Writers Festival: A brief history of seven centuries

By David Larsen

The master of historical sagas, Edward Rutherfurd, talks to David Larsen about the symmetry of his writing

Writer Edward Rutherfurd. Photo / Supplied
Writer Edward Rutherfurd. Photo / Supplied

Edward Rutherfurd takes it remarkably well when I suggest that his new novel resembles the Eiffel Tower: it's full of holes. "It's a pleasure to hear that!" He has one of those deep, well-educated British voices, and he's laughing uproariously.

"Oh, that's a good one."

Rutherfurd writes big books. Paris, his latest, is one of his shorter efforts, which is to say that it's less than 800 pages long, with a story spanning only seven centuries.

Sarum, the breakout debut that launched him directly on to the international best-seller lists in 1987, is more than 1300 pages long in paperback, and its story unfolds over the course of 10,000 years. Rutherfurd does not produce new novels terribly often. You can see why.

These books are grand, historical sagas, with a focus that you only have to scan a few of their titles to detect: Paris, London, New York. Sarum takes its name from an older name for Salisbury, and Russka from a village in Russia.

Rutherfurd's great challenge, in setting out to discover the soul of a place through the lives of its people, is always to create something that reads like a novel, and not a long list of loosely related events.

"You're putting a lot of things together, and it needs an architecture. Because if it's not architectural, a thing like this, it won't hold together. It won't have resonance." This is where the Eiffel Tower comes in.

Rutherfurd likes iconic buildings. His characters often end up working on the great architectural and engineering achievements of their eras, allowing him to explore the challenges involved in creating them.

"In Sarum I had quite a detailed account - some of it my own invention, though I believe it may well be right - as to how Stonehenge was built. And I did the building of Salisbury Cathedral, and later in London there was the building of the Tower of London, and of St Paul's, and then in New York I did the Empire State Building."

Paris has a fascinating early section recounting the unlikely difficulties facing the builders of the Sacre-Coeur Basilica (plaster of paris gets its name from the fact that the gypsum powder used to make it was, for many years, mined from Montmartre hill, where the basilica stands, leaving the hill riddled with holes and incapable of easily supporting a large structure). And one of the main characters, Thomas Gascon, is a worker who helps build first the Statue of Liberty, which was constructed in Paris before being shipped to New York, and then the Eiffel Tower.

The tower was controversial when it was built, as buildings that break away from existing architectural traditions tend to be. At one point, Thomas discusses its open lattice construction and mathematically precise curves with Gustave Eiffel himself. The job of the lattice-work, he learns, is to allow the wind to blow through without putting more pressure on the structure than necessary: in other words, the holes riddling the tower are what allowed it to reach such a great height for its period, because a building full of holes can be bigger than a solid one.

This is exactly the function of the long time gaps separating Rutherfurd's chapters, allowing his plot to space centuries. In this metaphor, the strong iron holding everything together would be the book's four great family lines, their members feuding, collaborating, and inter-marrying across multiple generations.

"The book does not consciously mirror the architecture of the tower, I don't think - although the tower does have four feet, and I do have the book's four central families, obviously. And the way the feet come together at a platform and then go up ... actually yes, the plot of the book does rather do that. I think probably it does mirror the construction of the book, perhaps slightly more than I had realised... and if I've achieved that, then I'm delighted. Because I love symmetry."

Here is some more symmetry: the complex family networks of Rutherfurd's books mirror his own family, and his family is where he first acquired the idea that writing books might be a thing one could do with one's life.

"I'm lucky enough to have cousins in most of the places I'm touring, including New Zealand."

The Rutherfurds and some of his other cousins came here in the 19th century and had huge families, who all survived and had children.

"I suspect I have something like 500 living cousins in your country now. If you've got any Scots blood, you and I may well be related. As a matter of fact, it was very much the New Zealand branch of my family who were the writers. My grandmother was a prolific popular novelist and she was born in New Zealand.

Her father was brought up in New Zealand, and he also wrote novels. So the idea of writing was there in my family right from my childhood - it wasn't that you were expected to write, but it wasn't thought odd if you did."

So Rutherfurd did, all through his childhood, and on into his 20s. He wrote his first historical novel just after his university years. "It wasn't any good. I was too young, very immature. Now I'm much older and immature."

He tried his hand at plays - "one nearly got accepted at the BBC" - but before long he was working in publishing, and very happy, but entirely lacking in time to write.

"I was trying to scribble all through those years, but I couldn't do it. I know the great Anthony Trollope used to write for two hours every morning and then go to work at the Post Office, and he could churn out 2000 words a morning. I simply can't work that way. I couldn't have done a complex book without going away on my own and giving it everything."

He still wanted to write, so in the end he took the risk of giving it everything, and left his job. Sarum was the result.

"Sarum made publishing history - not because of me but because of the publisher, who decided to put it out in six different book jackets, each from a different period of history. It was very clever - it wouldn't work nowadays, but in those days it got them a lot of space in the shops. It was a neat wheeze.

"So I'd go into a bookshop and see these absolute piles of books, and my only reaction, if I'm truthful, was, 'Oh my god, what have I done? It won't sell, these poor publishers, they're completely deluded.' And I still feel like that, you know. I shouldn't perhaps even say it. But that's how I feel. Every time."

Edward Rutherfurd will appear at the Auckland Writers & Readers Festival, Aotea Centre, May 15-19.

- NZ Herald

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