It’s always a delight to feature a fellow author on my blog, and particularly one who is with my publisher Skylight Press. But I’m sure you’ll agree that Rupert Copping has a fascinating life story which is worthy of the plot of a novel in its own right! Welcome Rupert – it’s a great pleasure to have you here.
Tell me a little bit about yourself as a person?
What can I say? I was born in London. My father was well known antiquarian book dealer called Peter Eaton but my parents split up acrimoniously when I was an infant and I didn’t know he was my father until I was sixteen.
My eccentric mother and even more eccentric stepfather took me to South America when I was three. I had a fantastic childhood in Ecuador because I was given a lot of freedom and could do pretty much anything I liked, such as playing truant from school and going to the jungle and other stuff I’d better not mention. My stepfather had left England under a cloud. He was an anarchist who tried to start a schoolchildren’s union and got in trouble with a boarding school he ran when one of the teachers got an underage girl pregnant and who happened to be the daughter of a government minister.
In Ecuador, for a living, my stepfather started out by collecting frogs and snakes in the jungle and selling them to universities in the U.S. But on one of his trips he got polio, so he had to give up the jungle and he started working for the British Embassy where he was recruited by the secret service and was about to be appointed head spy for the Caribbean when he got leukaemia and died in his mid forties… Anyway, when I was sixteen and I was about to leave Ecuador by shipping as a cabin boy on an oil tanker my mother told me my step father wasn’t my father – which I’d sort of suspected anyhow, so I wasn’t too taken aback… After a few months at sea I decided to leave the merchant navy because the cook tried to rape me. I disembarked at Liverpool.
After the freedom and wonderful climate of Ecuador, England came as a shock. I was miserable. That winter in ‘63 or 4 was one of the worst on record. I was snowbound in a cottage near Hastings with my grandparents. When spring came I couldn’t stand it anymore. I wanted to have fun and meet girls and so I decamped to London where I met my father for the first time. I stayed with him and my stepmother for a bit, trying to learn the book trade, but then I got involved with the nascent hippy movement. That led me to an avant garde dance group called the Exploding Galaxy and a tour of Europe, but for most of it I was high on marijuana and LSD.
When I got back to London I met my wife and we went to Spain, to what was then an unspoilt coastal village on the hippy trail, near Malaga, called Mijas. Although at that time Spain was under fascist rule, I loved Mijas. I could speak Spanish again, and there was sun and cheap booze and the Spanish people were great. There was also a number of Americans; some were artists and writers, others veterans from the Korean War or younger refuse-niks from the Vietnam War. I met a lot of interesting people in Mijas, both Spanish and foreign, and some of them famous but I don’t suppose this is the place to start name dropping…
After Mijas and a short interlude back in the UK, my wife and I and our two young children moved further inland, to a village in the mountains in the province of Granada. This region, called the Alpujarras, has become famous now. It’s been declared a national park and is popular with tourists, but in my day, in the early 1970’s it was completely abandoned and largely unknown. One of the few people who did know about it was the Bloomsbury writer Gerald Brenan, who became a good friend, and wrote a book about the region in the 1920’s called South from Granada and which is still being published. We lived some 10 years in the Alpujarras on a wing and a prayer, under very strained financial conditions. By then we had three children and in the end it all became too much, we just couldn’t make ends meet and my writing career was going nowhere. Although I had some good contacts, and for a while even had Gillon Aitken as my agent, still no one wanted to publish what I wrote. They said my work wasn’t commercial enough, and sometimes they said it was too exotic!
Anyway we returned to the UK dead broke, and since my wife is Scottish we ended up living on the Isle of Skye. There, after something of a struggle, we went into business. My wife opened a whole-food and bookshop and I opened a candle workshop which eventually, after a number of years of going to night art classes, I turned into an art gallery where I could exhibit and sell my paintings. So from being a
writer I became a painter. My art gallery is now closed and my wife has retired from business, but I still have a studio close to our house and I still paint. Some people collect my paintings and now and then I have exhibitions in other galleries, so I’m still a working painter.
I really enjoy painting. You can listen to music and physically move around when you’re painting, which isn’t the same as when you’re writing, which is more static and more cerebral…
I’ve been living on the Isle of Skye for close to thirty years now, but I go to Spain and Portugal every year for a few months because I can’t live without the sun, and now and then my wife and I go to Mexico, where one of our daughters lives. Our other children live in or around London so we go there as well, and two years ago we went on a tour of England which we really enjoyed and which surprised me because it’s taken me all my life to properly appreciate just how beautiful some parts of England are, and how generally welcoming and friendly the people are, too.
Tell me about your journey as a writer – how you started and how you have developed?
I started writing really young. I always dreamed of being a writer. In Ecuador, my parents had a lot of books they had brought from England; some of them beautifully bound editions of Shakespeare and other classics. I didn’t read these books so much as hold them and look at them. I didn’t really start reading properly until I was in my early teens, and one of my favourite books then was Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller because it was smutty. An Irish American friend had a copy and we’d get together and read pages sniggering and chuckling. After that I read Catcher in the Rye and books by Stevenson, like Treasure Island and Kidnapped.
When I was twelve I tried to write a book about a journey I made into the jungle, acting as cook and translator, with an Oxford University botanical expedition. But my attempt was extraordinarily clumsy, I feared I had no talent for writing whatsoever, and it wasn’t until I was twenty and living in England that people started talking about dyslexia and I realized I might be slightly dyslexic myself, which in fact turned out to be the case and now partly explains why I was so hopeless at school. But the idea of wanting to be a writer persisted in spite of all my failures to write anything decent. By the time I was in my twenties I was reading anything I could get my hands on. Thrillers, bestsellers…I wasn’t fussy.
Certain types of books I liked more than others, though; books that contained adventure, like Exploration Fawcett, or novels that kept you turning the pages but also made you think, like Camus or Bellow, and of course, all the world literature classics that everyone knows about. But what is really pleasing for me is to discover a book that is out of fashion or that few people have heard about and to be totally gripped by it. In this category I would put the books of someone like B. Traven, or Janet Lewis. Finally there are those rare books that touch your soul, like the works of Primo Levi.
What I can’t understand is people who want to be writers without first being readers. To be a good writer, it seems to me, you’ve got to be prepared to read everything and anything. Only then can you start choosing from what you’ve read and decide in which direction you want to go. In my own quest as a writer I’ve always wanted to tell a good story which at the same time reflects my personal experience of life and manages to speak a truth or two that readers can recognize.
How would you describe your work – it‘s themes and the important things about it?
Like all writers I always dreamed of fame and fortune. That it hasn’t turned out that way can be seen as good or bad, depending on your point of view, for the truth is that generally speaking the more commercial you become the more your integrity tends to take a back seat.
Of course there are exceptions but these only prove the rule. In the past, at certain times of desperate need, I did try to write commercially but somehow I never managed it successfully. So really I’ve had no alternative but to write the way I do. I want to tell good stories, but also stories that are honest and reflect my search for emotional and intellectual truth. In this respect I diverge from writers like Kafka or Philip K Dick. They are universal writers who I enjoy reading and admire profoundly, but they are writers who are more interested in the fantastic ideas they wish to express than in the verisimilitude of their settings and characters.
Of course I also sometimes get gripped by fantastic ideas and my novel, Before the Dawn, is a clear example of this; but unlike the writers I’ve mentioned I’m not prepared to sever all connection to reality for the sake of the ideas. So things like reality, depth of character and emotional honesty are important to me, and to make this happen, it seems to me, a writer needs to be able to tap into his own experience of life, which is why I think a writer worth his/her salt needs to have knocked around for a bit.
As for plot, yes that’s important, but too much of a plot can often kill a novel. Even thrillers are not immune. Personally I like stories where the plot feels natural, uncontrived, but sometimes this is extremely difficult to achieve, especially if you are writing a story rooted in a fantastic idea rather than in contemporary, or even historical, life.
So really, how a writer structures a book depends on the kind of story he wants to tell. In my own work I have preferences for the kind of things I’d like to write, but I’m open to trying my hand at anything so long as I make a good job of it. For me that’s the most important thing: to do the very best possible job you can with what you’ve chosen to write about. If you do that then you don’t have to justify yourself to anyone.
Tell me about your current book – what is it about and what makes it a great read?
I tell people I started writing my current novel, Before the Dawn, more than thirty years ago, but actually the idea occurred to me way back in 1970, just after I’d read a Hundred Years of Solitude, and I started the actual writing of it in 1972. Around that time there were a lot of books about red Indians coming out as well as the Castaneda books. And also there was the hippy movement of which I was a part, and my childhood in Ecuador… Well, it all sort of combined to get me writing Before the Dawn.
I wrote the first draft in Mijas. I wrote it quickly in a room I’d borrowed in the house of an aging ex-Hollywood actress. When I finished it I had the idea I’d written a work of genius but it was more likely a work of utter clumsiness and immaturity, even if it did contain some redeeming features. Anyway, it failed to attract any attention whatsoever from publishers. So I put it aside.
Then a few years later I had another look at it and saw where it could be improved and decided to re-write it…. And that has been more or less the pattern for the last forty years. Every few years I’ve re-discovered it and re-written it and improved it (sometimes with a lot of heartache) and sent it off to agents and publishers and got nothing in return but knock backs.
Altogether I must have written Before the Dawn five or six times and sent it to over well over 60 agents and publishers. I think the last big publisher to read it was Bill Scott Kerr, who’s now head of Transworld/Random House. He sent me a long sympathetic letter telling me what a wonderful book he thought it was but how parochial the market was and how my novel just wasn’t commercial enough.
Against such obduracy there is nothing you can do. Big publishers and agents have only one interest when it comes down to the line, and that’s whether the book is going to make them any money. I’ve always believed these people are wrong, and judgements fallible, and that’s why I’ve persevered through thick and thin in trying to find a home for my novel and get it published. Before the Dawn is a great story. And oddly it’s one of those stories that rather than less pertinent has become more pertinent to current events as time has gone on. And I guess the novel will become still more relevant so long as the world’s forests are further destroyed, and the indigenous people who dwell in these forests are wiped out, and so long, too, as all over the world people’s freedoms are eroded, and they are economically exploited and their right to self expression is denied.
This on one level. On another level, the novel is about the dangers of mysticism. And it’s also about the quest for artistic truth. But ultimately, what I’ve want to do with this novel is tell a good story; a story that the reader can’t help but get involved in, that is unusual and satisfying and moving, and makes the reader more human, not less.
Where can I buy a copy of your book?
You can buy a copy direct from my publishers, Skylight Press.
Or from Amazon books here.
Or you can ask in your local bookshop. If they don’t have a copy in stock you can ask them to get one for you.