JN: You wrote at the end of your first novel, A Piece of the Night, that
we carry the memory of our childhood like a photograph in a locket. Why
does the past continue to inspire you?
MR: Probably for Freudian reasons. When you're young, you're very open to the
world, you're vulnerable, you're soft-shelled. I think your childhood stamps you,
wounds you, shapes you. And then I think you struggle to turn it into language
and make something of it. You may not have to be an artist to do that, but
I've chosen to be inspired by the past.
I think the fact that Mnemosyne, memory, is the mother of the muses is not
an accident. The older I get, the more I think memory and creativity, memory
and invention, are deeply connected. We would say to invent is to make up,
but if you look at the Latin, invenio means I come upon, I find. To
make something up means to discover it. Perhaps its always been there,
but your process of discovering it means a novel.
My parents, for example, lived through the Second World War, and I got to the
point where I needed to know what the war had been like for themthe truth
for them of being young people before having us children. And then those parents
stand in for all the people in history whom I've never met but want to know
about. There's a political angle, too, which is about women or other lost
voices, people who've been written out of history. I'm interested in
trying to find and invent voices and stories of people who haven't been seen
as important. And I think that makes me a late twentieth-century writer, because
it's a project that lots of people have been involved with.
JN: In a lecture on The Place of Imagination in 1994 you spoke
about your urge to recreate childhood as a happy paradise. Do you feel that
urge still prevails?
MR: Because that state never existed, I still want to get back to it. I don't
think my childhood was terribly happyno-one's fault, one knows that nowbut
I felt very separate from my mother, much too separate: she was the paradise
from which I had been expelled untimely. The image of the maternal
body as paradise became very important to me. Obviously it's there in psychoanalytical
literature, but it was my journey to discover it.
I suppose it's a religious or mystical feeling or quest: to get back
to some pre-linguistic state of bliss, which is about unity,
non-separation. I would
have thought that the baby at the breast is probably experiencing bliss similar
to that which the mystic adult feels when reconnected with God and the universe.
I don't feel that it's a put-down of that experience to say that childhood
bliss is somewhere involved. I think childhood is a mythical state as much
as the real one that I can remember, and I'm interested in exploring myths
like that of Adam and Eve which is clearly about childhood and gender division,
but also a sort of personal search. It's reculer pour mieux sauter. You
go back into the mythical past, the Golden Age, you get nourishment from
some magical stream, you meet some magical beast, you might even reunite
mother-goddess person, and then you're born again. You can start your life
again. I think I periodically need to go back, bathe in that stream, and
then leave again. It's not that I'd ever stay there - I probably wouldn't
- it would probably be a state of psychosis, if you stayed in it!
JN: Does your vision of the child's state of bliss at the mother's breast
affect the way you use language?
MR: In nearly everything I've written there are moments when characters experience
a loss of ego and become enraptured. I've put it in a specifically religious
context, as when I wrote about Mary Magdalene; I connected it with sexuality,
but it's very much about her finding her voice as a prophet, a poet, a lover.
I wrote about it in my version of St Teresa of Avila, Josephine, an impossible
saint. Doesn't Kristeva label the semiotic, which men and
women can both have recourse to, as the blissful babble? I think
it also means that I compose visual images in my novels, and that in several
of them the vision that somebody might have isn't just a vision of God or Christ.
It's a vision of something I can see in my mind now; it's sort of golden, and
it's a daughter and a mother who are joined. When you've had that vision, you
are strengthened, you are able to live, you're able to not die. And I didn't
always know that's what my characters were looking for. Sometimes I've not
let on that it's there, as in Impossible Saints where a male figure
is present in a sort of trinity because that was me being somehow correct,
that Josephine could somehow love both her parents. Actually, I think much
deeper than that my characters are looking for the mother, and it's golden.
I didn't really understand that until I'd written six novels or so. So it's
partly a linguistic style but it's partly the composition of a visual image
JN: Do you think that your image of bliss is also part-impulse to describe
a new way of life, be it writerly or religiouslike the one in Impossible
MR: Yes, and it's difficult to talk about, knowing that young people will
read this book. I think that for a lot of young people spirituality might
they might not want to admit itbut conventional religions, such as Catholicism,
the one I grew up in, are not, and I don't think young people grow up knowing
the stories, the myths and the iconography. So it can feel really strange to
them, and perhaps quite boring and weird, that I'm still in some sense nurtured
by those myths.
I think the point about having an image of a mystical experience
rooted in the body was my way of overcoming the Catholic split
between body and soul
which damaged me almost irreparably, I would say, as a young woman growing
up, because it made me feel so bad about desire, sex, pleasure, myself,
my own body. Part of what my work's been trying to do is to repair
culture is damaged by that split, which still goes on. If you use the image
of a convent, or a mystical quest, it's a way of giving yourself time to
pause and access realities which aren't simply to do with the hustle and
bustle of gotta
make money, gotta rush about being sociable, the hurly-burly of the modern
world, which I quite like; but it's very important that you try and create
these little spaces which are slightly separate from normal daily time.
It's not that I'm a goddess worshipper, heaven forfend: I loathe
all that sentimental kitsch. But if you go into this place that
might be like a
cave in your imaginationand
that's where you go when you're writing a novel anywaythere might be
something else shining at the back of the cave. I don't particularly want to
say, It's this golden statue of a mother and a daughter, because
that's too obvious. But the fact that there's something shining in the darkness
is what draws me in. I think it's true of lots of those late nineteenth-century
visionary experiences when children saw the goddess of the countryside, and
then the Church wrestled it into shape and said, It's the Immaculate
Conception, because they wanted that dogma promoted. So my little shining
thing at the back of the cave is something similar.
JN: Your first novel begins with an image of a dead nun in the school
chapel; and at the heart of Daughters of the House is Léonies vision
of the gold and red woman.
MR: I think that every novel I've written has come from an image, usually
an image in a dream, that's been so powerful that I'm haunted by it
with it, and have got to translate the image into words, which means
some kind of narrative. I've begun to see that often the vision is
of a dead
a dead woman, which is a bit horrible in a way, or a bit weird. The work
of the novel, therefore, is to breathe life into this corpse. The corpse
up and talk, or is allowed to be resurrected in some way. I can see in
a psychoanalytical sensethough that might be too narrow to use on its ownthat a child
might be very angry with her mother. I wish you were dead! I want to
kill you! I hate you so much! And then you've got this dead mother. The
child's next movethis is Melanie Klein stuffis to make reparation.
You're sorrowful, you're guilty, you want to make Mamma better. And that is
the impulse for art, some psychoanalysts believe. So I can see that there's
something of that going on for me. In my new novel [The Mistressclass] I
thought, I can't believe it, there's a bloody corpse in the opening chapter
Death is the great fact of our lives, and some people think that
artists create in order to deny it, deny their own death, so
that your work of
almost like a fetish. It's going to live on, you hope, it's going to
have eternal life, though you might happen to be in the ground. I think
make art in the teeth of death, facing it, with your eyes open, and
you become fascinated by it. I am. I mean, what is a dead body?
What are the physical processes? How can you know the people of the
past, who are all dead? In what sense could you ever discover
what it was like
them? And I have come to realise very recentlythis is neurotic, I think!that
that curiosity to know the dead is an image to me of what it means to know
another person. I feel now that I walk in a world peopled by ghosts, and I
write about ghosts very directly in my new novel. Partly it's melodrama and
gothic, and partly it's just like reality. When you walk in this part of London,
in the City, you feel these layers and layers of history. So the dead are everywhere
around you. I think part of my fiction is saying, What is a relationship? What
is it to be an other? Are we all the same? Are we one? Are we separate?
It's connected with the fact that I'm a twin. Part of my childhood inspiration
was, what does it mean to look at somebody who is my twin, my double, my other?
How do I know that I'm me and not her? That used to terrify me
when I was a child.
JN: What about being half-French, half-British?
MR: That was the second impetus to my becoming a writer: living in
a double culture, and feeling that I lived torn apart, or split,
I belonged. It felt like having two families and two homes, and you
had to move back and forth across the sea to join them up. It sounds
used to say, Oh, you lucky children, going off for your holidays in France. But
the summer holidays expanded to feel like a second year: seven weeks in a little
tiny house with very old-fashioned, strict grandparents. I felt free when I
got out. I loved the French landscape and the sea, which became a great image
for a free language. Its as though this great mouth and tongue and lips
are lapping and speakingand speaking endlessly is what I like to do,
but didnt do as a child. I was very silent, very repressed.
I often felt weird, because of the double language. Mum stopped speaking
French to us when we were about sevenI think she worried it was somehow disloyal
to Dad, that she had to become an Englishwoman and not impose too much Frenchness.
Or she thought that we wouldn't speak English properly, though by then we were
bilingual. My mother tongue was a great loss, and somehow began
to symbolise the lost mother. English, of course, is my heritage and I love
the English language, it's a beautiful, wonderful language.
But I began to feel a need to go and find the lost language along
JN: You've written a lot about the pleasure you take in reading,
starting with childhood books such as The Black Riders by
MR: Reading provided me with a sense of what the imagination was.
That's the magic about reading: you create visionary worlds inside
author is doing it, but somehow telling you to do it too, you've
got to do it together. And I was lucky to live in a house with
parents read and my English grandmother read. She was an uneducated
woman whom I just
adored. She was my salvation goddess-personvery down to earth, very funny,
very honest. And she read voraciously, so it was quite normal to read a lot.
And Nana also made up stories and poems, so she taught me by example that you
could invent things, you could create things in language. She was a very powerful
I loved the tales of the Round Table, and in particular the tragic
love stories like that of Tristram and Isolde. I did like having
broken. We also
got these books of folk talesthere were a couple of Sufi stories that
I was enchanted by. There was one about a king to whom huge adventures happen
and hundreds of years pass, but actually he's been sitting on a horse and he's
just blinked. I suppose it was through those folk stories from India, in particular,
that I learnt about magic and magical realism.
I read Lolita when I was only ten and had a very strong
sexual response to it; it was the first time I can remember having
feelings of any
kind, but so powerful, it was quite disturbing. I thought I was
ill, or somethingI
think because I was very in love with my dad. And I read a lot of poetry; in
adolescence you find poetry very easy to dive into. I loved John Donne and
Gerard Manley Hopkins. There weren't many women poets around that I knew ofyou
just didn't get given women writers in those days. It wasn't until I went to
university that I got access. As a child I liked things that were magical,
violent and tragic, all very brightly coloured.
JN: When did you first encounter medieval literature?
MR: When doing my BA in English Language and Literature at Oxford
I chose the medieval option because all this amazing literature
as an ex-Catholic. And of course there were lots of women writers,
and mystics like Mechtilde of Magdeburg who wrote extraordinarily
poetry. I felt
I'd connected to a female mystical erotic tradition.
JN: Do you feel that this also linked you to women writers of
your own time?
MR: When I became a feminist in 1968, I felt that I'd come home:
the first home I ever had that was feminine. And it was very
wild and theatrical
and erotic, the early feminism. Although a lot of people now
think of it
narrow-minded, man-hating, for us it was about street theatre,
talking joyfully about sex, having as much sex as you possibly
and music and
all of that, and this passion for reading was part of it, searching
for women authors.
Virago and The Women's Press had just been founded, so women
writers were flooding on to the market. It was a heady time.
I know that a lot of people now scoff at Virginia Woolf's idea
of thinking back through our mothers, and the critic Lorna
very fed up with the idea of a female literary tradition. She
wanted there to
be a community now, of living writers. Well, of coursethat's what we want;
but I don't care how pathetic or insecure it makes me sound: I need to feel
there are women writers at my back who are inspiring me. And they are, of course,
versions of those saints I loved as a child. And I realise that most of those
saints I loved were writers.
JN: Does it make you angry to be described as a woman writer
or feminist writer?
MR: When you just say writer it's nearly always been signed, unconsciously,
as a man. And then you have woman writer or Black writer or working-class
writerthe other. And of course if you're put in that
category of other you're going to resent it. I think that's why
so many writers I admire and esteem who are women did not wish to be called
women writers, had no interest in feminism and didn't want to be in women-only
anthologies. But I think they ended up accepting the status quo, which meant
they had to somehow become a bit masculine. I prefer to tackle the issue head-on
and say the world is riven by gender division. So I'm quite happy to say I'm
a woman writer, though I don't believe in some kind of essentialist notion
that by virtue of being a woman you automatically write differently to a man.
I feel that denies writerly strategies, writerly sophistication and writerly
choices, because there's a certain kind of good, old-fashioned, omniscient
narrator that someone of either gender could write. Not all women write in
a Kristevan, semiotic way.
JN: Do you think women writers describe men better than men
MR: Yes, because your life can depend on simple observation
of what men are actually like! And then there's the kind of
character we all
wish we knewlike
Ladislaw in George Eliot's Middlemarch. Men think, Oh, he's a
pathetic man, but he's a sweetie, and women like men who are sweet to
JN: You say in your volume of essays, Food, Sex & God, that
form is everything to writing, and that the demands of the
subject help you create
a form. How would you describe your preferred narrative structures?
MR: Every novel represents a new problem to be solved, and
therefore you have to find and invent a new form. I'm probably
I want to play, I want to make something. I can now see that
I have very personal reasons for distrusting older forms, and
into being a modernist,
breaking the old forms, wanting to make new ones. The personal
reasons were to do with childhood, with the way my father in
language very powerfully and put me into his story. He was
like God the Father on
the omniscient narrator, and I as a young girl, with very sexual
feelings, felt trapped in his story of who I was in his life.
I didn't know this
many yearsI just had to flee from that kind of story, and preferred to
invent new forms of the novel in which you might have several voices telling
a story because they make a quarrel: voices not from up high looking down,
but on the ground, or coming in from tangents, or narrative voices from the
weak and the dispossessed, like in Daughters of the House. To
me it's important that there are two little girls telling a
story about history
I think the idea of a historian being a small girl is not one
our culture believes in.
JN: And the two girls give different versions of reality.
MR: They've both got their flaws, and that's important. So
although I've probably failed I go and write another novel
and another. It's a sense of
constant failure, of not getting something good enough or beautiful
enough. There's a quest to find the shape that this particular
novel, this particular
literary problem, demands. And it's a problem of subject matter,
question I pose in each novel I write. In A Piece of the Night I
was asking, what is a woman? It was about feeling fragmented
and broken upa mess
on the carpetand the narrative is fragmented too, because it moves according
to memory. With The Visitation I was asking, How do men and women
love each other? Can they really love each other? Probably most people
reading that novel wouldn't see that I've taken the structure of certain parts
of the Bible and played around with them a bit. A novel which asks, Can
you be both holy and sexual? becomes recast as a gospel that's never
been read. I'm not saying I'm finding earth-shattering solutions, but I am
interested in making the novel different every time. Not just for intellectual
reasons; it's an organic feelinglike if you had a baby, every one would
look different. You wouldn't want to just have clones!
JN: When you once described the process of writing The Looking Glass you
spoke about how its narrative structure evolved into an exploration
of the women's experience and also of the character of the
MR: Male poets have been so central I thought that this one
could be at the centre of the novel but like the hole in the
circling around him, inventing him, making him up and fantasising
about him, because
they're all sort of in love with him. I liked the idea of the
centre of the book that wasn't therelike a doughnut. It wasn't anti-the man, it's just
that the story of male power is told a lot. They're there in the culture, striding
JN: So these woman are allowed to invent the male poet?
MR: I like the fact that you never see his poetry. In Possession A.S.
Byatt did it brilliantly, and gave her two poets lots of room
to have their poems in the text. I wanted to be more suggestive,
you could guess
what kind of poetry he'd write.
JN: That novel, like so many of yours, has a woman in what
you might call an altered state. Do you like pushing a character
and if so does it link with the reverse of that, the blissful
MR: They are back to back. One's about a happy experience and
the other's about trauma and terror. I had mystical experiences
a child and
then as an adolescent
I also experienced terrors and emotional trauma which I thought
meant I was mad, particularly as my family said I was. I feel
I know about
emotional distress that is frightening simply because you're
not used to it. You feel you must be an outcast, alien, mad
person. Now I think
is extreme distress, extreme suffering, and if you can learn
contain it or make something with it, it helps you to cope
with it. Art is
part of that.
I think it's part of being a writer that you go up and down
a lot. There are days of such extreme despair. It's more despair
I now know what I've got to do which is go and do some writing,
put a form on it. So poor Geneviève there
I made it up, that's never happened
to me exactly, but I felt that I knew what she was about.
JN: She's separated from the woman she loves, and the isolated,
macabre spot where she finds herselfa church built over a plague pit in Rouencommemorates
people who have died slowly and painfully. And the mermaid story is also about
trauma and separation.
MR: And about sexuality. She is that Jungian mermaid of the
unconscious, but she's also something between the mother and
Your reading is deep
and beautiful, because you've thought so much about issues
to do with women and women's creativity, so you bring that
And this will sound terribly arrogant, but I feel my books
have somehow not always
been properly read because they're talking about things that
not everybody has thought about or wants to think about. I
to lay it out
like a lesson because that's like a preaching text. But I
think that's why you
can feel so moved when you are read as you dream of being
read. So thank you. Please
put that in, that I said that!
JN: You write about everything from the Desert Fathers to the
medieval mystics to nineteenth-century poets to the Nazis to
How far do you depend
MR: Whatever else I'm doing in my life, I always read for several
hours a day. And research: sometimes it's in order to get things
Daughters of the House I read a great deal about the Nazi
occupation of France, because although I was relying partly
on stories in
the family, they're
very mythical. A lot of the research never went anywhere near
the novel, but I needed to do it to make me feel OK. The same
with The Wild Girl: I
read enormous amounts of Patristic literature, Gnostic texts
and commentaries, and histories; and though they fell away,
me. When you are
doing the research you find that everything's linked to everything
a very crystalline
way. That's what's underneath every novel, the world of the
unconscious, which is a library as well. The reading doesn't
but it's there
and you keep going back into it.
JN: Is that where you feel that a novel is born, in the unconscious?
MR: The unconscious is part of yourself: it's like this big
country which sends you messages if you tune in and do your
shows you what
together. For example, I've got two characters near the beginning
of my current novel who are married and living in the same
two days. One is Adam's day, and the other is another day that
Catherine has. And
then suddenly my unconscious says, It's the same day, but two versions. You've
got to plunge into chaos, and that's when I feel terror. The first year of
a novel is frightening, because it's about getting lost. It's a serious madness,
it really is; you feel you've somehow disintegrated and will never come back.
But you've got to go there because otherwise you couldn't make anything new.
That's why when I teach creative writing I get people to do automatic writing.
I tell them we won't go past a few minutes, so they know there's some sort
of line around it.
JN: Would you say that your novels are also born out of critical
MR: When I get PhD students coming to interview me I get furiously
angry because they try and insist that my novels are nothing
but exemplars of critical theory.
But I do read people who talk about language, and I read a
lot about psychoanalysis.
For example, I've just finished a reading of Villette which,
because it uses images of maternity in the imagination, reveals
a new Villette.
So critical theory can engage with a text, and help you read
more richly, more fully. And also it helps you see things you
so there's a
very positive, joyful, fertile side to it. But I do loathe
the kind of critical theory which appears to obliterate works
I use old-fashioned
terms like works of art deliberately, because a lot of work goes into
a novel and the author does have a sense of what she's up to; so I resent the
sort of readings which say the critic is everything. We have to give power
back to the reader, yes, but when the writer is given no power I get cross.
On the other hand, it's good that we've had to question the
canon and revalue our judgements. I've been part of a generation
the academics, and supported you and your battles, and feel
grateful for what
we've received, because my work is read sensitively by people
who've thought a lot
about those issues of critical theory and gender. It's like
fresh air blowing around, with lots of notions about writers
JN: You're a regular reviewer as well as a fiction competition
judge. What do you see as the role of the judge and the reviewer?
MR: It was interesting judging the Booker, because we were
tossing around words like good and bad, but not everybody
to say what those
The more old-fashioned people thought, Well, it's self-evident, whereas
I've got to the point where I have to be able to say why something's good.
To me being a judge and a reviewer are similar: it's trying to find what I
think is good and then arguing for it and seeing whether I agree with other
people or they with me. So good is a kind of short-hand. I'm interested
in how something's made, and read with pleasure as a reviewer, and learn a
lot about how different people make novels. When you write for a Sunday newspaper
you write for people who are called the common reader, the general reader,
but they're perfectly intelligent and they want to think. So you're allowed
to have a kind of conversation, saying, Well, hang on, or, What
JN: So you prompt the reader to have a dialogue with the
MR: About fifteen years ago I went to a seminar in Germany
on feminist critical theory, and Rachel Bowlby read a paper
reader. She made me see that although there's an experience
of reading that I love, which is being enraptured, seduced
kind which is engaging with the text and having a real, equal-to-equal
conversation. Sometimes that means hurling the book across
the room! I once taught students
with terrific difficulties in writing essays. What bogged
them down was the reading of set texts and critical texts.
to a bit that was boring or you didn't understand you skipped
over it and kept
going. We did a lot of hurling books across rooms and, Oh, my God! You
mean I'm allowed to be rude to this great book? It's as though we haven't
been able to say that in public. For me it was a shameful secret, that I was
a bad reader, a bad girl, because I'm not reading properly like proper people
in proper universities do. My mother talked about Diderots La Religieuse, which
as a good Catholic girl she hatedso she was my first example of a passionate
reader. I once burnt a book deliberately. I wanted to know what it felt like.
It was a crappy paperback thriller, it was a bad thriller, I felt OK about
burning it. And it was like a black block and took a long time to burn, refusing
to be consumed.
JN: How do you see your work now, in the middle of your career?
MR: You always try to make something better this time than
you've done before, so that's the quest. A Spanish critic
books fall into groups,
and I can see that they're to do with my own life and growing
up process. Up until the moment when I met my husband there
lot of angry
stuff and a
fierce method of writing which was quite modernist and fuck you if you
want conventional stories, you're not getting them from me, and if I want to
write about Catholicism I'll write about it and if I want to do it Ill
do it and OK, I'm an outcast, an exile and a barbarian but I'm making the art
All my novels had been about homeless women, and then for
the first time in my life I began to have a happy relationship
with a manno accident he's
an artistand I wrote In the Red Kitchen. It
wasn't that men were suddenly heroes, it was more about
I had a home,
imaginary space of warmth, and it had an effect on my writing.
Next came Daughters
of the House and Flesh and Blood, and then I
Saints. In that I laid a ghost, which was my terrible
fear that my father and I had loved each other much too
far as I know
a sexual relationship in reality at all, but I think in
fantasy we both did and
it really damaged meI just felt so wicked, being Catholic. I'd never
known what was wrong with me, and somehow in that novel I got to a point where
I could look at some terrors and face them. I don't think anyone would know
it's about me and my dad, but I know that it is, and that released me. What
came next was more playful, somehow, writing Fair Exchange and
want to look at feminine genres, I'll write a romance, I'll lark about.
I now see that my novels have all had muses. The figure
of the mother, an absent mother, was the muse for my
was a muse
for a couple
of novels. My dad was a muse for Impossible Saints,
and my neighbour in France, Mme Drouard, whom I love
very much, has
muse for my last three novels. My French publisher, a
man, suggested I write
William Wordsworth's love affair with Annette Vallon,
which I did in Fair Exchange. So
he was a muse for that book. A muse can be an imaginary
figure, or a dead person, such as a saint, or a writer.
and Mallarmé have both inspired
me, for example. George Sand too. Also, recently, Charlotte Brontë. So
the muse becomes a subject as well as an inspiration.
JN: Do you think that the muse can also be described
as your ideal reader?
MR: They must be the ideal reader because I have this
image of giving them the novel as a gift. It's for youI've made it because I love you. And
they would say, Its beautiful, thank you, and so would be
the first and ideal reader. Now we all know that doesn't happen! For example,
this lovely woman in France whom I really loveshe's a kind of mother
figure for meis beginning to read my novels as they get translated. She's
a countrywoman, very intelligent, and she has said some lovely things about
them. She's quite aware that she's inspired me, and doesn't mind a bit. My
mother hated my novels for years. She just threw them across the room. They
were disgusting, obscene and violent and cruel and nasty! But I think my wish
is that the muse would be the first reader.
JN: And that shifts from novel to novel? There were nine
muses classically, after all.
MR: Yes, and I think it's a kind of promiscuityjust as in your life you
might have quite a lot of love affairs, and you might get married a few times,
or you might not. That's how muses workwhen one's done enough, off she
goes. Or off he goes. I'd assumed only men had muses, female ones, but of course
women can have muses of both genders, because of the bisexual imagination.
The Looking Glass began with my classic woman
muse, the absent, rejecting mother, overlaid by images
opposite, the woman
who inspired my portrait
of Madame Patin. I was writing away about Geneviève and Madame Patin
when I suddenly encountered an additional inspiration, a masculine one, and
the whole novel changed into what it now is. I had no choice. This person
was inspiring me and I had to respond to that. I ended up with a form of The
Looking Glass which is I hadn't at all initially
a novel inspired by love, and about love in various formschildhood
love, romantic love, adult love.
JN: Does the idea of someone to whom you're writing
make the activity less lonely?
MR: When Flaubert wrote to Louise Colet, his lover
who lived in Paris, he would call her Dear Muse,
Darling Muse. And
and kept her at this huge distance, he respected her
He sometimes seems to be a misogynistic, crusty old
to Louise he
writes these amazing
letters about writing Madame Bovary. Virginia
Woolf said that everyone yearns for this perfect, beautiful
perfect reader. You're hoping someone will understand and like it, and say, It's
beautiful. It goes right back to childhood. You make something for Mummy
or Daddy and shyly give it to them and you need them to say, Oh, darling,
isn't that beautiful? And of course they didn't used to. I mean now they've
all learnt from the newspapers, but in my youth
my father used
to throw away my presents; I used to find them in the dustbin, things I'd made
for him, I can remember! It used to break my heart! But perhaps it was good
for me in the long run because it made me write.
There's a sense that a book is a fantasy object, a
fantasy of a gift, and it's offered to a fantasy
reader, a fantasy
if you get
review, it's not just narcissistic pleasure, it's
a deeper thing, that you've been received, you've been
by the reader.
of course you get readers reading your book in ways
you don't expect at all, so
they are very active and powerful. I've begun to
see that what I would call a good book is one which allows
beat the reader
over the head and say you've got to read it this
way because I'm telling you to. It's best to write in a
way which frees
can, to read
it how she wants, and with luck she'll tell you what
she's seen in
it and you'll think, Oh, right! I didn't know I'd written that.
JN: Could you talk about the structure of Flesh and Blood?
MR: It's my most experimental, my most original novel,
and it's broken in half: an example of what you asked
is about, crucially,
being separated from your mother. Something was broken
between you, so the novel's broken, and it took me
about a year of
to get there.
You read half of it and you're also going backwards.
Then you get to a paradise and start to cheer up,
to put it
together. So it works like a zip. You're zipping
it up as you go. And
the reader is therefore
crucial. That's a novel for the active reader. I
love it because I feel I really invented something
lot of people
they think it's a bit difficult, a bit tricky. I
might put an author's note in it if it got re-issued,
saying, Here's an image of how it works.
JN: You mean give the reader a key?
MR: Or put it at the end in a secret place!
JN: The novel ends on a colon, so you could go back
to the beginning and start again.
MR: All my novels circle around adolescence and being
born into adulthood and whether or not you make
the right choices.
JN: Marie-Jeanne's story was particularly powerful.
MR: That's an example of something nobody picked
up when they reviewed it. It's something I've invented,
Ive taught in creative writing
workshops, and I do want to lay claim to it as mine. Because Marie-Jeanne is
an uneducated and conflicted womanshe may be two women who are speaking
with one voice or she may be one woman who's split herself in twoit's
all written in words of one syllable. I wanted to make a language that could
be flexible, could say in a very artificial way how a very poor peasant woman
spoke French in the eighteenth century. I don't know, so let's try words of
one syllable, because people say, Explain that in words of one syllable. Actually
you can be very sophisticated in words of one syllable.
JN: So do you see Flesh and Blood as a turning-point?
MR: Having returned to the romance in Fair Exchange, I've
returned to the Charlotte Brontë type of gothic melodrama for The Mistressclass.
Brontë's plots and language have a secret pulse and structure of metaphor
which she got from her love of Shakespeare. I love to think about novels of
the past: what makes one person's language survive. I read Jane Austen a lot,
not because I enjoy the ideology, but because the language is amazing; not
clotted with the fossilized expressions of its time. It's like a modern language,
and it's interesting to see how she gains her effects. Although I still care
passionately about the word-by-word arrangementthe absolute nuts and
bolts of a novelI'm now trying to write a very plain language as well.
I've become very interested in telling stories and am giving myself permission,
having been scared of them, scared of my dad's feelings for me and his stories
for me. He actually wrote a novel with me in itand so I've taken some
power to say, I want to tell stories.
JN: Is desire as a motivating force in your writing?
MR: Yes, and I think it's often based on loss, the
lost one. In a sense, the muse isn't there. Flaubert
once quoted Barthes to me, Barthes who said that
writing was the child playing with the body of the
which I'd always
a sort of male
comment. And Dacia said, It's true for women too. I know that when I'm writing,
I'm a little girl playing with the body of my mother. And I had never
ever felt able to do that, but perhaps if Dacia can do it I can do it. So I've
begun to see that as a recurrent muse image.
I think the first muse in my life was Nana, my English
grandmother, with this first novel my mother loathed.
I can see why: it
dear, basically. But Nana just said to me, Darling, I've read it three
times and I don't understand these lesbians but I'm going to have another go
and I'll understand it. And she was ninety-nine! I think that's the best
reader you could have. When I'm in my states of terror and despair, I still
think, Well, Nana would say it's all right! Just do it, just do it!
JN: She was prepared to read you over and over
MR: That's true love, isn't it? Can I just add
that I'm a very happy reader, and I love and adore
much, I think
one of the primary
activities in life. I know people go on about sex,
do too, but reading is so deep. I can't forget
reading for the
being caught up and lying on the sofa all night
until I'd finished a novel. You feel
so grateful to someone who gives you that experience,
which not all novels do by any means.
I used to write simply the kinds of novels I needed
to write. They often were quite difficult, because
was how it
had to be.
But I think
come together and I'm currently wanting to write
the kind of novel that I'd stay up all night
JN: Can you define that sort of novel?
MR: I suppose it's an acceptance of illusion,
that as a narrator you're creating an illusion
not constantly nudging her, saying, It's
all just an illusion, you know! You're saying, Why not exert power?
Why not be a magician? Why not create an enchanting world that somebody wants
to come into and stay until you push them out at the end? So it's perhaps
an acceptance of storytelling and the techniques of storytelling. It's about
a confidence that it's OK to do that. You're not a wicked girl having fantasies
about your dad, you're not a wicked girl who's making up lies for which you'll
be punished, you're not talking too loudly and showing off too much, you're
just someone who can tell stories. It's as though, being over fifty, you relax
a bit and go, What's wrong with some pleasure? It's about seducing,
about playing with the reader but not in a sadistic way. I was a rough girl
in the playground, a real tomboy, and the little girls would fall over and
say, Oh, that Michèle, she runs so fast, I fell over! And
now I'm wanting to say, Let's all play, but it's not so rough,
JN: So it's not about showing off at the expense
of your reader?
MR: You can keep the mechanisms hidden and delight
in sleight of hand which you learn from thriller
techniques. A really
will delight you
as it draws you inexorably towards the ending,
won't keep going, Oh,
look, aren't I clever! I'm fed up now with writers who do that, and I'm
afraid I probably wanted to be like that when I was younger. Maybe you don't
need to tell people, Look, I can do this, you just do it. You just do it. That's
real confidence, I think.
JN: How would you say that the novel you're writing
now differs from a Victorian novel?
MR: I don't know that it does, actually. For
instance, I very much admire Mrs. Gaskell. Within
a Christian she's remarkably
about what girls are really like: a fabulous
and so underestimated writer. Charlotte Brontë also has that quality which I so much admire, that emotional
honesty. And it's not that corrupted, romantic, solipsistic self-indulgence
that Flaubert was arguing against, which is why he invented his kind of realism.
There's a quality of honesty that I've learnt from nineteenth-century novelists.
Someone like Mrs. Gaskell or Charlotte Brontë is absolutely au fait with
the fact that the unconscious is there, in them,
and because they haven't had their noses rubbed
in it they
just go for
it. I think
a loss of innocence, because we know about things
like incestuous desires and murderous wishes.
How do you
write about things?
A lot of people
the trap of being ironic, cool and cynical. Ugh,
boring! You've got to recapture honesty, sincerity,
be not an idiot
JN: Does that mean you can't have your characters
knowing too much?
MR: At the beginning of my new novel Adam, who's
a poet, is thinking about the unconscious and
dreams, and then
begins to realise
that he's actually
asleep while he's thinking this. So that's
decided to do it. But you know
when you put a dream in a novel it's very boring
someone else's dream. Mustn't do that!
JN: Do you keep a dream diary?
MR: Yes, de facto, because I'm dreaming
obsessively. I write down dreams that feel potent,
images in them which speak.
you find that
a beautiful experience, when you wake up sort
of joyful? It's like
a religious experience. It's symbolism, but
then you've got to work out
what it means
JN: So then you become the reader of your own
MR: That's what an analyst would want you to
be: self-reliant. It's nice knowing people, friends,
who enjoy recounting
dreams; you help
themquite open to each other if the other one wants to be. Mostly women
friends it has to be said.
JN: Do you feel that as a novelist you took on
what we would call genre fiction, like the gothic,
MR: It's quite hard for women novelists because
there are the very high literary figures such
Then there's middle-of-the-road, domestic realism.
And then there's a lot of genre
fiction, as though genre enables us to write
about feminine or female concerns in a way
model of what
I call the
We've certainly, historically, been readers
of it. Like women read romances, men
don't. A lot of thrillers are romances in disguise,
and a lot of women who would have been writing
romances thirty years
I loathe them, actually, because it's always
Right appears and he's a policemannot what I'd call a thriller. But genre is connected
to femininity in some weird way. For instance, the gothic allows you to dramatise
issues around the body. I mean, the haunted house is a body, a maternal body,
a sexual body, a dead body.
Literary theory has questioned the distinction
between high art and low art and why genre
fiction is worse
we've answered those questions, but because
they're being asked in public it means
you can feel more comfortable about moving
between genres. Jacqueline Rose argues that one reason
why Sylvia Plath
makes people cross
is that she
moves across genres. She was writing stories
for Mademoiselle while
writing stories like Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams, which
was much more literary and strange. She resisted
being pigeon-holed, and I found that
empowering part of Jacqueline Rose's book,
because that's what I was deliberately doing
in Playing Sardines.
Some of the stories were written for radio,
so there's got to be a
narrative and you
too tricksy or
I found it liberating, that you could just
tell a talethe constraint was
2,200 wordsand then with the other stories in the volume you could play.
I thought, well, I've always been interested in the ways that soft porn for
women is marketed as romance. I don't find modern romances sexy, but I did
in my youth. Novels by Georgette Heyer embodied my fantasies and longings around
men. They also created them in quite damaging waysthe bloody hero, so
able and wonderful. Because I was so marked by them I had to come back and
deal with them, like with Fair Exchange. I
always say it's my homage to Georgette Heyer.
JN: Why do you suppose her novels interests
so many contemporary writers?
MR: Because she tells archetypally pleasing
stories. The feminist critique of romance is
not just about
your mother, and that the blissful union at
the end is of baby and breast,
not just heterosexual
orgasm. I'd buy that. But Georgette Heyer also
offers a lot of feistiness and wit, and a lot
dressing up as boys,
for adolescent girls to like.
JN: She takes the moment of desire and finds
plots which expand that moment till it occupies
of the novel.
MR: It's about recovering your desire, isn't
it? Because you can lose it when you grow up,
a happily married woman whose husband adores
her. She's got a car and a nice house, and
the only way she can find to renew her desire.
Of course to other people
like a selfish bitch, but she isn't, she's
enriching her life by allowing desire.
JN: How do you see yourself in today's literary
MR: Well, there's the insecurity of working
as a novelist: you're always wondering about
can do it
again, whether you'll
money next yearit's
a completely insecure life. So that goes on being as dreadful as ever.
Otherwise I've moved on from being some sort
of barbarian exile in my own head. In 1992-3
for the Booker
Award for Daughters of the House,
and became much more visible. I'm now connected
to the establishment
in various ways, and sit
on various committees
and judge various prizes, and the stakes
think. Because it's your occupation to write
a better novel every
much more aware
watched, and of questions like, Can she do it again? or, Has
she done a boo-boo this time? You just have to live with it. The positive
side is that when you get older you do get more comfortable in your skin, with
luck, which I think I am. When I was young I wanted to set the world alight,
I wanted to be the greatest novelist in the whole of English Literature, I
wanted to change the world for woman. Now I'm more accepting that I'm not Albert
Camus, I'm not Simone de Beauvoir, I'm not Georges Sand or Flaubert, I'm Michèle
Roberts plodding along doing my best!
JN: But your writing still has a moral purpose?
MR: In a post-Christian culture you have
to think hard about what your morality is.
something to do with
ecologylooking at ways in which
things are connected, like spaces in cities, or country and city, or people.
I still believe that being as kind as you can is the hardest thing in the world;
not being so egotistical that you fail to see what other people might need,
and yet balancing that with your own needs. As a writer you're practising that
I'm acutely aware of how cruel people are
to children, and to me that goes on being
issue of great
importance. An awful
lot of wrongdoing
in later life can be traced back to having
been the recipient of
know that other people can regard you with
do you learn to regard them with tenderness?
You can't, mostly. And that,
can learn from thrillers, if you read them
sensitively. Modern thrillers, good
ones, I think, write tenderly about what
goes wrong, and why people end up doing
a great issue
the world into the goodies and the baddies,
and that's got its
novels. But now I'd try to just put it
in as part of the story, and trust that the
reader is there with me, huddling over,
asking, Why are these adults
behaving so badly? That's where a certain kind of realism helps, because
you can have various characters with the pull and the sympathy, not just the
JN: Finally, what do you think about the
state of the novel today?
MR: You can't help worrying that the novel's
days are numbered in some sense because
the mythand perhaps it is a mythis that young people don't
read like people of my generation did. I don't worry so much about books as
physical objects vanishing; if there's going to be little hand-held computerised
versions, that's terrific, that's technologyalthough I'm not into it
myself much. But sometimes you get a sense that in this culture novels aren't
Yet a lot of novels are getting published,
literary prizes are booming, and writing
and reading are
flourishing. And there's an enormous
variety of novels
we can read, like novels from what used
to be called the Commonwealth, experiments
there's a problem, because
writers are finding it increasingly hard
to make a living.
loss of the Net Book Agreement means
that certain kinds of books get pushed
of others, and lots of small, independent
bookshops have closed. That all worries
me a lot, and
I worry about
writers not making
kind of writer who can be marketed in
five ways, then maybe you'll fall through the
net. On the
the rise of writers'
and all the
chat rooms on the internet, so at least
for readers there might be ways around
go on cherishing
the unfashionable and the eccentric.
A version of this conversation will appear in Contemporary British
and Irish Fiction: Novelists in Interview (London: Arnold, 2004); Michèle
Roberts's latest novel, The Mistressclass, is due to appear in