Part II of our interview with leading novelist Barbara Trapido, author of seven novels including Brother of the More Famous Jack (1982) and Temples of Delight (1990). Her latest novel, which came out earlier this year, is entitled Sex and Stravinsky.
TL: I found whilst reading Sex and Stravinsky that my ‘so-called favourite character’ was the one you happened to be focusing on that point. So that when I was reading the story of the superhumanly capable Caroline…
BT: Yes. Incidentally, no sooner had I written her up, than I met a tall, clever Australian woman called Caroline who’s now my friend! Nature always imitates fiction in my experience. I had thought Caroline was a monster, but because as a writer you spend so much time walking in a character’s shoes and thinking through that person’s head, you start understanding them and you become more indulgent towards them.
TL: I found that when I was reading the chapters concentrating on Caroline and Herman, I found them far more attractive creatures who made Josh and Hattie seem rather insipid.
BT: Yes, yes.
TL: But I found when I was reading about Josh and Hattie that I thought of them as sensitive and cultured while Caroline seemed insufferably competent at everything and Herman just a jock.
BT: I also noticed that about my feelings towards the characters while writing. I’d waver. I wasn’t consistently in love with these people. It’s the two kids, the two adolescents that I consistently liked. I was rather keen on Cat when I was writing that rant of hers against her mother, but objectively, she is really rather ghastly. In spite of one’s deep involvement, it’s also necessary to be estranged. Recently I remarked to my editor: ‘Hattie and Josh are quite weedy aren’t they?’ and she got really defensive on their behalf! But, as you say, it’s Caroline and Herman who diminish them. Lots of people I know who have read the book say: ‘Oh, but I love Caroline, my heart goes out to her, poor Caroline, she’s so brilliant isn’t she’. Then I feel heartless.
I believe that these characters are the people they would be, given their particular and sometimes searing life experiences. For instance Jack would be as cold and ‘touch-me-not’. He would have had to become that way. Or that’s one of the ways he would project himself given the way his life has gone.
Herman is a character whom I hadn’t meant to make so prominent in the book but once he was on the page, he became one of those characters who starts pushing you around. He’s so irksomely alpha-male. Then I began to think: I can have some fun with this person. Afrikaners aren’t the world’s pariahs any more and he’s insidiously attractive. And that phenomenon, of a one-time Afrikaner nationalist, who has become an urbane bourgeois capitalist is quite common.
Afrikaans was a language despised by English-speaking South Africans when I was growing up, so I thought: actually, I’m going to throw a little bit of this delicious language into the text even though no English reader will literally understand it. I don’t think that matters. I’m going to chuck it in because it’s such an oomph-y, sexy language. We’ve associated it with the dour, Calvinist, white-racist ghastlies who used to run the place, but, historically, it’s a brown person’s language. It was the creolised version of Dutch that was spoken by Malay slaves and domestic servants; ‘kitchen Dutch’. Then it got transformed into this symbol of white Afrikaner nationalism. But it’s a fantastic language for swearing in, or being smutty in. It’s the best for dirty jokes and so on and I thought, Herman can swear at everyone in this language. He can give orders and they’ll all jump. He has such natural authority.
The other thing I noticed from writing the Travelling Hornplayer… I’ve always had fun with dialogue and different voices but in that book (and it’s something I’ve done in the Stravinsky book as well) I’ve given whole sections to a character, and what I began to notice is that everybody is an unreliable narrator – so Jonathan can go ‘RANT RANT RANT’ and sneer about Sonia, the media-don with whom he’s having an affair, but the next minute Jonathan’s wife is telling us about this wonderful sympathetic woman she’s met. She and Sonia become true friends and neither has any idea that they are sleeping with the same man.
Sally will be banging-on about Roger, her mathematician husband, about what an ineffectual nerd he is, with his crank diets and whatnot; then Ellen meets Roger and thinks SWOON, SWOON, this beautiful, brilliant man with his hair falling over his eyes. For her Roger is the ‘Dreamboat’. All of us are different for other people; nothing is static. I don’t like to be judgemental about characters.
So, I suppose it’s true of Sex and Stravinsky. I’m not sure I was aware of whom I liked and disliked: I was simply aware that the characters would show up good or bad in different contexts; that Hattie who is so loved by Josh, will irritate Herman so much that he becomes almost sadistic to her: well, he would, because he’s that kind. He’s a predator really, isn’t he – if you’ve got a small, dainty balletic wife like that, who is culturally rather different from you, she’s going to drive you crazy and you’re going to start entertaining yourself by picking on her. And he wouldn’t do that with Caroline; he’s generous and supportive to her; he knows she has it in her to knock him down and he respects her for that. So I don’t know if any of them are particularly good or bad, or nice or alluring. I’m interested in them for who they are.
TL: But I did find that you gave the more sympathetic characters better taste. So: Caroline has her beautiful clothes that she hand-makes, and the horrific Greek character goes around in a ‘nipple pink’ Chevrolet
BT: I wondered if that was frightfully snobby – that ghastly stuff and the nude statue in the swimming pool?
TL: And the doll toilet paper cover…
TL: …which was fantastically vulgar.
BT: That was naughty of me.
TL: It seems from reading you that you very much like nice things. Is that just because when the characters are sympathetic you want to give them nice things?
BT: [laughs] Not entirely. For instance the Silvers; Josh’s family, are impervious to visual effects and their house isn’t smart though they’ve gathered together these paintings that become valuable, merely because Bernie Silver was buying them from impecunious artists out of kindness, or getting them in return for money he’d dished out and so on – so no, I don’t necessarily think superior people are all frightfully House & Garden as you can see, but – I suppose I’m sensitive to the visual aesthetic, but I… you know – Caroline is a brainy graduate, whereas those wretched people like the crooked Greek, those are small town white-trash people.
TL: But Caroline’s ghastly mother, you know: she has no taste at all.
BT: She has rather stifling would-be genteel furniture… I felt she was the kind of person who would have those horrid little figurines (I hope the makers of them don’t sue me). I was slightly aware when I was giving Caroline’s mother her not-nice furniture and the sweatshop rug and so on – and with the Greek’s house where he’s spending all his captive wife’s money on this vulgar stuff – I thought, ‘Is this a bit snobby?’. You know, one’s very aware that English comedy is hugely based on social class. Yes, I think that’s quite valid what you say: that the superior people have nicer things and eat nicer food.
[Later, by email, Barbara added the following:
Re the ‘nice’ people having nicer furniture/ clothes, etc, it occurred to me that I don’t much like Herman and he has some pretty classy chairs and objects. And his clothes are pretty classy as well. I’m also fairly un-sure about whether or not I like Caroline, who appears to have a highly developed aesthetic. Likewise, that French woman in Juggling, with the grey Parisian flat. I’m not sure I like her, though I very much like her flat! ]
You know, when I was writing Temples of Delight, one of the things I asked myself was why is everyone always eating in this book? And then I remembered Lévi-Strauss’ words: to eat is to fuck and I thought, well: it’s to do with sex; this is a very sexy book. But the Catholics are always eating nicer food than the Protestants: it’s because the heroine is being gradually seduced by Catholicism and she’s going to convert, isn’t she? Because not only did Catholic Jem tell her wonderful creative lies about her own imaginary family, filling Alice’s head with images of her ‘mother’, the French farm girl who does this marvellous cooking and then there’s real-life Catholic Giovanni, the Italian American whose family run a patisserie. It’s sensual and alluring. Even the kindly priest has a fancy for German apple cake. The ‘nice’ things are signifiers.
TL: Well, Catholicism is the most glamorous religion, I think personally.
BT: It’s certainly rich in symbolism and sensual effects
TL: Yes, I’ve always wanted to be a lapsed Catholic!
BT: Yes…yes. I converted to Catholicism but after about seven years I lapsed… but I loved it and I was able to use my baptismal experience for Alice. The white robes, the holy water, poured over her head from a scallop shell; all that, and there was my poor secular, lefty husband thinking, ‘My wife has gone over to the dark side.’
But for those seven years my whole life felt like a sacrament. The liturgy gathers up all your emotions and elevates them. And of course I was lucky because there was a local church that went in for a sung High Mass every Sunday – I think if I’d had one of those churches where they sing crappy hymns and it’s all foot-washing and folk guitars, I would have thought, no, God’s not here. [laughs] After seven years of striving to believe, I thought: face it; you’re only here because you love the music and the paintings: it’s an aesthetic experience for you. But so what? In truth, the main thing that made me lapse was all this male-chauvinist banging on about contraception and abortion: it seemed to me to be very anti-woman. And I really loathe the Vatican. At the grass-roots, all over Africa and Latin America, the priests and the nuns are fantastic: they run hospitals and schools; they are the good dedicated people working their lives away for the poor – and then there’s this hateful Pope in the Vatican spouting his reactionary bigotry about condoms and such-like. It’s grotesque.
But in Temples of Delight Catholicism is alluring and sensual and very elevating, isn’t it? So, yes – that was another case of me attributing nicer stuff to the people that the novel was more in tune with; certainly nicer food! Whereas Flora’s family were eating all this gristle and cornflour. A friend of mine who is an analyst said: ‘you know, these three girls Alice and her two friends Flora and Jem; they are parts of the same girl, aren’t they? Alice is this conflicted girl: we all have these different strands: Jem so sensual, Flora so life-denying and crushing and judgemental. And I thought: yes, that’s probably true.
TL: One of the pleasures of reading Juggling and the Travelling Hornplayer is recognising characters from your previous novels. I was wondering whether you were planning on writing more novels in which we might meet the characters from Sex and Stravinsky.
BT: You know, people say this to me: ‘Are we going to meet Ellen again?’ Or Jonathan? Or Christina? I hadn’t reintroduced characters until I wrote Juggling – as I was saying earlier, I began by thinking, ‘Why am I writing this book? Where is it going?’ I think the book’s motivation had to do with the fact that Temples of Delight, the previous book was such a troubling one for me that I was still brooding on it. I began to realize that I was writing about these two little girls who are so weirdly close together in age because they had to be Alice’s children! I was still worrying about Alice from the previous book, you see. I’d been thinking, ‘Why is it that she’s only dragged out of her trance by these bright, charismatic but slightly unbalanced people like Jem, and then Giovanni?’ I thought: you have to bring this out of the closet and make it clear that these little girls are Alice’s children. So I used Alice and her husband as a kind of backdrop to the story about Christina and her sister Pam, which meant I could unravel the mysteries of Alice’s head along the way.
Then, having completed Juggling, I was having tea with my friend Michael Dibdin, who is now sadly dead, and he said: ‘You know, now that you’ve written two books that connect, you have to write three.’ So I did, and it was such a pleasure, because one gets so involved with one’s characters, and it’s a kind of bereavement when you have to bury them and make new friends. It’s really hard. The thought that I could treat myself to resurrecting more characters! And many readers remarked on how they enjoyed it.
After what Michael said, I thought, now who is there who would be interesting to explore further? Who haven’t I properly explored in Juggling? There’s that bit at the end, when Peter comes back with his French lover who is Jago’s twin, and they’re both watching the two little schoolgirls, Roland’s daughters, Lydia and Ellen, carrying on about their gym stuff and whatnot, and the French lover thinks they’re hilarious. The English school girls seem exotic to him because they’re a cultural phenomenon that he hasn’t encountered before. I thought: those two little sisters Ellen and Lydia – I would love to write about them; their story.
My German mother had recently died when I started writing the book, and I thought, ‘What is all this Teutonic stuff? Aren’t you the person who likes to send your characters to Italy and now there’s this kind of Gothic love-and-death stuff entering in. The dark woodland and the Erl King. I think it was because I was brooding on my mother’s past. All this German romanticism that was coming into the book. My parents used to sing and play Schubert Lieder together – and I was sitting in a Schubert recital in the Sheldonian one day and my mind started wandering. I had the text in front of me, and I thought: ‘Gosh, I’ve never taken any notice of the words of these songs before.’ The words were kind of fake-pastoral. And I thought: you can take something quite mediocre and make something fantastic out of it, which is what Schubert had done. And as I was following these poems about the miller who dies of betrayed love, I thought, ‘Your story is about a girl who dies because of an act of infidelity. I’d reversed the genders in my mind. I thought, ‘Oh my God, one of these lovely sisters is going to die’. I found that heartbreaking, because I’d no sooner got Ellen and Lydia on the page then I thought one of them can’t live. And then I thought, ‘I know who would be unfaithful and that’s Jonathan Goldman. Oh good, I can bring him back. Naturally, since he’s quite a favourite of mine, I knew he was too decent a man to have an affair with a schoolgirl. But it seemed possible that Lydia would die by accident, rather as a by-product of a minor extra-marital affair that Jonathan was having with that mischievous, flirty Sonia.
I don’t know how all of that fell into place, but it was obviously an inter-connection with the two previous books. Then there was quite a break [between those three novels and Sex and Stravinsky]. (And Frankie & Stankie was a complete holiday from my usual sort of writing; more a memoir than fiction.) There was one moment during the writing of Sex and Stravinsky when Hattie, this character in Durban, visits the UK with her daughter. I mention in the text that she goes to visit her schoolmaster uncle. As I wrote that, I thought, ‘I wonder if her uncle is Roland Dent?’ He’s the schoolmaster in Juggling who marries the exquisite French woman with the grey flat and later hooks up with Christina. And then I thought: no, let that go. You can’t let this book take off in too many directions.
In general I always end up throwing out great bin bags of extraneous material, because I write very long, then I cut and shape ruthlessly. And because I don’t begin with a plot – I kind of intuit the story into being by following the characters around – it can go off in all sorts of meandering directions, which I then edit out. Quite often I write beyond the end, just for my own gratification. I have a sense of when the curtain should come down. I feel I’m shining a spotlight on a particular section of peoples’ lives – but, obviously they’ll have had lives before the focus of the story and will continue to have them afterwards.
TL: So…do you think we might meet the characters in Sex and Stravinsky again?
BT: Yes, that’s what you were asking. Let me see. Just possibly Zoe and Cat. Especially Zoe. It’s interesting how sometimes, as one writes, one’s brain is saying: ‘You’re being so cruel to this person!’ I felt I was being quite cruel to Zoe, but then again, I considered that she would be the major casualty of the adults indulging themselves. For the moment I’ve been brooding on quite another sort of story and I haven’t thought much about whether I’d use Zoe again. And certain characters in Sex and Stravinsky, I don’t think we’d want to meet again! [laughs]
TL: No? I don’t know! I do like some of the characters and I’m quite interested to see what happens to Cat.
BT: The two girls are interesting, it’s true. And it may be that something quite significant would happen to Cat. She’s a very able girl after all, isn’t she? But headstrong and spoilt and possibly heading for a crisis.
TL: Even though she is ghastly while she is sixteen, but a lot of sixteen year-olds are.
BT: It would be rather interesting – you know how Zoe is at first so enchanted with the idea of what’s happening to them, because it’s like being in one of her favourite ballet stories, Masquerade at the Wells, where the two girls secretly swap lives. Here, each girl longs to have the other one’s mother, but when the fantasy become real…Well, Zoe’s left thinking, ‘Where is my mother?’ Even though her mother Caroline was so demanding and judgemental with her. It’s created a huge dependence.
It would be interesting to have those girls eventually get to know each other, wouldn’t it? Because Zoe is so alarmed by Cat and so careful to keep out of her way. She’s so sure that Cat sees her as this drippy little creature reading baby books. Cat is a person who stamps and shouts and gets what she wants. She has such a sense of entitlement, doesn’t she? A rich white girl with a dad and aunts and uncles who love her and indulge her and drive her around in 4x4s, while Zoe has always had to do without the things she secretly yearns for. So yes, it could be quite an interesting relationship to explore.
A friend of mine recently said: ‘I want you to tackle the subject of old age.’ Oh dear. It is quite sad but true, that the young are so much more alluring and interesting because they’ve…
TL: …got the glamour of youth?
BT: And they’ve got their lives ahead of them. Also I find childhood and adolescence so interesting. It’s a difficult time for one thing, isn’t it? I remember the year I turned 30 thinking thank God I’m not that young anymore because being young is so difficult. Childhood is a minefield; families are a minefield, aren’t they? And of course childhood is very intensely felt. Siblings can destroy you. The whole politics of family life is complicated, unless you’re one of those unusual people who finds the art of living very easy…
I loved watching my own children’s adolescence. The brain is growing and it’s a time of great confusion. Adolescence is a sort of disease from which a minority never quite recovers. So I do empathise with adolescents. I feel for them. But old age is interesting as well, of course, and it’s such a big subject these days, when all of us live for far too long.
TL: Your early novels mostly centred on one protagonist. But your more recent books, particularly The Travelling Horn Player and now Sex and Stravinsky, are more sort of ensemble pieces without one single dominant character, and with those multiple storylines coming together in this big kind of denouement at the end. What made your writing structure change so dramatically?
BT: Well, as you know, I don’t consciously construct or think much that way – but yes, certainly, the first novel is written in the first person from one point of view.
Incidentally, I thought, when one vehemently feminist reviewer wrote that it was a book in which ‘the women smile and knit and the men have all the good lines’, that – well – it’s Catherine who is telling the story. She’s the David Copperfield person; the observer of all things. The language in which she narrates the story reveals her as clever and articulate. And I don’t think that, in order to indicate that people are ‘clever’, you need to have them talking all the time about Virginia Woolf and so on. Clever people on the whole tend to reveal their intellectual competence through their syntax, don’t they? Even though they’re merely talking about whether or not they’ve fed the dog, or filled the pepper-grinder. It has to do with the cadence of their speech, but I’m digressing.
What I did with my first novel, is simply take like-minded people whom I could love. That is to say, I didn’t literally know them but they were a little bit like the kind of people I knew, except they were probably cleverer. They were the sort of people I felt were from the kind of milieu in which I operated. After the first novel, I thought it would be more interesting to go outside that comfort zone and bring in other sorts of people; get inside other points of view.
TL: Partly the reason why I was so seduced by the first novel I read by you, Temples of Delight, was because it was one of the first books I’d read that I felt was about someone a bit like me, my milieu: Surrey middle-class intelligentsia-type people but they were more attractive. They seemed a bit like the best possible versions of the people that I grew up with. Something like a novel by Steinbeck…although I think his novels are wonderful, I can’t empathise with it as much because it’s set in a world of which I have no personal knowledge. It was nice to come across something that was such an attractive story about people that I knew, that I could so directly empathise with.
BT: I see…I am very reassured by that because it is such a strange book. I’m glad it didn’t put you off. I have a writer-friend who’s much younger than me, who got to know me after I had written about four or five books and she said, ‘Every book that you’ve written has somehow made a marker for different phases in my life.’ For instance, her discovering that she was a lesbian as Alice does when she finds Dulcie. Dulcie was one of those characters who was meant to be a mere scene-shifter but I thought: no, I love this girl, she wants to be in my book. But Alice’s family, yes, they are a ‘nice’ family; decent suburban types and all at sea with the likes of Jem and Giovanni. Mind Alice’s mother does conceal the letter. And she does feed Giovanni the mussels….
Sorry – you asked me about writing from one point of view and then going on to bring in all these different characters. It’s to do with an ever-greater fascination with complex patterns. Goodness knows. It just happens. The characters plant themselves on my pages. Then in retrospect I try to analyse where it all comes from. With Sex and Stravinsky, trailing in the back of my mind was a childhood love of girls’ ballet books, along with masquerades, Jacque le Coq and Tiepolo’s paintings of acrobats. I think, with Temples of Delight, there was a memory of how much I’d loved girls’ school stories as a child. Especially the philistine but page-turning Enid Blyton.
My daughter Anna wrote an A-level English essay on girls’ school stories, and she pursued a sort of Betty Friedan model, trying to show how in the original ones girls are depicted as independent and high-achieving. Then by the ’50s you get these Enid Blyton girls where, if anyone wants to be an opera singer she ends up getting pneumonia ? ‘Mavis can’t sing any more. She can only croak!’ or a girl who aspires to be an Olympic swimmer ends up dashed against the rocks and paralysed. It’s very oppressive to female ambition: that was her thesis.
Nonetheless, I’d adored these girls’ storybooks! By the time Anna came across them, she was eighteen and more sophisticated and capable of sending them up. It was her observations that were the inspiration for that rap in The Travelling Hornplayer that Ellen and Lydia perform, about Enid Blyton and Barbara Cartland and the lesbian-bondage under-text.
But why am I telling you this? [laughs] Different voices. Yes, Temple of Delight. It started out in a way almost like a girls’ school story and then I think, with that Roland episode, about the boys in the car, traveling to the boarding school in Northumberland ? I was balancing the girls’ story genre with a boys’ school story. Most people who read the book think that Roland is a pompous prat, but I began to respect him as a wholly honorable man.
TL: A good honest, English chap!
BT: He was! But with hidden depths. The way he got along so well with the dreadful troubled daughter of Alice’s landlord. Punk-y Iona, practising self-harm with a Swiss Army knife. I thought that spoke well for him! And I could see why sparky Christina would fall for Roland. He was one of those characters I kept company with for long enough to find myself thinking – to my great surprise – ‘I actually hugely respect this man. He’s the person I’d go to if I were in trouble.
And at the end of Juggling – those musical chairs again ? Christina’s the one who’s left standing. Then suddenly there is Roland whom, until then, she’s mistakenly thought was her estranged father. Very Oedipal, isn’t it? And if you’ve grown up with an egotistical male parent like Giovanni against whom you rebel, well you would want to append yourself to somebody un-preening like Roland, wouldn’t you?
TL: You’ve said before that the stories in Frankie & Stankie are all true, in which case I wonder why you fictionalised it and changed the names. Is it to protect the people who they’re based on?
BT: No, not at all. It was more to do with a kind of book-politics going on at the time. After I wrote The Travelling Hornplayer, Penguin gave me a very handsome two-book deal, but the down side was feeling pressured by an imminent deadline. I’d started writing Sex and Stravinsky and, as I said, it then became rather hard for me. Day after day I was lying on the floor, listening to the original Pergolesi version of the Pulcinella song (which is not in fact Pergolesi, as I say in the book) and then to the Stravinsky ‘re-composition’ of it. I kept thinking that I knew my story was in there. I felt that its secrets lay somewhere between the two versions of this little tune.
But the new editor-in-chief kept ringing me up and saying: ‘How’s the book coming along? You have a deadline in December!’ All I could think was, ’Oh help.’ It’s much too hard for me and I don’t know where it’s going. ‘ And because I’d started scribbling down all these little autobiographical stories for the book that became Frankie and Stankie, I suggested giving her that book first. I explained that it was rather different from anything else I’d written; more of a memoir really; more social realist and with a simple linear structure. Penguin was very unhappy with the idea; very rejecting of it. Their reasoning was that since I was known for a certain type of book, the sales reps would have a problem trying to flog it to book-sellers. They’d want more of ‘Barbara Trapido weaves another of her magical, musical romances… etc.’
It all got a bit heavy and I was left feeling rather disempowered, as if I’d been a bad girl, who was playing hookey from the legitimate book and defecting to the wrong sort book. At high school I was always the bad girl, being summoned to the Head’s office. Wearing one’s indoor garment outdoors; eating chips in uniform. Eventually, since my beloved ex-Penguin editor was now at Bloomsbury – and she positively loved the new book – I defected to Bloomsbury. It was their decision that the most judicious thing would be to publish it as an autobiographical novel, and I went along with that, given that Penguin had thought this categorising such a hurdle. I simply trusted them to know about marketing books – though, frankly, I still think it reads more like a memoir. So, in answer your question as to why I ‘fictionalised’ it: I don’t think I did really. I’d thus far always cautiously avoided writing autobiographically, because so many autobiographical novels tend to be about settling scores and grinding axes. Also, I wasn’t sure whether my own story would have any magnetism for a reader. I felt I could more easily tell if the characters worked if I wrote about my sister and me in the third person and gave us different names. I tend to envisage my writing as a kind of acting anyway; as putting stories on the stage.
I thought, if I put these two little girls out there on stage, and I think of them, not as my sister and me, but rather as the children who are living all aspects of our lives, then I’ll be able to achieve a proper degree of estrangement. It’s always a kind of paradox when you’re writing, because you’re having to get inside your characters but, at the same time you need to be outside them. Unless you get that estrangement and are able to watch them and make a distance, you loose your judgement; you’re too close to them to move the story. And sometimes, of course, you need to be cruel to them.
TL: Does it hurt you when you’re cruel to the characters that you like?
BT: Well sometimes I’m quite alarmed by it. I think: Gosh, is this horrible thing really going to happen to this person? But I think, as I say, there is that kind of cold estrangement that you’re practising in tandem with being very close to them – it’s quite a difficult thing to describe – but in the case of Frankie and Stankie I used that third-person distancing device precisely in order to insure that I could make objective judgements about this story as a story, rather than it just being about me practicing a form of personal exposure all over the page. In addition, where I’d written about old school friends, or my sister, I showed the subjects what I’d written, because I thought, ‘if they don’t like this then I can’t publish it’. But nobody objected.
And I confess that, since I went to school in the 40s and 50s, I could assume that most older members of the cast were dead! What astonished me about the reaction to the book was how many people, regardless of age, I mean even really young, post-1994 people who had grown up in South Africa, said: ‘Oh I loved that book, because it told the story of my life’. I was puzzled. I thought, how could it, when the country had so radically changed. But clearly, some things about it rang bells for lots of people – including English people, who, like me, had grown up on the Beacon Readers, etc. It’s a book about stories and predominantly, I like to be a storyteller – that’s what I love about books; that business of being drawn into the world of a story. You want to be seduced by a book. I don’t think that, because you write, anyone should feel obliged to read you. You don’t want to be bending people’s ears and being coercive. I want the books to be alluring.
TL: I enjoyed recognising what I thought were maybe the prototypes of characters in your novels.
BT: I noticed that as well. Writing about the real-life people in my own past made me realise where some elements of my imaginary characters had come from. Roger Goldman’s violin-playing, for example.
TL: And there was that friend you had who was a bit like Jem.
BT: The wild inspiring friend, yes. She’s in Rome now. She’s lived in Rome as long as I’ve lived in England. Actually, when I gave her the typescript to read she phoned and said (with regard to her own rocky childhood experience, as I depicted it), ‘It was all so much worse than I ever let on, you know’ and she produced this gruesome elaboration involving her stepfather, which I chose not to use, but it explained why she’d been fast-tracked into that convent boarding school at the tender age of six.
It was wonderful for me to write that autobiographical book. It was driven by a need to shore up a world that was either going or gone. And mercifully so. Given the recent ending of Apartheid, the book was a sort of celebration. The downside is that ever since I wrote it, I’ve tended to get put in a ghetto. Before Frankie and Stankie I was a writer. Now I’m a ‘South African writer’.
TL: You’ve been an English writer for so long.
BT: Yes, exactly. Most of my readers were wholly unaware that I’d come from South Africa.
TL: No, I had actually assumed at first that you had grown up in the Home Counties, because you wrote so convincingly about growing up in the Home Counties.
BT: I was quite young when I emigrated. I was 22 when I came to England. South Africa was such a horrible place at the time I left, that I blocked it all out and remade myself as an English person. I thought that I had become an English person, and of course I’m never quite that. American publishers have sometimes said of my work, that it’s ‘too English for us’. I think, ‘Can’t they tell that I’m a sort of anthropologist among the English; I’m inside-outside?’ Like Anita Brookner. I don’t think I’m much like her as a writer, but we do have in common that we’re both inside and outside at the same time.
TL: I think a lot of writers have always been a bit ‘outside’.
BT: Absolutely. It triggers the writing I think. I once talked to Michèle Roberts about language, for instance, of being a child who starts out speaking one language, then switches to other. That triggers something. The new language becomes your subject, in a way. You engage with it more intensely. My parents spoke German at home and then at school we spoke in English and yes, I think I fell in love with the English language as a child. I never quite took it for granted.
TL: I was wondering, are you writing something now?
BT: I’m not actually writing, but I am brooding on things a bit.
TL: Can you tell us anything about what you’re brooding upon, or do you want to keep it under wraps?
BT: Oh no, I spill things out all over the place. I don’t have any of that feeling that some authors have that if you talk it all out, you lose it. I remember one comic writer saying, ‘I never talk about it’. This is a notably un-funny person, who writes funny books. So curious, that.
TL: A lot of comedians tend to be very shy and un-funny in person.
BT: I know a woman who writes rather gruesome books about murder and rape and violent sex – and yet she’s a pretty, happy, sociable person. I remember commenting to a mutual friend, that where I’m a complicated introvert who writes sociable, user-friendly books, she’s a sunny, easy-going person who writes depressing books. Life can be very unfair.
TL: Perhaps one uses up certain traits in writing it.
BT: Yes, perhaps. I don’t mind talking about what I’m doing but it’s too hazy for me to be clear about it. I’m intermittently thinking about a story triggered by something my late husband told me. He was writing various pieces for the new Dictionary of National Biography when he told me about this woman, an impoverished eighteenth century aristocrat who needed to make a judicious marriage. She had two men in mind, but in making a bid for the one she really wanted, as against the one who would have been more available, she blundered and ended up alienating both. The subsequent manner in which she rescued herself seemed both ingenious and admirable to me – and (Oh joy!) the story would involve a dog. I’ve long wanted to write a dog story, but when I read Paul Auster’s Timbuktu I thought, ‘Oh, he’s done it so beautifully already’. And maybe it’s a recipe for disaster – people can display a knee-jerk species bigotry when it comes to dogs in books.
Anyway, my thoughts are all in a muddle. And usually what happens is that something that you start off with ends up being mere scaffolding. It disappears along the way. So I can’t really say anything about what’s next because, for the moment, it’s all nonsense and nothing.
But yes: I would love to write another book and that would please my editor who’s been so good and loyal to me whilst I’ve been a hopeless, unproductive person all these years. I found I couldn’t write whilst Stan was so ill and needing me. I didn’t have the energy for it. It takes a lot of energy and playfulness and I simply couldn’t do it. But yes: I’m not at all sure what kind of book will come out of my rather cloudy thoughts, or whether I might use some of my characters again. It’s a mystery to me.
TL: Well, I think that’s all the questions now, thank you very much indeed.
BT: Thank you. I’m sorry I’ve been so long-winded in trying to answer them.