Diving for pearls

Ken Robinson and Barry Unsworth

Photo: James Royall

Tuesday 9th October, 2007 | Posted by Caroline Graty

For a mere mortal like myself, it’s somehow comforting to know that even renowned, Booker-winning novelists have anxieties about their work. Barry Unsworth is about to publish his 16th book but, as his conversation with psychoanalyst Ken Robinson revealed, he takes nothing for granted.

Speaking at the Connecting Conversations event on 5 October, he said ‘There is a fear that one might come to the end of one’s capacity for snorkelling, dredging, bringing up the goods. Every writer has that fear.’

Unsworth and Robinson were exploring Arthur Koestler’s analogy of the artist as a diver, connected to the world by a breathing tube but diving to the sea-bed of their subconscious for creative material. But although he may have anxieties, Unsworth showed no sign of losing his ability to plumb the depths, speaking with clarity and wisdom about the human condition and showing a passion for the research process so essential for a writer whose books span a variety of centuries, cultures and countries.

Yet Unsworth took time to find his voice as a writer. He was born in the North East of England but his early literary influences were authors of the American Deep South such as Eudora Welty. He remarked that his first attempts were ‘an uneasy mix of Stockton-on-Tees and Mississippi.’ His early short stories met with rejection, and it was only when advised to try ‘the longer form’ that success arrived. The scope allowed by the novel suited him and his work was never rejected again.

Unsworth’s advice to other writers? ‘Understand yourself. Find out what sort of thing you are good at doing and what lies within your talents. If one does that one can try to realise something that is consonant with one's capacity.’

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