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Rosemary Sutcliff on writing - plot and length

More of Rosemary Sutcliff’s own words here, on this web-site.

The poet and playwright Lemn Sissay has been elected Chancellor of The University of Manchester (UK). An article about his election, in the Guardian newspaper (here), quoted him speaking about wanting to inspire people. He cited a motto of his: I was moved to post a comment. (The obituary I refer to is here)

Comment on RS motto

In 1965 Tony Bradman was 11 and in his last year at Junior school. He was living with his “mum and older sister in a rented flat in south London”. His parents had separated when he was five and got divorced a couple of years later, “which was unusual at the time”.

My dad was working abroad and I hadn’t seen him for several years. He had become a mythical figure, someone I longed for and resented because of his absence.

Then he came back, and soon Saturday mornings were taken up by Dad’s weekly “access visits|”. By then I was obsessed with history. At school we’d studied the Romans and the Saxons, and I was fascinated by it all. So I made my dad take me to the British Museum as often as possible….

Then one Saturday, probably on the way home from the British Museum, dad and I stopped at a WH Smith’s so I could spend my pocket money. I bought a Puffin book, attracted by the cover picture of Roman soldiers and the title: The Eagle of the Ninth. I remember being gripped by the story of a young Roman called Marcus, and his quest to find the Eagle standard of a legion that marched north of Hadrian’s wall and never returned. From then on I was a fan of Rosemary Sutcliff’s books.

I can give you lots of reasons why I think she’s a great writer. She’s a terrific storyteller, and could certainly teach Hollywood a thing or two about pace, suspense and cliffhangers. Her central characters are usually underdogs, children or young people with colossal problems to overcome – she herself suffered in childhood from Stills disease, a form of arthritis that left her permanently disabled. And then of course she writes so well, bringing her characters and the past brilliantly to life.

But it was only a few years ago that I realised why I’d been so drawn to The Eagle of the Ninth – the story is really about Marcus looking for his father, a centurion in the lost legion. Marcus wants to know what happened to his dad, and in some way to reclaim him. The shadow of not knowing hangs over Marcus, and I see now that I must have identified with another boy who missed his dad and resented his absence.

It was also then that I realised I had always wanted to write historical fiction. I’d written lots of other stuff, of course – poetry and picture books and Dilly the Dinosaur stories – but then I wrote a short novel about Spartacus, and loved the whole process. I haven’t looked back since – I even wrote a novel called Viking Boy, in which a boy goes looking for his missing father. …

So thanks, Rosemary – you really were an inspiration to that 11-year-old boy.

Radio Times entry for interview Rosemary Sutcliff with penelope Lively

The BBC Genome project is a fascinating source of informatyion that is new to me about Rosemary Sutcliff’s contributions to BBC Radio and Television, and about versions of her books created for radio in particular.

Rosemary Sutcliff, historical novelist

In 1984 she was interviewed, for example, about “the lure of Roman and Celtic Britain for her and her readers”. Echoing points she recorded elsewhere on this site, of her youth she said: ‘I was brought up like a Spartan Youth; to take problems, troubles, pain lightly.’

Copy of entry in Radio Times about 1984 appearance on radio

I have always thought that The Eagle of the Ninth (published in 1954) was the first book of Rosemary Sutcliff’s to be turned into a serial on Children’s Hour on BBC Radio. But it wasn’t! It was Brother Dusty Feet (published in 1952) which was billed as ‘A Chronicle of the Road by Rosemary Sutcliff’ in the Radio Times. I learn this from a website I have come across which is new to me—the BBC Genome project, which contains the listings information which the BBC printed in Radio Times between 1923 and 2009. You can search the site for BBC programmes, people, dates and Radio Times editions.

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Rosemary Sutcliff (b. 1920; d. 1992) was aclaimed internationally for her historical novels and other books for children. She was the subject of many magazine profiles. Sadly she is no longer here to create pieces like the ‘This much I know’ feature in magazine of The Observer newspaper. But this much she did know—revealed within her answers to Roy Plomley’s questions on BBC Radio’s Desert Island Discs. Photos of Rosemary Sutcliff, historical novelist and children’s writer

A spinal carriage is like a coffin. It is very uncomfortable. You lie flat out in this ‘thing’, and all you can see the are branches of the trees or the roofs of the houses going by overhead.  It is extremely boring.

Chiefly I had books read to me, which is a thing I love to this day.  I didn’t learn to read for myself until I was very old — I was nine before I could read. I think this was because my mother read aloud to me so much.

I was never allowed to bring friends homeI think it honestly never occurred to my parents that a child growing up and going through her teens required other young people. They were very understanding; nobody could have had nicer parents. But they were very sufficient unto themselves.

Miniature painting is cramping. I was a good craftswoman—but I always had this feeling of having my elbows tucked too close to my sides when I was doing it. I gave it up to write. And I could write as big as ever I wanted to, I could use an enormous canvas if I wanted to.

I feel most at home in Roman Britain. I always feel it’s perhaps a little shameful to be quite so at home with the Romans, because they really were a very bourgeois lot, but I do feel very at home with them; I feel, ‘Here I am back at home again’ when I get back into a Roman story.

I think I do believe in reincarnation. I hope I do, because I think it’s the one thing that makes sense, that makes for justice and a really sensible pattern to life.

I can only create from the top of my head, down my right arm, and out of the point of my pen. So, I write in longhand.

I start with an idea; never a plot. I’m not very strong on plots, but I start from a theme, which grows from the idea. I do have a certain amount of framework: I’ve got to know how I’m going to get from the beginning to the end, and a few ports of call on the way.

I do not write to a standard length. I do not know how long a book’s going to be. I find that a book takes its own time and gets to its own proper ending place.

I take great pains that details should be right. I am quite shameless about writing to people—people who know about breeding horses, or whatever it is—and asking a particular question. People are usually very kind about sharing their own expertise. I do rely very much also on the feeling ‘does this smell right’, ‘does it have the right feel to it?’.

I don’t think I’m a particularly masculine kind of woman—although most of my books are told from a male point of view. I can’t write about girls from the inside. I don’t think the absence of sexual encounters is because I’m writing for children—I don’t honestly know why, it’s just happened that way.

I don’t know whose decision it was not to marry. The situation became impossible. My own family was so against it. People’s feelings were very different in those days to what they are now, about anybody with a disability being allowed to have any emotions. Neither of us were very grown up and we just couldn’t cope. So that was that.

Source:  BBC Radio’s ‘Desert Island Discs‘.

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