Janet Todd, where were you born, and where did you grow up?
Born in mid Wales. Grew up in Wales, England, Scotland, Bermuda, Sri Lanka — we moved around a lot! Boarding school in Dolgellau.
What sorts of books were in your family home? Who were early formative influences?
Early years were spent abroad in houses with just a few books already there, usually popular novels by authors like Marguerite Steen, Somerset Maugham and Nevil Shute. I loved the children’s classics especially Alice in Wonderland and often read adult books I couldn’t possibly understand — just for the words. My bent was towards adventure stories like Kidnapped and The Flight of the Heron — that is once I’d passed through Enid Blyton’s The Famous Five. In my teens, being an outsider in each new school I fancied myself as an intellectual and started quite early on reading existentialists like Sartre — understanding very little!
Why do you write? Your advice to new writers just starting out?
I always wrote stories and poems, making worlds in a rather solitary and peripatetic childhood. I never showed them to anyone else. For some time I wanted to be an epic poet in the manner of Milton whom I adored. Happily, that ambition died before too long. Writing is a kind of addiction: I feel deprived if I can’t do it — not necessarily creative writing but writing of some sort.
I wouldn’t presume to give advice to young people now — it’s a completely different age from when I began — though I imagine that all writers would do well to revise and revise. Certainly I find editing at least half of the creative process. I began the first journal devoted to early women’s writing and my advice to myself and co-editor was “when it doubt, leave it out”.
Are there any other writers in your family?
My son sometimes writes science fiction and my father used occasionally to write comic poems about wartime adventures. My extended family was more musical than literary.
How do you choose your subjects?
They tend to develop from a previous subject. So with the biographies: each one suggested the next — after writing about Mary Wollstonecraft, I wanted to know how her children and pupils fared once her influence was removed, so I wrote about them. My spinoff novel Lady Susan Plays the Game came from editing Jane Austen for Cambridge University Press and noting the closeness of this one early work to Restoration drama. The next novel A Man of Genius to some extent grew out of the biographies, both of Aphra Behn and of Wollstonecraft and her daughters. All suffered at some time from dominating, even violent, men. I wanted to consider the attraction or obsession from the woman’s point of view — but also from the man’s.
How do you move from research to writing; is it difficult to begin?
I did a lot of research for the biographies and for my large editions of women’s writing of the Restoration (Behn) and Romantic periods (Wollstonecraft, Jane Austen, Charlotte Smith, Helen Maria Williams). So the novels did not require much further research. Sometimes, when people mention the difference between the 1980s and ‘90s, I feel I have lived rather longer and more intensely in the late 18th and early 19th centuries than in my own since I am more aware of differences in style and outlook between, say, 1795 and 1805 than I am between 1985 and 1995. In both biography and fiction I tend to begin with language, imagining what the characters sound or write like; then after a while I start to hear them in my head. (It’s quite hard to get rid of them when I’m done!)
As an author, what are you most proud (or embarrassed) of writing? Your views on success?
I have never believed in my own success. Early Non-conformist training in humility has done its work. In any case, I can’t imagine ever being totally satisfied with what one has written, so “proud” would never be the appropriate word and I have not had the chance to be puffed by winning prizes! It makes me happy to see my books on the shelf in a bookshop — even happier to find them sold of course. My tastes are a bit out of kilter with the latest fashions, so I am no judge of what constitutes present literary success.
When you look back at the books you have written, is there a favourite?
My favorite is always the one I am working on. At the moment I really like the book I am writing about the effect of the war on an introverted woman, though last year I liked best A Man of Genius. I think my biography of Aphra Behn is the most innovative of the critical-biographical books I’ve written, but I have a very warm spot for Death and the Maidens, which is about the sad life of Fanny, Mary Wollstonecraft’s daughter. I haven’t looked back at my early books on John Clare, eighteenth-century hymns, sensibility, Rousseau and Richardson etc. I don’t know what I would make of them now. Some of my early excitedly feminist works now seem a touch utopian.
Do you write every day; what is your writing process? Do you do many drafts?
I write early every morning if I can — and I miss it when circumstances prevent my doing so. I write many drafts and don’t keep the old ones, so I can’t return to what might have been better.
What are you working on now?
As in A Man of Genius I am interested in solitude, people who are outsiders in some way, not embedded in families and communities, making their own selves. My present novel is about a woman who is a cultural and social loner in the 1940s, someone for whom the war was trauma and excitement and who never adjusted to the post-war world. On my academic side I am still working on Jane Austen’s Sanditon and thinking about Austen’s attitude to and influence on modern notions of Englishness and the heritage industry.
Your views on book publishing?
In the past I have published with many different academic and trade presses and found publishers in the main very supportive. But I am now rather out of date in modern methods. I know nothing of self-publishing or crowd sourcing. Until I started writing novels for publication, I tended to write with a contract in hand and often on commission.
Of course I want to be read and reviewed, but, in common with most people (I imagine), reviewed in a kindly manner. I am appalled at the power of reviewers in major blogs and newspapers who simply wipe out years of someone’s work with a cruel jibe. I now never accept to review a book unless I have something positive to say about it. In the main I have received very generous support from other critics and writers, such as Emma Donogue and Philippa Gregory. As a publisher Katherine Bright-Holmes has been a hugely important influence in my move into fiction.
Your views on how new technology has (or has not) changed your writing life? Do you enjoy reading ebooks?
Although I now work at a computer, my formative writing years occurred before such technology and even before electric typewriters; so I still find judging and editing far easier with pen and paper. I want to like ebooks and have acquired a Kindle, but I much prefer the printed article. I like flipping back to check something earlier and I treasure the feel of a physical book.
Your views on social media?
I find social media challenging and a bit scary — I can’t manipulate it to my purposes and so really ought to avoid it! With its immediacy and speed, it seems to inhibit thoughtfulness, but I don’t regard myself as a judge here. I imagine that, to use it well and to your own advantage, you need to create a good and convincing mask, then stick with it. But I think it’s a bit too late for me. I am constantly amazed at the lack of privacy it implies and the enjoyment of exhibitionism in the self and others. I can imagine it might be quite seductive.
What are your favourite literary journals?
I dip into the Times Literary Supplement and London Review of Books and the Literary Review, but I tend now to read novels and poetry.
If you could go anywhere in time for one day, where would you go and why?
I would attend a play by Aphra Behn in Dorset Garden Theatre in the 1680s. As a second choice I would go with Jane Austen to visit the Prince Regent’s library.
Who are the five people, living or dead, you’d invite to a party?
Writers I guess. Certainly Aphra Behn. I would probably be naughty and invite Mary Wollstonecraft and Jane Austen, so that I could put them next to each other and see what happens. I’d rather like to have Lord Byron too, but he’d need to be the star of the event, so no point in having Henry James as well. Probably Dostoevsky — whom I hugely admire— would work with Byron, and he’d like Mary Wollstonecraft too — I think.
Your heroes in fiction? And in real life?
Probably as above. I have never been a big hero-worshipper. I was never in a school long enough to get the hang of liking film stars and pop singers. I used to have large pictures of Oliver Cromwell and Richard III, with whom I was much taken, but I am not sure they count as heroes!
What other authors are you friends with? How do they help you become a better writer?
Anita Desai is a valued friend of 40 or so years — I have just written a short appreciation for a journal issue celebrating her 80th birthday. I used to know PD James well and, way back in America, Adrienne Rich.
Most of my life I have been an academic, so the majority of my work-friends are from that profession, including the most influential, Marilyn Butler, who died three years ago, and from even further back Raymond Williams and Walt Litz. I am on nodding terms now with a lot of creative writers, having written about contemporary women such as Marilyn French, Kate Millett and May Sarton when I was working in the US, and more recently running a small literary festival at Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge. But I can’t claim these people as “friends”. When I meet them I very much like and admire Maureen Duffy, Sarah Dunant, Margaret Drabble, Michele Roberts, Michelle Spring, Jill Dawson and many others.
Not being much of a joiner, I have never been part of a writers’ group. Since I am mainly an academic, I have always had colleagues at work, discussing our research to some extent. Without siblings and many long-term friends — too much moving — I don’t try out my biographies and novels on other people until I feel they are in a first draft state, then I am very happy to take any advice– from a publisher or anonymous reader. Having seen through a fair number of PhD theses, I am used to judging and I hope helping other people in their work.
Your chief characteristic?
Your chief fault?
Your bedside reading?
Slightly gothic and surreal: Carlos Ruiz Zafon, Haruki Murakami on the one hand — and on the other short stories of ex–colleague Rose Tremain, novels of Elizabeth Jane Howard, Elena Ferrante. I often reread poetry, oddly mainly men: T.S.Eliot, Philip Larkin and Thomas Hardy. For both work and pleasure I can always read and reread Jane Austen.
Try not to say “should have” so often.
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