Pat Barker, critically acclaimed author of the Regeneration Trilogy talks exclusively to Penguin.co.uk about her reasons for writing, Middlesborough housewives and Jane Fonda.
You studied history at university, and then worked as a teacher. What made you start writing fiction?I started writing fiction when I was ten or eleven. I loved reading stories so it seemed a natural progression to start writing them. I didn’t begin writing seriously for publication until after the birth of my first child and then it took me a long time to get published.
You’re probably best known – so far, at any rate – for The Regeneration Trilogy, which is set during the First World War and shortly afterwards. With Border Crossing and Double Vision, your last two novels, you return to a wholly modern setting. What do you think are the relative merits and pitfalls of historical and contemporary novels?There are periodic protests by critics about the preponderance of historical novels on the Booker short list, and demands that writers should be more involved with the contemporary scene. I think this is largely a false distinction. Fiction is always about ‘then’ simply because a novel takes two or three years to write and a year to publish. So you can either write about the distant past or the recent past. The good thing about historical fiction is that you’re likely to choose a time which has gone on fascinating succeeding generations, each of which will have asked their own questions about it. The pitfall about writing about the recent past is that nothing is more dead than yesterday or more irrelevant than last year’s news.
You have often seemed interested in the psychologically disturbed. Why do you think you find those kinds of mental states so interesting to write about?I think of my characters as normal people under immense pressure rather than as sufferers from mental illness. Why the immense pressure? Because you need to crack the shell to find out what’s inside it.
In the course of your career as a novelist you have shifted, broadly speaking, from writing about women to writing about men. Why is that?The questions that interest me at the moment, which are essentially questions about the causes of violence both for individuals and societies, seem to produce narratives that almost inevitably have male protagonists. Men commit more violence than women (both state authorized and criminal violence) and they are also more frequently its victims – a fact which is often lost sight of.
Two of your novels, Union Street and Regeneration, have been made into films. (Stanley and Iris and Regeneration.) Were you closely involved in these productions? What do you think of the films?Stanley and Iris – the film version of my first novel Union Street – was a joke, in the sense that my heroine – a fifteen stone Middlesbrough housewife – was played by Jane Fonda, a woman who is famous for being slim. At the time a lot of journalists expected me to say I was angry but in fact I wasn’t. My film agent, after watching the movie, said, ‘We-ell, that’s Hollywood!’. I can’t think of a better comment.
I was much more involved with Regeneration, visiting the set and reading the script. I thought they did a good job. I became fascinated by the challenge of telling stories in another medium – but without being tempted to try it myself.
Which of your novels are you most proud of, and why?I don’t know whether proud is the right word. Of all my books I’m fondest of Regeneration, but that may be because I enjoyed the research so much.
You’ve said in the past that writing makes you ‘miserable’ and should only be done by those who have no other option. What do you like to do when you aren’t writing?I’m not miserable all the time when I’m writing – only when it’s going wrong. Unfortunately, in the course of producing multiple drafts, things go wrong a fair bit of the time.
When not writing I enjoy all the obvious things: family, friends, wine, open fires, purring cats, the pot of snowdrops on my desk as I type this, clean, white linen sheets, lying beside a swimming pool somewhere sunnier than Durham… In addition, I enjoy swimming, long walks, modelling in clay and wildlife gardening.
Finally, what advice would you give to a writer starting out on his or her career?The best advice I can give to writers is to persevere if you really have to do it, but remember that writing isn’t easy, and that promotion (the other half of the job these days) isn’t glamorous. Be true to yourself, and to what you, uniquely, have to say. Don’t give the market what you think it wants, because you don’t know what it wants. All anybody knows is what the market wanted last year – and that’s a dangerous guide.