One’s Twenties Aren’t Easy: An Interview with Rosa Rankin-Gee
by Michael Duffy
The Last Kings of Sark follows three main characters from very diverse backgrounds. How would you introduce Jude, Pip and Sofi to people who are yet to read the book?
Jude, Pip and Sofi are an unlikely triangle. Two girls and a boy; 21, 19, 16, and from very different – pardon the horrid cliché – walks of life. Pip is bony and blonde, Sofi has denim eyes and a dirty tan, and Jude, who narrates, wilfully keeps herself out of the picture for the first little while.
The majority of your novel takes place on the Channel Islands. What made you want to write about Sark?
I’d never been to the Channel Islands in my life until the summer I left university, when I ended up going to three of them almost accidentally. When I was invited to work on Sark, I’d never heard the word before (the word Sark, not the word work) but as soon as I had done cursory Googling, I was sold. Islands have always appealed to me – they’re natural microcosms, self-enclosed and sometimes almost caricatural – but this one was particularly intriguing, with no cars and practically no taxes.
Sark, like some other British islands, can often be seen as having a certain old-world charm. Was this a narrative you aimed to resist?
Not resist necessarily, but paint truthfully. Of course horse-drawn carriages have a ye olde factor, but when the horse is ill, they use a sofa strapped to the back of a tractor instead, and that’s the kind of image that appeals to me more.
The old-world charm is important to the shape of the story though. Sark was the last place to abolish feudalism in Europe, and only as recently as 2008. With this, and in other ways, the island has attempted to resist the pull of time, and, ostensibly, it has been successful. I think this is an aim my characters share, but the thing is, it’s harder to slip through time’s fingers as a human.
I felt as though there was a lot of labour exploitation in the novel. Were these employer/employee relations in the novel important to you as a writer?
Exploitation is certainly present in the book – I would say it ‘appears’ rather than it is ‘dealt with’. I don’t know if I fully deal with any of these themes in the book, but perhaps that was an active choice rather than a grave shortcoming. I wanted to make an image of the world and let readers take what they want from it. (Though that’s probably a white lie: I am definitely, definitely damning about Caleb, Eddy’s monstrously braying brother, and Farquart & Fathers’ pointlessly esoteric demands.) I think the book is preoccupied with power struggles whether it’s employer/employee related, or to do with age, or class, or how we related to each other sexually.
It struck me that the opening section on Sark initially felt rather self-contained before its class politics bled into the characters’ later lives in France. What made you want to extend the action past the nostalgic summer narrative?
Well, I’m glad it works in a self-contained way too, because the initial section was originally a novella. I extended it because: for pragmatic reasons, it’s near impossible to publish a novella, and for aesthetic reasons, because I didn’t think it was finished yet. I would never have wanted to expand that summer narrative into a novel, but what did appeal to me was following the characters afterwards. That was actually a great joy, because it’s not only readers who wonder ‘but what happens afterwards?’, writers do too.
With Pip, Sofi and Jude, it was particularly interesting, because the summer is such a transitional period for them. It’s the end of something. I knew they would be different afterwards, and that it wouldn’t necessarily be easy to see.
The thing is: one’s twenties aren’t easy. And I am so glad I had the chance to add that. The nostalgia that close-to-saturates the summer on Sark is perhaps only earned by what happens in part two. I don’t know... In a way, I think that as the three characters were growing up, so was I, as a person, as a writer. All four of us are different to who we were when the book started out, but, hopefully, that makes it truer to life.
What were those pragmatic reasons? Was it a commercial consideration?
I don't know if commercial is the word. On a bookshop shelf, for example, with spines facing out, a novella is practically invisible. It's not a question of 'what will make more money?' It's a question of 'how can I make it more likely someone will read my book?'
Were there any other challenges getting published as a young writer?
There are a huge amount of challenges with regards to getting published as a young writer. Some truly fantastic young writers can't get an agent, and yet... and yet... there is the 1% who have an extraordinarily breezy ride into the industry. Like a lovely, talented girl I know, who sent her manuscript directly to a publisher and within days they wrote back wanting to buy it. Unheard of! It's stories like that which reinstate faith in the industry, but also probably embolden new writers' expectations of a fairytale.
What do you think about MFA culture – the growing trend of new writers writing from an academic culture rather than, first and foremost, for publishers?
The MFA as a learning process I think is fascinating, and I would love to do one. I have a problem, however, with large academic institutions encouraging people to go into huge debt in order to become a writer. It's not like being a lawyer or a doctor, there is certainly no guaranteed income, and even if you do publish a book, it doesn't automatically solve one's professional/existential crises. If possible, something to keep in mind might be: go where there is a grant.
The Last Kings of Sark is published by Virago.