About Margaret Drabble
An Interview with Margaret Drabble
More About Margaret Drabble
Margaret Drabble is recipient of many prestigious awards for her writing, which includes works of nonfiction as well as numerous novels.
Drabble is 'One of our foremost women writers' (Guardian). January 2001 saw
publication of her first novel in five years. She gives us a rare insight
her writing, the changes wrought by Mrs Thatcher, and the chains of
You began your writing career in
1963 with the
publication of A Summer Bird-Cage. How different
do you feel
a writer now? Are there familiar sensations as you begin to
write, or is every
book an entirely new, and unpredictable, experience?
much more anxious
nowadays, in many ways. When I first began to write I had
nothing to lose,
I expected nothing. I wrote very easily - perhaps too easily. Now I expect
of myself, as do others, and I try to say things that are more complicated,
I risk failure. Every book is a new experience but recently in the writing of
each book comes a bad patch - usually about a third of the way through - when
find I have taken many wrong directions and have to begin again. The ending
always comes with feeling of clarity and relief.
Your earlier books are written in the first person, but in
your more recent novels, the authorial voice is very distinct, and quite
sharply distanced from the events taking place. Was that change a conscious
decision on your part?
In some ways it was conscious. Writing
the first person is easy and liberating when you are young, but it can
restricting and limiting, so with my fourth novel I made a deliberate effort
write in the third person. I found it difficult but I am glad I made the
change. Since then I have written largely in the third person though sections
of The Waterfall and The Gates of Ivory use the first person. I think the
distinct and rather aggressive authorial voice dates from the 1980s and had
something to do with the regime of Mrs Thatcher, who provided such a strong
challenge to the assumptions of the liberal novel and liberal humanism. The
voice also owes something to deconstruction and relativism - an answering
to uncertainties, while attempting to recognise they exist. I'm not sure I
it much but I needed it then and at times still do.
Your backlist titles have recently been given new jacket
designs. Do you feel a measure of affection for the original jackets - does
seeing your name on a new cover make you feel differently towards the
I loved my very first hardback jackets by Quentin Blake,
back in the 1960s. They were innocent and charming. Since then I have
the changing jackets with amusement and some pride. I loved the Viking
of A Natural Curiosity - a brilliant collage. And I very much like the new
Penguins - they look light and bright and young again. It's like watching
social history change, to see the images change.
The Peppered Moth is your first novel to be published for
five years. In that time, you've been working on the Oxford Companion to
Literature, of which you are editor. Were you thinking about your novel at
Yes. I began the novel before I began the OCEL
revision, then had to put it away in order to work on the revision - I can't
two big jobs at once - but I suppose I was thinking about it at the back of
mind during all that period. I really got back to the novel in the spring of
1999 when I was teaching a seminar in the University of Chicago for ten weeks
that's when I re-engaged with it.
interesting title. What inspired you to choose the Peppered Moth? Did you
across the story of this insect's remarkable evolution before you started
writing - was it part of the conception of the book?
about the peppered moth for years - I was told about it long ago by a man
I loved very much, Harold Landry, who is now dead. He liked this story and I
was impressed by it and never forgot it. What I hadn't remembered, until
reminded by April, one of my Chicago students, was that I'd already
the peppered moth in an earlier novel, The Needle's Eye. I was amazed when
April told me this. It's clearly a story that resonates with me. So although
wasn't part of the original conception it had been waiting for decades. I
thought of the title while I was in Chicago, where I read all the books about
the moth. There was a fine library in Chicago. I don't have such easy access
books here in London. It was a good time, reading those biology text
The Peppered Moth is a novel, but, as
explain in the Afterword, it is also a blurring of fact and fiction. The
character of Bessie Bawtry is based on your mother, and many of the events
describe are true. Was it a cathartic book to write?
think so, although I still feel much grief for my mother's life. But at least
tried to understand her and her situation. It was very much a generation
tragedy. So many mothers like her, so many frustrated lives. I did what I
Why is it that we are so
interested in DNA and the intricacies of inheritance? Is there something
intrinsically compelling in the nature/nurture debate? Or does it stem for
own need to feel individual, to believe that we have the power to shape
We all want to feel free and yet we know we are
bound. Who was it that said that man is born free yet everywhere we find him
chains? Was it Rousseau? The new chain that binds us is DNA and we struggle
against it. We are caught in it. We try to assert our freedom. And I think we
do have freedom, though less than we like to think. I used to favour the
of nurture over nature. As I get older, I fear nature more.
Peppered Moth tells the stories of three generations of
women. Which period
did you most enjoy writing about - Bessie in the '20s and
30s, Bessie's daughter Chrissie, or Faro in her more contemporary setting?
Margaret Drabble recommends...
Who - or what - has been your greatest influence?
I loved writing about Faro. She was young, and she was free,
and she was still having some fun. Writing about Bessie and
heavy. I like it when Faro has dinner alone in her Motel and is quite happy.
I have been greatly influenced by Jane Austen, William Wordsworth, Thomas Hardy, Virginia Woolf, Angus Wilson, Doris Lessing, and a host of others.
What is your all-time classic read, and why?
Probably Wordsworth's Prelude... an inexhaustible and profound poem of self discovery.
What do you read when you can't get to sleep at night?
Anthony Trollope (very soothing) and women crime writers ancient and modern ... Margery Allingham, Ruth Rendell, Sara Paretsky, etc
Out of all the books you read in 2000, which has stayed with you the most?
Probably Orlando Figes's remarkable history of the Soviet Union, The People's Tragedy. A dark and overpowering work, brilliantly orchestrated and narrated.
What are you most looking forward to reading in 2001?
I have the new two-volume edition of Edith Wharton short stories which I'm taking away with me on my travels in January.
And what are you reading at the moment?
I am nearly at the end of Malcolm Bradbury's fine and ambitious novel To The Hermitage... alas, his last. I am also reading (in translation) Goethe's Italian Journey, looking desperately for the page where he asserts that the Neapolitans invented lemonade, and dipping into the bits I can understand of Robert Skidelsky's third volume of the life of Maynard Keynes.
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