This Party’s Got to Stop - Rupert Thomson interview
In 1984, the death of his father brought Rupert Thomson back to the family home. He tells Jay Richardson why writing about it was a traumatic experience
Rupert Thomson ‘always had this perverse view that fiction is true and memoirs aren’t, because there’s so much you can’t say in them’. Yet the novelist always knew he was going to write This Party’s Got to Stop, the moving, darkly humorous account of how he and his brothers returned to their Eastbourne family home for seven months after their father passed away in 1984, two decades after their mother collapsed and died on a nearby tennis court. While Rupert and his middle brother Robin tried to get high on their father’s medication, youngest brother Ralph and his wife Vivian fixed a lock to their bedroom door and sharpened flick knives, relations breaking down to the extent that Rupert and Ralph didn’t speak to each other for 23 years.
For this first foray into memoir after eight cult novels (including Death of a Murderer and Divided Kingdom), the well-travelled Thomson, speaking to me from his current home in Barcelona, found that ‘every day I was longing to escape into fiction. I felt straitjacketed, crippled by having to stick to the facts. It took me 17 months to work out how to use my imagination at all. I used to dread going to work and gave up once after the first draft. But that’s a good sign. Every book should feel like an impossibility you have to overcome.’ Notwithstanding a vague sense that he might be about to write his mother back into existence, his extensive research and eventual writing elicited several revelations, not least when he travelled to Shanghai in 2007 to meet Ralph, prompting an uncertain process of revisionism for their relationship.
‘Writing about that time was provocative, if not actually dangerous,’ he explains. ‘It was a double gamble, because even if I pulled it off, I wasn’t sure my brothers would let me publish it; a book like this is a considerable invasion of privacy. Obviously every memoir is backward looking, but this one looked forward too. Realising that was the point at which the book came alive for me.’ Some have called the book extreme, but for Thomson, that’s barely the half of it. ‘I think of the book as an understatement compared to what actually happened. There was one particular episode I really wanted to put in but Ralph would never allow it. So it’s simply a version.’
His brother had in fact emailed him half an hour before we chat, responding to a reviewer’s hope that Thomson doesn’t get into trouble over the book. ‘There was always something sinister about Ralph,’ Thomson chuckles. ‘I know him at some blood level but I don’t really know what he’s been doing for the last 25 years. So he’s kind of teasing, messing with my head a little when he says that.’ Nevertheless, Thomson hopes that blood will prove thicker than ink. ‘What I’m really looking forward to is the moment when we’re all in the same room again, which the three of us haven’t been for 26 years. When you’ve got a lot of early deaths in your family and three brothers all in their 50s, you’re entering the corridor of uncertainty. Something’s got to happen sooner rather than later if it’s going to happen at all.’
This Party’s Got to Stop is out now published by Granta.