Margaret Drabble is recipient of many prestigious awards for her writing, which includes works of nonfiction as well as numerous novels.
Margaret Drabble is ‘One of our foremost women writers’ (Guardian). January 2001 saw the publication of her first novel in five years. She gives us a rare insight into her writing, the changes wrought by Mrs Thatcher, and the chains of inheritance…
You began your writing career in 1963 with the publication of A Summer Bird-Cage. How different do you feel as a writer now? Are there familiar sensations as you begin to write, or is every book an entirely new, and unpredictable, experience?
I feel much more anxious nowadays, in many ways. When I first began to write I had nothing to lose, and I expected nothing. I wrote very easily – perhaps too easily. Now I expect more of myself, as do others, and I try to say things that are more complicated, so I risk failure. Every book is a new experience but recently in the writing of each book comes a bad patch – usually about a third of the way through – when I find I have taken many wrong directions and have to begin again. The ending always comes with feeling of clarity and relief.
Your earlier books are written in the first person, but in your more recent novels, the authorial voice is very distinct, and quite sharply distanced from the events taking place. Was that change a conscious decision on your part?
In some ways it was conscious. Writing in the first person is easy and liberating when you are young, but it can become restricting and limiting, so with my fourth novel I made a deliberate effort to write in the third person. I found it difficult but I am glad I made the change. Since then I have written largely in the third person though sections of The Waterfall and The Gates of Ivory use the first person. I think the distinct and rather aggressive authorial voice dates from the 1980s and had something to do with the regime of Mrs Thatcher, who provided such a strong challenge to the assumptions of the liberal novel and liberal humanism. The new voice also owes something to deconstruction and relativism – an answering back to uncertainties, while attempting to recognise they exist. I’m not sure I like it much but I needed it then and at times still do.
Your backlist titles have recently been given new jacket designs. Do you feel a measure of affection for the original jackets – does seeing your name on a new cover make you feel differently towards the book?
I loved my very first hardback jackets by Quentin Blake, back in the 1960s. They were innocent and charming. Since then I have watched the changing jackets with amusement and some pride. I loved the Viking hardback of A Natural Curiosity – a brilliant collage. And I very much like the new Penguins – they look light and bright and young again. It’s like watching social history change, to see the images change.
The Peppered Moth is your first novel to be published for five years. In that time, you’ve been working on the Oxford Companion to Literature, of which you are editor. Were you thinking about your novel at the same time?
Yes. I began the novel before I began the OCEL revision, then had to put it away in order to work on the revision – I can’t do two big jobs at once – but I suppose I was thinking about it at the back of my mind during all that period. I really got back to the novel in the spring of 1999 when I was teaching a seminar in the University of Chicago for ten weeks – that’s when I re-engaged with it.
It’s an interesting title. What inspired you to choose the Peppered Moth? Did you come across the story of this insect’s remarkable evolution before you started writing – was it part of the conception of the book?
I knew about the peppered moth for years – I was told about it long ago by a man whom I loved very much, Harold Landry, who is now dead. He liked this story and I was impressed by it and never forgot it. What I hadn’t remembered, until reminded by April, one of my Chicago students, was that I’d already mentioned the peppered moth in an earlier novel, The Needle’s Eye. I was amazed when April told me this. It’s clearly a story that resonates with me. So although it wasn’t part of the original conception it had been waiting for decades. I thought of the title while I was in Chicago, where I read all the books about the moth. There was a fine library in Chicago. I don’t have such easy access to books here in London. It was a good time, reading those biology text books.
The Peppered Moth is a novel, but, as you explain in the Afterword, it is also a blurring of fact and fiction. The character of Bessie Bawtry is based on your mother, and many of the events you describe are true. Was it a cathartic book to write?
Yes, I think so, although I still feel much grief for my mother’s life. But at least I tried to understand her and her situation. It was very much a generation tragedy. So many mothers like her, so many frustrated lives. I did what I could to understand.
Why is it that we are so interested in DNA and the intricacies of inheritance? Is there something intrinsically compelling in the nature/nurture debate? Or does it stem for our own need to feel individual, to believe that we have the power to shape ourselves?
We all want to feel free and yet we know we are bound. Who was it that said that man is born free yet everywhere we find him in chains? Was it Rousseau? The new chain that binds us is DNA and we struggle against it. We are caught in it. We try to assert our freedom. And I think we do have freedom, though less than we like to think. I used to favour the power of nurture over nature. As I get older, I fear nature more.
The Peppered Moth tells the stories of three generations of women. Which period did you most enjoy writing about – Bessie in the ’20s and 30s, Bessie’s daughter Chrissie, or Faro in her more contemporary setting?
I loved writing about Faro. She was young, and she was free, and she was still having some fun. Writing about Bessie and Chrissie was quite heavy. I like it when Faro has dinner alone in her Motel and is quite happy.