While Emma Tennant has been inspired by great authors, she's a classic in her own right. Interview by LESLEY McDOWELL
MOST WRITERS HAVE ONE OR TWO mentors, or idols, or other unreachable authors from the past whom they've long adored and admired; wanted to be like, perhaps, while knowing they could never hope to emulate that past greatness. It requires ruthlessness, and talent, even recklessness, to take on such a writer. But, remarkably, taking on Robert Louis Stevenson is what Emma Tennant has done repeatedly in her own writing life.
In 1981, she wrote about a boy of ten looking for Treasure Island in The Search for Treasure Island; in 1989 she gave Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde a gender makeover in Two Women of London: The Strange Case of Ms Jekyll and Mrs Hyde. She admits, too, that Stevenson's Master of Ballantrae "mirrors my family life". It's not surprising, then, that she would return to one of Stevenson's most famous works for her latest novel. She sees things, she says, in his books. "I'd have these flashes of recognition when I read him. It was always the double – the more I researched the double, the more I saw that it was completely Scottish. It's to do with imperialism – a lack of knowing who you are keeps you embracing the double."
There are doubles in her latest novel, Seized, too, although not in ways you might expect. And this tale is also something of a departure, as well as a return to familiar shores, in that it's written from the point of view of a young girl. While it is based on Kidnapped, once again Tennant has performed a gender switch, and the central character is a motherless 15-year-old girl called Alice (as opposed to a 16-year-old David Balfour). Alice has been sent to stay with a friend of her grandmother's, an artist called Cara, who lives on Corfu. Cara disappears shortly after Alice's arrival and the family looking after the house seem to be involved in people trafficking. They are also keen to get Alice out of the way. As the book traces Kidnapped's plot, Alice becomes concerned about what happened to her mother on the island years ago, and whether the same fate is about to befall her.
It's not, Tennant insists, a children's book alone; it will appeal to adults too. "A young girl was the kind of voice I thought I could do, as opposed to a young boy. I don't see it as a children's book and Stevenson didn't see Kidnapped as a children's book," she says. Tennant is relieved when I tell her I think she has captured a teenage girl's voice perfectly. It took four years to get to publication – she wrote it quickly, on her own family home on Corfu just before the house itself was sold to "a Russian oligarch" in 2004. ("I really miss the sea," she says.) This was also the year she was diagnosed with breast cancer – she had the choice of a bilateral mastectomy or a pill to shrink the tumours which could then be removed. She chose to take the pill, and was staying on the island to convalesce after having the tumours taken out.
I ask if she thinks now that the kind of book she's written – about youth, but also about someone in mortal danger – emerged out of a time that was characterised by trauma and loss. "It took me three months to write – I think it's the only thing that saves you from illness and loss. Your voice."
I ask her how she thinks her imagination works – why she thinks Stevenson in particular inspired her at that moment.
"I think one of my favourite things is the way Stevenson keeps pulling the cork out of the bottle; the way he'd ask, 'Has my face changed?' It leads to that kind of imagination – Hogg had it too – that doubleness. You have to acknowledge that aspect of your imagination being the most powerful – it's not as if everyone has a bad person like Hyde in their lives, but there's a part in everyone like that."
Tennant has been accused of relying too much on other people's imaginations – she published two sequels to Pride and Prejudice (Pemberly and An Unequal Marriage) as well as a sequel to Emma. She's written back stories to Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, and six years ago toyed with Henry James's The Aspern Papers, in an inspired novel, Felony. What's the appeal of taking on others' stories?
"When I discovered I had the ability to write Pemberly," she says, "it was partly because it reminded me of my own family background, up to a point. So I knew how somebody of that class might behave. And it was a success, so I did more. With Jane Austen (like Stevenson) there were elements of recognition of parts of my own family, mainly on my mother's side, who were very quiet, genteel."
It's not Tennant's mother's family that has interested the public so much, however, but her father's. Christopher Grey Tennant was the 2nd Baron Glenconner, whom his daughter has described as being ferocious one minute, affectionate the next. The family lived in Scotland then moved to London, causing his young daughter huge problems. "Having not left Scotland till I was eight or nine, going every day to the village school, and hating England when I came to London, was another double thing. Being both Scottish and English."
As she describes in her memoirs, it was a highly privileged world (in Girlitude, there are pictures of a young Emma Tennant – photographed by the future Lord Snowdon, no less) but also a dangerously schizophrenic one, of large country estates and no ready cash; of old-style aristocracy and new celebrity. Tennant got married for the first time, to Sebastian Yorke, in 1957; six years later she would publish, under another name, her first novel, The Colour of Rain. Three more marriages would follow as well as an editorship at Vogue, the launch of her own literary magazine, Bananas, and more than 20 books.
Her writing has been called postmodern, feminist, magical-realist; her next novel, due out next year, borrows from an unfinished Henry James short story and is sure to include those elements of her work that have made her famous. She asks me: "What is the most terrible thing since The Turn of the Screw?" – in which, James fans will recall, the potential wickedness of two children is offered up against the possible insanity of their governess. What is more terrible, Tennant argues, is grounded in reality as well as in classical fiction.
Tennant's fiction has always been grounded in the real, something that is often forgotten by critics, for all her love of rewriting, or pre-empting, famous classical works. She is usually ignored when it comes to marking up a canon of Scottish writers because, along with William Boyd and Candia McWilliam, she's often not regarded as Scottish at all. But the realism in her fiction has struck many over the years, since that first novel four decades ago, as particularly Scottish – a psychological and a social realism that embraces the dark as well as the light. Scottish literature has produced few like her.
• Seized is published by Maia Press, priced 8.99. Emma Tennant is at the Edinburgh Book Festival on 17 August
Tennant: A life in the limelight
• Emma Tennant's great-aunt Margot, who was born at one of the family's homes, Glen House in Peeblesshire, was married to Prime Minister Herbert Asquith. Her half-brother was also briefly engaged to Princess Margaret.
• In the early 1970s Tennant founded and edited the literary magazine Bananas, which helped launch the careers of writers such as Angela Carter.
• In April this year Tennant explained in a newspaper article why she was marrying for the fourth time. Her husband is Tim Owens, a writer, and her partner for the last 33 years. Their primary reason for marrying was not so much romance, she said, as inheritance tax.
• In her third memoir, Burnt Diaries, published in 1999, Tennant was castigated by some for revealing details of her affair in the 1970s with the recently deceased Ted Hughes.