Salley Vickers
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Interview with Jonathan Ruppin. Foyles Books

Q. The story interweaves Violet’s past and present. Do you write the two strands separately or concurrently?

A. No, I wrote the strands concurrently, always waiting in the present strand to see what would be thrown up from the past. I had no idea myself what had happened to Violet, or what the nature of the rift with Edwin was. So it was intriguing to find this out as I wrote. I never do know what is going to happen or what has happened in my books.

Q. Dino, the dance host with whom she strikes up a friendship, has a reason to feel guilty about something, but Violet forgives him; is this because her trip is motivated by her own guilt at betraying Edwin the old friend she is going to see?

A. I think it is a bit more complex that that. She has a fellow feeling with Dino – an affinity of damage, perhaps because both have lost, in a sense, mothers. As she thinks later, when considering her relationship with Dino, In sparing others we our selves may be spared. So it is in the sparing of him that she feels herself forgiven. For me that is the key line in the novel

Q. The cruise ship setting for the book came to you after you gave a talk on the Queen Mary II and took ballroom dancing lessons while on board. Are any of the characters in the book based on anyone you encountered at sea?

A. I never base characters on anyone but myself. They spring from within entirely. I’m simply uninterested in taking things from outside. For me it is always inside out.

Q. The opportunity to dance seems to free several of the characters from their more reserved personalities. Was it a similarly liberating experience when you learned to dance?

A. I have a history of dancing. I was prescribed dancing lesson as a child by an enlightened nutritionist as I had a very deficient respiratory system and I became a not bad ballet dancer. So I am familiar with the liberation it can bring. But I do think, like Miss Foot, a character who makes only a small appearance but has a large impact, that certain movements can deinhibit the mind and emotions.

Q. You started working on Dancing Backwards some years ago. What was it made you put it aside and what made you come back to it?

A. I lost the thread due to various life upheavals but it was always in my mind waiting for me to return. It’s a very different book from the one started seven years ago. That, for me, is most interesting: how much it has changed while it was sitting there marooned waiting

Q. Does your training as a psychoanalyst make it easier to create believable characters or do you find that you end up paying too much attention to even the smallest details of authenticity in their behaviour?

A. My analytic training taught me to find  aspects of myself with which  I was not consciously familiar in order to communicate with the people I was seeing whose lives and experiences were quite unlike mine. So it taught me to pay attention to the unlived personalities within me. It is that rather than attention to outer detail that has been the help in my writing life.

Q. The book concludes with a poem supposedly written by Violet. How difficult did you find it to compose something suitable?

A. I’d already written that poem and it is what set the book going. It appears in my second novel, ’Instances of the Number 3’. It was when I began to receive letters from US doctoral students asking where they could find information about this H.V. St John that I became aware she had taken on an independent existence. It was this poem that planted the seed of the idea for a book about her.

Q. Your previous book, Where Three Roads Meet, your contribution to Canongate’s ongoing Myths series, is centered on a dialogue between Freud and Tiresias, the seer of Greek myth. Freud’s dream theory also gets a mention in Dancing Backwards, but you also explore characters through their interaction with the arts, which is quite Jungian. Are you a particular adherent of either psychoanalytical school?

A. I was trained as a Jungian and Jungians are supposed to be more arts friendly. I don’t know if this is really the case. I have a huge admiration for Freud, particularly Freud the man, though I think he got many things wrong. He was a major intellectual force, an artist really, more than a scientist. Though he himself aspired to make psychoanalysis a science, it is not and never could be.

Q. You have a passion for opera, but unlike many other areas of the fine arts, this interest has not featured in your books so far. Is this something you might do in the future?

A. Music is notoriously hard to write about but in my next novel there is a musical thread.

Q. Your knowledge of classical literature has come in useful for several of your books, particularly Where Three Roads Meet, your contribution to Canongate’s ongoing Myths series. Are there another classical figures or stories which you’d like to adapt?

A. It’s really ancient stories which appeal to me. Not simply myth. I am very drawn to the time-honed tales: Tobias and the Angel, Hamlet, The Journey to Emmaus, Oedipus. My next novel takes its title from the Aeneid. But I had better say no more as once I divulge what a book is about I tend to set it aside.

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