Katherine Rundell is, in a word, enthusiastic. She’s enthusiastic about John Donne. She’s enthusiastic about walking along rooftops. She’s enthusiastic about words, and stories, and food. She has often started her morning with a cartwheel and is currently learning to fly a small plane. A prolific writer, her many children’s books aim to instill the sense of discovery she still remembers from her own unruly childhood adventures — and remind adults of the astonishment that still awaits them.
She joined Tyler to discuss how she became obsessed with John Donne, the power of memorizing poetry, the political implications of suicide in the 17th century, the new evidence of Donne’s faith, the contagious intensity of thought in 17th century British life, the effect of the plague on national consciousness, the brutality of boys’ schooling, the thrills and dangers of rooftop walking, why children should be more mischievous, why she’d like to lower the voting age to 16, her favorite UK bookshop, the wonderful weirdness of Diana Wynne Jones, why she has at least one joke about Belgium in every book, what T.S. Eliot missed about John Donne, what it’s like to eat tarantula, the Kafka book she gives to toddlers, why The Book of Common Prayer is underrated, and more.
Listen to the full conversation
Recorded September 2nd, 2022
You can also watch a video of the conversation here.
Read the full transcript
TYLER COWEN: Hello, everyone. Welcome back to Conversations with Tyler. Today I’m chatting with Katherine Rundell. Katherine is a fellow at All Souls College. She is the best-selling author of numerous children’s books. Every morning, she wakes up and does a cartwheel. But most prominently for me, she is the author of the recent book Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne, which is, this year so far [September 2022], probably my favorite book of the year. Katherine, welcome.
KATHERINE RUNDELL: Thank you so much for having me.
COWEN: John Donne — he’s an English poet, born in 1572. What is your origin story of how you became obsessed with him?
RUNDELL: I have parents who believed in the power of memorizing poetry and in the idea that even if you memorize poetry that you don’t understand, there will be a time in your life when it will come back for you.
So I was paid to memorize poetry, and my mother used to put it on the wall next to the sink where we would brush our teeth. A lot of it was T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, but there was also some John Donne poetry. Even though I didn’t fully grasp it, I found it to be faintly alchemic. I loved it. I loved its strangeness and its difficulty. I’ve loved him for a very long time now.
COWEN: How old are you at that initial point?
RUNDELL: I was probably about 8.
COWEN: When does the flipping age come when you think, “This is my thing. I’m going to do something with this”?
RUNDELL: I think probably in my teen years, he became my favorite poet and a talismanic author. I found him a place of refuge against that which seemed to me often ungenerous. So much of popular culture now offers a quite unexciting vision of what your mind and language might be capable of. I found him a brilliant antidote to that, a bulwark against a kind of anti-intellectualism. Then also, of course, I had boyfriends who would send it to me, and I found that very romantic.
COWEN: The early John Donne — he writes poetry about the transmigration of souls. He writes a tract defending suicide that even suggests, possibly, Christ committed suicide on purpose. Was early John Donne at all a Christian?
RUNDELL: It’s a really good question. The one that we will never know the answer to is what precise shape did his inner religious life take because, of course, the central thing that most people who know a little bit about Donne know is that he was born into a Catholic family at a time when to be Catholic was to be persecuted, and he died the dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral.
That necessitated both a conversion and an emphaticness in his allegiance to the religion of the crown. He didn’t just cease to be a Catholic. He wrote two major tracts against Catholicism, Pseudo-Martyr and Ignatius His Conclave. The question of how far he ever believed, how far his Christianity, his Catholicism was real, and how far his later religion was real, and how far it was a necessity born of poverty or a questing ambition is something that a huge number of people will never agree on.
Personally, I am inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. It was a time when many people changed religions throughout their lives. I think that his writing, the passion and fervor in his religious poetry, the focus and intelligence in his sermons, the breadth of dedication of thought, and the time it will have taken — I find it very easy to believe both in the reality of his Catholicism and in the reality of his Protestant conversion.
COWEN: Just a general question for perspective: If you take poets and intellectuals in early to mid-19th-century England, or London life, what percentage of them do you think believed, not in God, but in the Trinity, in literal Christian doctrine?
RUNDELL: 19th century?
COWEN: No, no. Donne’s time, 17th century.
RUNDELL: I think belief is such a difficult word because it will have meant different things. You will have had someone like Kit Marlowe, who played very openly with the idea of real atheism, the idea that we live in an empty universe. Of course, some people believe that he was murdered for it. Other people believe that it was a brawl in a pub when he got knifed in the eye for not paying a bill, and we’ll never know.
Do you ask me to put a number on it?
COWEN: A number, yes. This is a podcast.
RUNDELL: [laughs] Okay, I’m going to say 70 percent of people found . . . if you read the letters that we have of the time, people are often, in their private lives, expressing very real comfort and hope from certain forms of religious doctrine. The amount of knowledge that people would’ve had, what the Bible actually said, the amount of access people would have had to Bibles in English, was of course, very limited. But I think a lot of people believed because it was offered as a way to put down your anxiety, your hopes, your chaos. It was a structure that gave people purpose and meaning.
Then, of course, I think there will have been a lot of people who went to church — it was against the law not to go to church — but who went to church out of conformity, out of duty, out of not really caring that much. I’m sure, in every church service, there were the passionate devotees and the people who were thinking about lunch — as there are now.
COWEN: For Donne, can the meaning of a suicide ever be truly transparent?
RUNDELL: No. I think, for Donne, suicide is one of the things that dogs his life. It was illegal during Donne’s lifetime to commit suicide. It was a crime, in that most strange of ironies, punishable by death. Suicides could be buried with a stake put through their hearts at the crossroads. In France, there have been accounts of dead bodies of suicides dragged through the streets as a warning. Of course, it was against religious doctrine.
John Donne’s letters tell us about his very real and urgent keening towards death. He was a man who felt the pull of, he says, his own sword. And he wrote the first full-length treatise in the English language, Biathanatos, on suicide, which argues that in very specific, limited circumstances, suicide is not a sin, that Christ himself was the one great suicide.
For Donne, to be pulled towards suicide was both, for him, to feel he was being pulled towards sin, but also to feel that it would be a shortcut, a leaping into infinity and into the presence of God. For him, it was never going to be, in any way, straightforward or transparent.
COWEN: What’s the political meaning of Biathanatos, Donne’s tract on suicide? Is it asserting a right of self-ownership? How do we think about it? Is it egalitarian, or what is it doing, politically, in a very political time?
RUNDELL: Politically, of course, it’s complicated by the fact that he wrote it, but not to be read. He wrote a text that he explicitly told a friend, when he went to Germany later in life, “Neither burn it nor publish it. Give it not to the fire, but show it to no one,” because he was aware that it was a text that could lead him to be put in very real peril, not necessarily of anything dramatic like court cases, but he would’ve probably lost his job.
For him, the politics of it — profoundly opaque and probably informed by a lot of his own desire to justify his own suicidal tendencies. There are those within Donne’s scholarship who think that Biathanatos was, in fact, a personal bid to write out of himself his desire towards suicide, that in some ways, those who talk about it a great deal are perhaps the least likely to commit it, and that he was in some way protecting himself in that way, so that it was a personal text in a way that it doesn’t look.
I don’t think that it is arguing anything as radical as absolute self-ownership because I think that would be anachronistic for the time. But I think it’s one of the texts that come closest to arguing that our certainties . . . It famously says we have been sure about so many things, and we have been wrong about them. We have been wrong about the stars.
He is certainly saying all certainty has in it the peril of being not just wrong, but wrong in a way that will create misadventuring chaos. He is doing something quite radical there. He is saying there is no single great truth upon which we can base anything, and that was bold.
COWEN: Whether or not you agree with it, what is the best Straussian reading of John Donne?
RUNDELL: [laughs] Straussian reading?
RUNDELL: I don’t think I know the answer to that. Can you think of one?
COWEN: If you think he might be an atheist — I don’t think he was, but I think it’s a plausible reading that he never believed in the Anglican Church. He became a dean for survival and for income and for security. What he cared about was his art, and a lot of it was a charade. Even in the early work, he was a very high-class entertainer, and in some way, it wasn’t sincere. I don’t know if I would defend that, but I would give it a chance of 10 percent.
RUNDELL: Yes, I think so. It’s certainly a position that was very popular in the 1980s. John Carey’s completely spectacular book, John Donne: Life, Mind, and Art, certainly gives truck to that as a possible position.
One of the reasons that that vision has really been shifted in the last 10 years or so has been the discovery of new letters and the dating of old letters to suggest that, even after he had started to reach some form of real middle-class wealth and solidity, he still kept pushing in a way that could have, in fact, been detrimental to him towards being ordained. The king’s favorite, Buckingham, was trying to put him off and was trying to offer him various forms of secretarialship — maybe going to Venice, maybe going to Ireland.
That he, in the face of these letters, was pushing back and insisting on the pursuit of God . . . Also, he reads to me, in his letters, like a man bent on some form of sincerity. For every letter where there is flattery and ornate rhetoric that seems to have, at the heart of it when you burrow through, only a joke, there are also letters that seem to express a man who wanted to be able to lay down truth in words. Therefore, I do believe in his religion.
COWEN: Now, there’s a superficial but possibly true view of Donne that he wrote too many verses and epithalamiums for pay, and the world would’ve been better if he had just done more songs and sonnets. Do you agree?
RUNDELL: Yes, of course.
COWEN: Just flat out, you agree?
RUNDELL: I absolutely agree. But then, you can say that of almost any poet of the period, for whom the need to make money meant that they had to compose in all ways which absolutely were, step by step, in the fashion of the time, and therefore held back their more radical and inventive impulses. So, when they weren’t being paid, they often wrote their best work.
COWEN: For so long, why was Ben Jonson so much more popular a poet than Donne?
RUNDELL: Partly because he was more famous; partly because he wrote plays, and the plays pleased first the queen and then the king; partly because he wrote for the boys of the boy players, and the boy players had a real glamour at the time, and Queen Elizabeth was borderline obsessed with them.
COWEN: Was Jonson ever a great poet, or is it all just pretty good? None of it sticks with me. Am I missing something? Donne sticks with me.
RUNDELL: If you are missing something, I’m missing it too. I admire Jonson’s structural ingenuity, and I admire his flair, and I really admire his capacity for gossip because it gave us a lot of the knowledge that we have of the time. But I have never managed to find him a poet who gets into your intestines.
COWEN: There’s a recent book by Clare Jackson called Devil-Land, which I very much admire. It stresses how much British thought and life in the 17th century was — I think she even uses the word “deranged,” crazy. It was a highly ideological era. People started believing, writing, doing all kinds of crazy things. Do you agree? If so, why did that happen then? I know that’s a big question, but I’ve been very interested in this issue.
RUNDELL: [laughs] I think it does look, to us now, like a time where a febrile intensity of thought became not just commonplace but contagious. Certainly, you could wake up in the morning, and you could see acts of great devotion and great violence before breakfast. You could see a man burned for his belief. You could see a woman hung for hers. You could see people willing to push large beliefs on themselves to the point of death.
Certainly, I think it was also exacerbated by plague, by the fact that, every few years in Britain, the plague would come galloping through major cities, and thousands of people would die overnight. I think that closeness to death, to war, to pestilence, also to beauty, to an influx of money, to the fact that suddenly we had access to far greater knowledge because of the boom of the printing press — that’s enough to create a febrile moment, both intellectually and emotionally, I think.
COWEN: Are we, in some ways, reentering a time somewhat analogous to the 17th century in England?
RUNDELL: I think it does sometimes feel like we are, that there is a similarly explosive moment, where we have newly explosive possibilities and newly explosive fears. There feels like something similarly extreme happening, although I would say from different causes.
COWEN: When you’re writing about John Donne, what is the proper music to listen to? Is it William Byrd or is it Simon and Garfunkel?
RUNDELL: [laughs] One could, if one wanted to, listen to Doctor Atomic, which has set “Batter My Heart” into an aria, which is very beautiful. You could listen to some semi-contemporary adaptations, though none absolutely contemporary, the Campion version of “Break of Day.” I wouldn’t, personally. I would say maybe some Mahler, someone who believed in both chaos and glory.
COWEN: Our next podcast guest is, in fact, John Adams, and I’m planning on asking him about Donne.
COWEN: What’s your favorite word invented by John Donne?
RUNDELL: The reason the book is called Super-Infinite. I do love impossibility. I think it speaks highly to his sense of that which did not look impossible, but in fact, when you look at it closely, is so. But most of all, I love his talent for the “super” prefix that he added to so many things. Insistence on things which lead outside language: super-infinite, super-miraculous, super-eternal, super-dying. These are the linguistic habits of a man who longs for immensities.
COWEN: I like just simple “emancipation.” That’s from Donne, isn’t it?
RUNDELL: It is, although, of course, I think it would be amiss of me not to offer the caveat that often, the OED has always found first uses in canonical authors, in part because they’re just the ones who survived fire. So of course, he may have just been noting down a word in common parlance rather than being its inventor.
COWEN: Why did Donne visit Johannes Kepler?
RUNDELL: I think, a fascination with the stars. I think that Donne was compelled by the idea of heavens and compelled by the idea, which he found deeply troubling, of scientific discoveries which were casting in doubt the great certainties of the previous generations. He had a complicated relationship with innovation. I think he went to Kepler to understand more about the ways that we moved around the sun and that the moons moved around us.
COWEN: In what ways was Donne a typical homeschooled child?
RUNDELL: [laughs] I was very briefly a homeschooled child, so I take that personally.
COWEN: I figured as much, yes.
RUNDELL: Of course, the vast majority of boys of his class and religion were homeschooled boys because it was very hard to go to school as a young Catholic. And, as the book discusses, going to school at the time would’ve introduced you to a ruthless brutality that would’ve been difficult to recover from. Boys were beaten, some of them to death. It was expected that you would fight your colleagues, your compatriots from the age of about 12, and boys routinely died at school.
I think that he certainly has some of the idiosyncrasies of thought of someone who did not grow up with a huge cohort of friends, but also, he became a great maker and keeper of bosom friends. His love for his friends is something I believe very truly in. “Letters, more than kisses, mingle souls,” he wrote to Henry [Wotton], a man who we know he would’ve given up a great deal to help.
COWEN: Now, you have two books, Rooftoppers and Skysteppers, about rooftop walking. Some might call them children’s books. I’m not sure that’s exactly the right description, but what is the greatest danger with rooftop walking?
RUNDELL: Oh, it’s falling off.
COWEN: What leads you to fall off? If you’re rooftop walking, if you were to fall off, what would be the proximate cause of that event?
RUNDELL: Philippe Petit, who is, of course, one of the great roof walkers of the world and the man who strung the wire between the Twin Towers in 1977, talks about vertigo as a beast that has to be tamed piece by piece, that can never be overcome all at once.
Vertigo, he says, is not the fear that you will fall. It is the fear that you will jump. That, of course, is the thing that, when you are roof walking, you are taming. You are trying to unmoor your sense of danger and of not being able to trust yourself not to jump from your sense of beauty and the vision of a city that you get up high.
I roof-walk for very practical reasons: to see views that would otherwise be not really available to me in an increasingly privatized City of London.
COWEN: You’re also learning to fly a small plane. Is that correct?
RUNDELL: That’s true, yes.
COWEN: For the same reason?
RUNDELL: Again, for the feeling of height. I come from a family of pilots. Both my grandfathers flew Spitfires in the Second World War, and my uncle can fly a plane. About five years ago, I started learning for the huge pleasure of being above the world and being given a vision of the sweep of it.
COWEN: If we’re trying to build a unified theory of you, how does wanting to see things from above fit into the theory? I enjoy seeing things from above, but I don’t put a lot of time into it, and that’s not unusual. You’re somewhat different, right?
RUNDELL: I think I love the idea. I think it might be connected to fiction. It is very difficult, when writing a story, to hold the whole of it in one’s head. If you complete a book that you feel you have achieved that, that feels like a great gift you have given yourself. It is very difficult to conceptualize a place that I have not seen from above. I like the idea of being able to understand the way a city works by seeing its movements from above.
Also, cities are more beautiful seen from above. Things that look, down at street level, grubby and deeply human — crisp wrappers and old burger papers — from up high, show the prehistoric elements of the way that people move in crowds.
COWEN: Does rooftop walking also improve your research at All Souls?
RUNDELL: [laughs] I don’t think that I could claim that rooftop walking really feeds into my research, on the grounds that most of my research is done in cold archives in libraries around the world, looking at manuscripts and hunting for traces of Donne in old books.
COWEN: My hypothesis is that, in the true unified theory of you, which I do not have, that rooftop walking does, in fact, improve your research, that there’s somehow a convex combination of way down low and way up high that you need to maintain intellectual balance.
RUNDELL: That could be an argument that, if you are someone whose work necessitates dwelling entirely on detail — because of course, academic study of John Donne, which is slightly different from my book, requires just burrowing into these very small details to understand about the conditions of production of the moment. The flip side of that is the totalities of the view that you get up high in the cold, outside, alone in the dark.
COWEN: At current margins, where would you most like to do more rooftop walking?
RUNDELL: Where would I most like to do more rooftop walking? Paris has the best rooftops, I think, and they are quite easy to access. I have quite a few friends who have spent quite a lot of time — most of them are dancers or acrobats — on the rooftops of Paris.
COWEN: What epitaph do you want on your tomb? Because you’ve written on this, right?
RUNDELL: I have reviewed books about epitaphs. I don’t know, I need a few more years to decide — a few decades, if I may. What will you have on yours?
COWEN: I don’t want a tomb. I want my body disposed of in an effective altruist kind of way, and somehow the proceeds liquidated and used for something productive.
RUNDELL: That sounds entirely reasonable.
COWEN: Should children be more mischievous?
RUNDELL: Yes, and I think we should have more patience with childhood mischief because children whose mischievousness is quashed become difficult, thwarted, and sometimes quite vile adults.
COWEN: What are the most important lessons of governance from what are called children’s novels?
RUNDELL: Children’s novels tend to teach the large, uncompromising truths that we hope exist. Things like love will matter, kindness will matter, equality is possible. I think that we express them as truths to children when what they really are are hopes.
I suppose the best politics of children’s fiction will be those that argue that, as Ursula Le Guin would say, all that we have made, we have made by man, and it can be undone by man. That often, the first way that we transform the world is through the art that she calls her art, the art of words. She would say it is the utopianism of children’s fiction that allows us to imagine something better. She might be right.
COWEN: Should the rest of fiction be more like what we call children’s fiction?
RUNDELL: I would say it would be more that more people should read children’s fiction, because the rest of fiction performs other urgently necessary tasks. I think the right to elongate and experiment are jobs more of adult fiction. I would argue, rather, that adults should occasionally read children’s fiction for pleasure, but also for the unabashed politics of idealism that they have.
COWEN: If I think of some fictional works I read as a child, like Isaac Asimov’s Foundation, there was a thrill to the complete newness of it that I now find harder to create because things are less new to me. How can we get back to what it was like to read as a child?
RUNDELL: Of course, to an extent it’s impossible because it is the freshness of new discovery that children — almost every scene they read feels to them unlike anything, they have so few collocates. But my argument — I wrote a book called Why You Should Read Children’s Books, Even Though You Are So Old and Wise, which you very kindly have. My argument would be that reading books intended for people in the process of early discovery can remind you, if not what it feels like, then something adjacent enough to that to remember that it existed.
Therefore, it might give you a galvanic push towards seeking out other versions of that feeling of discovery. Because, of course, although we feel like our discovery time has largely passed, that’s fake. That’s not real. Your discovery time has not passed. There are still astonishments that await.
COWEN: Should we let children vote?
RUNDELL: There’s a very brilliant long read in the New Yorker by someone arguing that 6-year-olds should have the vote, and it’s very impressive in its sweep of the objections. In England, I would like to lower the voting age to 16 because I stand quite far to the left of center, and the youth, of course, tend to skew more left, and currently, Britain skews right.
COWEN: If much younger children voted, do you think the equilibrium is that more religious families would, in essence, have more voting power because, say, the 8-year-olds — you might think, “Oh, they’ll care more about climate change.” But it might just be they do what their parents tell them. There’s some Coasian arrangement, and it’s more power to the religious, which one may or may not mind. But probably you don’t want that, right?
RUNDELL: It’s certainly true that the demographics of it might well not have the impact that we think it would, because children’s idealism would be very much tempered by the fact that they would be voting in accordance with their parents. But then, would they? Would children vote the way that their parents told them to? I don’t know. Maybe they wouldn’t. I frequently did things my parents told me not to do. Perhaps I would also have voted against their wishes, although I actually vote according to their wishes. What they taught me, I still believe.
COWEN: There’s some heritability to political views, right?
RUNDELL: There is, exactly.
COWEN: What’s your favorite UK bookshop and why?
RUNDELL: I live very close to a UK bookshop called Primrose Hill Books, which is very close to where Dodie Smith lived, the woman who wrote 101 Dalmatians and I Capture the Castle. It’s both beautiful and in the sight of Dodie Smith’s house.
COWEN: Are you up for a quick round of overrated versus underrated?
COWEN: These will be easy. First, Edmund Spenser — overrated or underrated?
RUNDELL: Because he is no longer read. I think the estimation we hold him in is correct, but nobody reads him, and people should put aside about a week of their lives and read The Faerie Queene. It’s painful, but it’s worth it when you come out the other side.
COWEN: I agree with that, but it took me much more than a week, just to be clear.
Diana Wynne Jones — overrated or underrated?
RUNDELL: Underrated, only because infinite estimation is what she deserves, and therefore no matter how high her stock —
COWEN: Why is she interesting?
RUNDELL: I think she’s a writer’s writer who is somebody who believed that children should never be spoken down to. And I think a lot of her children’s fiction is so weird and so full of the furies and anxieties that are extending from childhood into adulthood, that those books would also read as great texts for adults, the obvious one being maybe something like Fire and Hemlock or Howl’s Moving Castle.
COWEN: Sir Walter Raleigh — overrated or underrated?
RUNDELL: Overrated because we have given him such credit for so many things he didn’t do. He didn’t bring back the potato. That’s nonsense.
COWEN: The speed of wombats.
RUNDELL: [laughs] I think they don’t get enough credit for the fact that, over long distances, they are faster than Usain Bolt. I think we have underrated that.
COWEN: Seventeenth-century British entertainment. How good was it? You read about bear baiting — it doesn’t sound fun to me at all. There’s a cruelty-to-animals issue, but it just doesn’t sound fun. How good was it? Overrated or underrated?
RUNDELL: Bear-baiting — definitely overrated. I just don’t believe it can have been that exciting. I assume it was partly just faute de mieux. People didn’t have much to do. But the theater, even though madly rated in Britain with gold, still underrated because of what came before, of how staggeringly new it was.
COWEN: Belgium — overrated or underrated? You lived there.
RUNDELL: [laughs] Belgium, probably accurately rated. I am aware that because I spent my teenage years there, I have an entirely unjustified fury against it, and therefore all of my books have one joke against Belgium. But I hope Belgium is strong enough as a nation not to take it too personally.
COWEN: I’m not sure Belgium is strong enough, is it? [laughs] Where, in Belgium did you live?
RUNDELL: In Brussels.
COWEN: I see. Mary Poppins — overrated or underrated as a figure?
RUNDELL: Perfectly rated. As a figure or as a film or as a book?
RUNDELL: I’m going to say underrated because the books are much stranger and wilder than we know.
COWEN: Let’s say you’re back in the time — some version of you — but you don’t know how things turn out. Which side of the Glorious Revolution would you have been on and why?
RUNDELL: Oooh, I don’t know because it’s so impossible to forget the way it turned out. Which side would you be on?
COWEN: I would be very skeptical. I would think, these Dutch people are going to come over and rule us? I wouldn’t think the resulting constellation of interest groups would be so stable, it would mean perpetual civil war, which is not how it turned out, so I think I would’ve been wrong.
RUNDELL: Yes, I think I might have had a wariness of the dramatic shifts. I might have been anxious about what might come, but then, again, we would’ve been completely misplaced.
COWEN: That’s right. You cut out the word “adamantine” from one of your books but kept the word “renunciation.” Why did you make that decision?
RUNDELL: Because “adamantine” was coming at a peak moment in the narrative. It was the key showdown between a child and a gangster figure, and I didn’t want anything that would slow children. But my general stance is, with children’s writing, you can use pretty much any vocabulary you want because they will either guess or step over or find out the word, and it rarely puts children off as much as we worry that it will.
COWEN: Are there any children’s stories improved by the addition of social media to the story?
RUNDELL: Do you mean featured in the story, or you can follow the story on Twitter?
COWEN: No, featured in the story. Can that possibly improve a child’s story? Or is it just a bad thing?
RUNDELL: I feel absolutely sure it could improve a children’s story, but I have never yet seen it done.
COWEN: Are social media — their general existence out there — making children’s literature harder to pull off?
RUNDELL: We now compete, of course, with so many other forms of entertainment, and it is a form of entertainment that offers your insatiable hunger for being wooed absolute constant satiety. What we are trying to offer to children — something slower and richer and ultimately, you would hope, punchier — is vastly harder to sell to them.
COWEN: Should we be getting boys to read more stories about girls? Or are we at an optimum there?
RUNDELL: We should, of course, get boys to read more stories about girls. The data constantly reports that boys are, by and large, reading stories about boys, and girls are, by and large, reading stories about both genders. There is a difficulty that there is a self-fulfilling prophecy in saying boys don’t read books about girls, and I don’t know how we get around that problem.
COWEN: Children’s movies — again, I know that’s a fraught term, but what would normally be called children’s movies — what’s your favorite one?
RUNDELL: Oh, The Railway Children.
COWEN: Why is that interesting?
RUNDELL: Because of that final moment. The Railway Children is the story of some children whose father has been falsely accused and taken away, and they go to live by a railway. At the end, there is a moment in which the young girl — the oldest of the children, who has had to step into the adult world of secret keeping and adult care — sees her father return to her. She runs into his arms and she says, “Oh, daddy, my daddy.” In that moment, she is allowed to return to childhood. It’s a staggering moment of filmmaking, so beautiful.
COWEN: I like A Little Princess very much. Do you know that movie?
RUNDELL: No, I’ve never seen it.
COWEN: Cuarón — it’s a Mexican director but set in England. It’s highly unusual, and it’s dark and nasty but cheery in some ways too.
RUNDELL: Wonderful. Ideal.
COWEN: What is it that T.S. Eliot failed to understand about John Donne?
RUNDELL: Oh, that’s a really interesting question because, of course, usually T.S. Eliot is given the credit of rediscovering John Donne after the Victorian period in which his fashionability had really waned. I think he got a lot right about John Donne when he says he’s trying to picture in John Donne, somebody for whom every element of his life modifies his sensibility, that he is able to couple religion and body and the smell of a rose and the cooking of dinner into one great whole. That, I think, he got right.
I think what he got wrong was he did not accentuate the strangeness of John Donne. I think he offered to us a John Donne who was trying to make things whole, but of course, John Donne’s poetry often carries with it a beautiful salute to human fracturing and human strangeness. He was writing at a time when people were offering a profoundly coherent vision of love: Walter Raleigh writing about Queen Elizabeth as the rose, or Philip Sidney constantly iterating this image of the woman as the white dove, that her shoulders are two white doves and her cheeks are two white doves.
John Donne stood up in the center of that fashion and said, “No, you are stranger than that. You deserve poetry that is stranger than that. You deserve poetry that uses the images of fleas and sucking fish and suns rising and compasses to express the vertiginous and labyrinthine quality of human desire.” I don’t think that T.S. Eliot had a mindset at the time to recognize that.
COWEN: What do you think of the view that Donne is all about metaphysical beauty, and there’s an extreme shortage of physical beauty in his writings?
RUNDELL: I think it’s certainly true that, if you were to turn to John Donne to find images of his lovers and specifically of his wife, Anne Donne — whom he met when she was very young, 14, and they married when she was 17 — you will find no physical descriptor. You will find no sense of whether she was curvy or slim or large or tall, but what you will have is an understanding of what it is that physical beauty does to the person witnessing it.
I think the poems are more about him looking at her than they are about her. They’re more about his startlement and embracing and wariness and bitchiness about love than they are about the specific bodily facts of the women he was with.
COWEN: How well do you think Samuel Johnson understood Donne?
RUNDELL: Of course, the obvious answer would be not at all, because Johnson loathed Donne and felt that there was something in Donne that was genuinely slightly dangerous, because Johnson’s vision of poetry still leaned towards the fashion of thinking of it as a monovocal exercise, that there was a correct form of poetry, that its correctness was something to be prized, and that the chipping away at that correctness would lead to social breakdown.
I think he was wrong about that. But I nonetheless remain grateful to him because he did read Donne, and he did think about Donne, and as such, even if he didn’t intend to, kept him alive.
COWEN: For you, what is most interesting in Donne’s sermons?
RUNDELL: The thing I find most interesting would be the radical honesty that he has — that you will find in so few other sermons of the time — about the difficulty of finding God. He is a man who writes often with certainty about the idea of reaching the infinite, the divine. But he also writes this famous passage where he says, “I summon God and my angels, and when God and the angels are there, I neglect them for . . .” I forget what it is. “The sound of a carriage, a straw under my knee, a thought, a chimera, and nothing and everything.”
That sense that, even though he had a brain that could control incredibly rigorous poetry, he did not have a brain that would control itself in prayer. He offered that to his congregation as a vulnerability and a piece of honesty that so few sermoners of the time — who thought of themselves more as a regulatory ideal that should never admit vulnerability — would offer.
COWEN: How do you think your life has been shaped by having grown up in Zimbabwe?
RUNDELL: Oh, I think it was profoundly lucky to grow up in Zimbabwe at a time . . . I grew up with parents who allowed me an enormous amount of freedom, and I don’t know if they would’ve done that now, but we were allowed to vanish for the day without adult supervision — me and my siblings and friends. The shining quality of that childhood time, even quite young, say 10 or 11, spent entirely without the presence of adults — the freeing quality that gives your imagination, I imagine has something to do with the fact that I became a children’s writer.
COWEN: Do you think these free, unruly childhoods like yours generate a better class of elites?
RUNDELL: Oh, I would question the terms of that question because I’m not sure that many people with free, unruly childhood become elites, and I wouldn’t cast myself as one.
COWEN: But ceteris paribus, if you took people who, maybe, had a high chance of becoming elites, and you gave them freer, more unruly childhoods, would they turn out better?
RUNDELL: Right, as a kind of retro engineering.
COWEN: Not cross-sectionally, but ceteris paribus.
RUNDELL: I would not be surprised if they did because the forms that that kind of unruly quality takes — mostly spending huge amount of time outside — might give you a more urgent sense of the necessity of outside, and that might be something that ongoing elites are going need to hold hard and fast at the center of all their thoughts.
COWEN: What is it like to eat a tarantula?
RUNDELL: [laughs] Not delicious. I hoped it would be because some children I met in the Amazon rainforest had told me that it was. But I think there’s a very real difference between fresh and canned tarantula, and my tarantula was from a can.
COWEN: Who sells canned tarantula?
RUNDELL: The same people who stock Selfridges with little scorpions in whiskey. There’s a big market for that kind of thing, it turns out. I was surprised.
COWEN: It’s a markets-in-everything phenomenon. If you just eat a fresh tarantula, do you get poisoned or are you fine?
RUNDELL: No, you are fine. I think the poison is only dangerous when administered by the stingers immediately. I was not warned about any danger, and none came to me.
COWEN: As a kid, how was it that you broke your bones?
RUNDELL: Oh, I fell out of a lot of things, trees mostly.
COWEN: So you wanted to see things from above, even early on.
RUNDELL: Even early on. Because I didn’t have the skill to match the ambition, I ended up with quite a few broken bones.
COWEN: What, for you, is the most fun part of writing?
RUNDELL: The early stage, where there is no imperative towards structural cohesion, and you can just write scenes that seem to you vivid and funny and interesting and joyful. Then later, when you have to make it cohere into something where the narrative itself is a form of metaphor — that bit’s harder and less fun.
COWEN: What is your most unusual writing habit?
RUNDELL: I no longer really have one. When I was younger, I used to have many in a bid to make myself meet deadlines that were broadly my own imagining. I would, when writing my PhD, have a pact with a friend that if we didn’t do the requisite number of words — usually a thousand words a day of our doctoral theses — we had to give £100 to a donkey sanctuary. It was chosen on the grounds that it wasn’t harmful to give that money to a donkey sanctuary, but it also wasn’t particularly beneficial because we picked the richest donkey sanctuary in England, where they’re bathing in ass’s milk and covered in diamonds.
You couldn’t tell yourself that it was a good, but it wouldn’t do harm if we screwed up. We wouldn’t, for instance, give money to the British National Party or something like that. And it really does work. I didn’t want the donkeys to have my money. I only failed once.
COWEN: So you’ve stopped doing it because you don’t need to do it, not that you think it’s a terrible idea.
RUNDELL: Because I no longer need to do it with quite such urgency. A PhD is the hardest form of writing, I think, in terms of galvanizing yourself into wanting to do it.
COWEN: Why do so few writers use markets and self-constraint? So many people will say, “I want to finish. I want to finish earlier, want to finish my thesis.” But very few people do what you did, I find. You claim it’s effective. I suspect that’s correct. Incentives matter, and no one copies that. What’s going on?
RUNDELL: I think it might be that people want to keep their writing as a form of joy and delight, especially if it’s not something they do professionally, and that adding those sharp-edged incentives will remove the feeling of luxury that writing often has, that it’s a luxury to spend time with the imagination.
COWEN: Do you feel that the Irish still have an especially rich version of the English language, even today?
RUNDELL: I’m not sure I really have enough knowledge about that. Certainly, I think my Irish friends have a deep well of folk stories that they were given in a cohesive body in a way that perhaps English children are not, but I’m not sure about the linguistic portion. What do you think?
COWEN: It seems to me they are still more narrative, more engaged with longer trains of thought. The fact that, not too long ago, so many Irish people had to learn English as a second language, so to speak, I think still exercises an influence and makes people more self-conscious about language.
RUNDELL: Certainly, my Irish friends have a form of linguistic dexterity that a lot of my English friends lack. Of course, the stereotype that the Irish are witty — although my Irish friends find it profoundly annoying — does still push them towards enhancing that stereotype, and they are all very funny.
COWEN: And per capita, there’s really quite a bit of excellent Irish literature. Even not per capita. If you thought, well, it was a nation of 30 million people, you would think, “Well, this makes sense, how many good novels they have.”
RUNDELL: Yes, it is remarkable, and they keep coming too.
COWEN: If we think about continental novels of ideas, what is your true love in that genre?
RUNDELL: That’s a really lovely question. I’m wondering what counts as a continental novel of ideas, though. What counts as continental?
COWEN: Don Quixote, Dostoevsky, Thomas Mann, Franz Kafka.
RUNDELL: Kafka was going to be the obvious one that I would say. I was wondering if Madame Bovary counts as a novel of ideas —
COWEN: I’ll say yes.
RUNDELL: Okay. In that case, Madame Bovary, which I remember reading as a teenager and feeling like it kicked the knees from under me with a kind of awe at the speed and richness and occasional cruelty and generosity of that narrative.
Also, Kafka — I have a picture book called My First Kafka, which is a children’s book retelling — I didn’t write it, I just read it — of Metamorphosis. Now, I give them to all the toddlers I know. I think they need to start young.
COWEN: For the toddlers?
RUNDELL: Yes. I think it’s an ideal time to get to grips with Kafka — the 3- to 4-year-olds.
COWEN: What’s a book you can no longer stand to read? For instance, I find it very difficult to now read Dostoevsky. I don’t think he’s a terrible author, but it somehow doesn’t click with me. It fascinated me in high school, but now it just falls flat.
RUNDELL: I still love Dostoevsky, but I can’t read Dickens anymore. I used to be wildly in love with the atmospheres that he conjured of London and smoke and smog, but I now find very vividly visible the fact that he was getting paid per word.
COWEN: What do you think is both best and worst about the intellectual environment at All Souls?
RUNDELL: Oh, I think best would be the fact that it is a mix of old and young. Often it’s thought of as a place largely populated by older white men, but in fact, a huge proportion of the fellows are under 40. The thing that I loved about it, coming of age there — I was made a fellow at 21 — was that you would come down to dinner, and you would meet people who were unabashedly keen to talk about their work in terms that were not compromising in detail or technicality or passion, and that was a brilliant coming of age.
The least good thing? We are still struggling with both the overwhelming whiteness and the overwhelming maleness of the place because of its inheritance. They only had women in 1980, and that does still show.
COWEN: Let’s say, for a friend, you’re designing a two-week trip through the British Isles. No London, forget about Stonehenge. It has to be something weird. Where do you send them and what do you tell them to do?
RUNDELL: I would tell them first, you need to go to Norfolk, a place that is underrated in its beauties. There’s a place called Stiffkey, where Rachel Cusk, the novelist, used to live. If you wade out, it starts to look like you could film Martian-like films, and indeed several extraterrestrial films have been filmed on that beach. If you go right to the sea, there’s a colony of seals who will come to greet you, and that feels faintly like being churched.
COWEN: That part of England is very interesting to me because it’s one part where the Industrial Revolution never quite came, so it feels much older, still, in some ways.
RUNDELL: Exactly. Its landscape is often compared by people from places like Texas or places like South Africa. They often say that it has the same prairie feel to it.
COWEN: Not where you’ve been, but moving forward, how do you think of how travel fits into your work and your writing?
RUNDELL: It used to be something that I would do in a way to offer rich detail and the plots that I was doing. I think that I will stay more put these days, in part because of fears of the burning world and what air travel does to that, and in part, a sense that I might be at a period of my life when rhythm and structure might be valuable. I get much more tired than I used to. The thing about doing a cartwheel every day — that was true when I was 25, but it’s not true now I’m 35.
COWEN: It’s become too hard?
RUNDELL: Actually, you can see my flat isn’t big enough. I would hit the wall.
COWEN: You mean the ceiling or the wall?
RUNDELL: The walls. There isn’t enough space for a cartwheel across without hitting that pole.
COWEN: You must live near Oxford.
RUNDELL: I actually live in London, and I commute. I’ll go to Oxford tonight.
COWEN: You take the train?
COWEN: What is it that you plan on doing next that you are able to talk about?
RUNDELL: I want to write a children’s book that I am truly proud of, and I’ll keep going until that happens. I’m currently writing a children’s novel that I’ve been working on for five years, and I think I might end up proud of it by the end. I’m not yet. I think that’s what my version of success would look like — something that I didn’t read and wince. That, I think, is my next step.
COWEN: If you think of your children’s-novels side and your All Souls–John Donne side, how do those two fit together in your mind, but also in the minds of those at All Souls?
RUNDELL: In my mind, I think it’s that John Donne’s sense of the capacity of language to be something that you shake out of the confines of the day and use in a way that, as much as possible, fits the rhythms of your own imagination. He insisted on the necessity of building your own language. I think that I grew up with that, and it is why my novels are often referred to as idiosyncratic and literary. I want language that belongs to me, so I think they refer to each other in that way.
Also, I think, a love of poetry. He taught me to love poetry and other poetry as well as his, and I think that probably affects my prose.
All Souls — I think they would note that most of the novels have a John Donne joke in them, and that’s a very obvious throughline.
COWEN: They don’t know about the Belgium jokes, or do they?
RUNDELL: Oh, I haven’t told them, and I don’t think they’ve read many of the books, so hopefully not.
COWEN: What do you find most frustrating about interacting with the world of publishing? It’s commercial publishing in your case, right?
RUNDELL: It is commercial publishing in my case. There is a great deal that I love. Truthfully, it’s the necessity of deadlines. I have never handed in a book without it being clawed from my hands, because I always want to do one last go, and I would love there to be an extra four months built into it so that when it looks like a book, I’m allowed to read it like it’s a book and then make the changes that I would like to make, but I realize that would be ruinous for the publishing industry.
COWEN: That’s the most rewarding side, but what’s the most frustrating? Or is it both?
RUNDELL: Oh, that’s also the most frustrating — the fact that I’m not allowed to do that, that they don’t allow you to rewrite your books four years later. If they would let us do that, I know it would cause absolute havoc for both the reading and writing populations of the world, but my great dream would be to be allowed to look back at Super-Infinite in about three years’ time. There are already some adverbs that annoy me. I would go back and take them out.
COWEN: Pierre Boulez did that with compositions. You could, in fact, do that. It may not be profitable, but is there actually anyone stopping you?
RUNDELL: My publishers wouldn’t let me. I have asked my children’s publishers, and they say, “No, you need to write your next book. You can’t just keep rewriting your past texts.”
COWEN: They wouldn’t let you pick out those adverbs in Super-Infinite? What if you just say it was a typo? You would lie, and maybe they would know it wasn’t quite true, but rather than fight the battle, if it didn’t require too much re-typesetting —
RUNDELL: I will try, and I’ll let you know if I have success.
COWEN: Now, let’s say you’re meeting younger writers, and you’re looking for someone who, in very broad terms, is like you, and I’m not even sure what that means because you have quite an atypical career. But what would you look for in that person as a sign of their talent? Obviously, smarts, work ethic, and so on, but beyond the usual, what do you look for in young writing talent?
RUNDELL: The difficulty with that is you are asking an English person that, which requires me to accept that I would look for someone like myself. I wouldn’t. I would look for someone different and better. I can’t deal with a question that presupposes assuming myself to have excellence, but if I were looking for excellence —
COWEN: Looking for someone better than you, yes.
RUNDELL: It would be really important to me that somebody had understood that it matters as much or far more the way you say the thing as what you say, because the thing you want to say is probably a very similar thing that everyone else wants to say: love, love, my season, patience, courage, valiance, attention.
But there are only some people who have found a way to say those things with such flair and originality that they cut through your interlocutors, complacent inattention, and cut through time, cut through space, cut through cultural difference, and grab you by the wrist. So, it would be a sense that somebody understood — you are going to have to find a new and better way to say this.
COWEN: How do you value the King James translation of the Bible?
RUNDELL: Oh, very highly, because, of course, that is the version that infuses much of the work I love most. Not just, obviously, Donne and Shakespeare, but also Philip Pullman talks about being an atheist, but a King James atheist — someone who was informed by the language of the King James Bible.
COWEN: How about The Book of Common Prayer? Is that just boring?
RUNDELL: No, it’s wildly —
COWEN: It’s awfully widely read.
RUNDELL: But wildly underrated. The Book of Common Prayer is more beautiful, I think, than we give it credit for. Again, I think its cadences have informed a lot of the poetry that we hold dear. I don’t think we would have Seamus Heaney without the rhythms of The Book of Common Prayer.
COWEN: So how do we approach reading The Book of Common Prayer so that it makes sense to us rather than boring us?
RUNDELL: Oh gosh, that’s really interesting. How do you approach The Book of Common Prayer, which is, I agree, not an obviously galvanic text, particularly if you don’t happen to believe in Christianity. I think you would have to remember what it was intended to do, the hope and comfort it was intended to give, and you would have to remember the many, many battles that were fought to have it. And that, I think, might make it feel alive.
COWEN: John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. Is that book actually good?
RUNDELL: Yes, it is, in some moments. I think it is another one, a little like The Faerie Queene, that requires your patience, that requires you to do something to take the edge off your panic at the boredom that will ensue.
For some people, that will be resignation, I’m sure. For some people, that will be — I don’t know — alcohol. For some people, it will be a kind of exhaustedness, but something that will allow you to give in to being quite substantially bored on the grounds that it will slow down the beat of your heart, and it will force your imagination to grapple with something slower and broader.
The way that Spenser talks about fashioning his ideal reader, the texts tell you how to read them.
COWEN: Katherine Rundell. I’d just like to recommend to you all, first, Katherine has a short book called Why You Should Read Children’s Books, Even Though You Are So Old and Wise. She has a wide variety of best-selling children’s books, but her most recent book is Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne, which I recommend very, very highly. And of course, I recommend Donne as well.
Katherine, who also goes by the name Kate, it has been great chatting with you. We thank you very much, and good luck with the books.
RUNDELL: Thank you so much. Thank you.
Photo credit: Nina Subin