Originally appeared on the Swan River Press website (2012)
Rosalie Parker was born and grew up on a farm in Buckinghamshire, but has lived subsequently in Stockholm, Oxford, Dorset, Somerset, Sheffield and Sussex. She took degrees in English Literature and History, and Archaeology, working first as an archaeologist before returning to her first love of books. Rosalie is co-proprietor and editor of the independent publishing house, Tartarus Press, and lives in the Yorkshire Dales with her partner, the writer and publisher Ray Russell, their son and two cats. More on Rosalie Parker can be found here.
John Kenny: The stories in The Old Knowledge & Other Strange Tales are set in a contemporary timeframe. Did you find it in any way challenging marrying the traditions of the supernatural tale with the modern world?
Rosalie Parker: No, not really, as it seems to me that the strangeness and mysteries of contemporary life are just as relevant as those of the past. The strangeness and mysteries may be different now, although I feel that some, like the beauty, wonder and savagery of human love, for instance, remain the same.
JK: The beauty, wonder and savagery of human love is very much at the centre of ‘In the Garden’, one of my favourites in the collection. The tantalising quality of the story hinges, I think, on the subtle gardening references. Was this what you had in mind when you were writing the story?
RP: When I started ‘In the Garden’, I set myself the challenge of writing a horror story about gardening. Gardening is something I do – I come from a long line of farmers and market-gardeners. As a child I hated gardening and couldn’t see why anyone would want to spend large swathes of their time hacking at vegetation. But it sort of grew on me, and I found I had a certain skill at it. I was interested in the fact that to create beauty in a garden you have to destroy as well as nurture, and I think that in the narrator of ‘In the Garden’ the balance between those two actions has shifted disastrously towards the former.
JK: Both ‘The Old Knowledge’ and ‘Chanctonbury Ring’ draw on your experience as an archaeologist. Both vividly convey the difficulties in building an understanding of people and communities in the distant past. Is this what drew you to the profession in the first place?
RP: Yes. I have always been fascinated by the past, distant or otherwise. I grew up in an old, rambling farmhouse in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by odd bits of farm machinery and ancient, tumbledown buildings. As someone, I can’t remember who, said, ‘everything is older than you think’. I was very lucky to have had some great jobs whilst working as an archaeologist, and obviously it forms quite a large part of my experience of the world, so I suppose it was inevitable that archaeology formed the background to a couple of the stories.
JK: There’s also a sense of ancient wisdom at the heart of ‘The Cook’s Story’; a very earthy, female, ancient knowledge that is communicated between the female characters and understood at a cellular level.
RP: I wrote ‘The Cook’s Story’ after we had spent a fairly disastrous couple of days in the Peak District National Park near Sheffield (our car broke down terminally). I used to live and work there too, and I had the notion of setting the story in a large Elizabethan house, but no idea what it was going to be about. The characters and the story just sort of emerged fully formed, and I suppose the female characters are a kind of counterpoint to the more traditional male horror figure in the tale, who perhaps doesn’t end up being as central and powerful as one might at first think. I seem also to have been exploring the female nurturing role in all the cooking and serving and wifely duties, etc. And the reproductive role. There are echoes of the Victorian tales of the Brontes and Elizabeth Gaskell. I’m more than happy to call myself a feminist. I was a student in the 1980s after all!
JK: There’s a kind of reversal of that situation in ‘The Rain’, where a female character becomes unwittingly drawn into the web of an isolated community. While the story is radically different to it, I found myself thinking of The Wicker Man. Was that an influence?
RP: I hadn’t really thought of The Wicker Man. More League of Gentleman perhaps! I wrote ‘The Rain’ some years ago, not long after we moved to a small Yorkshire village (ahem). I was trying to explore those moments when you are completely misunderstood by someone of a totally different outlook to yourself. Or when you can no longer rely on your own prejudices and beliefs to help you understand a situation. It’s meant to be really unclear as the story progresses as to whether we can trust Geraldine’s perceptions, and in the end, perhaps the villagers really are just trying to help a very confused woman.
JK: By contrast, Sadie, in ‘The Picture’ has very clear goals as a dealer in antiques and paintings. And yet her certainty is very much derailed by her acquisition of a painting of potentially sinister provenance.
RP: Yes, poor Sadie, I give her a bit of a hard time. The sinister picture (actually a drawing) is based on a real one that I own, reputedly by Charles Gleyre. It is an amazingly emotional and Byronic portrait, and most visitors to our house can’t work out if the subject is a man or a woman. I wanted to find a way of using the picture to cause mayhem in Sadie’s life. The moral angle about buying and selling antiques is important, but secondary to the effect of events on Sadie’s relationship.
JK: You mentioned earlier your work as an archaeologist. Is this something you’ve ever thought you might like to get back into or has the lure of writing and publishing taken over?
RP: I don’t think I’d be able to go back to working in archaeology without some serious retraining. Things move on. Publishing and writing is a fine way of spending my time. I did my first degree in English Literature (before I became interested in archaeology), so in some ways I’ve come home.
JK: When did you first get involved with running Tartarus Press with Ray?
RP: Ray had begun publishing as Tartarus Press in a small way when I first met him in Sheffield in the late 1980s. I helped out from time to time with publishing projects while I was working as an archaeologist, and then, after our son Tim was born in 1995, Ray began building up Tartarus on a full-time basis. By 1998, there was too much for him to do on his own, so we decided that we could set up as a partnership and work together. Surprisingly enough, we’re still partners, in both senses of the word, and Tartarus is still in business!
JK: What balance have you struck between writing and publishing, what’s your daily routine, and how does it differ from that of Ray?
RP: I’ve struck a very poor balance between writing and publishing, with publishing winning hands down. I find it quite hard to get down to writing if I have lots of other things to do; I have to clear the decks first, and that is rarely possible. My daily routine varies greatly, but Ray and I share some work, e.g. the dispatch of books, etc. Our main division of labour is that I work largely on the editorial side – reading submissions, commissioning work, liaising with authors, researching new books we’re thinking of publishing and selecting the stories to go in them, copy-editing, first proof-reading, blurb writing, etc. Ray does much of the publicity and general day-to-day running of the business, and he is responsible for book design, including commissioning and/or producing some of the artwork himself. But we both have plenty of input into all areas of the work.
JK: Any plans for another collection soon or a novel?
RP: Having got The Old Knowledge out of my system, I had a bit of a break from writing. I’ve been waiting for inspiration to re-strike, and I have agreed to write a story for an anthology which will be coming out later this year, or maybe early next year. I’m hoping there will be a follow-up collection of stories at some point, although it may be a little while yet. I’m a bit slow at writing fiction. A novel?… there’s a thought…