More from Margaret Drabble
Published: December 9, 2005
Could you describe your writing process?
I write in little bursts with concentration. A good stretch for me is three or four days without anybody around and no interruptions and nobody wanting any meals or talking to me over breakfast. I can do a lot then. I write out a little patch of the novel, and then I go back to other bits of life. I build off that patch and have another go at it. I take notes on bits of paper. Sometimes I can't think what they mean.
There's always a point in every novel that I want to throw it away. I realize I've come so far that I don't want to lose it all. I call it the back-to-the-drawing-board stage. You just have to go back and think, "This isn't working. Why not?" I hate that moment because quite often you've got about 50,000 words, you've spent a lot of time on them, and you don't want to begin again.
Is it hard to switch between your own life and the life of a book?
Yes, it is. When the book is going well, and when I'm on a good little burst, I really don't want to talk to anybody and come back to real life. Except it's quite nice to be able to come to a moment when you know it will be all right and you can go back to it. But the bits that are really difficult with real life is when you are depressed about the way things are going; it's nagging at the back of your mind that it's no good; you're in a bad temper and your partner doesn't know why. You know you're in a muddle, and that's very difficult to live with.
How do you get out of that muddle?
Go for a walk. Clean the house, the old technique of just doing something else for a bit and hoping it sorts itself out while you're doing it. I'm not a believer of sitting and staring at the machine. I think it's better when you're stuck to do something physical. It certainly is for me. I think very well when I'm walking and just get away from it a bit. [The work] is always kicking around at the back of your mind even though you're not thinking about it too hard. It's working on itself in some mysterious way.
How do you go about developing your characters?
I have to have a physical image of them. I go though all the people I know and all the people I see on the bus, and I think that's what she or he would look like. You stick the features together, and then you begin to think of them as certain physical types. I need to know what they look like. I need to know what their names are. It's very important to have the right names. When I've got that, they each begin to have a bit of individuality.
I went to a romance-novelist conference in England--they are so professional. I went to a talk by one of them. She said, "When I can't quite work out what my character looks like, I think of a hobby for her." I think that is such brilliant advice. What does this person do in her odd moments, when she is not being the main character in the book? Does she sew? Does she like to swim? As soon as you start thinking in those terms, the character kind of takes on another bit of quirkiness, really.
How do you use backstories?
In The Seven Sisters, Candida learns to knit; she learns to really enjoy knitting. It takes a bit of time to get used to the idea that she's now getting old, and she better learn to knit.
It's useful to think about whether they're good at fixing their cars or whether they like driving fast. I remember being quite pleased about a bit in The Radiant Way when the character, Alex, has to get her husband to come and fix the car. She knows that that's really old-fashioned of her, and that she ought to be able to fix the car. Although she's such a modern woman, she doesn't know how. He's good at that kind of thing, and she isn't. That was a diagnostic of her, and also it was saying something about the kind of slight guilt women feel now about asking a man to do something for them. It's not part of the principle plot, but it's part of the kind of person she is.
How do you keep track of your intricate plot lines?
In my early stages, I had colored pages. I had various plot plans--this was in very primitive days when I was using a typewriter. I would number the pages in different colors depending on which characters were on the page. And that was very good because I could look at it and say, "Well, we haven't seen her for about 30 pages, time to remember where she has got to." It was very visual way of doing it. Of course, with the word processor you can do search-and-find, and you can see exactly where they are. I'm not sure that colored system wasn't even better because it was somehow bolder. The gaps became more visible. That was a good trick.
Do you ever take something out and then use it in another story?
Not whole sections. More with bits of scenery or landscape or places that I've tried to use that haven't worked. I think, "I will use that one day," so I remember it. I don't think I've ever used whole sections. I don't really like [writing] short stories, but I know some people do use bits of novels that didn't quite work. They resuscitate them and tidy them up and turn them into a shorter format. I'm not very good at that. I don't rework the actual text, just the ideas, and the places resurface again.
Do you have other people read your work as you're writing?
Rarely. With The Peppered Moth, I did ask my daughter to read it. It's about her grandmother. She's a very good reader. It was her poem at the beginning of the book. She made some very interesting comments, but I didn't follow all her suggestions. I followed some of them. I was anxious that she might feel--since she was very fond of her grandmother--that I had written a hostile book about her grandmother, but she didn't feel that at all. And I felt reassured.
Then I handed it to my editor, and my editor said, "You really need to begin this with a section in the present. So we know that we are going to come up to the present." I think she was quite right.
In some of your novels, your characters struggle with their disappointment at how the world is different from the ideals of their youth.
When the idealism really seems to have gone, a hard edge creeps into the writing, which I don't wholly like, but it's there. It certainly was true of The Witch of Exmoor. It was true of The Radiant Way--that was about the death of ideals, I suppose. The Ice Age--I now see--is about the preparation for that kind of ethos of money takers. It hadn't really happened; it was beginning to happen.
What's the hardest part about writing?
I get very depressed when it's going badly.
THE RED QUEEN
You appear briefly, wearing a red dress, as a character in The Red Queen. Is red your favorite color?
That's absolutely true. I finished the draft on a nice hot summer day, and I put on a very pretty long red dress with white spots on it. It's an easy-wear dress that I wear every nice summer day. I do realize I have a liking for red, that's what I veer toward in the shop, and occasionally I buy something nice and bright and red. It's a confident color.
I did a reading in North Yorkshire back home, and a woman came to a reading who was wearing the most beautiful red dress. She must have been in her 70s. She had this long full red dress. It wasn't at all a formal occasion. She was really wonderful. She said, "I'm doing this especially for you." One of the things I've learned in life is that every woman needs a black dress and every woman needs a red dress. And I just thought that so amusing that she felt this sort of kinship with it.
THE PEPPERED MOTH
What elements do you use to signal that the character Steve is a nice guy?
There's a moment at which Faro knows she can trust this person. Is it because he orders a certain kind of beer? Or does he do something very sweet to her and sort of friendly. I think it's something about how he paces his answers and says, well, we can meet again and talk about that later, and he knows exactly how to not rush things. I think she likes the way he drinks a pint of beer, as well.
These are the kind of judgments we make in real life. In a novel you have to invent them. You have to invent not only the character, but why they are the way they are.
The Peppered Moth has a more melancholy, subdued tone than your middle novels, which you've described as having a more angry tone.
It's not really about politics. It's not written in the political arena as The Radiant Way books were. I was struck by the comment of my copy editor on it. She said, "Oh, you're writing about the coal fields and the industrial belt of Yorkshire, but it's an elegy. It's not really angry; it's an elegy." I think that's true because it is over. We're never going to get coal mining back in England, and we don't particularly want it. But there is a great sadness of what has happened to people because of unemployment. My mother certainly wouldn't have wanted to go back. I wouldn't want to go back to it.
THE OXFORD COMPANION TO ENGLISH LITERATURE
Did editing The Oxford Companion to English Literature have an effect on your writing?
No. You become a different person. If I'd let myself be depressed by it, I would have thought there are so many books in the world, why on earth would you write another? Of course, that's not what you think about your own book, because your own book is the only one that counts. But when I was doing The Oxford Companion, of course, I was trying to see the shape of the whole of literature to discover writers who had been overlooked and do justice to those. It's a completely different part of the game.
It was fascinating. It was like going back to college. First time I did it, it took me five years. Then I did a minor brushup. Then, I did another year and a half of doing nothing at all but concentrating wholly on that. It's hard for me to mix critical and inventive [writing]. They don't go together very well. I have to separate the two activities--in terms of time. I told myself I wouldn't [write]. I was too busy, and it was the kind of work where your brain was always full of little bits and pieces, but you did have the satisfaction that at the end of every day you made a bit of progress. Whereas with a novel you sometimes have to go 10 steps back, having to tear it all up. With The Oxford Companion, it's this big jigsaw and it begins fit, so you know your work isn't wasted. That's very different from writing fiction, where you have this terror that it's going to be completely wasted, that it's all going wrong.
When you experience that terror, do you know it will be all right in the end?
No, I think I can't do it.
What are you working on now?
It's going back to the period of my childhood, and its tracing two characters who knew each other very well, then lost sight of each other, and who meet again when they are very much older and try to make good all the things that went wrong--or maybe they won't make it good. That's the big question of the moment. I know exactly where they are going to meet, and I'm working toward this meeting. And one of them knows they are going to meet, and the other is still unaware. He still hasn't opened his folder to see who's at the conference or who's at the end of the journey. I quite like the idea of how much you rescue a relationship that went very wrong a long time ago. [The characters] are two grown-ups now. They're mature. I was going to call it The Sands of Time, which is quite a nice title. Then I thought I might call it The Sea Lady, because it's about a lot of fish and fish imagery. I love fish, I do. At the moment it's called The Sea Lady in one draft and The Sands of Time in the other.
Do you find reading other writers helpful? Are there other writers you go to?
I read a lot, and I take bits of advice from different writers. I greatly admire Doris Lessing. When I think of her work, I think, "Don't try to be too perfect." She's not a perfectionist. She just goes at it in a free style. I think, "Don't labor every paragraph, just get through to the pulse." Also, she's changed her genre very much over the years. It's good just to try to renew yourself. She's extraordinarily inventive. She's just a good person to think about because she keeps going so wonderfully well.
I often think of Jane Austen and Virginia Woolf, and how they would or wouldn't have dealt with all of this. I think of Henry James and H.G. Wells--very, very different writers. I just wrote an introduction to an H.G. Wells novel, and I read a lot of H. G. Wells. He was a very bold writer. He really did do some weird things. He and Henry James had this great row about the novel and whether it should be perfect. I'm a bit on H.G. Wells' side--both of them were amazingly productive, and both of them wrote so much. If you think about both of them, they just went on and on. Henry James published and published and wrote every paragraph perfect, and H. G. Wells got tired and fed up and just published it.
David Lodge had just written this novel about Henry James, and one of the things he said was that … the great relief in writing about a real person is that everything they did, they did. Therefore, it wasn't implausible. James' life was strange and his relationships were peculiar, but you know that they existed.
When I'm writing fiction, I'm always worried. Could this ever have happened? It was very interesting. Though he had some difficulties writing in Henry James' world, he didn't have the difficulty of thinking it wasn't true.
… One writer can open up a genre, and other people will say, "I could do that. I'd like to try that." That sometimes happened to me with writers who are long dead. You read them and think, oh, that's a good idea or a good way of doing it. One finds models and good advice anywhere.
--Posted Dec. 9, 2005