Academy tutor Julia Blackburn on memoir and the craft of writing a life
In the late 1950s, the jazz singer Billie Holiday was asked in a radio interview what the blues meant to her. ‘There are two kinds of blues,’ she says, her voice as crackly as a scratched record, ‘happy blues and sad blues. I don’t ever sing the same song twice and I don’t ever sing the same tempo; one night it’s a little bit slower, next night it’s a little bit faster, depending how I feel. One thing I do say, the blues, they’re part of my life.’
I have published twelve books, with two more coming out this April. These days I sometimes wonder how much faster or slower, happier or sadder, each one would have been, if I had chosen to write it at another stage in my life. I know for sure that in every case the narrative voice would have different, because of a change in mood or circumstance.
When I started writing I kept trying to make fiction, but its wide and un-signposted landscape made me nervous and I quickly lost my way. So I stepped into research and the more solid structure it seemed to offer. I am not and never have been an historian or a specialist in any particular field, but I am fascinated by the way that one can get closer to an understanding of a total stranger, just by talking to others, by reading letters, diaries, or written accounts and by entering what Henry James called the visitable past; the places they were familiar with and that still hold echoes of what once was. I remember looking at a milling crowd of dung beetles next to an old carob tree and close to the palace where Goya stayed with the Duchess of Alba, and the sudden pleasure of realizing that he must have also seen just such insects, busily being themselves.
My work has been a series of studies of people whose predicaments interested me: Napoleon stripped of his empire; Goya waking up to find himself deaf; a woman living on her own in the Australian desert; Billie Holiday hemmed in by racism and prejudice. Looking back, I realise that every book I have done, even the two novels, has been part of the process of my own slightly haphazard meditations on life and death, time and coincidence.
I had thought that after completing a memoir about my very bohemian family background: The Three of Us ( 2008), I would perhaps be ready to cut loose from the subjective voice that has always steered me, but I haven’t done that and now I suppose I never will.
I have just completed a long poem Murmurations of Love, Grief and Starlings and a book called THREADS , the delicate life of John Craske. He was a Norfolk fisherman who became too ill to go to sea and so he began to make paintings and embroideries of the sea, in order to keep close to everything he missed so much. The writing was a challenge, because Craske, who died in 1943, hardly spoke when he was conscious and was often for months on end in what was called a stuporous state. On top of that, his work (as well as his personal papers) was not taken very seriously and much of it has been casually mislaid. The book evolved around my search for anyone who could tell me something about him and the sort of world he grew up in, the North Sea that he fished in; alongside all sorts of little stories and incidents which seemed to relate to his predicament.
When I was about halfway through, I became aware of a strange parallel in my life and the life of my subject. Just like John Craske’s wife, I was looking after my husband, an artist who kept working with dedication and devotion, but who was becoming increasingly frail. And then, in October 2012 my husband died suddenly and very gently, while Craske was still alive, at least in my account of him. After four very surreal months I managed to return to the writing and the book became the companion that helped to pull me through my grief: my own story and the story of a man who died before I was born, moving forward, hand in hand.
Julia Blackburn has written six books of non-fiction, a family memoir, The Three of Us, which won the 2009 J.R. Ackerley Award, and two novels, The Book of Colour and The Leper’s Companions, both of which were shortlisted for the Orange Prize. She lives in Suffolk and Italy, and is the tutor on our Memoir and Life Writing course, which is now open for applications.