Sep 1 2009

    Bookforum talks with A.S. Byatt

    Kera Bolonik


    The prolific A. S. Byatt has been publishing novels since the mid-'60s (her first, The Shadow of the Sun, came out in 1964), but it wasn't until 1990, when she won the Booker Prize for Possession—the story of a pair of contemporary scholars whose research on two Victorian poets reveals an extramarital affair between them—that she became an international (literary) household name. But Dame Byatt, who was awarded the DBE ten years ago (and the CBE nine years earlier), credits not the Booker Prize but the Web with her considerably raised profile: "Everything I say or write is now perpetuated and immediately accessible. I find this state of affairs inhibiting and depressing," she told me in our e-mail interview in late July. "A poet in the British Library asked me how often I Googled myself," she said, "and I looked at her in horror. I have never Googled myself." SincePossession, Byatt has published eight more works of fiction; The Children's Book (Knopf), which has just been long-listed for the Man Booker Prize, is her ninth, matching and arguably surpassingPossession in breadth and ambition. In a magnificent Edwardian-era multifamily saga, Byatt portrays a world of artists and leftists at once seized by arrested development and enraptured by the political, social, and artistic advancements they are effecting, as she depicts the lives of, among others, the philandering Fabianist Humphry Wellwood; his wife, Olive, a self-mythologizing children's-book author; and their many children, from whom Olive draws inspiration for her increasingly dark and stunning fairy tales, which appear in these pages. Through the Internet ether, Byatt divulged the secret of interweaving so many intricate narratives and described the perils of being a novelist.

    BOOKFORUM: Olive Wellwood describes having "the feeling writers often have when told perfect tales for fictions, that there was too much fact . . . it has no need of my imagination." How do you assert the space for, as Olive puts it, the "necessary insertion of inventions"?

    A. S. BYATT: One way is never to use a real person as the single original for a character. I have written stories (as opposed to novels) in which Tennyson and Browning appear as themselves, though these stories are based on little-known incidents in their lives and are experimental in form. Olive Wellwood has many things in common with D. H. Lawrence; and with some of his female characters; and with a children's writer I loved when I was young, Alison Uttley, who wrote a wonderful autobiographical tale, The Country Child; and with bits of Rebecca West. I find things recur in many lives and places that can then be recombined into new people and stories. The combination is precisely the spark of life.

    BF: There are nearly twenty people whom we get to know as intimately as if each were a main character. How do you maintain the threads of everyone's story without ever getting them tangled?

    ASB: I've been increasingly interested in the idea of a novel with many equal central characters. Even in my first novel, I felt compelled to inhabit more than one character's mind. I find the first-person form very inhibiting. There is a division in The Children's Book between those characters inside whose heads (and bodies) the reader can go and those seen only from outside. I think I mastered it technically when I realized how little space each character would have in which to come to life. I tried to paint in small spaces with strong brushstrokes, both in descriptions—so a scene or a face has a memorable feature—and in the storytelling. Something must happen in each episode that the reader's mind can use as a marker: a shock, a discovery, a change of circumstances. No delicate feathering of nuances of Woolf-like feelings. The maintaining of the structure was a nightmare. I keep large notebooks with narrow, faint lines and write and rewrite plans for the next few chapters, rearranging the order, and an Excel spreadsheet of all the characters' ages in every year from 1895 to 1919. I also had a chronology, with things about the V&A, the Fabians, the war, the kaiser, the lives of people like Wells, Bennett, Morris, Kipling, Wilde, the Russian anarchists.

    BF: What's it like to invent the writings of a writer you've imagined, and how do you distinguish your writing from the writing of a character so different from yourself?

    ASB: I started writing in other voices really when I wrote Possession, partly because I was somehow dissatisfied with the "voice" of realist prose about people's feelings. That is only one way to write. So I wrote parodies of scholarly analysis, biographical musings, Victorian love letters and poems, and I think this makes the ordinary "storytelling" voice in turn more surprising and problematic. When people ask me why I write, I say it's because I love the language and what it can do. I think I'm not very interested in self-expression. There's a moment in Doris Lessing's Golden Notebook where the writer thinks that she could turn a serious novel into a romantic novel just by leaving out certain groups of words. I love the words that go into fairy stories, and the way in which Edwardian ones had different vocabularies from modern ones.

    BF: One of the big questions of the novel is how you bring a child into the world keenly aware of his or her mortality.

    ASB: As a child I tried to imagine families of the kind I read about in Dickens, in which death was very present. I was a child in the Second World War, and people were dying terribly all over the world. But I think in Britain, outside the bombed areas, we didn't imagine death. My father was in the air force, in Africa, and I "knew" he wouldn't come back, but I didn't imagine him dying. My father said he grew up on Methodist books about the saintly deaths of virtuous children, and they made him feel sick. Julian Grenfell, who was shot at Ypres in 1915, was one of the aimless rich young men who found a sense of meaning in war, and his ecstatic poem "Into Battle" was published in The Times a week after his death and became an iconic expression of glorying in fighting and dying. Reading about the London poor in the nineteenth century is heartrending if you begin really to imagine it. I think we imagine death as and when we can, intermittently. Death, and how we imagine it, changes with history in one way and simultaneously doesn't change at all.

    BF: The adults we meet through the Wellwoods are artists, political progressives, practitioners of free love—sort of protohippies. You are more enamored of the Victorians. Still, the Edwardian era yielded timeless, important ideas, literature, and art.

    ASB: Much of what the Edwardians achieved was real and solid: Women were slowly emancipated, the workhouse was replaced by some sort of social security and pensions for the old, children were treated as people, sex was sensibly discussed, even if free love led to problems that have not gone away. But I have never loved Edwardian literature and art as I love the Victorians. There is something self-satisfied and preachy about both Wells and Shaw, something violently preachy about Lawrence and smugly self-preening about Bloomsbury. The Victorians had a sense of the tragic and the terrible, and after the 1914–18 war, that came back.

    BF: One review of The Children's Book claimed your novel was a kind of corrective to J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series.

    ASB: The Children's Book has nothing to do with Harry Potter. It came from my own sense that fairy tale is another layer of narrative, an alternative to "realism," something necessary to human beings. One germ of the narrative was that the children of children's-book writers seemed, on the whole, to be unhappy. The children in The Children's Book run wild in woods and fields, as I did in my childhood. Their imaginative world is literature and fairy stories and Peter Pan. Most modern children do not run wild, and most inhabit a different kind of unreality from the stories we told ourselves before the coming of TV. Rowling knows both how to catch the imaginations of such children and how to offer them an imaginary world that is livelier and more complicated, and this is a good thing.

    BF: You once said in an interview with The Guardian that, for you, "writing is always so dangerous. . . . People who write books are destroyers." At least one of Olive's stories claims a casualty: her son Tom. I'd like to know more generally what you meant by the danger of a medium that is more often considered to be constructive and creative.

    ASB: A Cambridge friend of mine said that writing novels was a kind of power game: Writers rearrange the world to suit their own views and needs. People usually find that they do not like being "put into" someone else's fiction: They feel threatened or distorted or diminished. The other dangerous thing is spending one's life writing about doing things instead of doing them. Like the Lady of Shalott seeing the world only in a mirror. Most novels are at best flawed or distorting mirrors. That said, making things out of language is the most exciting thing I know.

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