Interview

Have you always wanted to be a writer?

 

No. I never thought like that; I just had to write. I think novelists need to live in their characters, inhabit their world, move in their landscape, speak in their voices. If you are self-consciously thinking “I’m a writer,” you get in the way, stand in your own light. You need to obliterate yourself as much as possible.

 

Do you plan your novels, work out the plot in advance?

 

No, I think that shows a kind of disrespect for your characters. You’re telling them what to do, moving them about like puppets. They should be warm, living people, not wooden pieces. The characters should come first; it’s only when you’ve got to know them, hear their voices, know the kind of things they would do and say (and what they would never do or say) that they come alive.

 

In “Kitty” the novel I wrote after “Journey to Guyana” a minor character, just someone who talked to a central character on a bus journey, kept butting in, later bringing her hen-pecked little husband in tow. I tried to cut her down to size because she seemed to be getting in the way, but she persisted and in the end was a very important part of the book. So I learned from that to let characters have their head.

 

It’s no good, of course, to tell the reader about a character, you have to show them. If you say “Mrs Bloggs was a very selfish woman” it means little, but if you create a scene in which this selfishness is revealed, then the reader is shocked, feels what you feel about the woman. And then from that scene perhaps the story begins to take shape. I never know what will happen when I start, but somewhere in the middle of the novel I catch sight of how it will end; I don’t know how I’ll get there, but I have an idea of the destination.

 

I think that when you’re actually creating, you shouldn’t be too self critical. At that stage there is a danger that you’ll stop the flow. Once it’s written, whether it’s a few chapters or half the book, then it exists and you can be your own sternest critic. You can stand back from it, read it as if somebody else had written it.

 

Do you put people you know, or have met, into your books?

 

No. But what can happen is that somebody seems to act strangely, says something unexpected and it starts you wondering. It’s always better to give an example so I’ll tell you this: a woman sitting next to me on an aeroplane told me that she had found a book of mine, The Package, painful to read because there was in it a woman who very much wanted to have a child, but didn’t conceive. She then went on to tell me her story: she was an academic, had always wanted a career and a family, but had seen that when women took a few years off to have children, they returned to work to find that the men had, in those few but very important years, climbed up the ladder and they had to go back and start at the bottom. Other women, she had noticed, tried to run a responsible job at the same time as being good mothers and ended up torn between their conflicting claims, missing an important meeting because a child was ill, mixing shopping lists among their lecture notes etc. So she had decided that she would devote herself to her profession, wait until she had established herself near the top of the ladder before marrying and having her family at, say, the age of thirty-five or -six. She did that, lived with a man whom she loved, who wanted to marry her and have children, but she always refused until she felt secure in her job. That day came. She decided she would tell him the great news, but before she could speak he told her that he had decided to go off with someone ten years younger.

 

At this point she had a breakdown, was treated in hospital and was advised to have a winter holiday to help her complete the cure. In fact she found she didn’t like skiing and then read my book and saw herself reflected in it.

 

I had been considering writing a biography of Peel, had discussed it with my publisher, but kept thinking about this woman on the plane. She was very attractive, very intelligent and yet she thought that she could plan her life so easily, hadn’t seen the hazards, hadn’t realised that, unless she’s very lucky, a woman is likely to have to give priority to one or the other. Why should anyone believe otherwise?

 

So I imagined a child, Nell, born in the war, father away at the front, mother going to live with her sister, a farmer’s wife up in the Yorkshire Dales. Her mother dies, so Nell grows up on the farm with her aunt and uncle and two cousins. It is a very secure and safe home but it isn’t quite her own, so she longs for her father’s return when the two of them will be together in a home of their very own. She sends him drawings of the house they’ll have and, when she learns to write, describes it to him. He promises that she’ll have just such a home after the war. But when he’s demobbed, it seems that it’s difficult to find a house in London and she must wait. In fact he can’t deal with the situation, comforts himself with drink and dies when she is eleven. At which point his aunt, from whom he was estranged, hears of his death and offers her help in bringing up this little girl. She is a headmistress in London and the adults arrange that she will look after Nell’s education, but Nell will spend the holidays with her cousins up in the Dales. She admires her spinster aunt, her career, her independence. She wants to be like that. But she also longs for the family life that she had experienced on the farm. She wants both with equal passion. So she decides she will have a career, then at say thirty-five or -six, she’ll have her family. This is the theory on which she builds her life.

 

So the idea of the book, which later became “Snow in Winter” came from something said to me by the woman on the plane which puzzled me. I never knew her surname or anything about her. Certainly the character of my heroine isn’t based on hers or on her life. But that brief conversation started the niggle which made me need to write the book.

 

Do you feel sad when you’ve finished a book, the way readers sometimes do?

 

No, it’s a great relief. After working, imagining, rewriting again and again for two years or more, it’s a wonderful release to hand over the parcel at the post office, knowing you’ve done the best you can. Of course there’s still the copy-editing and proof-reading but that’s easy compared with creating; they’re sociable activities compared with the loneliness of writing.

 

But I did once feel anxious about a character in a book and wanted to write more about her. After I’d finished “Snow in Winter“, I meant to get back to writing that biography of Peel, but I found myself thinking a lot about that aunt, Miss Thorpe, Nell’s great-aunt, who didn’t even have a Christian name in the book, all we knew was that she disliked it too intensely to use it.

 

She was one of those spinsters whose potential husbands and lovers had been killed in the Great War.  They were the unmarried daughters who stayed at home to look after their parents until they died, they were the maiden aunts who helped to bring up their nieces and nephews. But some were the pioneers who went into the professions, into teaching, into medicine, very dedicated and determined to establish a reputation for excellence, preparing the way for others. They often had to put up with the contempt of their married sisters because they hadn’t got a man to support them. It seemed to me that they were the unsung heroines of their day and that the generations of women who followed owed them a great deal. I felt I would never get to know Nell’s great-aunt unless I wrote her fictional biography, which I did in “The Kingdom of the Rose“.

 

Where do you get your ideas from?

 

That’s a question all novelists are asked, but the truth is we really don’t know. “The thing is,” as William Trevor once remarked in a rare interview, “a mystery.” I do know that when people suggest you could make a book out of an idea they have had, it never works. Towards the end of the 1990s it was suggested that I might write a trilogy covering the Twentieth Century. I pointed out that I’d already written such a book in “The Kingdom of the Rose,” but that, I was told, was about a middle class woman, why not write about the aristocracy? That didn’t appeal either.

 

Then a strange thing happened. I went with our historical society to visit a little Victorian school which had been started in 1860 for the children of the workers on the estate. The teacher was fifteen and stayed at her post until the school finally closed just before the First World War when there were only three pupils left. The door was locked, the school remained untouched until recent times when the door was opened. To step inside that little school was to step back into the Victorian Age. There were maps of the British Empire, coloured pink of course, all around the walls. The children’s slates were still there, two bonnets hung on pegs. On a shelf there were finger stocks, strips of wood about four inches long with four holes into which the children’s fingers were thrust, tied with a leather strap around the wrist, to stop them from fidgeting. There were backboards too, with projecting poles, over which slouchers’ arms could be hooked to make them sit up straight. The aim was to train the children to be good servants up at the hall, footmen, lady’s maids and nannies. They were trained in the ways of obedience, hard work, and gratitude to the lady of the manor who had provided this education.

 

The memory of that visit stayed with me; I began to read more about the life on great estates, the extraordinarily lavish life style of the great family up at the Hall, the contrasting poverty of the estate workers. It was at the school that the two worlds met. The visit to that little school certainly sparked something which made me need to write what eventually turned into the trilogy “Northrop Hall.”

 

I didn’t, of course, know what would happen to them, or indeed who these people would be. I could only find out by writing about them. I know that people do find it hard to believe that some novelists don’t know what’s going to happen until they’ve written it, but it’s true that it is a voyage of discovery. In his autobiography John Middleton Murry describes how he once planned a book in his head every night because he was teaching during the day. He thought he could plan it and write it up in the holidays. When the holidays came he couldn’t write it because there was no need: you write not to tell, but to find out. And he’d found out already, so the urge to write the book had gone.

 

Do you use your own life’s experience in your books?

 

That is another question which writers are often asked. I was once asked by a Sixth Former if she could interview me for her English project: the candidates had to read several books by a living writer and, if possible, talk to the author. So I agreed to this and she was very diligent and serious about it. Much later I asked if I could see the paper she’d written. It started, “If it be true [note the subjunctive] that novelists write from experience, then Margaret Bacon has led a very busy life indeed.”

 

No, novels are not autobiographies. I can think, however, of one book, “Home Truths“, which was prompted by an event in our own lives. It was the worst of our many experiences of moving house : we thought it was all settled, only to be told we couldn’t have the house we thought we’d bought because the owner was stuck in a housing chain. He explained why he couldn’t move and also why the owner of the house he was buying couldn’t move. Strangers linked only by the need to buy each other’s houses, we got to know something of each other’s lives.

 

After it was all over, I realised that an imaginary chain was forging itself in my mind, a housing chain linking various people, with different needs and problems, all having their lives disrupted by events in the lives of others over which they had no control. Of course the people in “Home Truths” and their reasons for moving were all quite different from those we had known. They took over, as characters do, but the idea, the niggle that set me going was, in this instance, something in our own family life.

 

So no, I don’t think novelists put great chunks of raw experience into their books.  On the other hand, unless you are writing science fiction or crime, what else is there to write about than life as you have observed it and experienced it? I think that the writer’s memory has been well compared to a compost heap, a comparison that maybe appeals especially to me as a garden-lover. In the same way that into the garden compost heap go grass cuttings, flower heads, stems, fallen leaves, vegetable peelings etc and time and the weather work on them, changing them into something different from what was put in, so into the compost heap of memory all experiences get thrown: the funny things, the sad things, the boring things, the humiliations, the tragedies. Time and the seasons work on this compost heap of memories so that what you pluck out from the subconscious when you’re writing isn’t the same bit of raw material that went in, but maybe is the product of it.

 

There was an occasion, though, when the course of a novel changed as I was researching for it. The theme of the book which became “The Ewe Lamb” was the relationship between two girls who had been childhood friends in the Yorkshire Dales, but whose lives divided when Judith left the dales and grew up as a career girl, while Alice, a farmer’s daughter stayed at home, helping on the farm.

 

In previous books I had had men and women in different professions but I hadn’t yet had a lawyer, so Judith became a barrister. I spent some time in Chambers, getting the feel of things there, and I went to observe various trials. One, in Bristol, happened to be a rape case. And I was shocked by it. I’d heard, of course, that victims are subjected to a second rape by the barrister defending their attacker, but nothing prepared me for what I saw and heard in that court and which made me very angry. I found it made Judith very angry too. Towards the end of the book she successfully prosecutes a rapist after a trial in which the defence lawyer, in order to get his client off, almost breaks the victim by subjecting her to the kind of treatment I had witnessed in that court in Bristol.

 

So, yes, I do know that a strong emotion, like anger, can influence the course of a book. And I suppose one hopes that ultimately other people will be alterted to the need to reform the way in which rape trials are conducted.

 

You’ve written one children’s book. How did that come about?

 

Some friends who lived in the South of France, told us that they had a pair of old caravans, a little field kitchen, and a chemical loo in the field near their house and suggested we might like to have a holiday there. My eight-year-old daughter promptly said she couldn’t go because she couldn’t leave her guinea pig behind. We did nevertheless accept the invitation. The setting was idyllic with lavender fields, an old railway line overgrown with herbs, a lake nearby, an impressive gorge. I felt the need to write about the landscape there, but I didn’t have any idea about who would be in it. Then, back home, I remembered that problem of the guinea pig and slowly it came to me that this could be a children’s book, seen through their eyes.

 

It’s the only book I’ve ever shown to anybody before it was finished. When I read chapters to my children they were very harsh critics, which was good for me because I had been writing in a style more suitable for adult readers. The children didn’t want long descriptions, they wanted something to happen on every page. So, after much re-writing, it became an adventure story, involving an international gang of art thieves and a guinea pig.

 

Dobsons suggested it should be illustrated and so my husband did the illustrations. Altogether it was a family effort and a much less lonely business than the writing of any other books had been.

 

Do you enjoy writing?

 

I think enjoy is the wrong word. It’s very lonely, which is fine if you’re a natural hermit, but most of us aren’t. And it can be very boring. I’m sure many writers must have sat alone in front of the blank, reproachful page and thought that there must be easier ways of earning not much money. Working from home is difficult too; it’s very hard to get the hours of uninterrupted time which is what you need if you are to live in your characters, who must become more real to you than your neighbours and their dwelling place more real to you than your own town. If you are doing something mundane like proof reading, interruptions don’t matter, you go on from where you were before you were interrupted, but if you are just getting the wisp of an idea, the inkling of it as it hangs there, unformed and elusive, the ring of the telephone or doorbell frightens it away, it vanishes and the memory of it may be irretrievable.

 

It has to be a solitary business; unlike the playwright you don’t have actors and actresses to give flesh to your characters, directors to move the action along. I remember years ago going one evening to a play in an Oxford college garden. It was The Tempest. At the point where Prospero frees Ariel, Ariel ran across the lake and disappeared into the trees behind. It was twilight, it was magic. There was an audible sigh from all who watched.

 

What happened was that planks of wood had been arranged just below the surface of the water across which Ariel had so lightly sped. All Shakespeare had written was “Exit Ariel.” If a novelist writes Exit Ariel that’s all you get. And there isn’t much magic in that. All the novelist has is a dictionary of words to move about and rearrange to make people laugh or cry.

 

It’s particularly depressing because you are always brought up against your own limitations. You know in your mind how it should be, but when you write it down it isn’t at all as you’d imagined. Proust summed it up well when he said, “I hear in my mind the music of the stars but when I write it down it sounds like the rattling of kettledrums.” Or words to that effect, but anyone who has tried to write knows exactly what he meant.

 

So why does anyone do it?

 

I suppose because they feel compelled to. Obviously not everyone feels this. Certainly the other thirty or so members of the historical society who went with me into that Victorian school didn’t feel the need to go back in time and imagine the lives of the people who lived then, as I did in “Northrop Hall.” Maybe they had other compulsions; creativity takes different forms. When I was a child my father’s cousin, an artist, used to come and stay with us in the Dales and each year painted a picture. I used to walk with her and she would make a kind of frame with her hands and look at a view, a dry-stone wall, a tree leaning over the beck, a farmhouse against a hillside, sheltered from the wind, and she would know the one she needed to paint and we would go back there the next day, myself helping to carry the stool, easel and paints, then playing around while she sat and painted.

 

I’m not a painter, so can look at a view and enjoy it without feeling a need to do anything about it, but she had to take that scene, absorb it into herself and then turn it into art. I think something like that happens with fiction.

 

Many years ago I heard Laurence Olivier being interviewed after he’d been told by his doctors that he must give up acting for a year. “Oh,” said the interviewer, “that will be hard because you enjoy acting so much.”

 

“I don’t enjoy acting,” he told her. “It’s just that I can’t live without it.”

 

Maybe that’s true of all forms of creativity.