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Margaret Drabble
Ailsa Kelman, the main female protagonist of THE SEA LADY, is a product of the 1960s and a formidable character. She is self-obsessed - a writer, feminist, media star. She is very much of her time and she is finding ageing difficult. Do you think this is a common characteristic of women for whom the 1960s were formative years?
I donít think she finds ageing more difficult than most people, and she tackles it bravely, in my view. The reader is allowed to see her doubts and moments of horror, which she conceals from the public: you would never know about them if the novelist didnít reveal them. We all have them, but most of us do not share them. And Ailsa is not merely of her time, she helped to create it.
Humphrey Clark, on the other hand, is pragmatic, quiet, self-deprecating but seems to be coping rather better and is altogether a more likeable character. What would a woman like Ailsa see in him?
Not all readers find Humphrey more likeable. He is paranoid, in various forms of denial, and given to self pity. When he was young he was on the crest of a wave in terms of career choice Ė he was also handsome and strong, and when she met him again he was connected in her memory with childhood by the sea and a shared modest background. They were both of their time, but his time became outdated, and hers didnít.
The construct of the Public Orator in THE SEA LADY is an unusual device. Why did you choose to use it?
The Public Orator narrator is a Prospero figure, manipulative and cold-hearted. The writerís alter ego. He is a commentary on the action as well as a puppet master. In the later decades of life many people tend to worry about how their careers appear to Ďthe publicí, and the device of the Public Orator (and indeed of a degree ceremony) gives an opportunity for this kind of assessment. How well have we done in life? He is the commentary. Also he makes it clear that not all that happens to us is of our own choosing. His sections stress the fictive nature of the narrative, and distance the two protagonists from sympathy.
Your descriptions generally are wonderful but I was particularly struck by Humphreyís experience as a child in hospital having his tonsils removed Ė it was exactly mine! To convey such a seemingly mundane experience so vividly (to those who havenít been through it) is remarkable. How do these ideas germinate?
Iíve often thought of writing about tonsils. Of course this is a description of my own experience, but it is also a very common experience, at least for those of my generation- and it happened to most of us at a time when we were old enough to remember very vividly, yet young enough to feel helpless about the event. Itís the only time I was (much more briefly than Humphrey) in hospital as a child, and it was quite traumatic, although itís such a small operation. My eldest son had to have his out because of a (quite separate) heart problem and I was very anxious for him. Fewer children have to endure this these days.
Does being part of such a well-known literary family, with your sister and husband also respected writers, give you time for anything else?!
I donít think writing and literature dominate my life, though my husband and I do talk about what we are reading, and he has always been involved in literary politics, fighting on behalf of authorsí rights, and that takes up a lot of his time, and a little of mine. My children are more important to me than books and I am delighted that my youngest son, Joe Swift, has branched off into gardening. I sometimes think there have been too many books in the family, itís good to have a change and some fresh air. I enjoy walking and being outdoors.
We noted that in the Guardian readers' reading choices of the year that 32 women named 24 books by men and 21 by women while 37 men recommended 65 books by men and only 10 by women. Research suggests this is a common pattern. Yet, for example, of the 6 category winners in the Costa Awards, 5 of the 6 winners are women. Would you like to comment on this?
I think itís been a good time for women writers for the last forty years, and I donít think we should take prizes and surveys too seriously. Iíve always got two or three books on the go at once, and at the moment Iím reading two by women (George Eliot and Melissa Benn) and one by a man (Adam Mars-Jones). I donít think this represents anything!
Which writers do you read and who do you particularly admire?
I read and I re-read. Iíve been re-reading some French authors I enjoyed when young (Balzac and Zola) but I try to read new books as well. Thereís a danger at my age of lapsing into the well-tried comfort of Jane Austen and Victoriana. I am a great admirer of Doris Lessing, whose work had greatly influenced me, and am writing an introduction to a collection of her short stories. Saul Bellow is also a writer I much admire.
Margaret Drabble

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