Jaipur Literature Festival 2023: author Katherine Rundell on John Donne’s poetry, endangered species and writing for children in the age of TikTok

A Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, Rundell’s book ‘Super-Infinite: The Transformation of John Donne’ won the 2022 Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction

January 26, 2023 02:02 pm | Updated 02:02 pm IST

Author Katherine Rundell

Author Katherine Rundell | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Katherine Rundell, 35, has eclectic tastes. She loves walking on rooftops, adores pangolins and golden moles, and is obsessed with John Donne — the Anglican cleric and poet, and subject of her fantastic book, Super-Infinite: The Transformation of John Donne, which won the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction last year.

A Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, Rundell began her career writing for and about children. Her second book Rooftoppers (about an orphaned girl who makes a friend on the rooftops of Paris) won the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize in 2015 and was shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal. Last year, she also published The Golden Mole, which spotlights 22 endangered species, including human beings. On the sidelines of the recently-concluded Jaipur Literature Festival, the author discussed her love for Donne, switching between vastly different genres and her strong dislike for coffee. Edited excerpts:

You’ve written children’s books, books for adults, a biography and now, a book about animals. How did you begin writing each of these vastly different genres?

I started writing children’s fiction when I was much younger. The books from when I was young were the ones that got most deeply under my skin. So much of children’s fiction is about promising children that things like love, hope and endurance will matter. I loved the idea of participating in a genre that allowed me to make those claims as vividly true as I could. After my 21st birthday, I began a Ph.D on John Donne. It took me five years to write the book. These books often happened alongside. I used to wake up at 4 in the morning and work till about 9 am on fiction. Then I would teach Shakespeare. And then sometimes in the evening I would write fiction again. I drank so much coffee in those years that I became allergic to it. It’s tragic.

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Writing in a child’s voice is so different from writing about Donne. You need to create a sense of awe and wonderment. And while Donne was someone who wrote about romance, he equally wrote a lot about death and despair. How do you make that switch?

John Donne, late 17th century copy of a 1616 portrait by Isaac Oliver.

John Donne, late 17th century copy of a 1616 portrait by Isaac Oliver. | Photo Credit: National Portrait Gallery/ Wiki Commons

Donne had experiences that no child should have and hopefully no child does. His knowledge of the dark was very great. He was suicidal his entire life. He lost six babies and his wife, and he saw his uncle hung, drawn and quartered. He knew sorrow. But amidst that sorrow, he insisted on joy. And I think I took from him that joy and tried to put it in my children’s fiction. The best children’s fiction often acknowledges some of the darkness in the world: the idea that you will lose things you did not want to lose, that you will be alone. And yet, there will be joy and wild astonishments that await you if you go out and seek them. I want to offer children a sense that the world is very hard and yet, far greater than the world’s chaos are its miracles.

In ‘Rooftoppers’, one of your characters says memorising at least one poem is important. Poetry clearly plays an important role in your life. How much has your love for poetry influenced your prose?

A huge amount. My parents introduced us to poetry through easy, jokey poetry, like about cats. The other thing they did was to pay me. So, this is my advice to all parents around the world: print out poetry from the Internet and put it on the wall by the sink where your children brush their teeth. And pay them per poem they can memorise by heart. My parents would pay us 50p a poem, which was enough back then to buy a small bag of sweets. It was the only way we could get money so we would memorise a lot of poetry.

As a modern reader, how does one appreciate Donne’s poetry while also being cognisant of the misogyny in his work?

I discuss this with my students. I want them to hold a space between two extremes. One: he was a terrible misogynist and therefore we should not bother reading him. Second: the past is a different country and they had completely different rules then, and so it doesn’t matter. Neither of those is true; it’s somewhere in the middle. I want them to bring the full armour of their nuance to the question. I want them to think, well, yes, Donne was participating in a profoundly misogynistic culture. The misogynistic poetry he was writing was in a tradition that we literally now call misogynistic verse. He would have been writing these poems for a group of boys who would have been writing similar verse in return. It would have been a jocular exchange in a way that teenagers snigger about the female body now. But that doesn’t excuse it. He was still participating in it. And because he was radically more gifted, he did it better. He did it more vividly, more cruelly, more memorably than anyone else. So, what do you do with a man who was able to both celebrate and denigrate the female body?

Katherine Rundell (right) in conversation with author Anna Keay at the Jaipur Literature Festival 2023.

Katherine Rundell (right) in conversation with author Anna Keay at the Jaipur Literature Festival 2023. | Photo Credit: Courtesy JLF

All you can do is, say, but that’s what we all are. Everyone is capable of moments of both radical honesty, generosity and integrity, and also telling stupid lies to their parents. And to think that one person should be only one bold thing is to do harm to the reality of humanity and to set yourself up for an exhausting life.

Why Donne now? What’s so unique and enduring about his poetry?

He offers us two things now. Especially in England, and in parts of Europe, there is a sweep towards over-simplification and anti-intellectualism. Recently, in England, one of our politicians said, we have had enough of experts. Donne offers a bulwark against that form of anti-intellectualism, because he insists on using the full sweep of the capacity of one’s intellect; on finding new forms to express reality; on questing for knowledge throughout life. To read him can feel like you’re defibrillated.

The other reason is that often the images we are offered of romantic love look neat and pretty, but then you tap them and they ring like money. Donne’s vision of romance and love is much more than that. For him, when you turn to love, you must turn to it with a full salute to human strangeness and I think we need that urgently in a world of a lot of reality shows on dating. He believed in looking hard at the full glory and weirdness of human love.

Of the 22 species you’ve written about in ‘The Golden Mole’, which one is your favourite?

Am I allowed two? One of them is the pangolin because its beauty is breathtaking and because it’s one of the most trafficked and endangered animals in the world. Its beauty is what imperils it. It has the most beautiful face I’ve ever seen. The golden mole is the second. It is remarkably evolved to live underground; it is the only iridescent mammal. But it can’t see. So, its beauty is invisible to itself.

Is there a challenge in writing for children at this point where various other forms of entertainment are jostling for their attention?

I find it difficult knowing that I compete with these very short, vivid verses of entertainment. TikTok is the obvious of these. I would like to be the place where children go to rebel against the six-second videos they watch; where they go to learn focus. So, my job is not to write short, tiny chapters but to write something so vivid that it grabs them by the wrist and pulls them away from TikTok.


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