Interview: Elaine di Rollo, author
Elaine di Rollo goes back to the First World War for her latest, dazzlingly inventive novel.
• Elaine di Rollo at the Craiglockhart campus of Napier University - like her fictional Bleakly Hall, it was once a hydropathic hotel, and war hospital. Picture: Jayne Emsley
SOMETHING wrong is going on at Bleakly Hall, in Elaine di Rollo's dazzlingly original novel set in a mildewed hydropathic hotel a year or so after the end of the First World War, although quite what is a mystery. It's nothing to do with the pervasive smell of rotten eggs: that's from the sulphurous waters of various strengths - the very reason patients go there in the first place. Nor is it anything to do with the plumbing, even though the pipes sound like machine-guns when all the guests are taking the waters via nozzle, douche and jet. Nurse Monty notices Bleakly's oddness on her very first day. As she stands at the bottom of the main stairs, waiting to meet her new employer, someone screams "Coward!" She looks, but nobody's there.
At this stage, it's hard to know what we're in for, although whatever it is, there are plenty of dropped hints that the mysterious Captain Foxley will probably have something to do with it. Perhaps di Rollo is preparing us for some sort of comedy: a time-specific Gormenghast, maybe, or a witty 1920s pastiche. Maybe corpulent colonels will get stuck in baths or merry widows rebel against regimens of mortifying the flesh. And perhaps that's all it will be. Jolly enough, but, well…
As you turn the pages, the book transforms into a different kind of novel altogether. Perhaps it could - should - have been guessed: but so confident, so gently assured is the misdirection away from the carnage in the Flanders mud that it really is a shock when you realise that this is where di Rollo was heading all along. We'll meet Bleakly's bleak denizens again as the story spins back in time and swoops down into the trenches. And there they are all again, before their limbs got sawn off and tossed into waste bags at the field hospital, before they saw the sights that will scar their minds forever. There they all are again, briefly whole.
I can't remember the last time I read a novel that fizzed with so much energy, or swung so acrobatically between lightly carbonated comedy and pitch-black horror. And - gasp, pause for applause - back again. Then I read the reviews, uniformly excellent, for her 2008 debut novel, The Peachgrowers' Almanac. This Elaine di Rollo, I thought. I've got to meet her.
"They know me here as Thomson," says the voice on the phone in an unreconstructed east Lancashire accent. "Thomson for lecturing in marketing but di Rollo for the novels."
"Here" is the Craiglockhart campus of Napier University, which - like Bleakly Hall, was a hydropathic hotel in the first of its several incarnations, before it became (again like Bleakly) a war hospital. "I give a lecture here on sales promotion in a few weeks' time and I'll be talking about buying one and getting one free and how to include a free tea-towel with your teabags, and every time I give that lecture, I think: 'How did I get here?'
"Don't get me wrong. I'm good at my job, but when I go home, I don't want to read about sales promotion. I'll be switching off from having marked a dissertation about consumers' choice of athletic footwear to trying to write a novel about people's experience of the Indian Mutiny or the First World War. It isn't always easy to make the switch."
History - not the dry, analytical sort, but the raw fillets of lived human experience - that's what she really wants to get to grips with. That's where the passion lies. When she was researching her PhD on the Edinburgh Women's Hospital, trying to understand the lives behind the neat copperplate medical notes written on crumbling pages in archives deep in the bowels of the City Chambers, the past seemed close-up, vivid, graspable: women doctors battling against the male establishment, their patients struggling against poverty and domestic violence. She wanted to find out what happened next, and so did her examiners. "At my PhD exam, they said it was one of the only theses they'd ever read that was actually a bit of a page-turner."
Some of the things she came across in her researches - such as the use of sexual surgery to correct "odd" behaviour among women (which in practice might just mean not being deferential enough to men) - form the raw material from which she wrote The Peachgrowers' Almanac. "I thought it was all extraordinary and horrifying and shouldn't be gathering dust in a PhD thesis. It shouldn't be just historians and history graduates who get to know things like this."
The story-telling urge that had found an outlet in her PhD twitched into life again when she got the job at Napier. Reading about marketing ("So often it's a matter of getting women to get their kit off") made her even more of a feminist than she already was: very well, her novels' protagonists would be too - even when the times were against them, they'd be the kind of feisty rebels today's women readers could identify with rather than so many Victorian wallflowers. And anyway, teaching such an analytical subject at work made her yearn to write more imaginatively in her free time.
She didn't have to look too far for inspiration for Bleakly Hall. "Every day, I walk up the hill to this big, fortress-type institution that used to be a hydropathic hotel. When I first started work here I was in Craighouse, the big building over the hill as you look towards the city centre that used to be an asylum. We'd have to walk up the hill to have classes here, and before they did it up, this place used to have a swimming pool in the basement, and it wasn't hard to imagine it as a hydropathic hotel. In the hall, which I pass every day, there is a small exhibition of the time when this place used to be Craiglockart war hospital, but it wasn't too hard for me to imagine what if, after the war, they had tried to restore it to its former glories as a hotel."
If Craiglockart was Bleakly Hall, the spa village of Bleakly is Strathpeffer. "There's a pump room there that's just like the one in my novel. There's three taps and they'd have someone there to dispense these ghastly waters. The place stinks of eggs, it's absolutely dreadful.
"And they have a museum there which has photos of women submerged in a peat bath, and queuing up for the pump house while the band outside played stirring music. All of that was so extraordinary, you really couldn't make it up."
At first, she didn't want to push the story back from there into the Flanders trenches. Birdsong and Regeneration had already done that, setting the bar intimidatingly high. But in the end, she realised she had to. We think we might know everything we need to about the war's horror, but di Rollo daubs it alongside a primevally fierce comradeship and gallows humour as what was once a fizzy comedy deepens and darkens.
I wonder where it all comes from, this assurance and confidence. Just reading, says di Rollo. No exotic background (her surname comes from her former husband; they are now divorced), just growing up in a semi in Ormskirk with two sisters, a stay-at-home mum and a father in local government. And because there wasn't anything to do in Ormskirk, apart from watching the sprout fields slowly sprout, that's what she mainly did: reading books "mainly by dead people" - Dickens, HG Wells, then a few modern writers like Muriel Spark and JG Farrell with a bit of wit about their work, because that's what always drew her in the first place .
She was "mediocre" at school at everything apart from English. Her sisters were good at science but she wasn't, so when it came to A-levels she picked History, even though she'd not studied it at O-Level. The teacher felt she'd struggle. But when he handed her back her first essay, she got the top mark. "I remember him saying, 'Are you sure you never did history before?' And that one line of praise - I've never forgotten it. Just being told I was quite good, I started to make more of an effort."
That effort took her to Edinburgh University, where she did all of her three degrees before taking up the job lecturing in marketing at Napier. Her next novel - about a massive London department store in the 1880s - will draw on some of the courses she runs there on such subjects as the history of advertising.
But it's her latest novel that I want to find out more about, to ask her about the oddities she discovered while working her way through the two shelves full of First World War books in her Morningside flat. I'm amazed that anyone can manage to write such a fine novel in the first place, while holding down her university job and bringing up two sons, aged five and seven.
"Yes, it's really hard. I have to get everyone ready and off in the morning, then it's up here to lecture on advertising, sales promotion and postmodernism, then rush home and give them tea and get them off to bed by 8pm. Then half an hour on the rowing machine in my bedroom to purge myself from that part of my life, and I'm at my desk till about midnight.And of course, if you're tired, the last thing you feel is witty, so often you have to rewrite things a few times before you get the language right."
I ask one final obvious question. You teach marketing, I ask, so have you ever thought how you'd market your own books?
"No," she says. "I don't know what my USP would be. But I do think that, to an extent, having a dull life is useful. If you have a boring life, you read to find excitement, and you find it not only in past events but in the language that people used. That's what I aspire to and maybe one day I'll get there.
"I don't know why I do this and other people with similarly ordinary backgrounds don't. But I do know that, despite the fact that I've got a job here that I do very well, and the fact that I've got to look after the children very well or otherwise it'll be a disaster when they're teenagers, I have to do the writing … otherwise I'd go completely mental."
• Bleakly Hall, by Elaine di Rollo is published by Chatto & Windus this week, price 12.99.
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