The Margaret Drabble way
Published: December 2, 2005
|In more than 40 years of writing, British author Margaret Drabble's literary instincts rarely have led her to tell a story straight. Even some early works-first-person narratives of love, sex and relationships in all their multifarious forms and complexities-are punctuated with asides directed at the reader, reminding us that there is, after all, a writer behind the scenes, pulling the strings, making the choices. And Drabble's choices have never been to take the simple path.|
Instead, she layers her novels with social, political and literary references that not only serve as a backdrop to the lives of her characters, who mostly live in London, but also give the reader something substantial to chew on.
The two-time editor of The Oxford Companion to English Literature is perfectly at ease with scholarship and doesn't hesitate to bring discussions of Virgil (The Seven Sisters), evolution (The Peppered Moth), 18th-century Korean history (The Red Queen) or the like into the narrative mix. These digressions are not for everyone. Some critics have taken her to task for caring more about ideas than characters. But it's these same digressions that give her a distinct voice in contemporary literature and inspire other critics to call her one of the most intelligent writers of our time.
What she sometimes calls her "ramblings" are not without purpose. Her surprising turns enrich and deepen her work, which chronicles contemporary life.
"[She's] the novelist people will turn to a hundred years from now to find out how things were, the person who will have done for late-20th-century London what Dickens did for Victorian London, what
Balzac did for Paris," wrote Phyllis Rose in a New York Times review.
Drabble has written 16 novels, a collection of short stories and two biographies. In her early novels, such as The Waterfall and Jerusalem the Golden, highly educated young women struggle with finding their place and voice in the context of the volatile 1960s.
In her middle books, beginning with The Radiant Way, her tone becomes more biting. Her characters, who for the most part are well-established, left-leaning professionals, struggle with the death of their youthful ideals as they are confronted by Margaret Thatcher's conservative government.
More recently, The Peppered Moth meditates on such matters as mother/daughter relationships, natural selection and the addressing of past regrets.
When I met with her while she was on tour for The Red Queen, which was recently released in paperback, Drabble talked frankly about her efforts to extend her reach as a writer, her use of metaphor and other literary devices, and what she's learned about herself as a writer since she first began.
How do you arrive at the metaphors you use to establish themes in many of your books, such as The Waterfall and ThePeppered Moth?
The metaphor of the waterfall itself is clearly something to do with sexuality, but it's also the name of a card trick that James, the hero, can do. It's about dexterity, things going beautifully and synchronicity. Then there's the real waterfall at the very end of the novel, when James and Jane go and play at Goredale Scar, which is a real place in Yorkshire, a famous beauty spot.
Which of those came first? I think probably the card trick-there is actually a trick. I'd never seen it performed, but I gather it is impossibly difficult. Somebody told me about it. [See passage from The Waterfall, page 22.] I thought, "That's a perfect metaphor for people meeting and everything working."
Then I realized it also has a sexual connotation. At that point, I decided on the scene at the waterfall, and I realized the images were coming together. They should go on this trip, and they should have a moderately happy resolution to all their disasters.
At what point in the writing did you decide to bring these waterfall elements together?
Halfway through. Quite often things arrive subconsciously, and as you're writing they become conscious. My technique has changed over the years. When I started writing, I didn't know where I was going. Sometimes that worked fine. I think young people sometimes do this very well; they just write in a great burst and then sit down and look at it and reshape it.
But with The Peppered Moth, it was much more deliberate. I've always been very interested in the biological story of the real peppered moth. [In the novel, Drabble refers to the peppered moth as an example of natural selection. Some of the moths darkened over time, adapting to an industrial environment, while others perished.]
The story of the moth seemed to tie in with the industrial world that Bessie [the central character] grew out of, which was very black and dirty, and how she would want to escape from that. But the sad thing was she could never settle anywhere else. I knew I wanted to use the evolutionary metaphor as soon as I began the book. But it was when I thought of The Peppered Moth being the title that I realized I could use it as a running motif. I'd written one bit from the past and a bit from the future. I wasn't sure how to weave it all together. It was actually the discovery of the peppered moth as a link that gave the novel its shape.
You weave so much social, economic and historical background into your novels. How do you determine how much of that kind of material to use?
You don't always know. Sometimes it's too much. Sometimes you've done a bit of research, and you can't resist putting it in. That particular bit where Faro [Bessie's granddaughter] and her friend Steve go to the industrial museum in Yorkshire was based very much on a couple of local history books with [coal-mining] photographs that an old college friend of mine sent me. I was captivated by those photographs. I wanted to use the material, so I wove it in. There isn't a real museum. I invented the museum [because] I wanted to describe some of the images in these photographs.
It is very hard to know whether you've included too much. Some novels are overburdened with research. But sometimes the writer feels, "I went to a lot of trouble to find this, and I really want to put it in."
You've said that The Peppered Moth is about your mother. Is writing a way to redress things you wish had been different?
I couldn't put it better. It is a way of exploring things that might have happened and perhaps should have happened but didn't happen. Things that other people might have done and didn't do. I think a lot of fiction is concerned with alternative stories, the paths not taken and how it could have been.
Getting back to metaphors, how did the color red play into your writing of The Red Queen?
The story was taken from the memoirs of the real Korean Crown Princess [Lady Hyegy?ong, who was born in 1735]. Her narrative is a historical narrative about court intrigue, her father-in-law, her husband and her sisters-in-law. She says that when she was a child, she longed to have a red silk skirt. That description of her wanting one is absolutely true, or at least according to her memoir it's true. It was that [detail] that caught my attention in her narrative, which is a very violent Shakespearean tragedy. This little domestic female detail that she included seemed so important to me. I thought it was a clue running through the centuries about women's vanity, their frailty and their toughness. They want a red dress, and they get it in the end, but it doesn't quite work out how they meant it to be. I just thought it was a little link. The color is very much part of the whole text. It's a dramatic color, and it's the color of the bloodline. I've always loved red. It was her describing her red skirt that really clinched my connection with the story.
Part 1 of The Red Queen is the Crown Princess' story told in first person. Part 2 is in third person from the point of view of Barbara Halliwell, a scholar who becomes interested in the princess' story. Why did you use this format?
It's very much a departure for me. I've never tried to do anything like that before. I've never really tried to write either a narrative set in another country or set so far back in time. What I did want to do is to show how the stories reflected off each other and how they were interconnected, how much some things have changed and how little other things have changed. When I started it, I did mean to interweave between the past and present, but I was rather taken with the idea of just letting the princess tell her story straight, then looking back at it again. I tried various options, but I was taken with the narrative drive of the first part, so I didn't want to disturb it too much. It is disturbed, though, by her reflections [from beyond the grave].
How do you decide how to narrate a story?
It varies from book to book. The Peppered Moth did evolve over time. I was thinking of writing it all as linear, from the past to the present, but that didn't work. The voice-the interjecting voice [of the narrator]-came as I was writing.
With The Red Queen, the first-person voice became quite powerful. Then I wanted to have a third-person description wrapped into the first person, and that's how I wrote that.
I had determined after The Peppered Moth, with which I had a lot of difficulties, that I would like a simple little linear book, beginning at the beginning and going to the end. But I had to make The Seven Sisters [her next book] more complicated. I worked in first person, but it seemed too simple. My earlier novels were all first-person narratives. I thought it was a bit like going back too far.
Near the end of The Seven Sisters, the narrator says: "Here I still am ... locked in the same body, the same words, the same syntax ..." Is that passage about the struggles of writing?
The Seven Sisters is a novel about limitations. It's about the limitations of the writer, who can't enter into another syntax, and how you're forever returning to your own voice, however hard you try to get away from it.
That's [the central character] Candida's problem, that she is trapped in a very narrow situation except she gets this escape, but then at the end of the novel, she's back where she was. It's about however hard the writer tries, she cannot turn herself into another writer. You can take imaginative flight, but you still find yourself coming back to your own voice or your own perspective.
I was trying to be honest about how you can't avoid having your own syntax-unless you're a great mimic. Some writers are, but I am not.
How was it writing The Red Queen in a completely different voice?
I felt liberated to be writing about somebody who died a long time ago, and to have a much younger protagonist in the second half of the book. Both of those things took it into a realm that had nothing to do with me. That was a relief, really.
What have you learned about writing since your first novel?
I have learned how to work on different levels in the same book-and in a not always satisfactory but more complicated time spell. I regret now that I can't write with the optimism of some of my middle books, but that's just because I don't feel it. You can't write what you don't feel; at least I can't. I don't want to. I don't want to interject optimism where I don't feel it. I think some of the changes in my work have been responses to the world. I noticed during Mrs. Thatcher's dominance that a very angry tone began to come into my novels-difficult, angry, exhausted, ironic. From The Radiant Way onward, a hard tone [emerged] that wasn't at all present in my earlier work.
What advice do you have for new writers?
Be bold and have a go. Don't believe you can't; try it out and see. I used to say when asked about it: "You should always try to finish things." I think that is quite good advice. A lot of young writers begin things and then lose heart and begin another and another. Or they have one [story] that's ongoing because they want to make it perfect. But you learn an awful lot by just finishing a complete draft of one thing and looking at it as a whole. To try and just finish something even if you're not totally pleased with it, it's better than always tinkering with the same one over 10 years. Of course, James Joyce did this, but he was James Joyce. To get to the end of something gives you a point of advantage over it. You can see its mistakes better when it's finished.
Are the reasons you write different now than when you began?
I used to write to keep myself company, and I think there's still an element of that. Except that's a bit paradoxical, because I actually have to go away and do it by myself when I could be in company with other people anyway. Whereas when I was young, I couldn't. I wrote my first books when I was very much a housebound mother. I'd write to have other characters in my home in the evenings when I was alone. There is still an element of that. I like to have a subject ongoing. I quite like the company of the ideas and the characters and their lives in addition to my own-exactly that. Writing is an extension of one's own life, which is rather confined. #
Among the authors Writer editor Elfrieda Abbe has interviewed are Scott Turow, Sue Miller and Alan Furst.