Tangled Roots is a book which makes exciting metaphorical and formal use of the space-time ideas of physics to portray the lives of a mother and son whose relationship has been fraught and who indeed are finally more or less estranged. From different points in space and time, John, a physics professor, and his mother Grace present their first-person accounts – Grace from her old age, and John from a time after her death when he is forty years old, academically successful and good-looking, yet nevertheless alone in the world and suffering from the vague despair which has blighted his whole life so far, and for which indeed he still blames his mother. These accounts contrast deeply, yet by offering them in alternating sections, the novel slyly links them like the ‘entangled particles’ to which John refers, those quantum particles which, so the theory goes, retain a relationship to each other even when they are widely separated. It’s a story of Grace’s flight from tragedy across the globe, from America to London and back again, a tragedy which however re-emerges in the emotional consequences for her son. Telling this story to strangers is Grace’s old-age balm. And it is by telling himself his own story that John too can find his salvation, face his own past and move on to make not only a stunning scientific breakthrough but a reconnection with his family’s more distant Jewish past.
This is a novel about memory and the power of story-telling, about the nature of reality and the relationship of the past to the present, about the influences we have on each others’ lives – all my favourite preoccupations. I put it down burning with questions as to how Sue had achieved it, and here’s the interview we conducted:
EB: Sue, the usual advice to budding writers is 'Write what you know'. I'm so impressed by your panache in using theoretical physics both as subject-matter and metaphorically that what I want to know (!) is how much of it you knew beforehand and how much did you need to research? And what is your attitude to this idea, writing what you know and what you don't?
SG: About physics, I knew nothing. But I read and read and read, and then I reread everything I had already read and tried desperately to keep it in my head. It wasn’t easy, but I loved it. It forced me to think in different ways, to see the world through a different set of metaphors, and that helped me create the character of John. The question about writing what you know is a bit sticky. I don’t think you have to write only what you have experienced yourself, but I do think the best writing comes from a personal resonance with the writer’s own emotional life. For example, I have never (thankfully) been clinically depressed and hospitalized, but we have all experienced moments of extreme sadness and I tried to extrapolate from that experience, to bring it further into an imaginary realm. We all learn as we live, and so there is little that we can’t know if we are open to the world around us and the effect that world has on us. The writing, I would like to think, comes from that openness to experience. So, I guess the answer is yes and no :-)
EB: That's so true, I think - it really depends what you mean by 'knowing'. What about your theme of mothers and sons, though, which seems to me such a very specific relationship/experience - and which you underpin so cleverly with these space-time motifs? I know you've touched on it before on this tour, the fact that you have sons yourself, but what I'm wondering is, do you think you needed that experience to portray the relationship between John and Grace in such psychological depth?
SG: Certainly, my experience as a mother of sons urged me towards writing about that relationship, but I was also interested in exploring how that relationship can change when experienced by a different personality than my own. There is definitely a “what if” factor that goes into the writing, which is the imaginative leap. Writing allows me to place myself, in a different persona, into a situation and see how “I” might then react. In other words, “what if” I was a mother with the sorts of struggles that Grace faced? How would I react? How would that affect the relationships around me, not only with my son, but also with a daughter, my husband, my friends. I often joke that by writing about emotional crises I then don’t actually have to experience them in my own life. If I write about a nervous breakdown then I don’t have to have one myself. Handy, that.
EB: That's so interesting! In other words, it's quite the opposite of what people often suspect about the relationship of writers to their material! Now to turn from material to form. You write poetry and plays as well as fiction - including a play in verse which I find pretty awesome! Did you find that the skills and techniques you have developed in these other areas influenced the way you wrote the novel, or do you think that they are quite separate disciplines?
SG: I really believe that all writing must be poetry if it is to have emotional impact and truth. I have had several conversations with prose writers who claim they can’t write poetry. But when I read their beautifully crafted, metaphorical prose (like your is) I have to say that for me, there is no difference. That “prose” is also “poetry.” Okay, there are different line breaks, different uses of white space. But when the writing is really clicking and there is magic in the language and a moment is distilled to its most powerful, then that, to me, is poetry no matter what form it finds itself in. And that’s always what I strive for. If anything, I find that if I neglect writing poetry while I’m caught up in writing a novel, then the novel writing suffers. It has as much to do with my ears and the way I hear language as anything else.
EB: Ah! Personally, I recognize this: the 'hearing' of the language of a novel - but knowing that you're an accomplished violinist, I'm wondering how much of this for you is to do with the fact that you're a musician?
SG: You know, I have wondered about this. And although I certainly don’t think you need to be a musician in order to be a writer, I definitely think that my own musical abilities affect my writing. I hear cadence and rhythm in each sentence, and I know when I do revisions it is often a missed rhythm or a sort of dissonance which will signal that something must be fixed. Yes, the sound of the sentence even before the meaning of it. To be honest, it can make the editing difficult, because I get caught up in the sound of the language sometimes and lose sight of whether I’m actually saying what I mean to say! I’m very lucky to have these two strands to my bow (excuse the pun) and I certainly don’t take it for granted. If anything it makes me realize that I always need to practice more than I do...both the violin and the pen.
EB: Sue, thanks so much for such a great insight into your processes!
Do buy Tangled Roots. You can do it now by clicking here.
Sue's next and final tour stop will be at Nik Jones' place at the end of the month.
The previous stops were as follows:
Chez Aspie where the tour was launchedJamieson Wolf who spent a week asking all sorts of questions and then talked about The Book Movie.
Tea Stains where Sue discussed the connection between art and science, and the importance of place in her writing
Trixie on the Hunt where she was forced to divulge what makes her tick
The Dotterel where she did some serious untangling
Tania Writes where sue and Tania Hershman got into the mind of the scientist.
BT-The Crafty Gardener where she talked a lot about Russia