartbreak at her mother’s dismissal of her musical concert and her father leaving halfway through. Rose describes herself as “alone” and feeling “sick with misery”. She ends with the line “today he was a shit”, causing laughter to erupt from the audience. Chris asks Rose if she felt a greater sense of sympathy for her mother after writing the book, to which she replies that she felt more angry with herself: “Why didn’t I stand up to her?”
As the interview draws to a close, Rose explains she felt a sense of relief at her mother’s death, both in terms of a release and a sense of liberation. Chris asks a question Rose admits she hasn’t been asked before: “Would your mother reject her portrayal in your memoir?” She replies that she doesn’t know, but “she thinks her mother would have been in denial.” One last round of applause, then the interview is over. The audience return to reality, with Rose’s story, the emotion, trauma, and pain, still very much imprinted on us.