Today I will be interviewing Ruth Finnegan! Enjoy, and remember if you ever want to be interviewed Contact Me!
I am now an Emeritus Professor of the Open University and (high honours both, I am so fortunate) a Fellow of the British Academy and an Honorary Fellow of Somerville College Oxford.
I started however (well, everyone has to start somewhere) by being born in the beautiful Columba-founded island city of Derry and reared in Ulster and Donegal, then, to transcend the horrible Protestant-Catholic divides of my birthplace, wisely sent by my parents to a Quaker school in York. This, a magical setting, was filled with biblical texts and music, both deeply embedded in my Black Inked Pearl novel. First-class Oxford degrees in classics and philosophy (this little Ulster girl even beat the public school boys normally the top of the class – not that I in any way had expected or aimed to do so!) were followed by African fieldwork in northern Sierra Leone, totally inspiring for my life and work. After an Oxford doctorate in social anthropology supervised by the renowned E. E. Evans-Pritchard, followed by university teaching and further research in Africa and (later) in Fiji, I joined the wonderfully pioneering Open University in the U.K. with my husband David Murray, proud now to think that we were founder members of the academic staff there.
I have three amazing daughters and five grandchildren, and live – and dream - with my husband of, now, 52 years, and two cairn terriers, in Old Bletchley, just round the corner from ‘Bletchley Park’ the celebrated site of the secret wartime code-breakers and computer pioneers of the 1940s.
What inspired you to become an author?
Well I had to! For an academic career what else?
But as well it was a matter of just falling into it. Starting with my doctorate on the performance and texts of Limba story-telling, which it was just assumed I would publish, I went on to publish on African oral literature more generally, helped by the fact that this appeared in a series of which my supervisor and other colleagues were general editors – that book, inspired by a desire to make people realise that African oral literature was indeed a real, and already-studied, subject has turned out, against expectation at the time, to be my most read publication due to the open-access-on-the-web form provided (in addition to hard copy versions) by Open Book Publishers in Cambridge; thus the second edition (2012) of Oral Literature in Africa has apparently been read, at least in substantive portion, by nearly 90,000 people, mainly in Africa (http://www.openbookpublishers.com/product/97) – delighting me since the first (1970) edition was largely inaccessible to the very people most interested.
And so I went on from there. In a way I seemed to have no choice, no need for special ‘inspiration’ – as with many others, my path seemed already laid out for me (not that I really anticipated what was to come, it was step by step).
I found that I enjoyed writing – hard work, but becoming easier over the years, and much aided by the support of an understanding husband and children. My books seemed to be received well in the scholarly world (some sold, but really not that many: typical academic, I wrote more because I somehow had to than because it brought in any serious money).
I also found I got fired up by a series of topics, sometimes stimulated by some new approach in the many conferences I attended, but mostly ones which I felt were largely ‘invisible’ in conventional wisdom or wrongly defined out of existence – the gently leftwing and democratizing instincts inherited from my Ulster family made me want to gain more recognition for such topics (this was one reason, incidentally, for both my husband and myself joining the Open University at its inception: its ethic and aims were ours).
So, fired by both this motivation (moral duty almost) and by the intellectual appeal of such topics, I embarked on a series of publications. ‘Oral’ literature and poetry were the first (something I loved, inspiring itself), but this then extended to oral forms and so-called ‘orality ’ more generally; to amateur musicians (central to our culture but so often ‘hidden); the amazingly resilient storied lives (inspiring again) of people living in what is sometimes regarded as a ‘sink estate’ of my home town; the multi-sensory dimensions of communicating (it is not all cognitive and linguistic or dictated solely by technology and the mass media).
What was the main inspiration for your most recent book?
Oh oh! – my life I suppose (both the happy and the grievous). Specially my Irish background, my love of Homer and his similes, and my experience of African story-telling.
Also, see below, Mark Malatesta’s advice which enabled my novel to get written.
But actually I didn’t have an ‘inspiration’ in the sense of being inspired by something and then deciding to write about it. In a way this recent book is not ‘mine’, it somehow came/comes from outside me.maybe (speculating wildly ... ) it is something that was composed (but never written or perhaps never disseminated) a millennium or more ago? Did I perhaps have access to that because of my early steeping in the resonant literatures of the ancient world?
More directly, it was not so much inspired (that’s why I can’t really answer this question directly, sorry) as created, It came – sort-of downloaded itself into my mind irrespective of any conscious intention on my part - in my dreams (visions they’d have called them in the old days). ‘My’ dreams I say, but perhaps they were also, or originally, someone else’s? all this is so strange to me (yes I know about Coleridge’s dreamed Kublai Khan, but that was a one-off, shorter, event, different from my strange continuing process).
To elaborate (since I am often asked about this), what happened was that over the early summer of 2014 a chapter a night came to me through dreams: first what I earlier described (the conventional way of conceptualising them in our culture) as visual, but really essentially non-sensual: deeply felt knots of emotion which then somehow (I keep saying 'somehow’ because this process, though so real in my known experience, is still so mysterious to me) somehow grew into words. Then words seemed to gradually gather round the edges of my mind as I lay nightly in that liminal state between dreaming and waking (or perhaps both at once), or were somehow drawn down like stars from the arched globe of the skies which in turn was/is my mind (arches, globes, spirals – these are so seminal). Then, next day, these words became written, as if transcribed (as I had often done in my studies of taped African stories) without essential change beyond the odd bit of formatting onto my computer.
Once written (if I had to miss a day, luckier than Coleridge, I still remembered) I then, amazingly, forgot all but the broad outline. Even now each time I read the book the words come new to me. Remarkable, something I still don’t understand.
Who influenced you the most in life?
Hm – so many. I learned huge amounts from those I was supposedly ‘studying’ in my fieldwork (in Sierra Leone, Fiji, Milton Keynes); from my husband and daughters (there’s nothing like being faced with bringing up babies and children for educating you); all my teachers and colleagues and, equally, pupils; having to write course material in the new situation of communicating with distance students; passers-by; people I meet on the bus.
But most most of all, my parents: my wise and brave pacifist father Tom Finnegan; and that teller-of-tall-tales and participant, like Einstein, in the magical ‘spookiness’ of the universe, my mother Agnes Finnegan whom I feel I am following, maybe led by, in my novel-writing.
What is the kindest thing someone has ever said and or done for you?
When I once (quite recently) did something absolutely STUPID (it really was), I felt – knew – an awareness that someone specially loved me just for being so stupid, precisely for not being perfect. A miraculous and totally unforeseen experience which will live with me forever.
Do you have a favourite author? (Or name a few)
What is the best writing advice you have ever received?
First, when as a recent graduate I wrote my first, pre-doctoral, dissertation, from my mother (always tactful): ‘I didn’t really warm to that academic style: in places it felt a bit pompous to me … ‘. I’ve tried to heed that advice ever since, and it is always lovely when my academic books are – as not infrequently –praised for their accessible style.
Second, last year, from Mark Malatesta, an American literary coach: ‘Behind every novella is a novel’ (I wouldn’t have allowed myself the dreams which led to my Black inked pearl without that – thanks again Mark),
Did you always want to be a writer and if not what did was the first thing you wanted to be or do?
Though of course my schooling and to some extent my leisure involved lots of writing (good thing too), as a child and student it never entered my head that I would be ‘a writer’, it just grew. I suppose I first saw myself becoming a school teacher, like so many of my family, the more so that I loved school and learning.
Even when I got (well, I did so why conceal it) one of the best firsts in my discipline in Oxford in the days when that really counted (1950s) and my tutors encouraged me to ‘stay on’ I certainly didn’t see myself as a ‘researcher’ (a self-regarding snobby thing in my mind) and hence 'writer'.
This only grew when I realised that after my anthropology studies at Oxford I was expected to go and do fieldwork’ – oh yes! I then tumbled to it, this was ‘research’ so, oh, I must 'write it up' as a 'researcher! (but more useful, pertinent, ‘research’ , it seemed to me, than I could have managed if I had followed on with my earlier ivory-tower (?) classical studies, much though I valued, and still value, this wonderful heritage: the ancient world still has so much – topical too – to teach us).
Do you like to listen to music while you write? If so, who are your favourite artists?
Sometimes, but, for my academic writing, no longer.
I love classical music, especially baroque (Bach, the master) and piano slow movements (think Andras Schiff, Lang Lang), Mozart’s above all. For me there’s also something specially ethereal, heard in any situation but mostly in my mind as I walk, about the second movement of Dvorak’s New World Symphony: I think (know) that that is what I will hear as I walk slowly for the first time through heaven with the sea below me on the right. I also love some of the beautiful tuneful compositions of contemporary composers such as John Rutter, especially under his own conducting and when with the magical harpist Catryn Finch.
Cross-rhythm drumming, something I heard and learned to love in Africa.
During the period, more recently, when I was, willy-nilly, dreaming my novel I often had earphones (still do) to hear, even when sleeping, the lovely all-night radio programme classicfm. I feel in a way that that music was the womb for my novel.
What helps you write when you're stuck and or have writer's block?
Nowadays I’m not – the problem is to find time to write it all down, the ideas and words crowd in.
Earlier it did sometimes happen. Useful strategies (besides reading Howard Becker’s excellent advice) for both myself at that stage, and others; just keep writing, bad or good (you can always cross it out or revise later, extra easy now with word-processing); start in the middle, even just a single phrase (in this way you can fool your inhibitions – we all have them - by pretending you’re not really doing it, just doodling); copy something you’ve written before, then change it, perhaps totally – that means you’re not faced with that horrible white page; and most of all unmissable DEADLINES, if not imposed by others, then by yourself (otherwise you’ll go on trying to perfect things, the best always being, as they rightly say, the enemy of the good: instead follow my mantra for when I’ve got too much to do: ‘if a thing’s worth doing it’s worth doing badly’ – and then, actually, it usually turns out not so bad after all).
After a long day of writing etc, do you have a favourite tv show you like to watch?
Seldom watch TV. I used to enjoy classic-based dramas when the children were young and the news: nowadays that just sends me to sleep.
What are you working on currently?
Oh so much, if only I had more time (no, actually am very content with life as it is, I will do them eventually if, as I fully intend, I live another 20 years). It includes books (some partly written) on: music and radio in Fiji; lessons to be learned from Africa; the amazing lives and experiences of taxi drivers (new project); and, closest to my heart and arising from my (totally unplanned) experiences with my novel (see above) dreams, telepathy and new views of consciousness, including (again very close to my heart – my soul) the heightened consciousness of music experience.
In quite a different direction (they say learning new skills helps to ward off dementia- but really it’s just because I enjoy it)) I am greatly relishing working on what are to me new genres, thus very different ways of writing:
Libretto for a new oratorio – my bit is complete (won’t tell you the title till it’s public), the composer is currently working to complete the music which takes much longer than the words, but hopefully for public performance in 2016 or 2017
Working with a wonderful illustrator on a series of newly-told (sort-of upside down) fairytales for early readers
(most different of all, a lot of unlearning needed, fortunately I have help) A number of film scripts, specially one, nearly finished, of a crusades romance about a girl betrothed to a middle-aged knight who has to go off to fight in the Holy Land for three years, leaving her in the care of his nephew and – well you’ve guessed … (any interested potential producers out there?)
When you're not writing, or working, what do you like to do?
Sleep (sometimes dream), often in the afternoons as well as nights
Sing with others when I can (I used to do this regularly but nowadays droop too early in the evening)
Spend time, any old way, with my husband
Visit our daughters in England, and, especially, several weeks each year with the daughter and granddaughter in beautiful New Zealand (a liminal place for inspiration: home but not home; over and under; old/new)
Going on the occasional cruise (Saga of course) with my husband
What are some of your most favourite books of all time?
Walter Scott, The Betrothed; Stanley Weyman Count Hannibal (both ones I’d love to transform into film scripts)
Hug! and The Dandelion’s Tale (lovely young children’s books)
Jemima Puddleduck (survives hundreds of readings) and (ditto) Little Black Sambo (all right, not politically correct nowadays but, for me, brought up in the 1930s, still enchanting – and I still love pancakes)
The Alchemist (and anything else by Paulo Coelho: I hadn’t encountered them until, by some miracle, I lit on the Alchemist a couple of months ago and found to my astonishment that it somehow had something in common with my Black inked pearl. I know I will love them for ever)
Above all Shakespeare’s sonnets, which I have only quite recently rediscovered, above all 18, the most beautiful love poem of all.
Which of your characters do you love the most and why?
I suppose whichever one I’m writing or thinking about – just now the little dog and the beetle in Black Inked Pearl (who was the beetle really? aha …. ). They're so touching, and so crucial for the story (both of course arrived in dreams and insisted on being included)
Which of your books are you most proud of?
I think The hidden musicians - not so much because, apart from (in a different way) Oral Literature in Africa, it has been the most influential of my books but because 1) I felt I really was revealing something hidden, and honouring its executants, something that, though it was obviously there, somehow had not really been seen before (it’s great to have so many now following that insight) and 2), maybe most of all, that it was drawn not from my own reading (though I needed lots of that) but from the very people who were directly involved: it was essentially from them that the book came.
What is the title of the last book you read/was it good or bad?
Eleven Minutes (Coelho): wonderful.
Is there anything specific you'd like to try writing about in the future?
See on current projects above: I’d better not undertake any more (I admit I’m trying (hard work) to fight off a second novel as I must complete some of my academic books first – I enjoy them too of course)
What is an interesting or hidden talent you have?
Maybe to connect warmly with people wherever we/they are, something from my mother I think – home, overseas, academic, everyday; and to sing together with them, both, when this is possible, literally and, always, in spirit.
I’m pretty useless at people’s names and faces – but what you might call people’s ‘souls’, yes.
If you could have one super power, what would it be and why would you choose it?
To live forever with those I love, and, even there, relishing all the heaven-given senses of earth too – no need to 'choose', I know it will happen whatever.
Oh, and to bring peace in the world - not so sure that that will happen soon. Someday.
(Rereading this it seems strange that I should put myself first, and the needs of the world second. But, on reflection, that is the lesson, for me the discovery, of my novel: our first duty is to be responsible for ourselves – why else were we born?)
Is there anything else you'd like my readers to know?
No - this too long already.
Oh sorry, but yes, do take account of your dreams and the heightened consciousness of experiencing music, of feeling the vibes of sacred places, of knowing you are part of a wider, conscious, cosmos (that sounds so new-age – but, an academic and scientist, I have come, at 80, to know that all this is indeed part of our human life, too often ignored in people’s misplaced (I think) over-confidence in old-fashioned science: the innovative scientists working on new understandings of consciousness would agree with me)
Where can we find you on social media?
Facebook, Linkedin, and, just started, Instagram (all under my name Ruth Finnegan’)
Check back later next year as I will be reviewing Ruth's book Black Inked Pearl!
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