The Interview : JR Thorp
(Rachna Singh in conversation with JR Thorp)
The Wise Owl talks to Dr J.R. Thorp, a writer, lyricist and librettist. As a writer Dr Thorp has worked across a variety of genres, from novels to traditional motets and operatic texts. She was ranked as one of The Observer‘s top 10 debut novelists of 2021. Her debut novel, Learwife, was a 2021 Waterstones Book of the Year, Indie Book of the Month and Apple Books Book of the Month in November 2021. The novel also won an Audiofile Earphones Award and has been longlisted for the Walter Scott Prize and the Authors Club Debut Novel Award. JR Thorp was awarded a Markievicz Award by the Irish Arts Council in 2021. Her work has been published in the Cambridge Literary Review, Manchester Review, Antithesis, Wave Composition, among others. JR Thorp wrote the libretto for the highly acclaimed modern opera Dear Marie Stopes and has had works commissioned by the Arts Council, the Wellcome Trust and St Paul’s Cathedral. She is the musical composition partner of award-winning British composer Toby Young and has also worked with acclaimed composer Alex Mills. Born in Australia, she now lives in Cork, Ireland.
Thanks a lot, Dr Thorp, for talking to The Wise Owl.
RS: You are a writer, a lyricist as well as a librettist. If I may ask, which role is closest to your heart and gives you the most creative satisfaction?
JRT: They all fulfil different creative pathways, in their own way. I love lyrical and libretto writing because it’s so rhythmic and full of poetry. I also love how much the act of being sung changes the overall meaning. When I was younger, I idealised the idea of being a writer of novels, to the point where I thought too much about the role, as opposed to the actual work of writing. I was in for a rude shock in my early twenties, coming to realise the real demands, slogging and egoless nature of the job.
RS: What inspired you to become a librettist? Writing text for operas or musicals would require an in depth understanding of the opera and other musical forms. So, have you trained in music or are you self-taught?
JRT: I am entirely self-taught. I’ve watched operas all my life; I grew up in Sydney, going to the Sydney Opera House to see productions regularly, as my school’s head was on the board of Opera Australia and had tranches of free tickets. Opera seems very intelligible when you watch it as a child: of course, these people are singing extravagant arias about their feelings and points of view. Libretti came about gradually, as I moved from lyrical compositions for composers to bigger, longer work.
RS: Your choral work, ‘A Suitcase of Songs' with Toby Young, focusses on the refugees and the immigrant community. Why did this subject draw your interest? Does it in any way reflect your own sense of dislocation?
JRT: It’s a delicate undertaking making art with the experiences of other people, who have trusted you with intimate details of their lives, some of them very harrowing. You reckon with your own privilege a lot. Making music, particularly opera, can feel very disconnected from the day-to-day work of being a person in the world, even if audiences respond to it really keenly. Suitcase of Songs was constructed as a way to serve the community, to honour experiences that don’t necessarily get the spotlight or receive artistic promotion. Art can be fantastic service; it can do real, meaningful work. It doesn’t have to, but if it can, it’s astonishing.
RS: I loved ‘The Owl’, your work commissioned by BBC Magazine. Perhaps it appeals to those like me, who are uninitiated in opera. Its text is contemporary and has an uplifting cadence which I enjoyed. Please tell us how the idea and text were conceptualized for ‘The Owl’?
JRT: The Owl was a lovely commission for a series that happens yearly: it’s a Christmas carol that the BBC Music Magazine publishes in full with sheet music, so choirs everywhere can sing it themselves. We were tasked with making something lilting and seasonal, but also easily accessible to kids and amateur singers all over the world. As somebody from the Southern hemisphere, a British Christmas was a fantasy I knew from storybooks, with snow, holly, and winter owls gliding silently through trees. We chose to work with that aspect of the imagery of Christmas, one that can be a bit more haunting and elegiac than cheery carol tunes (because all the best carols are a bit spooky).
RS: You wrote the libretto for ‘Dear Marie Stopes.’ How did you connect with a figure from 1918? Do you think that the feminist issues or rights she talked about in her book are still relevant to the contemporary milieu?
JRT: Marie Stopes was an astonishing and very forward-thinking woman in some ways, while being brutally cruel in others. For the libretto I quoted vast tranches of her private letters, mostly those written to her for advice by people desperately seeking advice on contraception and sex, and her own replies. The concerns of those letters are immediate and universal: human desires for control over their own reproductive futures, often writing in pure desperation, with no education on how conception happens or what might affect it. It was searingly, horribly relevant. Stopes’ own replies were often supportive and factual, but her writings on various issues, like eugenics, gave that time with her letters a bit of a bitter edge.
RS: I saw Trevor Nunn’s ‘King Lear’ in 2007 at Stratford-upon-Avon and was completely mesmerised by the play but the ‘possibility’ of Lear’s wife never even impinged on my consciousness, perhaps because I was completely gripped by the character of Lear brought to his knees by his daughters. I know you would have been asked this question innumerable times but for the benefit of the readers, tell us how you thought of writing this beautiful novel about a character ‘written out of literary history?
JRT: The interesting thing about Lear’s wife as a figure is that she’s not so written out as she is seen as irrelevant. That’s the case with all iterations of the play: Shakespeare took the story from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Chronicles, dating back to 1100, and there’s no wife in there either. In many ways there’s no space for more than Lear’s ego in the world of the play, and various interpretations have called it a meditation on what happens when one narcissistic masculine figure is left to run amok raising girls on his own, with no ‘moderating’ influence. I’ve seen Lear many times, including the same Trevor Nunn production (which I waited outside at 6am to get tickets for), and it exists as a complete world of its own, but once I started seeing the hole where the wife could have been, I couldn’t unsee it.
The origin of the story really comes from an Agatha Christie story, in which a character makes an aside wondering why Goneril and Regan were ‘like that’. The implication, of course, is that being raised with Lear curdled them completely and by adulthood they’re horrendous, but it planted a seed in me: what if there was another figure who united with Lear in teaching them about competing for love, who used them as pawns in a power struggle, and who could add another interesting dimension to a famous, brutally flawed family? She’s not a revision as much as she is an opportunity, to explore grief, power and the misery of families.
RS: Learwife’s voice of tormented grief and bitterness touched me deeply. Her question ‘whom will I be?’ goes to the heart of a woman’s identity, inextricably connected to a husband and her children. Here is a woman who does not question being the ‘womb of the kingdom’ or an ‘animal condition mate’, is accepting of the ‘industrious spite’ of her daughter and heartbroken about the deaths of her beloved Lear and daughters. Her power shenanigans may appear abhorrent to some, but to me they emerge from her grief and bitterness at being exiled for a crime she knows nothing about. I’m sure our readers would like to know how you managed to make the character so multi-layered and with so many varied voices, all so human. Also, what made you contour the character the way you did? (It mesmerised me completely, perhaps even more than Lear)
JRT: Female characters need to have the space to be sprawling and complex. I envisioned Learwife as incredibly multi-textured: here is a woman with capacity for intense tenderness, affection for those around her, a core of utter loyalty, and also a talent for manipulation, a vicious streak, unshaken belief in her own right to power, and conviction in her own rectitude even when circumstances prove her actions to be damaging or wrong. We spend the entire novel in her head, so I took care to emphasise every aspect of her, particularly those aspects that show the soul beneath the violence. Grief makes us thrash and break things, and trauma and constrictions like the ones the Queen survives can warp a person. I wanted to show that you can sympathise with and understand this sort of character, while also abhorring the things she does; it’s a privilege that female characters still sometimes don't get.
Memory was the key to shaping her; it allowed me to conduct a two-part revelation of her character, one stream in the present, the other in the past. Grieving gave her a strong motivation to revisit the moments and textures of what had gone before, and that informed how the narrative worked. The novel was meticulously constructed to allow the two to echo and connect to one another, so that you got a strong sense of a rich, embodied character whose origins inform everything she does. It was a hell of a structural challenge, particularly when it came to giving the modern stream momentum.
RS: Your novel is lyrical, which I guess is natural considering you are a librettist and have handled text and music together. The musical cadence of the novel becomes apparent when one hears the audiobook by Juliet Stevenson. As a matter of fact, I heard the 15-hour long audio book, in two sittings. I am curious to know whether you wrote the novel like a libretto consciously or the seamless weaving of text and music came to you naturally?
JRT: I’ve always been a heavily poetic writer. I gravitate towards books that use words as a tool for sound and pay attention to the structure of sentences and the balance of rhythms, so that everything, when read aloud, contributed tonally to the piece as a whole. Sparse sentences can work just as well as long and ornate ones, in that sense.
RS: Another noticeable thing about your novel is that the syntax is dense but not archaic, modern but not contemporary. This allows the modern reader to sink into it and absorb it. You said somewhere that you wanted the syntax to be ‘rich but wash over you seamlessly.’ It certainly does that. How did you manage this perfect balance of language and syntax?
JRT: Through intense trial and error. You’re very kind to say such lovely things about it, and it was very far from effortless; I worked with historical novels like Patrick White’s Voss, which is set in the 19th century in Australia and manages to be clear and gorgeous while also syntactically thicker than a rainforest floor, to figure out how to get the balance right. I was braver than I originally set out to be; I had to develop a trust that readers would understand what I was doing, in this intense collection of images and ideas.
RS: Tell us about the struggles you faced when you put together your book and then looked for a publisher for your book. Or was it smooth sailing for you?
JRT: The book itself took five years to write because I was working full-time, and I had no agent or outside encouragement aside from my own dogged stubbornness. I’d written a novel as part of my PhD which was praised by my examiners but failed to attract any agents, largely because it’s written half in poetry and is unwieldy and chaotic. Learwife meant I started again, from scratch, and pursued the idea in the wilderness. Finding an agent was the difficult part: I have a hidden folder of rejection emails. Five ended up being interested, but several of them wanted to take the book in directions I didn’t like, and in the end, I selected Claire Conrad because she understood perfectly that I wasn’t Hilary Mantel and was doing something elaborate and a bit strange. Canongate was one of only two publishers who were given a first look at the novel once we’d worked on it together for about a year, and they snapped it up immediately. They’ve been astonishingly lovely.
RS: You have fleshed out the character of Lear’s wife with such meticulous detail and lived with her for almost 5 years. Did you become emotionally attached to the character? Was to difficult to let go when you finished the book?
JRT: The strength of her perspective meant it was hard to move past her, but as a character, living in her head was sometimes very difficult. She is, in many ways, a thoroughly unlikeable woman who is experiencing very uncomfortable emotions, and even understanding intimately why she is the way she is, and how sympathetic that makes her, it’s still a hard space to be in.
RS: I believe you are working on your second novel, a story about refugees. You are also working on a third novel, about Nuremberg in 1600s.Tell us more about it. When do we see your books in bookstores?
JRT: The second book is about the figures surrounding the refugee crisis - translators, couriers and people smugglers - and about how the erasure of past means the lack of a future. The third, which I really shouldn’t be writing yet, is about floral illuminators working on a real book commissioned by an archbishop in the 1600s, but I’m supposed to be focusing on the second draft of the second book. There’s no timeline at the moment; my agent and I are still figuring out how to make it into an actual story, rather than a collection of ideas with no emotional impact. I’m hoping to get it shipshape by the middle to end of 2023. Learwife is a big act to follow, but I’m trying not to think about that and just getting this new, very different story into a cohesive form.
RS: Do you have any advice for wannabe writers on how to hone their craft and how to pick up an idea for a novel which connects with readers?
JRT: One, let go of the idea of ‘being a writer’ and what that means. You don’t qualify once you’ve got an agent, or once you’ve got a book out, or once you’ve been published in a magazine, or if you sit in cafes looking intelligent and important; you’re a writer if you write, and that’s the end of it. Two, read everything and study/copy it until you learn what you’re actually copying; imitation means you’re teaching yourself the tricks of the book, how they’re constructing it, until it becomes a tool you can use to shape your own ideas. Three, your duty is to the reader, not to the market. You’re creating an experience for a person who picks up your book, so write for them. Four, if something is beautiful but doesn’t work, cut it out and use it for something else later. A paragraph can be objectively excellent but weigh a piece down; have a folder to put those segments in. You aren’t killing your darlings as much as you’re putting them away to mature for a while. Five, learn about every genre you can, not just the ones you think you’d like to do; say yes to commissions you can’t do yet, and teach yourself how to make them. Six, do not take anything that any writer ever says as gospel.
Thank you so much for talking to The Wise Owl. We wish you the best in all your literary and musical pursuits and hope your forthcoming books will be brilliant successes like Learwife.
(Photo: Courtesy Tristan Hutchinson)