Rutherfurd on Rutherfurd


Q. You decided to write Sarum straight away?

A. Not quite. For about three months I thought about several projects, but none seemed right. The idea of Sarum came to me quite suddenly one day in New York, in the Frick Museum. It has a wonderful painting by Constable of Salisbury Cathedral, seen across a meadowland. And as I was staring at the painting, the whole of my early childhood came back to me with a great rush, the magical presence of the place, of Salisbury Plain and Stonehenge. I was just standing there, staring at the painting. Then it hit me: of course, that's it, the subject has to be Sarum. So back to Sarum I went.

Q. Back to your roots.

A. From Silicon Valley to Stonehenge.

Q. You had a subject, but Sarum is a novel covering ten thousand years, from the Ice Age to the present day. Why such an ambitious treatment?

A. The more I thought about the place and its history, the more the subject seemed to demand it. The book kept growing in my mind until I couldn't see any other way to do it.

Q. This was when Michener became the model, I imagine.

A. Exactly. James Michener invented this genre, an act of literary genius, really. I'd read and liked several of his books, especially Chesapeake, which has a lyrical quality. James Michener led the way and I owe him a huge debt. It was a daunting task all the same. I knew I'd have to give myself to the book completely, full time, for as long as it took.

Q. How did you manage for money?

A. Some savings, a small legacy from a relation and a very kind cousin who had a cottage in the area which she let me house-sit. That was a big help. I knew I could hold out financially for a while.

Q. Did you have a publisher or agent?

A. No. I had nothing to show them.

Q. You were out in the cold. How did it feel?

A. Cold.

Q. What did your former colleagues think of your move?

A. I never asked. But I was told afterwards that there had been general derision. Even those publishing friends I consulted were dubious. The wisdom at that time was that historical fiction didn't sell, and nor did long books. And this book would be both. So it was going clean against the perceived market which, if you want to succeed, is usually what you should do.

Q. What kept you going?

A. Many things. Firstly, the local historians who helped me with the huge research required were encouraging. One especially, John Chandler, who'd written a wonderful book on the city, became a friend. Then my cousin Diana, the owner of the cottage, which had a thatched roof and a chalk-walled garden, was a great support. She'd come down most week-ends from London and we'd meet on Friday nights at a local pub which cooked an excellent curry. Saturdays we'd meet friends and have a wonderful old-fashioned English currant bread called "lardy cake" for tea. I was sometimes a little spacey because I was so deep in the book, but she never complained.

Q. Did you get discouraged sometimes?

A. Anyone who has ever tried to write a book - especially a novel, or autobiography - knows how personally exposed and vulnerable you feel. Your early drafts are probably terrible and you think: I can't write. What I tried to learn was to be more objective. The right question to ask is always: How can this text be made better? The name of the game is re-writes. By the time we finally got to proofs, I believe the chapter on Stonehenge had been re-written seventeen times. Perspiration, not inspiration.

Q. But there must have been inspiration as well to keep you going.

A. Yes. Sarum itself was the sustaining vision. It wasn't just the place, which I loved, but the sense of the universal which, in that area, is an abiding presence. For five thousand years, men have been seeking the eternal there, by building and carving in stone. It has a cosmic aspect also. Stonehenge was a huge prehistoric observatory. Salisbury Cathedral, with its astounding spire, seems to be pointing at the heavens too. When I was a little boy, four or five years old, my father had a powerful flashlight with a narrow beam. And I always remember one night, he pointed the beam at the cathedral and slowly moved it up the gothic arches, then to the high tower, up that, then to that soaring octagonal spire and all the way up that, four hundred feet into the sky to the point and the cross, and then up into the sky and the stars. That memory was always a kind of inspiration to me.

Q. How long did it take to write Sarum?

A. Three and a half years. But I was only out in the cold for a little over two years. By that time I had a forty page synopsis and a quarter of the book written. Then I found my wonderful agent Gill Coleridge.

Q. Like the poet Coleridge?

A. Same family. Small world. She made me do some re-writing, then she went to work. In a matter of weeks I had six figure offers from both sides of the Atlantic. I was astounded, and my life changed entirely from that moment.

Q. You turned down a larger American offer for a smaller one. Is that correct?

A. Nearly. In America, the book went to auction. At the end of the day, we accepted the generous offer that topped the bidding and the auction closed. But then, after it was closed, the under-bidder came back with an offer that was a hundred thousand dollars more. That was a huge sum to me then - and still is. So then Gill was trying to track me down to ask what I wanted to do. Fortunately she knew my habits. So I was in the local pub with my cousin Diana, having a curry, when a rather puzzled barman came to say I was wanted on the telephone; and then Gill told me about the new bid.

Q. So what did you do?

A. I told her: Tell them no. We already shook hands on a deal. It was the right thing to do, and I believe my US publishers appreciated it.

Q. I see. Then what?

A. Went and finished my curry.

Q. When it came out Sarum made publishing history.

A. In Britain, thanks to Anthony Cheetham the publisher, whose then wife Rosie was my editor. He brought the book out with six different covers, each representing a different period of history. It caused a lot of publicity and we went straight on to the bestseller list. In North America, we went to #1 in Canada, and stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for twenty-three weeks.

Q. How did you celebrate this success?

A. I got married and had my first child.

Did You Know?
In the United States, the current 50-star flag was designed by then 17 year old Robert G. Heft as part of a school project. For his effort, he received a grade of B-. When his design was chosen and adopted by presidential proclamation, his teacher changed his grade to an A!

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