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A.S. Byatt

A.S. Byatt


I wrote the following interview article with A.S. Byatt, the Booker-prize-winning novelist, after a telephone interview with her in 1991.  It was rejected and never published until now.  It was not until today, 30 October 2018, that I rediscovered this interview as I have recently been digging through my decades of writing for a book project.  I cannot remember the reason I did this interview – and I am increasingly surprised at how we can forget things in our lives and then rediscover them as if they happened to someone else.  But I do remember two elements to put this into a context.  I had at this time written an article about the world’s most prolific writers of books, and the story had been rejected between 11 and 12 times, including by the newspaper where I worked, the International Herald Tribune.  I then suddenly managed to sell that story to the Los Angeles Times Book Review, which ran it as their bottom of the front page essay.  This was newspaper real estate for a star, and would prove to be a big break for me.  My vaguest recollections seem to tell me that either immediately before that success an editor at my newspaper had said to me something like, “If you want to write an article about prolific writers, you should be doing it with respectable writers.  Why not try?”  The article had been about a diverse group of people ranging from Barbara Cartland, the romance novelist, to Isaac Asimov and Jacob Neusner, a specialist on Judaism, to John Creasey.  These were clearly not “literary” enough for the editor.  I was a fan of A.S. Byatt, whose novel, “Possession,” had won the Booker Prize in 1990.  So I decided to contact her to speak about being prolific, even if by the standards of those I had written about – with hundreds of books each published – she was not even close.  The editor had also objected to my idea of sending the writers a letter questionnaire to answer, rather than interviewing them on the telephone, which was a way of doing journalism that I always abhorred.  The resulting interview article with Byatt would end up being rejected like the other one, and for reasons I do not know, I filed it away on my hard disk, never to see it again until today, nearly 30 years later.  A.S. Byatt is still alive, now 82, and I do hope that the publication of that telephone call that might have seemed a waste of time to her then – had she ever been waiting for the follow-up publication – will now feel as if it was not wasted!
Here, in any case, is the story as I wrote it.  It seems to me, and might have seemed to an editor, a slightly strange approach to link Byatt and Gissing, and it is part Q&A and part “article,” but I have chosen to publish the whole thing on my blog here as I wrote it in 1991, mainly for the “historical” interest of the interview with Byatt, which I find to be quite lively, but also in the spirit of this part of my blog in showing exactly what the state of my “rejected writings” were at the time of their submission to publications.
By the way, I have only been able to date the writing to 1991 thanks to the reference to George Gissing‘s “New Grub Street” novel, which I said was in its centenary.  (The computer file of the story lost its date stamp when I converted it from DOS to Windows in the year 2000, in a mass conversion of all of my DOS files.)

A.S. Byatt Interview from 1991 – on Prolificacy

One hundred years ago this year a novel was published about publishing novels. Called NEW GRUB STREET, it was to be George Gissing’s finest literary achievement, and his best-seller up to that time.
Written at the rate of about 4000 words a day, the novel portrayed novelist Edwin Reardon’s battle to make a living meeting market demands, writing 4000 words a day to produce the conventional three volume novel of the day.

George Gissing

George Gissing

The book is a treasure of images of the literary life in London a century ago: in addition to the hack novelist’s efforts to please the market, there’s the dawning of the literary agent, the creation of literary manuscript reading services for aspiring authors, and most importantly the depiction of the cost to family life of the writer who tries to earn a living meeting market demands.

One hundred years later, has there been a change in the pressures of the market on literary production?

A.S. Byatt is the author of five novels, a book of short stories, two books of literary criticism, and a book of essays to be published this summer. Until recently she had enjoyed critical praise, but little popular success. Then came POSSESSION. What effect has success had on her literary production? In a recent telephone interview the author discussed life after popular success.

“I haven’t written for about a year properly because of various crises about POSSESSION. All of them very good like winning the Booker and having to endlessly go on signings and on publicity tours to see foreign publishers and things…. And lately I could spend the whole of my life simply answering all the letters I get. Literally I mean every day I could just write letters. (Laughter.)

“POSSESSION was actually written very fast, because until wrote it, for the ten preceding years I’d had a full-time university job. And a house full of small children…. I think it did it good in terms of popular success to have been written without interruption. But on the other hand its success is now provoking interruptions, quite as terrible as university teaching. So that will wear off, I shall manage that, I shall just simply sort of, become a hermit.”

Does she think there is a relationship between quality versus quantity in literary production? In NEW GRUB STREET the image of the hack was accompanied by that of the man of enormous production.

“T.S. Eliot once said about Tennyson that Tennyson had two of the qualities of a great poet. One of them was a great lyric gift, and the other was enormous output. And he obviously felt that if you were a genius, you actually wrote a lot. And I remember looking at Tennyson, and looking at Eliot — who didn’t write a lot — and thinking that Eliot was actually right…. And I remember thinking that if you’re going to be really good you’ve got to learn to write faster and in a less inhibited way. And trust your own gift. To trust that what you do is any good. It’s partly with being a woman, I do think, I’m afraid, it’s something to do with the co-ed anxiety. One does look at it and think, “Well I could make it a bit better if I did a bit more work.” Whereas, I think that what one ought to think is, “I can write, let’s just see what comes out if I do this quite fast now.” And I’m not sure that what one does would be any worse. I think one always has to do a lot of work thinking and planning if you want to write good things, and that’s what I do want to do. I don’t want to write ‘Barbara Cartland.'”

But now that she has had market success with one book, would she feel pressured to please the market in future?

“I don’t now need financially just to please the market at all. On the other hand I have endless contracts that publishers have rushed to produce. They do things with both hands, they say ‘You will just go and do a signing in this bookstore. You will just sort of come and read in this bookshop this evening. You WILL produce your book by May won’t you?!’ (Laughter.) But it will be all right, they are ‘tellable.’ (My publisher) Carmen (Callil) has sent me some marvelous, you know, things you get in front of you if you go to a conference, that say your name, that stand up on the table. She sent me some to put next to every telephone, saying on them, “ANTONIA, WRITING TIME!” Beautifully printed on shiny cards. (Laughing.) Those are now scattered around the house. I think it’s all right.”

But the amount of literary production is not always something that is dictated by the market, at least not for A.S. Byatt.

“I used to be neurotic in the sense that I would produce sort of twelve, fifteen, even twenty drafts. And this is partly because I think I was too ambitious. I wanted to do the sort of novel that at the age I was you couldn’t do. I know now how to do it because I can actually hold the structure of a very complicated novel all in my head at once, but I couldn’t when I was in my twenties. And I was partly feeling my way and I partly didn’t like what I was doing, which was the ordinary sort of novel about what girls feel. Because those don’t actually interest me that much.

“I don’t get writer’s blocks, but I am a sort of a perfectionist, and if I get the rhythm of something wrong, I have to go back quite a long way and re-write the whole lot to get the next sentence right…. I write with a pen because I need the rhythm of the movement of my hand. And I got into despair last week because I was starting writing again, and I had actually several days, and not just one day, in front of me without interruption, for the first time really since last summer, and I panicked. So I sat down with the notebook and started writing with the pen, and after a bit, the ideas came out of the actual rhythm of the writing with the pen. But I’ve learned all these things over the years. I used to worry
much more than I do now.”

Edwin Reardon is depicted as being “shut up in his study, dolorously at work” writing his triple deckers all day long. What’s a typical day for A.S. Byatt?

“I start work in the morning at about ten — having put the washing in the washing machine, and gone to the green grocer — and I will read something easy to stop me thinking about the house, and then I read something difficult to make my mind be really moving — you know like running a car in. And then after a bit if I read something difficult that’s really interesting I get this itch to start writing. So what I like to do is to write from about half past twelve, one, through to about four. And then I start reading again. That would be a perfect day’s work.”

Would such a day’s work lead to Reardon’s 4000 words?

“On a good day I can write six thousand without much trouble. But there’s no good starting if you don’t feel you can feel your way through the bit you’ve set out to do. You know, if there’s a real mess coming that you can’t sort out, it’s better to sort it out before you start writing. Or you spend another two days undoing it again…. I start at the beginning and I go to the end. And then I correct little things. I don’t put a paragraph here that was once there.”

Does she worry about not being exactly what you might call prolific?

“Very very soon I shall have got up with George Eliot, who I think did one novel more than I have now done. And one doesn’t think of her as not having exactly achieved anything.”

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