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“I’ve been lucky enough to keep my marbles,” says Penelope Lively. At 85, the British author seems far younger than her years: her marbles have always been formidable, and obviously remain so.
Dame Penelope has another novel on the go even now, she tells me. It will bring her total of adult novels and collections of short stories to 23. She has also written five non-fiction works, about her own life, and about the passion that runs parallel to that of reading: gardening. It’s a prodigious and inspiring work-rate — and all the more so given she “started late”.
We are meeting for lunch at an Islington restaurant within walking distance of the home she moved to 30 years ago, around the same time as the publication of Moon Tiger, her Booker Prize-winning novel, now in contention for the new Golden Man Booker award. The restaurant’s awning-shaded garden is tempting, but full of people noisily lunching and yapping in the sunshine, so instead we decide to sit almost alone in the dappled light of the cool interior. It’s a favourite place of hers, she tells me, and she dives in to the menu of the day with an air of familiarity.
“I can’t eat three courses, and I save up for the pudding, actually, because I never have puddings at home.”
So without much ado she chooses chicken breast with quinoa, I opt for mackerel with tomato and onion salad, and we stick with the fizzy water that I’d already ordered. This is how grown-up women have lunch. We are not of the generation that discusses food allergies.
We do, however, discuss age. “It’s interesting, being this age,” she says, as if observing herself from a distance. “We are part of a distinct demographic.”
In literary terms, too, Lively belongs to a cohort of brilliant female novelists who defined the fiction culture of postwar Britain, and who often worked into their late age — AS Byatt, Margaret Drabble and Edna O’Brien still going strong, with such great figures as Muriel Spark, Penelope Fitzgerald, Iris Murdoch, Angela Carter and Anita Brookner recently departed.
“Old-age work, though, is extremely slow,” she says. “I’m writing a novel now but whether I will finish first, or it will finish first, is a moot point. Though I’m quite proud, actually, of having published three books in my eighties — so if there’s isn’t a fourth, so what? You do lose the capacity for sustained concentration. I can’t just sit down and work all day like I used to, a couple of hours in the afternoon is all I can do. I think the ideas come more slowly, too.”
Ideas, it seems to me, can never have been in short supply for this writer. She has in fact had two distinct phases to her writing life: before her first adult novel, The Road to Lichfield, was published in 1977 when she was 44, she was already a successful writer for children and winner in 1973 of the Carnegie Medal for the year’s best children’s book.
Even so, Lively feels she began to write relatively late. After marrying university lecturer Jack Lively in 1957, she devoted herself to looking after her son and daughter in the various university towns where her husband worked.
“I wanted to do it, to be with them all the time, I never even wanted an au pair,” she says, as she begins to tell me about her complicated relationship with her own mother.
Her parents divorced when she was little — “you can’t imagine how unusual it was in those days” — and she never lived with her mother again, although she cared for her in her old age. After Lively’s childhood in Egypt, through the second world war, at 13 she was suddenly packed off to a bleak British boarding school — “a gruelling thing, terrible, really”.
The warmth and colour of her Egyptian childhood in the 1930s and 1940s are superbly evoked in one of her vivid volumes of memoirs, Oleander, Jacaranda, and her feelings about Cairo of those days run through her work — including her novel Moon Tiger, whose heroine has a passionate love affair in the wartime city. The same heroine also fails her own child in very much the same way as Lively’s mother.
For the future writer, in what became a lonely and insecure childhood after her parents’ split, books were the refuge, and the habit of avid reading — “I read three or four a week” — has never left her. “Every writer I know is a hungry reader. I don’t think you can do it otherwise. And you see I never went to school, before I was 13; I was taught at home in Egypt by someone who had herself left school at 15 . . . ”
At this point we discover that, oddly, we were both subjects of the extraordinary British PNEU (Parents’ National Education Union) system (it was a feature of my own peripatetic childhood), a sort of education correspondence course first devised in the late 19th century for the children of the colonies but which exists to this day.
“Quite often, though, the books and things didn’t actually arrive,” she laughs. “Especially during the war.” She would be thrown back on the slim resources of non-bookish and non-musical parents. But in terms of schooling, as Lively points out, there were advantages to the system for a book-loving girl. “It was all based on narrative. You had to read something out to the child, then they had to repeat it, verbally and by writing it down. So it was all about memory and storytelling.” Perfect training for a novelist, perhaps?
It was while reading to her own children, she says, that the idea of authorship came to her. “I got very interested in children’s books, I still am. I began to think, ‘Perhaps I could do that?’ ”
So in 1970 she wrote Astercote, about a deserted village in a wood that guards an ancient secret, the first of some 30 books for children that spanned her career until 2001. Just three years later came her Carnegie Medal, for The Ghost of Thomas Kempe, a fantasy complete with poltergeist and 17th-century spook, which she still describes as her favourite among her own books.
Prizes have been significant in her writing life, I remark. With her first novel for adults, The Road to Lichfield, she found herself on the shortlist for the Booker Prize; Treasures of Time in 1979 won the Arts Council National Book Award; and 1984’s According to Mark was again Booker-shortlisted before the winning Moon Tiger in 1987. Does she feel such awards are important?
Her answer is, again, typically low-key. “Yes, I suppose so. It’s always a surprise. But I don’t really like literature being turned into a sport,” she says. We agree, though, that at a time when publishing is threatened, anything that supports good writing and its authors is welcome.
By now our main courses have come and gone, and Lively exclaims, “Ah, yes, that’s what I have been saving up for” as a luscious-looking Eton Mess arrives. I have settled for a demure slab of blue cheese, which is accompanied by seven modest grapes. I eye the Eton Mess covetously.
I’m still trying to understand how the prolific children’s author turned, at the age of 44, into the accomplished adult novelist, but Lively is not analytic about her own creative processes. She has mentioned several times that something “comes” to her, or “leaves” her — an idea, a style, whatever. About her work for children, she tells me, “I wrote fantasy. Ghosts and that sort of thing. But I’ve never written anything like that in my books for adults. It just left me, I don’t know why.”
And of short stories — she has written several volumes, most recently The Purple Swamp Hen and Other Stories, published in 2017 — she says, “That book was a complete surprise: I thought stories had left me, I hadn’t written any for 20 years. But it was a bit like buses: suddenly they all come at once, you don’t know why. And now they’ve gone again. They’ve left me.”
Are the two such different forms of creation, I ask. Isn’t a short story a germ of a novel?
“Not at all,” comes the reply, briskly. “A novel is like hacking at the rock face, working away to get the characters, the plot, it takes ages. A short story is an idea that either comes or it doesn’t. I find stories are more prompted by life, by something that happens, a remark someone makes.
“The purple swamp hen idea came when there was a wonderful Pompeii exhibition at the British Library, I went with my son-in-law; we are both interested in birds and, when we saw one in a wall painting that we couldn’t identify, we asked a curator: he told us it was a purple swamp hen.
“So I went home and googled it and sure enough, they still exist. Then I started thinking about what the event would have looked like from the point of view of the purple swamp hen . . . ”
“I’m a diarist as well, I’ve always kept a diary. But no” — she says quickly, in answer to my inevitable question — “I wouldn’t dream of publishing it. It began as a kind of working asset. I was doing a lot of travelling then, for the British Council and so on, so I thought of the diary as a sort of work support. Not a confessional diary, more for jotting down things that I saw. It’s a good exercise, like doing a workout. You’re not deliberately practising writing, but you are. When I’m asked questions by young writers I usually say, ‘Keep a diary, it’s good for your work.’
“If I wasn’t writing I’d feel I was atrophying.”
Our coffee has also come and gone now, and the restaurant has emptied of its loud lunchers. I think how very far from atrophy this bright and articulate octogenarian is. Keen though I am to talk about the possibility of another of her sharply observed, luminous novels in the future, what brings us here is the book she wrote 31 years ago, Moon Tiger, now one of five candidates for the 50th-anniversary Golden Man Booker award.
“It’s very nice,” Lively says when I ask her reaction to this prestigious nomination, “to see it having a new lease of life.” It’s a characteristically low-key remark: she wears her achievements, and her celebrity, very lightly. The news, she says, came “out of the blue — I just got a rather puzzled phone call from Juliet Annan, my editor . . . ”
And she politely deflects my congratulations, immediately moving on to talk about someone else: “I’m really fascinated by the judge who chose it, Lemn Sissay; I’ve been reading his work and reading about his story, what an unpromising childhood, he sounds remarkable.”
Sissay is a black British writer and broadcaster who has written movingly about his struggles growing up in the care system. One of five judges, each of whom selected a Booker winner from a decade of the prize’s existence, his task was to trawl the 1980s — arguably a stellar moment in English-language fiction. He chose Moon Tiger above Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda, Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, Thomas Keneally’s Schindler’s Ark and other enduring classics.
Much as I admire those fine books, I can’t suppress my delight that an apparently quieter, female voice has stood the test of time against the more headline-grabbing male writers of the era. Lively herself is more diplomatic, merely pointing out her satisfaction that the five shortlisted contenders contain an almost exemplary diversity of origin, gender, type.
Moon Tiger is probably the most formally experimental of Lively’s novels, its multiple, shifting viewpoints weaving an eloquent disquisition on memory, identity, age, love and regret, more kaleidoscope than chronology despite its intricate multi-generational plot.
“I never re-read my books but if I look at it I know I couldn’t write Moon Tiger now,” she says. “Just as I couldn’t write the children’s books now. I’m a different person from when I was 50. But no, it’s not the favourite of my books. Perhaps I talked about it too much at the time.
“And,” she continues, “it’s got a mistake in it, which irritates me.” This is a sudden hint at a steelier side to the relaxed, gentle persona. Pressed, she explains — and it turns out that the “mistake” is a single word. Just the one. Steely, indeed, at least about herself. (And no, I’m not telling you what the word is.)
As we say goodbye on the pavement outside the restaurant, she declines my offer to walk her home and sets off in the sunshine, lightly leaning on her stick, heading first for the supermarket and then home, she says, to plant hostas.
Penelope Lively will be in conversation with Anne Enright on July 7 in ‘Sex, Love & Families’ at the Man Booker 50 Festival. Celebrating 50 years of the Man Booker Prize, the festival will take place on July 6-8. southbankcentre.co.uk
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