“The landscape of my imagination for a long time was Whitechapel,” she explains. “My grandparents told me of poets, artists, writers they knew, and this fuelled my desire to explore London’s streets.” After working for years as an artist and sculptor she began, “walking the streets of East London to build up a memory map,” from stories of the lives of people living in the area. Her journey lead to discover the room of David Rodinsky, whose disappearance in 1969 gave her the idea for her first book, Rodinsky’s Room.
Rachel describes a room which, “retained the oppressiveness of a religious space.” She explains her incessant, “cataloging of Rodinsky’s belongings and writings,” giving a sense of her great passion for her subject. She offered advice to aspiring novelists, “If you don’t have that insatiable curiosity, there’s no way you’re going to finish the book.”
Similarly meticulous research went into her subsequent books On Brick Lane (2007) and Diamond Street (2012) which explored Jewish London’s diamond trade. “In these books I started my research by exploring the lives of people who worked in the area,” Her interest in archiving East London from a multitude of perspectives was, “a natural way for me to work. If you are writing about place, you can’t have a single voice. That why it felt important to talk to others.” With Diamond Street, the story of the street came together following an encounter with one man called Mitzy, whose story sparked a ream of research.
Her interest in archiving people’s lives was encouraged early in her writing career by her long-time collaborator, writer Iain Sinclair. Speaking to Humanity Hallows, Rachel suggests that the reason her working relationship with Sinclair had been so long and fruitful was that their styles are “so different.” She expresses gratitude that the writer, “boldly took a gamble on a young female artist, which is what I was at the time, and to get behind my idea for this book [Rodinsky’s Room].” The result of this initial collaboration is a celebrated work, which alternates between Lichtenstein’s histories of Rodinsky’s Room and Sinclair’s biographical portrayal of Rachel, whom he has described as an, “archivist of the unconscious.”
Estuary: A Deep Exploration of Place has a broader scope, focusing on the Thames Estuary. Rachel explains that this book was inspired by a boat trip, which became the subject of the film Estuary.