Robyn Cadwallader - author of The Anchoress
Tell us about your latest book – what inspired you to write it?
The Anchoress is the story of Sarah, a young woman in thirteenth-century England. Sarah chooses to become an anchoress: to be permanently locked away in a small cell, seven paces by nine, attached to a village church. There she will pray, read and counsel the local women. The novel explores her experiences of such severe sensory deprivation, her relationships with those who visit her, and her struggle to come to terms with her past, her bodily desires and her love for God.
I came across mention of anchoresses when I was doing research for my PhD on female virginity and agency in the Middle Ages; I was intrigued and, at first, horrified. But as I began to understand the social and religious context, I recognised that the options for some women were very limited. The more I thought about the life of an anchoress, the more I wanted to explore what it would be like to be shut away. What would happen to the woman’s body and mind, to her sense of herself in relation to the world and people outside her cell, to her understanding of her own commitment to God? Creating a narrative from such a claustrophobic setting was a challenge!
Do you use your own experiences when writing?
The life of an anchoress and the setting are obviously a long way from my own experiences. As well as researching the limited records about anchoresses, village life in medieval England, and the religious and social mindset of the time, I visited some of the few remaining cells in England. The experience of sitting in one — though it is restored and much more comfortable than the original would have been — gave me just the beginning of a sense of what a constricted and narrow life it would be. Beyond that, I drew on my imagination, spending a lot of time ‘being there’, but in my mind. I also drew on my own sense of spirituality and the body.
Which author/s or book/s have had the biggest influence on your work?
Poets such as Gerard Manly Hopkins, ee cummings and William Blake; George Eliot, especially Middlemarch; Virginia Woolf, especially Mrs Dalloway; J M Cootzee’s Disgrace; Geoffrey Chaucer and a few anonymous medieval writers; Helen Garner; Michel Faber; Anne Michaels …
Do you have a message for aspiring writers?
This is what I needed to hear many years ago. Perhaps you do too…
Write and read. And write.
Be brave enough to continue with your own writing even when it doesn’t measure up to what you want. Then be prepared to edit and edit some more.
Back yourself. Manage your self-doubt: allow it to keep you honest, but don’t allow it to take control. Back yourself.
Take risks. Play.
Be wary of those who suggest ‘rules’ for writing. Listen with care and then find your own way.
How and where do you write?
I have a study with lots of big windows — ironic, given that I was writing from the point of view of a woman enclosed in a cell with no view of the outside world! In notebooks, I write a lot of notes, play with ideas, explore problems, and when I get to a certain point, I create character timelines. I don’t plan because writing the words is the only way I know what comes next. And, much as I love the idea of writing the novel itself with pen and paper, I always write on the computer; it seems to offer me the freedom I need to get the words down.
Do you have a lucky writing charm?
No. It’s important for me to shut the door to my room (physically and mentally), and to spend about ten minutes meditating. I’m always surprised how much it helps.
Can you tell us what you are working on now?
I’m working on a novel set in fourteenth-century London about a group of illuminators who are painting the intricate decorations for a sumptuous prayer book.