Well, I asked and A.S.Byatt very kindly agreed to take a seat in the virtual armchair and answer our 'dovegreyreader asks...' questions. I think you're going to enjoy this and how grateful I am to A.S.Byatt for taking the time out to do this for us. If you've somehow forgotten quite how much I loved The Children's Book you can read again here.
Perhaps we sometimes mistakenly think of writers as inaccessible and remote from us as readers, but I hope you will agree that you will know A.S.Byatt (or Antonia as we settled on in the end) quite uniquely once you've read these wonderfully informative insights into her writing of The Children's Book, her working day and her favourite books. Have the printer plugged in or pen and paper to hand, because the reading suggestions create a must-have list and I've taken the liberty of linking back to a few that we've talked about on here, even our attempts at caffeine-loaded Balzac last Christmas.
And I'm afraid I know it all too well, sometimes I need saving from myself, I couldn't resist asking Antonia if she had thrown a pot in her research for this book, read on to find out.
Antonia, I've gone off on a frolic of my own with my reading of The Children's Book, probably many miles from the book's intention, and as I read I often paused to wonder whether a writer has intentions like this for their readers. Could you talk us through the genesis of this book, the germ of a beginning, its themes, what were the founding ideas and directions you wanted to take as you wrote and where did you want to take your readers?
I’m happy about the frolic. I don’t think novelists should have designs on or for readers – I have come to see my novels as worlds in which all sorts of things are connected in all sorts of ways. No two readers will read all the same words – the only people who read every word are translators. What’s good about writing novels is that one is writing for one person only – and each one has her/his way of reading and preoccupations. I have found that I increasingly use tales and fairy tale as a kind of underpinning structure – several of the plots in this novel are connected to the fairy story about the king who tried to marry his dead wife’s daughter (a version of Cinderella – Donkeyskin, Manyfurs, Catskin.) I began to wonder about children’s book writers – their children seem to be very unhappy people – there was a wonderfully funny tale about Alison Uttley (whose son drove himself off Beachy Head, which was not funny) in Saturday’s Guardian Review. I was intrigued by things I read about E Nesbit being a founding Fabian – how do fairy stories and socialism go together? I got a lot of help from Jack Zipes, the great fairytale scholar, who said the fairytale was the natural form for socialists. Novels are topsy turvy – the City of London got in because of a repeated image of gold and silver such as the gold and silver dresses the king gives his daughter-bride-to-be - and because of the father in Rebecca West’s The Fountain Overflows, who was preoccupied with bimetallism. That novel had a great effect on me – it started me thinking about the time when adults began to talk to children as grown-ups. I saw at the beginning that my own novel was going to have a large number of main characters – no one hero or heroine – but I did not see, at first, that children in 1895 were going to hit the first world war head on. So it’s only accidentally a war novel – which is a good thing – as I think that was an accidental war, that could easily not have happened. Re children’s book writers – there are bits of Kenneth Grahame, Kipling, Alison Uttley, and Evelyn Sharp in there – not only E Nesbit. I try not to make any of my characters a “portrait” of any real person – they move more freely if they have many originals. As one reviewer remarked, there is a lot of D.H.Lawrence in Olive Wellwood – E.Nesbit was southern and middle class, Olive brings with her the coal mines, and real poverty. And, as Philip does, the North. My own ancestors, on one side, were potters, from the Five Towns.
My reading gives me the impression that you had loved writing this book as much as I had loved reading it, the research into the arts and crafts, the potters and their work, the fabrics, the textures, the V & A, the puppets and fairy tales. Can you tell us what was involved in this research? (I'm actually desperate to know whether you threw a pot!)
I did indeed love all the research – this is not a period I knew a great deal about and it was all there to find out. I find I am increasingly interested in human beings who make things – glassblowers, weavers, and so on. I watch the Antiques Road Show and Flogit not for the human dramas and revelations of value but for the things – furniture, jewellery, silver, pots. I had slightly avoided pots, because of the family connection, before The Children’s Book but I became completely enthralled in finding out about them. I bought books about De Morgan and Minton, and books for would-be craftsmen, and reprints of the V and A’s textbooks for ceramics students and jewellery students. Amazon international and Amazon second-hand – and a great bookbuying research site called Addall – have transfigured the whole research process. My daughter lives next door to a great modern potter, Edmund de Waal, and so I was able to go to his studio, where he told me a great deal about the processes of preparing the clay, and the kilns. It was Edmund who made me understand just how violent and in a way haphazard making pots can be – that you have the two extremes of cold clay and heat and flames. He sat me down at a wheel and centred a lump of clay for me – so I did get my fingers in it and feel the wall rising before it collapsed. I read a great deal about the Martin Brothers and Palissy. Edmund gave me a copy of his book about the history of modern pottery – you would love it, if you haven’t found it – and it was Edmund who told me about Morris and Co’s irrational dislike of porcelain (his own is exquisite) and the general Arts and Crafts mystique from the inside. He was apprenticed to a rural potter and remarked dryly that many Arts and crafts vessels don’t hold water!
The V and A got in because of E Nesbit – who went to the British Museum in search of a plot and had a love affair with the expert who helped her. So I thought I’d set some of the story in the V and A and invent a Keeper of gold and silver. I was very fortunate to meet Marian Campbell who showed me the Gloucester Candlestick and took me on a tour of the basement – the shrine where Philip slept is really there. And I was shown the majolica and the V and A’s collection of Palissy – I was fortunate enough to pick up an imitation Palissy in the Furniture Cave – I pointed out that a dragonfly was broken and got it at a reduced price.
I could go on and on. My husband has a collection of books about the first World War. My German translator Melanie Walz lives in Munich and showed me the puppet museum there – and everything else – and told me about Richard Teschner whose Golden Shrine I managed to visit in the Vienna theatre-museum when I was lecturing there. And my daughter who was then at the Women’s Library introduced me to Jennian Geddes whose help with Dorothy’s studies was invaluable – you cannot imagine what trouble I had in correlating all the dates of all the exams etc. with the rest of the story (and history). I did get one thing wrong – not about Dorothy but partly because of her inexorable timetable – but I am not going to tell you what it was. It was picked up by the American proofreader.
We always love to hear about the workings of a writer's writing day. To know and and visualise the process that gives us the finished book somehow completes the reading circle here, so can we know about any special desk, pen, ink and paper, old typewriter or PC, room with a view or a blank wall, anything that helps us visualise you at work?
I write in an attic looking out at treetops (ashes and a sad eucalyptus someone has cruelly cropped this year. ) Although it is south London herons and parrots fly past – and magpies and jays and wood pigeons and all sorts of small birds. I like colour – so there are bright prints by Matisse and Donald Houston and Patrick Heron – and an ecologically improper case of Amazonian butterflies. Then there is the glass – a number of paperweights, old and new and a lot of American marbles in bowls. American glass is amazing. And then there are a lot of stones – phantom quartz with which I became obsessed, a chunk of Filey Brigg, boulders from the Boggle Hole…Most of the walls are covered by books –a working library – and there is a low semi-circular bookcase inside a bookcase round my chair which puts my working library for the book I am working on in reach – coalmines, Rye, Fabians, Germans and puppets, and the basics – bible (Authorised) dictionaries, place-names , Gray’s Anatomy, some maps…
I’ve banished the computer from my writing room. I write on narrow feint A4 with a Pilot fine-point (0.5) . I write fiction by hand and everything else on the computer. I was never any good with a type-writer and still rejoice in the computer’s wordwrap. But I think with my fingers through a pen. I write fiction in the mornings – or try to – I do my reading up there too – There are, even I admit it, too many books in the house. I fear the stairs may collapse. I should perhaps say that I suffer badly from SAD so I have a lightbox on the surface near the desk. Writing facing a blank wall would throw me into a real depression.
Could you try and imagine that none of us here read books at all, an unlikely scenario I know, but who should we read as a matter of urgency, who should we read for pure pleasure and who is writing now who we mustn't overlook?
Where to begin? I think I’ll start with a list of great novels of the world and then a list of moderns.
Tolstoi War and Peace Flaubert Madame Bovary (You really ought to have Anna Karenina for comparison but I love War and Peace more.) Dostoevski The Brothers Karamazov. Thomas Mann Death in Venice (for starters). George Eliot Middlemarch Jane Austen Persuasion Scott Fitzgerald The Great Gatsby Saul Bellow Henderson the Rain King Henry James The Ambassadors. Chekhov stories – start with the collection in Penguin that includes Lady with a Little Dog. I am at the moment passionately reading Balzac but I don’t think I can ask anyone of you to take a run at him, especially in translation which doesn’t always work You could try Lost Illusions and its sequel. Dickens – what to include, what to leave out? Any and all. Bleak House and Great Expectations – one in the third person, one in the first person.
Moderns. Alice Munro’s short stories. Penelope Fitzgerald The Blue Flower but all her books are wonderful. Like some of you I am excited by Hilary Mantel. Lawrence Norfolk (not easy but if you get caught up in it, amazing) The Pope’s Rhinoceros. Julia Franck The Blind Side of the Heart – translation just out, knocked me over. I am very interested in Michelle de Kretser. Michael Ondaatje’s early novel In the Skin of a Lion. I am also watching Nadeem Aslam who writes wonderfully. His last book was grim and beautiful in equal proportions. Iris Murdoch – my favourites are perhaps her first Under the Net and maybe The Black Prince. Philip Hensher – both his elegant early short novels and the two big ones – The Mulberry Empire and The Northern Clemency. I read Yiyun Li’s The Vagrants and cannot get it out of my head. She and Julia Franck are my Books of the Year, so far. And Wolf Hall. As you can see I have mixed up two sections of the answer – moderns, and “who to look out for.” I truly enjoyed Dai Siije’s Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress – it’s translated from the French, and the French, who are preoccupied with style, say the sentences are not elegant. But it’s an amazing story, told with wit, and a way of seeing into a distant world. His second book is amazing too. A new way into China by a maker of fables who is both grim and funny and elegant. It’s not that I’m peculiarly interested in China – it’s because there are a few new Chinese writers who seem to be saying new things in new ways.
I could go on and on. Kafka is essential at some point. I love Ford Madox Ford – I think I’d recommend The Good Soldier and his first world war quartet before D.H.Lawrence and E,M.Forster – but I think this is partly reaction after having taught those two too much and reacted against their influence. This is a list of books that matter to me as a writer – and I write because I read. Which brings me on to my last point. I really write as I do because I was overwhelmed by Shakespeare as a girl. The English language is wonderful and can do all sorts of things both simple and complicated , straightforward and beautiful – and I do think much of its range and flexibility and breadth – for writers and readers – exists because he wrote as he did when he did. So you imaginary readers who have read nothing must at some point read him – the major tragedies first – Lear, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, Hamlet – and then things like Troilus and Cressida and Measure for Measure - and The Tempest and The Winter’s Tale – and then, the comedies, which are harder than the tragedies because the jokes and the vocabularies have dated – except perhaps A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which is a must-read. And haunts The Children’s Book, so maybe I’ll stop there. Thank you for all the intelligent reading.