Rose Tremain’s latest novel Islands of Mercy is a daring exploration of sanctuary and identity that ranges from the genteel tearooms of 19th-century Bath to the rainforests of Borneo, via the slums of Dublin and the non-conformist nightlife of Paris. She tells us what makes her tick through trying times.

Where are you now?

At home in my house in Norfolk. Cossetting new apple trees through the dry season and making Greek suppers for me and my partner, Richard Holmes, so we can pretend we’re by the Ionian Sea.

How would you summarise your lockdown experience?

Writers, of necessity, lead a kind of ‘lockdown life’. You can’t get good work done if you’re endlessly travelling. I’ve been relatively happy with the lock, except for missing London friends and most especially missing my grandchildren.

Where and when do you do most of your writing?

I work from lunchtime till about seven o’clock, always in the same study I’ve had for thirty years. It’s now so filled with books and files and pictures and photographs and computer gunk that I can barely get to the desk, but I don’t care: I love this room.

If you have one, what is your pre-writing ritual?

Read the paper, water the herbs on the terrace, then get the emails done, to remind me that the outside world exists before I banish it in favour of my fictional one.

Full-time or part-time?

Pretty much full-time.

Pen or keyboard?

Pen for notes and research, keyboard for actual composition. (One desk for each mode.)

How do you relax when you’re writing?

I don’t relax. I stay neurotically tuned to every thought and every word and every comma.

How would you pitch your latest book in up to 25 words?

Bath, 1865. Our tall protagonist Jane, adored for her fabled nursing skills, surprises herself – and her doctor suitor – by falling in love with a woman.

Who do you write for?

Mainly for myself – to understand human existence better.

Who do you share your work in progress with?

With only two people: my partner Richard and my agent, Caroline Michel.

Which literary character do you wish you created?

Allie Fox in Paul Theroux’s The Mosquito Coast. Never has fury with the modern world been so powerfully and tragically expressed.

Share with us your favourite line/s of dialogue, poetry or prose.

These are brand-new birds of twelve-months’ growing,
Which a year ago, or less than twain,
No finches were, nor nightingales,
Nor thrushes,
But only particles of grain,
And earth, and air, and rain.
from ‘Proud Songsters’ by Thomas Hardy

Which book do you wish you’d written?

Joyce Carol Oates’ bravest novel Blonde which, through a potent and fierce reimagining of the life of Marilyn Monroe, engages across time with the never-ending subjugation of women to male desire and dereliction.

Which book/s have you most recently read and enjoyed?

I’ve been rereading old favourites: Ian McEwan’s killer masterpiece On Chesil Beach, Annie Proulx on punchy, whirling, ungrammatical form in The Shipping News and Penelope Fitzgerald’s wonderfully restrained and moving 1988 novel The Beginning of Spring.

What’s on your bedside table or e-reader?

The newly reissued campus drama The War Between the Tates by Alison Lurie and that other heartbreaker about university life, Stoner by John Williams.

Which books do you feel you ought to have read but haven’t yet?

Ulysses by James Joyce

Which book/s do you treasure the most?

The erudite, witty and groundbreaking works of my partner, Richard Holmes, most especially Coleridge: Early Visions and The Age of Wonder.

What is the last work you read in translation?

The Complete Essays of Montaigne, translated by M.A. Screech

What will you read next?

Anne Tyler’s new novel, Redhead by the Side of the Road.

What are you working on next?

A novel set in the 1860s about a foundling girl who commits a murder to avenge childhood abuse and who falls in love with the police superintendent who may have to become her executioner.

Imagine you’re the host of a literary supper, who would your dinner guests be (living or dead, real or fictional)?

I only deeply love people who make me laugh. Can I just invite Coleridge and keep topping up his wine glass and let him keep talking until dawn?

If you weren’t writing you’d be…?

Someone like Juliette Gréco: a sexy, whispery French chanteuse of the 1960s, with a love of heavy eye make-up and skimpy black cocktail gowns.


Rose Tremain, born in London in 1943, was one of only five women writers to be included in Granta’s original list of 20 Best of Young British Novelists in 1983. Her novels and short stories have been published worldwide and won many prizes, including the Sunday Express book of the Year Award (for Restoration, also shortlisted for the Booker Prize); the Prix Femina Etranger (Sacred Country); the Whitbread Novel of the Year Award (Music & Silence) and the Orange Prize for Fiction 2008 (The Road Home). Restoration was filmed in 1995 and a stage version was produced in 2009. She was made a CBE in 2007 and in 2013 was appointed Chancellor of the University of East Anglia. Islands of Mercy is published in hardback, eBook and audio download by Chatto & Windus/Vintage Digital.
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Author portrait © David Kirkham