Magaret Drabble

An Interview with Magaret Drabble
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OKR:

As a writer then, do you sometimes find that you don't really know your characters or what they're going to do? I know that in The Realms of Gold your narrator says of the character David Ollerenshaw something like, "I had thought that he was going to be a more important character but as it turns out the more I know about him the more incomprehensible he is." How do you react to that statement now when you look back to it?

MD:

I feel exactly that. I couldn't have made him a more central character. I gave him quite a lot of thought sequences. I was actually quite impressed by how many thought sequences of his own he got, but I finally didn't know what he was doing. He wanted to be alone, he wanted to be solitary. In a way I could have re-played his character a bit in The Radiant Way trilogy with a character called Stephen Cox who wanted to be alone. And I'm interested in that kind of lone, lone figure, but I really don't know how they work. There's a bit of me that obviously has that quality in it, but there's also a much more overpowering social person. I don't understand that solitary impulse. There's a bit, also, in The Realms of Gold where we say that omniscience has its limits and we can't tell what Frances's father is thinking at the funeral scene, and I feel exactly that. I can know somebody quite well, but I don't know what they're thinking beyond a certain point. And even as a novelist I haven't got the temerity to invent. So as a writer, there are characters whose inside world you know, characters whose half of their inside world you know, and there are some whose behavior pattern you simply observe. And they're all characters. I mean it's not quite like round and flat characters -- it feels forced to talk about round and flat characters -- but rather degrees of knowing. I feel that with the people I know in my life I have degrees of knowing. Some of them, like my daughter, I feel I know through and through, and yet she will come up with something to surprise me. And so it's degrees of knowing and I think a novelist can admit to degrees of knowing. So with the character David, I didn't know beyond a certain point.

OKR:

And is integrity involved in that somehow -- I mean the integrity of the character?

MD:

Yes, a respect for the character and a desire not to fake for them things that you don't know about them or that they might not have done. But I think that in The Realms of Gold, Frances is surprised by David and Karel says he isn't surprised at all. I find it interesting that some people just aren't surprised by human behavior and other people are. And I just like to write about that degree of opaqueness that we have to each other and that was my narrative voice I was doing it in. I still struggle with exactly that problem in every novel.

OKR:

Do you think that it's become more difficult to know your characters given the influences of globalization and social fragmentation that we were talking about earlier? The American critic Stephen Greenblatt has been talking about globalization a good deal and he recently made the remark that he didn't think it was possible anymore for someone to be a local writer. Does that make it more difficult to write?

MD:

That is a very interesting subject. It's extremely difficult to be a local writer. It's extremely difficult to be a British writer, because you're always being told you've got to be American and write it like Martin Amis. Everyone says "All the big themes are in America; I've got to go live in America, that's where it's all happening." Now that is not true and even Americans know that is not true. There are other big themes, and in some sense we're all trying to get out of the big theme and into a smaller one. But it is true that it is very difficult, if you have any intellectual curiosity, which most of us have, not to want to cover the globe, even physically. That's partly why I'm here in Oklahoma, because I want to see what is happening, and I know that while I'm here things will go into my head that would never have got in otherwise. And after all, you want to write the novel in which everything is. But I must tell you this anecdote. I was recently in South Africa at a writer's conference where there was an Icelandic author who spoke with great passion. He said something along these lines -- "Iceland is a country with 40,000 people and my print number is 20,000, and they all read my book." That's just extraordinary -- talk about globalization. But he did say at one point during his presentation, "All my books spring from the center of the universe which is this eastern suburb of Reykjavik--not the western suburb, nothing happens there -- the eastern suburb of Reykjavik." And one knew exactly the point he was trying to make, even though he was half-joking. If you know your own place intensely, you are global. And he certainly was -- going around the world being the literary ambassador for Iceland. I just find that a fascinating paradox and I am sort of stranded between being local and global. I quite like the global attempt because it's just so interesting and you can't pretend the world isn't out there; you can't resist it. But it might have been better to be Charlotte Brontė stuck in a village.


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