by Jenny Newman (*)

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 it’s 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 them—the 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 happy—no-one's fault, one knows that now—but 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 with this 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 want to - 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 in language.

JN: Do you think that your image of bliss is also part-impulse to describe a new way of life, be it writerly or religious—like the one in Impossible Saints?

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 be important—although they might not want to admit it—but 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 damage. The 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 imagination—and that's where you go when you're writing a novel anyway—there 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 Léonie’s 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 or obsessed 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 person, 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 can sit up and talk, or is allowed to be resurrected in some way. I can see in a psychoanalytical sense—though that might be too narrow to use on its own—that 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 move—this is Melanie Klein stuff—is 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 again!’

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 art becomes 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 actually that you 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 does death involve? 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 to be them? And I have come to realise very recently—this 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, and didn't know where 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 fun, and everyone 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. It’s as though this great mouth and tongue and lips are lapping and speaking—and speaking endlessly is what I like to do, but didn’t 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 seven—I 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 with the lost mother.

JN: You've written a lot about the pleasure you take in reading, starting with childhood books such as The Black Riders by Violet Needham.

MR: Reading provided me with a sense of what the imagination was. That's the magic about reading: you create visionary worlds inside yourself because the 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 books in it. Both my parents read and my English grandmother read. She was an uneducated woman whom I just adored. She was my salvation goddess-person—very 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 example.

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 my heart broken. We also got these books of folk tales—there 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 sexual feelings of any kind, but so powerful, it was quite disturbing. I thought I was ill, or something—I 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 of—you 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 connected with my interest as an ex-Catholic. And of course there were lots of women writers, and mystics like Mechtilde of Magdeburg who wrote extraordinarily erotic 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 as puritanical, narrow-minded, man-hating, for us it was about street theatre, talking joyfully about sex, having as much sex as you possibly could, drugs 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 Sage, for example, got very fed up with the idea of a female literary tradition. She wanted there to be a community now, of living writers. Well, of course—that'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 writer’—‘the 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 do women?

MR: Yes, because your life can depend on simple observation of what men are actually like! And then there's the kind of male character we all wish we knew—like 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 them!

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 sounding arrogant, but it's ambition. I want to play, I want to make something. I can now see that I have very personal reasons for distrusting older forms, and that they pushed me 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 particular used language very powerfully and put me into his story. He was like God the Father on a cloud, 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 for many years—I 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 because 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 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, the new 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 up—a mess on the carpet—and 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 feeling—like 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 poet.

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 Polo mint. They could all be 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 there—like 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 like giants.

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, so that 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 into some alarming other space, and if so does it link with the reverse of that, the blissful space?

MR: They are back to back. One's about a happy experience and the other's about trauma and terror. I had mystical experiences as 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 the kind of 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 that most madness is extreme distress, extreme suffering, and if you can learn to 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 than terror, but terror too! 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 herself—a church built over a plague pit in Rouen—commemorates 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 the daughter. 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 with you when you read things. 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 don't want 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 the Bible. How far do you depend on research?

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 right, like for The 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, they fed me. When you are doing the research you find that everything's linked to everything else in 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 necessarily show, 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 work. It shows you what things belong together. For example, I've got two characters near the beginning of my current novel who are married and living in the same house, and I describe these 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 theory?

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 didn't see before, 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 of art, and 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 of readers who've joined 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 and difference being celebrated.

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 was prepared to say what those words meant. 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 about this?’

JN: So you prompt the reader to have a dialogue with the text?

MR: About fifteen years ago I went to a seminar in Germany on feminist critical theory, and Rachel Bowlby read a paper on the questioning, aggressive, demanding reader. She made me see that although there's an experience of reading that I love, which is being enraptured, seduced and carried away, there's another 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. I taught them that when you got 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 Diderot’s La Religieuse, which as a good Catholic girl she hated—so 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 pointed out that my 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 was a 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 I’ll do it and OK, I'm an outcast, an exile and a barbarian but I'm making the art I like!’

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 man—no accident he's an artist—and I wrote In the Red Kitchen. It wasn't that men were suddenly heroes, it was more about human warmth. I felt I had a home, that 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 wrote Impossible Saints. In that I laid a ghost, which was my terrible fear that my father and I had loved each other much too much. As far as I know we didn't have a sexual relationship in reality at all, but I think in fantasy we both did and it really damaged me—I 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 thinking, ‘I 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 first group. Then my husband 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 been the female muse for my last three novels. My French publisher, a man, suggested I write about 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. Flaubert 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 you—I've made it because I love you.’ And they would say, ‘It’s 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 love—she's a kind of mother figure for me—is 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 promiscuity—just 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 work—when 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 of her 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 envisaged. It’s a novel inspired by love, and about love in various forms—childhood 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 though he was sometimes horrible to her and kept her at this huge distance, he respected her brain. He sometimes seems to be a misogynistic, crusty old bastard, but to Louise he writes these amazing letters about writing Madame Bovary. Virginia Woolf said that everyone yearns for this perfect, beautiful critic and it's the same thing—the 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 muse. That's why, if you get a good review, it's not just narcissistic pleasure, it's a deeper thing, that you've been received, you've been somehow held, touched by the reader. And then 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 that to happen, which doesn't 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 the reader, if you 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 about form, because the novel 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 complete madness 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, come out, read the other half and begin 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 there. And a lot of people got very cross with me because 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, and that I’ve taught in creative writing workshops, and I do want to lay claim to it as mine. Because Marie-Jeanne is an uneducated and conflicted woman—she may be two women who are speaking with one voice or she may be one woman who's split herself in two—it'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 arrangement—the absolute nuts and bolts of a novel—I'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 it—and 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 was quite right, she had to be absent. Dacia Maraini once quoted Barthes to me, Barthes who said that writing was the child playing with the body of the mother, which I'd always thought was 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 attacked everything she held 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 again.

MR: That's true love, isn't it? Can I just add that I'm a very happy reader, and I love and adore reading so much, I think it's perhaps one of the primary activities in life. I know people go on about sex, and I do too, but reading is so deep. I can't forget reading for the Booker, and the experience of 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 that was how it had to be. But I think now something's come together and I'm currently wanting to write the kind of novel that I'd stay up all night reading. That's the big difference in my writing.

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 for the reader to enjoy. You're 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, maybe.

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 good thriller will delight you as it draws you inexorably towards the ending, but it 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 the constraints of being a Christian she's remarkably honest 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 can perhaps just go for it. I think we've had 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 fall into the trap of being ironic, cool and cynical. Ugh, boring! You've got to recapture honesty, sincerity, and yet be not an idiot and not be sentimental. That's the challenge.

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 how I've decided to do it. But you know when you put a dream in a novel it's very boring because it's 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, that have images in them which speak. Don't 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 to you.

JN: So then you become the reader of your own dream?

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 each other untangle them—quite 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, the love story, the detective story, the thriller?

MR: It's quite hard for women novelists because there are the very high literary figures such as Muriel Spark, Iris Murdoch, Doris Lessing and A.S. Byatt. 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 that the model of what I call the male literary novel doesn't. 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 ago are now writing thrillers. I loathe them, actually, because it's always about how Mr. Right appears and he's a policeman—not 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 than what's called the literary. Not that 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 a very 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 can't be too tricksy or poetic. I found it liberating, that you could just tell a tale—the constraint was 2,200 words—and 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 ways—the 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 that it's not just about heterosexuality, it's 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 of cross-dressing, girls dressing up as boys, sufficiently subversive for adolescent girls to like.

JN: She takes the moment of desire and finds plots which expand that moment till it occupies most of the novel.

MR: It's about recovering your desire, isn't it? Because you can lose it when you grow up, if you're happily married. There's a lovely story by Colette about a happily married woman whose husband adores her. She's got a car and a nice house, and she's constantly finding ways to be dissatisfied, because it's the only way she can find to renew her desire. Of course to other people she looks 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 landscape?

MR: Well, there's the insecurity of working as a novelist: you're always wondering about whether you can do it again, whether you'll earn any money next year—it'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 I got shortlisted for the Booker Prize and won the W. H. Smith Literary 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 get upped, I think. Because it's your occupation to write a better novel every time, you're much more aware of being 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. Maybe it has something to do with ecology—looking 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 every day.

I'm acutely aware of how cruel people are to children, and to me that goes on being a moral issue of great importance. An awful lot of wrongdoing in later life can be traced back to having been the recipient of cruelty. If you don't know that other people can regard you with tenderness, how do you learn to regard them with tenderness? You can't, mostly. And that, of course, you 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 awful things. That's a great issue in the world today: the way we split the world into the goodies and the baddies, and that's got its place in 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 young woman.

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 myth—and perhaps it is a myth—is 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 technology—although I'm not into it myself much. But sometimes you get a sense that in this culture novels aren't important.

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 and varieties of written English. But commercially there's a problem, because writers are finding it increasingly hard to make a living. The loss of the Net Book Agreement means that certain kinds of books get pushed at the expense of others, and lots of small, independent bookshops have closed. That all worries me a lot, and I worry about writers not making a living. If you're not the kind of writer who can be marketed in five ways, then maybe you'll fall through the net. On the other hand there's the rise of writers' groups, and all the chat rooms on the internet, so at least for readers there might be ways around the over-commercialisation of literature. I just hope that we 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 April 2003

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