Reading Guides

Making It Up
Penelope Lively
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From her Booker Prize-winning novel Moon Tiger to her most recent success, The Photograph, Penelope Lively's fiction often revolves around a meditation on the past, whether as memory, motivation, or source of revelation. In her latest work, Making It Up, Lively takes this attention to personal history and turns her imagination inward, re-examining her life and her own experience by exploring, through a series of short stories, the lives she did not lead.

Organized chronologically, Making It Up follows Lively from her childhood in Egypt to her married life in England, touching on critical points in between. Inspired by actual events in her life, the stories cover a vast range of experiences—love ("Comet"), war ("The Battle of the Imjin River"), and family ("The Albert Hall"), to name only a few. When read together, the stories create a potent cumulative effect, building a shifting, multifaceted representation of the many people Penelope Lively might have become, and demonstrating how fate can be decided in the blink of an eye.

As with her earlier works, Making It Up demonstrates Lively's meticulous literary craftsmanship, specifically her fine ear for dialogue and sharp eye for detail. Her insight into human relationships, particularly regarding marriage and parenthood, is unparalleled, and the subtlety with which she draws her stories only heightens the impact they have on her readers. And yet Making It Up is a departure from her previous writing in its focus on herself as subject, writing what she calls "the alternative stories" of her life. While Lively's writing has always been so vivid as to seem real, it is in this collection of short stories that readers can see the connection between fact and fiction most clearly; each section of Making It Up is framed by Lively's intimate discussion of the truth behind the story, and why that moment captured her interest.

Taken together, the complementary tales of Making It Up create a dual portrait of the writer and the art of writing. For readers who love Penelope Lively's books, this will provide a welcome insight into her life and her artistic process. For fans of great fiction new to Lively, this is a terrific introduction to her and great background with which to continue exploring her work. In either case, Making It Up is a series of outstanding short stories detailing one writer's journey retracing her own past, and it is the reader's privilege to travel with her.



Penelope Lively grew up in Egypt but settled in England after the war and took a degree in history at St Anne's College, Oxford. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, and a member of PEN and the Society of Authors. She was married to the late Professor Jack Lively, has a daughter, a son and four grandchildren, and lives in Oxfordshire and London.

Penelope Lively is the author of many prize-winning novels and short story collections for both adults and children. She has twice been shortlisted for the Booker Prize; once in 1977 for her first novel, The Road to Lichfield, and again in 1984 for According to Mark. She later won the 1987 Booker Prize for her highly acclaimed novel Moon Tiger. Her novels include Passing On, shortlisted for the 1989 Sunday Express Book of the Year Award, City of the Mind, Cleopatra's Sister and Heat Wave.

Penelope Lively has also written radio and television scripts and has acted as presenter for a BBC Radio 4 program on children's literature. She is a popular writer for children and has won both the Carnegie Medal and the Whitbread Award.



Many of your novels—most recently, The Photograph—have included the idea of revisiting or reassessing the past in order to better understand the present. What is the appeal in looking backward, in fiction and in real life?

It has always seemed to me that every moment, and every action, has its ancestry. Our thoughts relate back to other events, to stored knowledge, to people we once knew. This pervasion of the present by the past is inevitable, and also sustaining—indeed, without it we would be untethered, in serious trouble. So, in real life we cannot avoid looking back. The fiction writer seizes the opportunity to explore this universal capacity, and look at the way in which a life may be conditioned by things that happened long ago, for better and for worse. It is also a device to embed the characters in a novel—to explain where they came from, which may explain why they behave as they do.

Can you describe the inspiration for Making It Up? What were the criteria for selecting moments of your life to use for the book?

The longer you live, the more surprised you become that you are the person you are, doing what you do, with the children that you have, and the marriage that you had—rather than all the other outcomes that there might have been. I wanted to have some fun conjuring up the paths down which I might have gone at crucial junction points in my life. Of course, there could have been scores—hundreds—of these, but practicality meant that a handful must be chosen. So there are eight "stories." Interestingly, I found when I began to think about choices that the climactic moments cluster alarmingly in the first thirty years or so of life. But, also, I wanted to pick alternative forks in the path that might say something about how anyone's personality and inclinations are decided by the direction taken.

As a writer, what is the relationship between emotion, inspiration, and result? Were any of the stories more difficult to write than others? Were any incidents in your life too emotionally charged to use in the book?

All the stories presented difficulties, but in entirely different ways. For some, I needed background research for times and events that were outside my own experience—a ship sailing down the east coast of Africa during the Second World War, the battle of the Imjin River during the Korean war, an archaeology dig in the nineteen seventies. Others just required a great deal of thought and projection into the lives and assumptions of people unlike myself—which is what all fiction writing requires. I think that in an odd way the episodes almost chose themselves—they came to seem obvious, unavoidable. I did discard a few embryonic ideas along the way, but I think perhaps more because they seemed unpromising rather than too emotionally charged.

From the perspective of craft, does the writing process differ when writing about oneself (albeit in alternate lives) rather than purely fictional characters?

In fact, I was not writing about myself in any of these "alternative lives," for two reasons—firstly, because in almost all I have shunted my own alter ego to one side, so that I become a bit player where others take center stage, which is after all what happens in real life (the solipsistic view is only from within—for everyone else we are marginal), and secondly because where my alter ego does play a part, she is not me because she has been changed by these alternative circumstances. She is a person I might have become had things run differently, but not me as I am! That said, I think the writing process does indeed differ when you write of yourself—I know this from my excursion into autobiography, a childhood memoir called Oleander, Jacaranda: A Childhood Perceived. The difference is that you are drawing upon memory rather than upon imagination—though commentators would very properly argue that autobiography is a suspect form, and may have its own unconscious (or indeed conscious) mendacities.

How did it feel to show your hand, so to speak, by appending the true event that inspired the story along with the fiction? What were your hopes in presenting the book this way? Any concerns?

I wanted this book to be a sort of dance between fact and fiction, so the brief "bookends" about what actually happened that attend each story were essential. I hoped that they would underline the arbitrary nature of anyone's life, the way in which each and any of us could easily have spun off in some other direction. Also, I felt that, although this book is essentially fiction, it must have a spine of fact, because it is also a meditation on the nature of fiction itself. Life is arbitrary and unstructured; fiction is controlled and contrived and shaped by the writer's innumerable decisions—about story, about characters, about the structure of a sentence. But there is no sense in which this is a memoir—it is an "anti-memoir" if anything—so I felt that the "real" passages must be kept short, and serve both as pegs to the fiction, and to point up the apposition between fact and fiction.

Who are your favorite authors? Do the nonliterary details of their lives interest you? If so, in what way?

Favourite authors? Goodness—there are so many, and new ones get added all the time. But I suppose I do have a kind of medicine cabinet of those to whom I go back when I need a shot in the arm, and these would include William Golding—the greatest British writer of the last century, to my mind—Dickens, Turgenev, Willa Cather, Edith Wharton, John Updike, Ann Tyler, Carol Shields, Elizabeth Bowen . . . and many, many more. I am indeed interested to read of a writer's life—not perhaps because I feel that the life necessarily informs the work, though of course it can and does, but just out of curiosity. Every life is of interest—the life of a writer you admire and enjoy has a special interest, particularly if you are a writer yourself. There can be insights into whence comes the urge to write, and how it develops.

What are you currently working on?

I am at work now on a novel about three generations of women—mother, daughter, and granddaughter. It begins in 1923, and ends in 2005, follows three love stories and three lives set against the events of the day, and the social change of the last century.



  1. Making It Up inhabits a space between fact and fiction. In terms of intention, interest, or reaction, do you read novels differently than you do nonfiction? Why?

  2. Do you ever assume that a writer has inserted her own life into her fiction? Have you ever invented a personality or history for a favorite author? If so, how did your version compare to the truth?

  3. What is the appeal of a memoir? Why do readers feel the need to examine the lives of writers, politicians, or celebrities? Could you imagine putting your own personal history on public display?

  4. Name some of the turning points in your own life, good and bad. If you were to rewrite the choices you made, what alternative lives would you have lead?

  5. Did you enjoy the factual notes Lively includes with each story? How did they affect your understanding of each piece?

  6. Which story was your favorite? What elements did you base your decision on?

  7. Discuss the various approaches Lively takes to war, love, death, and family. How do your experiences and opinions compare with hers and those of her characters?

  8. Lively writes that the glory and frustration of being a novelist is complete control over reality. Have you ever tried to write fiction? If so, what inspired you and what was the result? If not, what other methods have you used to express yourself?

  9. What was your reaction to the last story, "Penelope"? How does it relate to the rest of the collection? What do you think Lively's intention was in ending the book this way?

  10. Do you feel that you know Lively better as a person after reading this book? Do you feel you have a better understanding of the link between truth and fiction?