Maggie Gee was born to working-class parents, and climbed into an uneasy place between classes. She was educated at state schools, and won a major open scholarship to Somerville College, Oxford where she did an MA in English literature and an MLitt on Surrealism in England. She was one of the original Granta 20 Best of Young British Novelists in 1983.
Hear the Podcast of our conversation
Gee has published fifteen books, thirteen of which are novels, including her latest, which is published by Fentum Press, Blood. A new, extended and updated edition of her 2014 novel Virginia Woolf in Manhattan has just been published by Fentum in the US.
She is a Fellow and Vice-President of the Royal Society of Literature, a Professor of Creative Writing at Bath Spa University, and was awarded an OBE for services to literature in 2012. She is a Non-executive Director of the Authors’ Licensing and Copyright Society.
You grew up in Dorset before moving to the Midlands. Tell us about your early years.
My first memories are of running on a beach, which is probably significant since I’ve always been drawn back to the sea. I had a brother so we ran around and I did boy’s things. Books are there very early on in my memory because my mother loved reading, although she was one of seven children in a working class family, with no money for her to go to university. She read to me from the very beginning, and I loved it passionately. Unlike my elder brother, I did not want to learn to read because Mummy did it: I wanted to close my eyes and listen to the story.
Those stories were so real to me, partly because post-war Britain was quite bleak: modern children would not understand how few things there were in houses. Therefore books, with wonderful pictures and textures, and probably princesses and jewels and fairies and all of that – and monsters too. And they make real what’s always there at home, to a certain extent, because you have nightmares, and children are frightened. So the world of reading was amazing for me.
When I think about childhood, I tend to remember Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses. I adored A. A. Milne and those wonderful poems like Now We Are Six & When We Were Very Young which really got rhythm into my bloodstream, and which is why my writing is still so rhythmic, and why I love writing poems.
Hans Christian Andersen is the most wonderful, magical author; his fables are glorious. He gets every politician bang to rights in The Emperor’s New Clothes: their fraudulence, their hypocrisy, and the fact that it’s the audience who can’t believe their own eyes and therefore daren’t tell us that the emperor has no clothes. Our politicians now have no clothes.
The Ugly Duckling is Hans Andersen’s true life-story: a man who came from nowhere, with nothing, born to a mother who was an illiterate washerwoman, leaving home at fourteen to seek his fortune, yet he became the greatest storyteller the world has ever known.
You went to Somerville College, Oxford?
I had good teachers, plus my parents were two very bright people who had not had the education they deserved. My father did do an external degree, and my mother was as clever but more verbal than him in a way; she was a terribly funny woman. So they projected on to their children their desire for education and these were times when you could be educated at degree and post-graduate level for free. Miraculous.
So two of us children went to Oxford and my younger brother to the LSE. In a way I felt there was too much pressure to fulfill my parents’ academic hopes and dreams; my freedom was about writing and reading, I did not enjoy academic language – it was a sort of fiction, a power game of jargon – and I longed to be writing my own words.
But coming from a village as I did, without literary forebears, Oxford gave me confidence I would never have had. Getting this major scholarship to Oxford was really important, it said to me, “You are bright, you can do something in the world, you can be something, you don’t have to live in a village.”
I was very lucky also in that my parents were totally supportive of the idea that I could be an artist, even though that wasn’t what the family was used to. My father in particular was very ambitious for my writing, so I have to thank them for that. You do need that encouragement.
My father said one thing that would be totally useful to me all my life, “Don’t believe what anyone tells you.” Brilliant. Just think how relevant that is at the moment, with all the fake news we are getting!
You had various jobs as a cleaner, a hotel receptionist, a leaflet distributor and as an editor. How was that useful?
I worked for two years in Oxford after I completed my M Litt, before I started a PhD and went to London. I was trained as an editor for Elsevier in Oxford. They were publishing encyclopedias, and I edited an international women’s encyclopedia, though the real point was that we rewrote other people’s encyclopedias. I learned to write 100 word entries, 300 word, 500 word entries, so I learned to be succinct. It was very useful to have editorial training. Any kind of writing training that you do consistently is useful – as is reading.
Then I went off, it was a bit bizarre, I wanted to get out of Oxford, and so I went to Wolverhampton Poly since they offered a research assistantship on something which sounds incredibly windy: the “Interrelationships of Theory and Literature.”
What I did was read, since Oxford had been so conventional. The syllabus ended in 1850 and I hadn’t read enough of contemporary literature. At last I read all of Beckett, Nabokov, Virginia Woolf. They were early formative influences because I spent three years reading them, and then I did a PhD.
When I was a little girl, my mother had said – after a female doctor came to the house, Dr McQueen in a tailored dark green suit – “Wouldn’t it be great to be a doctor Margaret?” So I did the PhD for my mother and it was, sort of, useful: if you’ve got a doctorate nobody can intimidate you about not having one even though writing is not about that.
Writing is about the connection between your heart, your brain and your hand; having a story to tell and wanting to tell other people stories.
Writing is a lonely occupation. Why the burning desire to write?
Writing was what I always wanted to do. I hadn’t done four years of literary study to end up an academic, I knew I didn’t want to do that. I always wanted to be a writer. Looking back at your bio, though, you tend to tidy it up. How do I know whether if I hadn’t got accepted by a publisher, I would have gone on?
Your novels cover an extraordinary range of subjects, characters, and feature very acute observations.
People say that about my books because I have characters of every colour and race and religion, but I think their judgement actually reflects the fact that in a lot of British fiction there is a very narrow range of characters, so they are looking at mine and thinking it is extraordinary, but it is just the world as I know it.
I lived for twenty-five years in Kensal Rise which has a very mixed population and Wolverhampton also was very mixed. You couldn’t live there without seeing racism, without disliking it and finding it weird basically, because once you make friends these things become far less important than the things you share. People either feel fear about the unknown, or they are attracted to it. I am curious to learn, and so attracted to it.
I love to try new things and that is a bit of a problem with my books since they’re all different, and the market likes writers who produce the same books. I understand why, it’s because people like to know what they’re getting, it’s easier for critics who can write the same review, slightly changed, but why would I do that?
All my books have been quite different, though in a way you could say there are two kinds. Some of them are about the living world and the threats to it. These are really focused on climate change, which makes them sound awfully dull, but within that I have used different genres. The Ice People is an epic adventure story, whereas Where Are the Snows? is a love story, though both express love for the natural world.
These books are often about non-human living things which are so very important, as they were in Shakespeare because people then lived among animals. It’s very odd, actually, this new post-twentieth century canvas, where we are almost living in a mono culture because we’ve managed to exclude all the animals, insects, birds from the house and the city . . . “Let’s kill all the insects, even if we die without them” . . .
So there are the living world/climate change books, and then a satirical, political group of books, like Grace and, this time, Blood, which are a bit different. Some books fit into both groups: The Flood and The Burning Book, for example.
Why tell stories?
Why do we tell stories? We’re all different, but I think we’re all trying to understand. In that sense we’re not so unlike scientists: whereas they try and understand through a series of rules, we are looking at a marvellous garden of particular cases and trying to show those in detail, and by looking at them perhaps we will understand them.
Usually we’re also trying to understand things about our own lives that we haven’t fully understood. The reason why readers love and need stories is because they also need to understand. We need to make sense of the chaos of our lives and the happenstance in them. Our bodies are frail and break down and die and we want to understand things as not being totally pointless, we want and need some pattern.
Storytellers know that even when you are telling a sad story, if it has a shape it is bearable. I’ve never known what the message of the book would be before I wrote it. As soon as you know too much before you begin, it turns into preaching.
How do you manage to create so many different characters and get inside their heads and under their skin so convincingly, rather as an actress does on stage?
I am always writing about something I genuinely want to understand so it’s usually something I am ambivalent about. I am particularly careful not to show characters who share what might be my own point of view as right. I often satirise the characters who are most like me, as I do through Vanessa Henman – who is like a very caricatural version of me – in My Cleaner, and in My Driver, its sequel. (In some respects not like me at all, but I think I was playing a game, thinking how I might look to someone who disliked me or found me ridiculous.) Doris Lessing disapproved of me doing it; she said, “You’re not like that.” I don’t think she laughed at herself. But I am always laughing at, and with, my writer figures. The point is I am laughing at myself. I think I make people uneasy by the fun in my books.
I see myself as comic too; we are all comic creatures because there is a tragic element to the fact that we all die. On the other hand because things are absurd, and because there is random beauty all around us, and acts of kindness, it is comedy in a sense. You hope to move towards comedy as you move through your life, rather than tragedy. Shakespeare is the model for all British writers, and he ended with bitter-sweet comedy, or tragicomedy with happy endings. That is really what I’m doing.
I’ve written a rather strange kind of comedy in Blood because I’m dealing with something that is absolutely tragic and frightening: parricide – children who threaten to kill fathers; fathers who might kill their children. But I’m doing it, to make it bearable, through a character who I gather is very funny. Even critics who have not liked the book very much have said “laugh out loud,” or “hilarious”.
I know the hero of my new novel Blood, Monica Ludd, who narrates it, is funny. She made me laugh as I wrote it. Underneath, she is in a way a tragic character, but she is also very brave because she is surviving a terrible family: an abusive father who is aggressive and brutally cruel to all his children, a bullied mother who is alcoholic and indifferent, who may indeed be complicit with the father in abuse – we don’t really know. Monica Ludd says, “I get up every morning and try not to be a maniac.” And that is quite an achievement. Instead she became a Deputy Head who “teaches Shakespeare and condom use”. As a twenty-stone, six foot woman, she loves her body and her big breasts. I enjoyed being tall, large and sexy!
Virginia Woolf lets a character in her last novel, Between the Acts, talk about our “unacted selves” and says that’s what drama allows us – it allows us, the audience, to live other lives. I think writers also live their unacted lives, their unacted selves, through the books that they write. The other important thing about Monica is that she actually achieves good things in the world. She doesn’t just get up and try not to be a maniac. She is deputy head of a school and she is not interested in all the bureaucracy, she really cares about the children with the most difficulties. They of course remind her of herself as a neglected, bullied girl. (I myself was never neglected, but I was bullied at school.)
At a very important point in the book Monica also uses her strength and her courage in a way that makes it clear that this big body is not ridiculous. Big strong bodies can be very helpful to women in the era of #MeToo. Some of Harvey Weinstein’s victims might not have been victims had they had been bigger and stronger.
You really do need reader response to your books to know what they’re like. I did learn from reader response on Blood – in its very first version – that it was bleaker than I had meant it to be. Your characters must be loved. So I expanded the sense that Monica loved her students and that, in a way, she loved her father. She is sort of a reaction to social-media-tidied-up women – women and girls who use computer trickery or real-life plastic surgery to perfect or “normalise” themselves. Monica, by contrast, is a real woman and not perfect.
Although I am not Monica, she is an unacted part of me. Inside me I would quite like to be Monica. She is my opposite, the way she has no social sensitivity at all – barrelling into a room. With all of your characters you have to let all these parts of yourself out of the bag, even the villainous, wicked, unacted parts, if you are to be an interesting writer.
None of us is one hundred per cent angelic. If you’re writing a thriller or a crime novel, you just have to find the cruelty in yourself and then put it into the book. It is much better to put it into a book than act it. You can slightly punish it when you put it in a book, and show how being evil usually goes wrong and destroys the perpetrator. If you don’t live the characters and feel that you are them when you are writing them, then it doesn’t work.
You have a choice as a writer: you can either redeem your characters, or condemn them. Of course empathy is about imaginatively living the lives of other people, and that is partly why I co-founded, with Professor Bambo Soyinka, the “Empathy and Writing Group” at Bath Spa where I taught creative writing for six years.
What motivated your founding the “Empathy and Writing” cross-disciplinary research group at Bath Spa University?
I have always been very interested in the notion of empathy. I love the biologist Frans de Waal’s work. He writes in a very interesting way about non-human animal empathy.
I have written about how we deal with “difference”, and given talks about it. There was a particularly influential study in 2013, by Castano and Kidd, on how empathy is increased in readers who read literary fiction. It’s probably because the reader has a chance to identify with characters unlike themselves. So for example, a reader who had read a literary novel with a first person character of colour might then become less racially prejudiced. Hence empathy and fiction.
But I don’t want the research group to be just for writers, although there are lots of wonderful writers at Bath Spa. So I made it cross disciplinary, and my rule was, to begin with, that people would talk about the uses and limits of empathy in their on subject or profession, and their presentations had to be in conversational language. In other words we really wanted to know. It was important that we weren’t showing off, but were actually talking to each other truthfully across boundaries.
There are also the limits of empathy. So I got medical practitioners to come and talk about empathy. If you are a surgeon, you can’t be too empathic, the patient needs somebody who just acts effectively. There is a difference between empathy and sympathy of course. You want someone walking alongside you, not bending over saying, “So sorry . . .”
Your views on the explosion of creative writing courses? How helpful are they?
There are some people who come on the creative writing courses who are already real writers. You just know they are real writers. They just need encouragement. A lot of these writers, like me, don’t come from the “right” place. What creative writing courses do, hopefully, is help real writers not to have to wait seven years to get published like I did, or the rest of their lives! We give professional advice, and craft advice. Each individual group gives the writers in it an audience, too.
Was being selected as one of the Granta 20 Best of Young British Novelists in 1983 your break-in point?
My break-in point could have been four years earlier if I hadn’t been so shy. I wrote the novel when I was twenty-five and didn’t publish until I was thirty-two. It took seven years. It was the second novel that I wrote. I can’t explain how far outside literary life I was.
An agent, the wonderful Patrick Seale, kept on saying, “Come to London,” but I was in Wolverhampton. I really was too shy to go to London. The thrilling message that came back first was: “She is a real writer.” That was so wonderful, so encouraging. I held on to that like a touchstone. Patrick read my novel Dying, In Other Words and wanted to represent me, but I couldn’t do it, or grasp . . . I finally came to London in 1979 and worked as a live-in cook and cleaner, first – I was terrible – and then as a receptionist in a hotel, and handing out leaflets.
Dying, In Other Words became my first published novel and came out in 1981. I got a lot of coverage probably because I was young and attractive. Oh, and the first review was by Valentine Cunningham, who gave it a rave in The Observer – first reviews are very important, because critics are very conformist and easily influenced by each other.
David Hughes, a wonderful novel writer – The Little Book was his last book as he lay dying – told the Harvester Press who were starting a small literary list that I might have a novel in the drawer. And indeed I did. I sent it and forgot all about it. Six months later I got a letter saying they’d like to publish it and an advance of £500. Again, it was random, but I believe that this man had recommended me. I didn’t know him. I didn’t have an agent. I wasn’t on social media.
The frightening thing is that people, writers of real talent but without connections, can fall outside the literary life and be missed. Books are lost.
How important is social media for a writer?
Writers are shy people. Imagine Samuel Beckett, he only did one interview in his life. He would have hated the new system. I am a realist. I will do what I need to do. I have learned not to be shy. It is just an agonised form of vanity. It is human to be shy; and is also about how my birth family never entertained. I wasn’t used to socialising.
Social media is difficult for writers. Twitter is where most writers are, and the upside is that you find out about things you did not know were going on; and writers do support each other. But it also forces you to be two things. One is to write rather badly, on occasion, using clumsy contractions because of length, unless you are describing a photograph, which could be beautiful or an artistic challenge, or a very short poem. But there are a lot of things that are more workaday. And you are expected to plug yourself around publication – frankly, it’s very boring and I always think it’s hateful for those reading it. People are not interested, they like little bits of funny things that have happened, or have gone wrong. Look at the difference between something that is a straight plug as opposed to something about the world; the plug which is obviously of less interest. You do it and you see there are a lot of impressions perhaps but people don’t reply as they don’t really care. The habit, and the neediness for ‘likes’ which sets in like a disease, is distracting.
I am much better writing on the beach, or in a café, away from my phone and my computer, even though I have a lovely study now. Around publication you have to be on Twitter and it is very bad for you. It is very jitter-making and you also get over-excited about yourself and you have to remind yourself very firmly that this is a very tiny selection of people who are reflecting you back. You must not be on the back foot.
Facebook I found fatal since people are frank about their lives, and I was drawn in. I realized I must not be on Facebook. I keep Twitter to a certain time. My daughter who writes has told me I have made a great mistake in internet etiquette cross-posting from Twitter to Facebook since it means I am not really on the latter at all. So I am an autistic presence on Facebook because I never respond to anybody, though I appear to be there posting.
Are you a modernist or an experimental writer?
The American critic, Elaine Showalter, came up with a very interesting term which she applied, I think, to me and Hilary Mantel: skeptical realist. I like that because I am a realist and I like to show the real detail of people’s lives, but it’s also always slightly tweaked.
The world of Blood is not exactly the UK, it’s certainly not Thanet which is a rather gentle place, but it is a world where terrorism has gone further, where people have become angrier. So I’m doing the real world, but in a different way.
I got the label experimental for the first book. Though I am modernist – not post-modern – I never use it. I’m modernist because I believe in a whole meaning, as in “the work of art has its whole meaning” and is not just a fragmentary mirror reflecting life. I’m a modernist in that sense and no other sense. They are my heroes. But if I were to go to a writing group or a reading group and say, “I’m a modernist writer”, people would just be scared.
Of your fifteen books, which are your personal favourites, and which are favourite reading group titles?
It partly depends what happens to the book. So, for example, for an Orange Prize shortlisted book like The White Family, there is a knock-on effect in, for example, invitations, reading group interest, etc. You feel grateful for that, but I’m very skeptical. I wouldn’t judge any of my books by how they were received; there is so much chance in it.
Critics are quite sheep-like really. The White Family happened to come out and get shortlisted for the Orange Prize before the reviews, and then the reviewers were reading it with that big “ah” seal of approval on it, and hey presto, they all loved it. Book groups are great because members often read in a very independent spirit, without bias.
In my work what interests me at bottom is where power lies and who is being deprived of it. What stories are being told, and who they benefit. When we start thinking about rich and poor, and money being the only thing that is valued in the contemporary world, I think that judgement is a kind of mistake. When you come to real people and real lives, family is what matters – what happened to their children that day, whether their sister was nice to them. I have to get more of that love into my books – the way people do know each other, and get help from each other.
Why in your view is there still such reticence on the part of the dominant ‘white’ literary establishment to address, through literature, the tensions of race and class in contemporary British society?
A lot of things changed after the murder of Stephen Lawrence and the enquiry that followed. The idea of institutional racism did for the first time really enter British society thanks to that enquiry. But I wrote The White Family in 1995 before that enquiry. A “state of Britain” novel, it was inspired by the murder of Stephen Lawrence. Some people see it as my best book – though that often just means they’re not up to date with later ones.
It took seven years to get published: it was just too early. The second book of a substantial two-book deal with HarperCollins, my editor had died, and it was rejected by his rather shallow successor. Then every mainstream publisher in London turned it down – sixteen or seventeen publishers. That was pretty devastating. “Too dark,” came up often. Well yes, it has black characters in it! It was another writer, Moris Farhi, who believed in the book, thought it was wonderful, sent it to Mai Ghoussoub at Saqi. She loved that novel. The relief!
The happiest moment in my life as a writer was when Mai phoned about this book which had been turned down by everybody, over seven years. She phoned one beautiful day at half past four, and said, “I love this book, yes, I think we want to publish it.” I walked down Kensal Rise High Street and the sun was red on the building at the end and I thought, “Ah, life is opening up again. It’s blossoming.”
I don’t know if I could have written another novel had it not been taken. It’s hard, without a publisher, and at that stage, without an agent. Writers can fall as it’s too awful; hurtful. Other than Moris Farhi, I was encouraged by my husband, Nick. After the fifteenth rejection, I said, “They must be right, the book can’t be any good.” He said, “I think it’s your best book.” I got really annoyed, “Don’t keep telling me it is good when it isn’t.” You can see why I am so skeptical about publishing and prizes.
Though actually I HAD written another book in the meanwhile – as I had to write myself out of trouble – The Ice People, for another publisher, Richard Cohen, who went bust on the day of publication. The publication party was the wake for the firm. They just got enough money from the book to pay the staff wages. It got fantastic reviews. Then Metro Books bought it, sold about 35,000 copies in paperback – the biggest sale I have ever had – and they went bust so I didn’t get the money for that. My life as a writer in British publishing has really had to survive a succession of almost comic disasters. But it makes you tough. You just have to keep on going.
Virginia Woolf in Manhattan is very different to Blood. It is set in different places – London, New York and Istanbul – and the whole Virginia Woolf mystique is addressed in a very humorous way. Then there’s the whole mother-daughter relationship. Tell us about those three strands.
As a writer you have to think internationally because you have to read internationally. Some of the best times in a writer’s life are when you are meeting Turkish, Egyptian, German, Libyan, Ugandan, writers and scholars. . . These are the really exciting and enlivening moments because we are all linked by the same desire to tell stories, we all have the same problems with publishers and critics, we all read, and have families. We do think internationally because that is where our citizenship is: we are citizens of the world.
With Virginia Woolf in Manhattan, I wanted to look at what Virginia Woolf might think if she came back to life; what she might think about the book trade; about the way the bookstores in Manhattan are closing down; about everyone being hooked up to machines. I also wanted to give her a happier life: I thought that would be great fun. What if her life had been different? She might not have had her mother die when she was a child. She might not have had those abusive half-brothers.
The real Virginia Woolf was very witty, very funny, when not depressed, and a tremendous enjoyer of the sensory things of life. So I wanted to throw light on those happier sides, and give her some things she hadn’t had. I also thought about that choice to kill herself – she got to fifty-nine without doing it. Maybe if that war had not been at that disastrous stage . . . maybe if she had not guessed she and Leonard, who was Jewish, were on the Gestapo’s list of the first people to be rounded up when they came to the UK, and they were indeed on the list, maybe if those things had not come together . . . She was also terribly afraid that her last book was no good: the worst thing to think about. Even Leonard didn’t think it was very good.
But Between the Acts is in fact a work of staggering genius. All those fears and doubts came simultaneously and she killed herself. She might not have done.
So I am doing a thought experiment where she goes on a plane (something she never did in real life) and takes two lovers, one male, one female, in Turkey. The real-life Woolf is very important there, to women, they love her in Istanbul – and I bring her together in that city with young women and young men readers, at a conference about her work where she appears, to everyone’s astonishment and wonder. I talk about freedom, and A Room of One’s Own. It is a love letter to Virginia Woolf.
Virginia Woolf in Manhattan is also about mothers and daughters. And the neglectful mother. My relationship with my daughter is nothing like Angela’s with Gerda in the novel, but my daughter was the first person to read it because I wanted her to OK Gerda, who speaks lots of Rosa’s best lines in the book. We have always had a very verbal relationship and message each other often. She’s very funny: endless jokes between us.
Gerda is also the brave girl from Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen who goes around the world to save the boy next door, Kay. She is not the fairy tale princess, but the active brave girl motivated by her love for him. Her warm tears fall on Kay, melting the splinter of ice in his heart, and they walk out together into the world, into perpetual summer. So it’s the archetypal happy ending. Gerda is my hero and there are elements of her in Rosa. So the novel is also partly a love letter to my daughter.
How many writers have been mothers? It’s not often been a choice that writers have been able to make, whereas male writers have been able to have vast families. The women who have had children before the twentieth century have often had servants, and probably have not liked having them and not wanted to have them, but had to have them all the same to get their work done.
How has your work for the Society of Authors’ management committee, the government’s Public Lending Right committee and the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society championing authors’ rights to fair pay affected you and changed your views on the writing life?
I always had views on the writing life and those organizations encouraged me to work for them. You volunteer – other than ALCS which is a paid post. We really need our organizations when the chips are really down. When HarperCollins broke their contract for The White Family, the Society of Authors really helped me. I also had a grant from them when I had repetitive strain injury and could not write for about a year. There’s a freemasonry of writers. We do need each other in this tough world where copyright and authors’ incomes are always threatened.
These organisations lobby for copyright, we make sure that it does not get forgotten with the internet and coming out of Europe. We have to make sure copyright is strong, that we do not get pirated – alas, we get pirated all the time.
Writers need to be able to make a living like musicians do, but over the last twenty years, authors’ writings have dropped by over a half. The average income is £10,000 a year, and that is distorted by the very high earners at the top if you look at the median earnings. If you look at the number of actual professional writers – very narrowly defined as writers who only write – it is vanishingly small compared to twenty years ago. Why are so many quite well known writers teaching at universities now – from Philip Hensher to Blake Morrison to Tess Hadley?
How many of your Granta 20 best writers of the class of ’83 (so to speak) are still around, and writing?
Some of them died of course . . . some of them have done so well . . . it was fun to be in that group: Will Boyd, Buchi Emecheta, Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, Rose Tremain, Pat Barker . . . there weren’t many women. Most of us are still going! Some are dead, of course.
What are you working on now?
I’m writing about Neanderthals, a kind of fairy story. I’ve been researching it for five years, including going to Gibraltar and into the cave there which has the only Neanderthal symbolic inscription that we know about, I was very lucky to be able to see that. I had to climb down a cliff to get there: a wonderful experience. Very awe inspiring.
When you look at human culture, at some of that extraordinary ice age art from hundreds of thousands of years ago, then you realise you are just part of this endless tradition, when to live fully, people have to create things, and those things have meaning for others. The bottom line is that: it’s worth doing what we do because even the youngest child wants to do it. And it is great luck, however successful or not you are – it’s a successful life to go on as a writer and to keep writing books that you hope are still good.
Your views on success and failure, and how important it is for an author to experience the vagaries of the writing life?
What is most important is that you learn. You learn more when things go wrong than when things go right. Though I have had experiences which I don’t believe some of the other Granta’s Best of Young British 1983 have had, this probably means I understand the world of books in a very different way to them, and probably in a truer way. I have discovered my strength. And a very interesting thing: people become less creative in the immediate aftermath of a big prize or award. There are several studies of that. It’s probably why Doris Lessing and Samuel Beckett knew the Nobel Prize was, in a way, a disaster.
So if you want to give me a big prize or award, yes, I’ll take it! Thanks. But restless creativity does quite well when it lives for itself alone. When you learn to value yourself by people you can trust, you are less at the vagaries of fashion.
I do think nevertheless that it can be very hard for older artists. You do after all need to be published and read. If you look at the biographies of much older artists, they often don’t end well. And we have to keep reading these wonderful, slightly older artists who are writing as well as they ever did. Look at Virginia Woolf who was afraid she had gone out of fashion. There are some stunningly brilliant writers writing still, and we have to be careful to value them. Visual artists may fare better.
Who are your favourite prose authors and poets?
Maureen Duffy is an inspirational novelist – she inspired me from when I was very young. Her work combines absolute love of the tradition with a political grasp of life. Her poetry is stunning. I have just read her latest book Piers the Plowless, a wonderful verse satire, and as for her translation of Sir Orfeo . . . she’s sharp, in her eighties and writing as well as ever. Fay Weldon inspired me, she’s probably the literary mother of my Monica. We are different writers but I’ve always loved her, she is very intelligent, very funny, very astute. I love so many: Bernardine Evaristo, Catherine Fox, Salena Godden. All are true artists who have changed my world-view.
Thackeray is my greatest hero . . . Vanity Fair and Henry Esmond . . . a great satirist who is a lover of people, he does not see the two as being mutually exclusive. Doris Lessing was a friend; I loved her work. She was somebody who did not praise many people, but she praised my work, and that was amazingly encouraging. Virginia Woolf, of course. I loved Sally Rooney’s Normal People.
Nick reads aloud to me, and I read aloud to him, so that’s a huge joy. We began with J. K. Rowling. I got so annoyed by the sniffy reviews of The Casual Vacancy – I was furious, they were so spiteful just because she’ s made a lot of money and is a very nice person – so we got it and read it, and I then taught it at Bath Spa. It gave us the reading aloud habit. We’ve read twenty books aloud since, in bed morning and evening.
Your heroines in fiction?
Thackeray’s Becky Sharp and Hans Andersen’s Gerda.
Your favourite recent feature films?
Shoplifters is wonderful. The Green Book with Mahershala Ali is feelgood, and I enjoyed it. Departures directed by Yōjirō Takita. The Children Act with a great performance by Emma Thompson. The Wife has a devastating performance by Glenn Close.
Your favourite singers?
Tupac, Nina Simone, Rebecca Ferguson, David Bowie.
If you could go anywhere in time for one day, where would you go and why?
Right now I’d love to be on a boat in Istanbul with two friends I love very much from Turkey: MIne and Bülent.
Do you have any favourite literary journals?
I read the Times Literary Supplement because it is so good. The New Scientist: I always learn something.
You need more than one.
Try not to be afraid. Like Monica, I do tend to say what I think in meetings or other public contexts, but that is hard for me, because I’m not like Monica, and my heart always really beats like crazy. So I have to try not to be afraid.
Try to be kind.
Ars longa, vita brevis.
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