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An Interview with Margaret Drabble


OKR:

Since The Oklahoma Review is a journal that focuses on creative writing, I suppose the obvious first question has to do with when or how you think you became a writer. Do you think it was something you were born with or something that developed?

MD:

I was certainly brought up in a reading family -- we read intensely -- and I used to write a bit when I was a child at school. I don't know that that means I had a desire to be a writer, but I certainly liked to write -- short stories and terrible ones perhaps -- but I did write. I think a lot of children write but then go through a gap where they don't write, and most of them don't come out of it. I went through University. I went to Cambridge, and I read English and I didn't write very much while I was at Cambridge because there wasn't much of a creative writing atmosphere there. I really wrote my first novel when I left the university. I married the week I left Cambridge. I don't know why quite, but I did and I found myself suddenly in a situation where I couldn't get a job for various domestic and practical reasons. I wrote my first novel because I found a great gap in my life where I had been studying and reading. I was really puzzled by what was happening between being a student and being an adult person and that's when I wrote my first book. And I discovered while writing it that perhaps that's what I did want -- I did want to write. So it came out of a mixture of circumstances. I sometimes wonder whether I would have written that first novel if I'd been very busy at that point in time -- if I'd had more to do, if I hadn't been just a wife hanging around, if I hadn't been in Stratford-upon-Avon where I didn't know many people. And I wonder whether perhaps ten years would have gone by before I thought of writing a book. But I'm very glad it happened that way. And as soon as I'd written one novel, I knew that's what I wanted to do.

OKR:

It's interesting that you decided to write a novel rather than a play; after all, you were in Stratford and you had been involved in the theater. Did you ever think of writing a play?

MD:

Yes, I did. And I have written a couple. Actually, other people keep suggesting that I ought to write a play and, as I said, I have written one or two, but they're not very good. I think writing a play requires a very particular discipline and I haven't got it. I simply can't construct a play properly. I'm a bit of a rambling constructor and I quite like rambling books. Plays just have to be so well organized; you can't afford to let people be bored for half a minute. Whereas in the novel you can allow your reader to be bored for some stretches. Reading any novel some people are going to be bored in some bits and some in others -- in a play you can't do that. And I simply couldn't construct tightly enough. I suppose I never really wanted to write a play. I've been bullied into doing it once or twice but I never felt happy with it, as a form.

OKR:

When you finished your first novel, did you immediately think of publishing it?

MD:

At the first stage, it was just fulfilling and I suppose it was something to assert the identity I felt I'd lost suddenly. I'd been a college student and then I stopped being that and I didn't know who I was anymore. So it was sort of to affirm who I was. And it was for company. I was alone quite a lot and it was something to do. And I don't think I did think of publication at first. When I'd finished the book I didn't really know if I should send it out or not, but I did. And in fact, the first publisher I sent it to did accept it. They kept it for quite a long time without reading it, but they did eventually read it and they took it, so that was immensely encouraging. I don't know that I'd have been so persevering if I'd had a lot of rejection notes, but fortunately I didn't.

OKR:

It's interesting to think that your first novel was a product of leaving Cambridge and trying to find your own identity; it also seems a bit ironic that you were doing it in Stratford where there's certainly a significant literary shadow. Did Shakespeare enter into writing at all for you there? Even just in the sense of saying, "Well, I guess a writer is something to be after all"?

MD:

It was important to me that Shakespeare was there. My first husband was in the Royal Shakespeare Company, which is why I was in Stratford to begin with. So I was very much in touch with Shakespeare. I would go to all the plays and talk about Shakespeare and listen to Shakespeare all the time. But I thought the Shakespeare business was another world. I didn't think at all in terms of writing a great or serious work at that stage. I'd just been studying literature; I'd been studying the Greats and I didn't even want to try to become one. I wanted to write a little novel of my own. And I think it happened because of the liberation of leaving Cambridge where we had been studying the Greats, where each week we were writing a Shakespeare paper or Henry James paper. I think it was being removed from that. I'd been happy to leave it, but suddenly I had lost all that and I just wanted to write a little novel to keep myself alive. I didn't aim to write a great novel.

OKR:

I know that while you were at Cambridge you studied with F.R. Leavis, who was a major proponent of both the Great Tradition you say you were trying to avoid and a certain notion of the authenticity of artistic vision. In your book A Writer's Britain, you seemed to praise Thomas Traherne when you said he was a person who could see the world through his own eyes. I wondered if some of the coordinates for finding your own voice and learning to see through your own eyes came out of studying with Leavis -- in the way you learned to appreciate literature at that time?

MD:

That's a very complicated issue because Leavis did have a great influence on my generation, a profound influence which is still perpetuated by many people who don't even know he existed. And his way of reading, intense reading, is very important to me. The Great Tradition that he taught had a great influence on me. But there was also something in me that rebelled against his control of the canon. He was a very controlling teacher and I feel sure that one of the reasons why my period at Cambridge was not very creative was because of Leavis's presence. He was extremely powerful. And I think what happened in my case was that when I left Cambridge and Leavis, everything that he'd taught remained very important to me, but I'd escaped from the desire to please the father figure. I felt I could write an inconsequential little narrative that Leavis wasn't going to have to mark -- I mean that figuratively, of course, as Leavis never marked any of my essays, though he did mark my mother's -- and I think that's how I managed to write A Summer Bird Cage -- because I didn't have to satisfy the dictates of Leavis. But I frequently think of one or two things that Leavis said. One of the things I think about a great deal is his statement that a work of art should enact its moral meaning. I think of that often when I find myself spelling out or dictating what I think the meaning of something is; I think, "No. I should have an incident or a theme or a story line that carries that idea, rather than just telling people what I mean." So even on that practical level, he did influence me.

OKR:

Where then do you stand in the modernist/postmodernist debate about the integrity and authenticity of the authorial voice? It's quite a tricky thing, after all, to get to see the world through your own eyes, especially given the postmodern critique of authorship, which would seem to suggest that the originality of any particular viewpoint has been chipped away because of all the bits of ideology and cultural influence that come into play in developing one's own voice.

MD:

That is also a complicated and difficult issue. You use the word "postmodern" and I have noticed that into my own work is creeping an increasingly ironical postmodern not to say at times aggressive tone which was certainly not there when Leavis was the dominant influence on literary theory. What happened I think was that we all became more and more aware of deconstruction and we became able to deconstruct almost anything- with the consequence that we no longer knew what the original emphasis had been.. I have found the emergence of deconstruction disturbing and I think my voice has now taken on all sorts of different layers. But luckily my voice is strong enough and my sense of what I was writing was strong enough before these other voices, before these other questions, began to come in. And I have learned to incorporate the questions and second guess the response so I can still write narrative. I think for some people now it's very difficult to write narrative at all.

OKR:

It's interesting that you should say that, because there's a long passage in one of your most recent novels, The Witch of Exmoor, where you talk about the process of social fragmentation and the whole problem of being able to represent somebody who isn't yourself in a way that seems to speak to some of those same issues. As a writer, do you feel more pressure given the contemporary consciousness not only of deconstruction but also of issues of fragmentation in society -- our sense that we've lost unified viewpoints and sometimes even unified selves?

MD:

That absolutely makes clear to me what I was trying to say in my last answer. Which is that the influences that came in post-Leavis have been quite dangerous for writers. Take feminism, for example. When I started writing there was no women's movement; there was no feminist criticism. Feminist criticism was born in 1968 precisely, and I published my first novel in 1963. So I was able to write in the innocent pre-feminist theory days when no one was going to get at me for writing a sort of a feminine book or writing about marriage or clothes. Nobody. There was no prototype feminist novel at all, which made life easier. I had to take feminist attitudes and criticism on board in the 1970s. Then the issue of cultural appropriation came in very, very strongly in the 1990s. A lot of The Witch of Exmoor is about that -- well, not a lot of it, but quite a bit of it. I find both those issues extremely difficult to deal with as a creative writer, and I'm very glad that I started writing in a period before they became conscious issues. The Witch of Exmoor is in a way a more multi-cultural novel than any of my others, which partly reflects the way England is. I mean England has now become a naturally multi-cultural society; the whole of society has become much more mixed. And in The Witch of Exmoor what I wanted to do was this: I wanted to display people from different backgrounds set against this very traditional Anglo-Saxon, self-satisfied tradition and ask the question, "Which society would you rather live in?" So I created one Guyanese character [David] and one Jewish character [Nathan]. I had many Jewish characters in my novels before, because I know a lot of Jewish people so that's no problem to me -- my first husband is Jewish and I am very fond of all his family. But creating a Guyanese character did raise very clear issues of cultural appropriation: what right had I or what ability had I to connect to and write from the viewpoint of a Guyanese person? I know a few Guyanese people in London, and one friend in particular was very helpful to me -- I talked a lot with her about the character who became David, and about Guyana itself. So I thought, "Ok, this is fine. I know that kind of person, I know that kind of politician (although David is a very nice example of an upwardly mobile politician from an ethnic minority). I felt I knew people like that so I could legitimately create this character." Nevertheless, I was worried creating him, though with Nathan, who is Jewish, I felt completely confident. Interestingly, the only flack I've had about the multi-ethnic scene in the novel was about Nathan. Somebody wrote an article on anti-Semitism in the modern British novel, and Nathan was cited as an example of an anti-Semitic portrait. I thought this was funny, as Nathan is quite clearly a very sympathetic character, and anyway I couldn't care less about the allegation, as I knew it was unfounded, but I admit I would have been more than slightly sensitive had my portrait of the Guyanese David been attacked on similar grounds. I also feel I shouldn't have been sensitive about such an issue, and that makes me wonder, in turn, "Why have I made David such a nice chap?" It's because I know it's impossible to create an entirely self-serving black politician at this moment -- at least, it would be very difficult for me to do so or to want to do so. And I'm not sure if those issues are issues I should be thinking about as a writer.

OKR:

Do you often find yourself bothered then by the way critics and scholars have reacted to your work, and even sometimes appropriated it? I know that in The Witch of Exmoor, there's a line where you're talking about the character Frieda, who wrote a book called The Matriarchy of War at some distant point in the past, and is upset with the ways in which it's been appropriated since she wrote it. She says, I think, that it was a book for its time, but that what everybody else decided they were going to do with it wasn't really her problem. Was that intended to speak to some of the writing that's been done about you, particularly in terms of feminism? Do you actually read the academic prose that's been written about your work, and if so how do you deal with it?

MD:

I try to avoid reading academic stuff about my work because it's very inhibiting. Even if it's sort of favorable and true it's still inhibiting because you think, "Oh, I'll try and do that again." And it is inhibiting, so I avoid it. I'm even quite cautious about reading contemporary writers while I'm writing, because there's more anxiety of influence from your contemporaries than from the past. And I don't read reviews -- I mean I don't read journalistic reviews. I try not to. I thought The Matriarchy of War was a brilliant title, I must say. I was terribly pleased with it. I do call myself a feminist. I am a feminist. I'm not the kind of feminist that some feminists are, but I would say that I am a feminist. I want to get that clear. I'm not an anti-feminist or a post-feminist; I am a feminist. But I don't like some of the feminist approaches to my work because they tell me I should have been something else, and you shouldn't do that to people. The thing about The Matriarchy of War was in part based on Doris Lessing's irritation with the way people have read The Golden Notebook. Now I think that Doris is wrong about The Golden Notebook. Doris goes on saying, "Oh, but it's about this," but to me it's quite clearly about something else. I've said this to her personally, to her face, so I don't mind saying it to you now. She just goes on insisting "Oh, no, no, it wasn't about feminism, it was about the fragmentation or the compartmentalization of the personality," but of course it wasn't -- or not to us -- so my references to The Matriarchy of War became sort of a buried joke. It's a reference to the multiple readings of texts through time, and the rejecting of the subsequent responses of readers. Doris Lessing is unencouraging to people who come and insist on asking her about her membership of and relationship with the Communist Party and I don't blame her -- such insistence can be very irritating. We as readers are allowed to ask these questions about her position on feminism, socialism, and communism, but she doesn't want it and doesn't have to respond to it. I suppose that in the character of Frieda I was trying to suggest that a writer may reach a point when she just doesn't care about mis-readings of her work. You wrote your book, and other people have misunderstood it, and that's irritating, and then you may even realize that possibly they were right and you were wrong. I was exploring the area of authorial intention.

OKR:

Were you happy then to be able to write as a feminist in some of your early novels: A Summer Bird Cage, The Garrick Year, The Millstone? Or if you discovered the feminist movement later, were you thrilled to be writing a kind of female voice that hadn't been there in literature?

MD:

Yes, I was. I was thrilled. I think I was very lucky to be writing when and as I did. But I think that the feminist movement didn't really get going until the late 1960s and I began writing in the early 1960s. It's as though it was gathering strength at exactly the time I began writing. There were a lot of coincidences. It's as though it was a Zeitgeist really. It was a Zeitgeist of human response to a lot of economic factors and I was part of it and I felt in the mainstream. I don't now but I did then. I didn't think I was part of it, but it was there and it was only when I started writing that other people said to me "I agree with you." They said, "Yes, I'm part of that too." So it's as though it all began to cohere in the movement. I think we had lots of what you might call kitchen table conversations, very informal meetings that were talks about the way we lived and about how you get disappointed or frustrated. Those kitchen table conversations were like cells of a bigger movement and some people went on and joined the bigger movement and became spokespeople in it. But I have felt very annoyed with the woman's movement as well. At one point an American woman novelist and her agent came over to England and invited me out to a smart luncheon at one of the most expensive restaurants in London, and I realized they were trying to get me to like her novel and give it a quote in England where she hadn't yet been launched. To me that was not what the women's movement was about. It was about thinking and being, not about selling books. I think that's when I began to get a bit grimmer about certain aspects of market feminism. I didn't and still don't like the idea of women making careers or trading speculations out of what was to me a strongly unifying social movement in pursuit of justice for all, not the advancement of the few.

OKR:

You mentioned earlier that you feel that your voice has gotten more aggressive over the course of your career. Does your concern with the pressures of social theory help to explain that change? Comparing an earlier text like The Realms of Gold to The Witch of Exmoor, it's hard not to be struck by how much more cynical the characters are and how much more straight-forward the satire is in a lot of ways. Do you find yourself getting more aggressive and more determined as you go along? You referred to yourself earlier as "rebelling" against the control of F.R. Leavis, and I wonder if you find yourself doing the same thing in regard to various social movements.

MD:

Yes. I recently re-read The Realms of Gold, and it was a very strange experience because I did find it quite optimistic and innocent and hopeful in some ways. It did go back to a period of my life when I had different political expectations. I think that the voice in The Witch of Exmoor is most cynical. It was written at the end of Margaret Thatcher's regime, well, in the post-Thatcher period when politics in Britain had become so shabby and despairing that even the people who were in power had lost all faith in themselves. There was just nothing happening at all, and I think The Witch of Exmoor reflects that. There was a feeling of complete cynicism. I think it was the Mad-Cow Disease crisis which brought it to a head--the ghastly sequence of events, feeding ground-up sheep to cows in that kind of really unpleasant market-dominated atmosphere which is part of modern life. And my voice became kind of intolerant. I couldn't stand it anymore and the only thing to do was write black comedy. I mean, you need a Jonathan Swift. I can't do that but it seemed to me that that's the voice you needed to write about that kind of atmosphere. But I think that I feel better now. I'm not full of optimism and confidence, and I don't suppose I ever will be again, but I don't feel quite that sense of frustrated misery that I felt while I was writing The Witch of Exmoor. The only thing to do was laugh, which is why that book is finally a comedy; it was a depressing time. I was looking at The Needle's Eye recently -- I think I wrote it just before The Realms of Gold -- and I couldn't believe the optimism. I just found it rather sad that I once had such hopes for humankind.

OKR:

I know that you've got another novel coming out soon [The Peppered Moth]. Is it more optimistic then?

MD:

It has an optimistic ending -- at least, the last line is quite optimistic. But it was a very, very difficult and painful and miserable novel to write, for very different reasons from The Witch of Exmoor. Actually, I enjoyed writing The Witch of Exmoor because it was quite fun sounding off against all these things that had annoyed or irritated me and I sort of got rid of a lot of irritation. But the new novel is largely about the grandmother/mother/daughter relationship and it is largely about my mother's childhood and some of it is quite depressing for quite a lot of the way.

OKR:

To go back a bit -- it's interesting to hear you single out deconstruction as a bad influence, particularly since in many of your novels, The Realms of Gold for instance, you make a number of intrusive narrative statements that could certainly be taken as deconstructive, or at least postmodern. Do you not see them that way?

MD:

Yes, and nobody noticed at the time of publication, and I'd forgotten they were there until I re-read the text this year. I'd forgotten I'd intervened so much in that narrative because I was still being described as a writer of realist novels when that came out and the label really still attaches to me quite often in a hostile kind of way. But I think I was already doing something quite different there and I've gone on doing it -- sort of moving on from realism. Some people call my work 19th century but you can't write a 19th century novel in the 20th century nor am I even attempting to. But I was very interested in authorial intrusion. I think that the thing I was very pleased with in The Realms of Gold was where at the end I say "invent a better ending if you can" -- which I kind of meant,literally. So I was doing that quite a long time ago. But it seemed to me a natural way to write. I mean, you can find the intervening voice in Thackeray, you can find it in Trollope, you can find it in George Eliot certainly, breaking the narrative and saying here I am as a writer. And then Henry James came along and said you can't do that. But I think that the mainstream of narration has always allowed the narrator to do it, and I think that it was an aberration in a way to say that the narrator had to be totally absent. I think the narrator is part of the story and can intervene whenever he or she wants, but there was a sort of fad in the late 19th century and early 20th century that said you must get rid of the narrator. I call it a fad -- I mean it was a very important movement which said that you must never ever have any consciousness that the book is an artifice. Whereas I think it's fine to say the book is an artifice. In a way that reinforces its power because you're still going to read it, and you're still going to be compelled by something you know to be an artifice.

OKR:

James Joyce and others used the idea that writing a novel is like writing a play. That you're supposed to disappear from the process as though that were somehow possible.

MD:

And it's not possible. I think that the idea that the narrator can entirely disappear into the work is ridiculous. I mean, of course there are some works like that -- in a way Virginia Woolf does that, she disappears--but it is also interesting that Virginia Woolf kept the most powerful diaries which supplement what we know about what she thought and her diaries have been of quite valid fascination to readers; they're important literary documents. So it's as though she put into the novels one distillation of what she could do as a writer, but we would have much the less did we not have the letters and the diaries and the polemics that she herself couldn't integrate into her fiction. She couldn't write as one person and write as a whole person. She could write as a novelist, she could write as a letter writer, and as a diarist she was extremely unkind about some of the people to whom she was writing her correspondence, so she was a very fragmented person. But I suppose I've always liked the idea of wholeness.

OKR:

In insisting on the -- well, you used the word "wholeness" -- of the narrative voice are you talking in part about the ability of the writer to tell the story as he or she sees fit rather than insisting on the premises of the text itself, as something that somehow controls the author and makes the author write it the way it wants to come out?

MD:

All I can say is that when I'm writing there seems to be a perpetual interaction between those two impulses. At times I feel the text is telling and at times I feel I'm telling the text, and it sort of pulses in and out while I'm writing.

OKR:

You mention a number of nineteenth-century precedents for your narrative voice; what about earlier novelists who experimented with narrative -- people like Henry Fielding and Laurence Sterne in the 18th century?

MD:

Certainly Fielding was a very liberating narrator. Sterne goes too far for me, I think. I don't see novels as game-playing. I don't see them as playing tricks. I don't like novels that have too many tricks in them. Leavis didn't like Sterne either, and I feel that Leavis went too far in reaction against Sterne and Sterne went too far in playing with the text. I do feel that the reader is clever enough to answer some of the rhetorical questions that I ask, and I do ask an enormous number of rhetorical questions; that I now realize. There are quite a lot in The Witch of Exmoor, and there were in The Realms of Gold sort of latent rhetorical questions. Actually, as I've gone on writing novels and gotten more and more replies from the outside world, I'm genuinely asking questions and sometimes people write to me with answers. I find that very interesting, and quite often the next novel will try to accommodate some of the answers to the questions that I've been asked or the answers people have given; all sorts of things go into the next book that have come from the outside.

OKR:

Could you give an example of that? It would be fun to have an example.

MD:

Yes, I'm sure I can. There was the time that someone pointed out that none of my characters could drive a car, so I needed to invent somebody who could drive a car. (That person is Frances Wingate in The Realms of Gold.) On a more serious level, somebody did say to me that I had been condescending to the northern housewife and should give the northern housewife another scene -- which I did in the second part of The Radiant Way Trilogy. I also had an interesting response from somebody about the character in The Witch of Exmoor called Will Paine who's half-Jamaican. He's sent off in the novel to Australia and I think there's something in the text saying "Is this the right thing to do with him?" or "Why has he gone to Australia?" The Australians were very interested in why he had gone to Australia, but somebody wrote me a very wonderful letter saying what he could have done, and then she spelled out that he could have come back and set up a nursery garden or bird sanctuary. And in fact this boy could well have done that. So I was very pleased that she had continued his life and had come back with that answer. And maybe I can include that answer in something else. The The Realms of Gold I wrote the way it was because I was a bit depressed by the writing of The Needle's Eye, which has a very negative, enclosed ending, and I just wanted things to open up. There's a sort of to-ing and fro-ing between the outside world and the inside world.

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.

OKR:

What about the globalizing effect of computers and the Internet?

MD:

I do think that computers and the Internet are certainly going to transform the market. I don't know about the novel itself. There must be things we can't yet foresee. Maybe there will be a whole new kind of interactive model. I know people have tried it, but it's been very primitive so far. At the moment people are much more interested in how to do it than what they're doing. But the day may come when they're doing really remarkable things so there may be some new art form lurking there. I was never very interested in collage fiction and jumbling paragraphs up, but it could be that there's something waiting for us that will be interesting. But forget about our generation or the next generation. Think 500 years ahead. Can one imagine books being -- thought processes being -- essentially the same? I suppose one can.

OKR:

Would you suggest then that a young writer today should try very hard to learn as much as he or she can about his own little two inches of ivory, or whatever it happens to be, and write about that before spreading out and trying to incorporate materials from all over the world?

MD:

I would hesitate to give any advice. But I would have thought that if you had the security of knowing where you come from then you can afford to venture out from your inch of ivory. I think very few of us could lead a truly restricted life now and be a great writer, but then one thinks of Emily Dickinson. Of course, who would wish to lead such a life? I'm sure you can be a great writer without moving out of one room, but I think that the security of knowing where you come from makes you able to leave that room, beyond which there are many hazards.

OKR:

Do you think that that sense of venturing out, of exploring, helps to explain why you still write -- why you still find writing exciting -- after all the changes that you've talked about and all of the success that you've had?

MD:

Yes. I like to find out what it's all about. I write to explore and find out. I don't like to tell people what I already know; I write in order to find out what I don't know. So each book is an exploration or a journey. I push characters into places that I can't go to and see how they behave. The Witch of Exmoor was an example. I had the most brilliant idea for a novel which was based on John Rawls's A Theory of Justice. I wanted to create various contrasting political societies, and -- but I can't. It would have been a science fiction novel, and I can't write science fiction. So I had to do it through a much more assimilated family plot. So you have to cut your cloth according to your talent. You can have a brilliant political novel in your head, which you don't have the capacity to write. But that novel was about social justice and it was about the extraordinary disparities and the self-satisfaction of the British middle classes about that the fact that they all live in such a wonderful country. So it is political in that sense. But the novel is a means of exploring those inequalities. We're all individuals and what I like to write about is the way social events affect the individual; it can go the other way too. I like to write about interaction of the public and the private, and the social and the personal. The stuff of the novel is how people behave. I suppose I finally just find that endlessly interesting, so I write about it.


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