Photographer: Charlie Hopkinson
Rachel Seiffert is the wonderful Booker Prize shortlisted novelist of The Dark Room (2001). She has also been long-listed twice for the Orange/Baileys prize and was named one of Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists in 2003. In 2011 she received the EM Forster Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Rachel’s other writing includes: Field Study (2004), Afterwards (2007) and The Walk Home (2014). Rachel is also a wonderful teacher: she has taught creative writing at Goldsmiths College, Glasgow University and the Humbolt University Berlin. Rachel was born in Oxford and now lives in London with her family.
In 2012, Rachel came to run a writing workshop with my pupils at Wellington College – she inspired and encouraged and also challenged us to make our writing stronger and leaner (all adverbs were quickly banished!). Rachel is based in London and is currently working on a novella set in a Ukranian town under Nazi occupation. I feel very proud to share a publishing house with Rachel – she has recently moved to Virago at Little, Brown.
Here’s a little insight into Rachel’s world.
What three words would you use to describe yourself?
I’m a grafter.
What do you love most about writing?
The chance to explore a time, a set of people, or an idea.
What do you find hardest about writing?
You have to be your own greatest advocate and your own harshest critic; the balance is very tricky to strike. I tend towards the latter, so am working on getting better at the former!
What kind of child were you?
As a small child, I think I was pretty happy. My teens turned me into something of a worrier; I tended to overthink situations. Once I got into sixth form, I had settled again, helped by some excellent teachers who made their subjects a great deal more interesting than teenage angst.
Where’s your favourite place in the whole world?
I have a few… They all tend to be by water somehow. At the Evenlode, the Windrush, on the Isle of Mull, at Arisaig, in the Lot Valley, in the Maine backwoods.
Do you have any quirky writing habits?
I knit when I come to a sticking point. Getting the motor functions going seems to set the higher functions whirring too. Some writers walk or run for similar reasons; I may not get a work-out into the bargain, but at least knitting keeps me at my desk!
What book do you wish you’d written?
What’s been your most embarrassing moment to date?
Of course it’s too embarrassing to relate!
Do you have any writing tics that you’re forever editing out?
I over-use semi-colons. And the word ‘awkward.’
What’s your greatest fear?
What are you reading at the moment?
A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor. His descriptions of the 1930s Europe he walked through, and especially of the people he encountered, are just brilliant. Generous, inventive, atmospheric, wry, intelligent. In fact, can I add it to the books I wish I’d written?
What song would you like to be played at your funeral?
What an impossible question. The most honest answer is probably no song at all. Or it would have to be just a piece of music; I listen too closely to lyrics, at the expense of the melody. It irritates my husband…
What’s the most important lesson life has taught you?
Worry isn’t worth the effort.
Which writer do you most admire?
Any number of German writers who kept at their craft in exile, or even under the noses of the Nazis. Fear and Misery in the Third Reich by Bertolt Brecht is extraordinarily clear-sighted about human behaviour during the Nazi period – and it was published in 1938, so it wasn’t even written with the benefit of hindsight.
Do you have a favourite snack you turn to when you’re writing?
Tea, tea and more tea. I never finish a cup, though, so my desk is littered with mugs of cold dregs at the end of the day – yuck.
What inspires you?
History. Or, more specifically, times of great upheaval. It’s the way humans act when they’re at the sharp end of things that captures my imagination; what would you do if…?
What’s your most treasured possession?
I don’t have one.
When were you happiest?
I was pretty happy yesterday on a Kent beach with my family after a night under canvas.
What keeps you awake at night?
I can turn any thought into a worry at 3am… Then I try to think about a character or scene I’m working on instead. I don’t usually come up with blindingly good ideas, but it distracts me.
What three tips would you give writers?