Saturday, December 04, 2004

According to Beryl

Amazed sometimes how fortunate I am.

Yesterday had the opportunity to talk to author Beryl Bainbridge via video link up as I was chairing the discussion for The British Council who are doing their best to promote British writers .

Second time I’ve done this. First video link-up was a few months ago with David Lodge. Then of course we had the real life (larger than life!) Paul Bailey at the Litfest. It’s a little nerve-wracking – you wonder whether you will just appear foolish with your questions. There’s always a mad rush to prepare by reading enough of the books and reading widely enough on the internet so that you don’t make a fool of yourself. I’ve learned now that the best questions are general, so that even if the audience haven’t read the author (and most of them haven’t) they won’t feel too out of their depth.

We only heard that we were linking up with Ms. Bainbridge a couple of weeks ago. The other accomplice in “we” is The Edge’s Sheila Singham who conducts an exclusive interview for an hour before the public session begins. We had our usual panic around for copies (luckily I had three of her novels on my bookshelves to lend Sheila and managed to find others in MPH) and spent half an hour or so in the little cafĂ© outside the British Council comparing notes and questions. I hadn’t read as much as I wanted to before hand – doing the Nanowrimo made it virtually impossible to have anyone else’s words in my head for that month. But I loved “According to Queeney” and had read it only a few months previously. I had also read “The Bottle Factory Outing” but so long ago I couldn’t remember it at all, and “Master Georgie” – which I wasn’t sure I liked. I had managed to read at least the first few chapters of several more at least to get a taste.

I was, of course, in awe of Bainbridge – 5 times nominated for the Booker, winner of many others including The Whitbread, made a dame. But from what I’d read … and from what Paul Bailey said about her when he was here, knew that she would be fun … and so it turned out.

Our audience this time was very small. Are there really so few booklovers in KL, so few wannabe-writers who wish to learn a little more about their craft from one of the greatest living novelists? Maybe the timing wasn’t good for working folks.

Anyway, we had Leon Wing join us. He’d heard about the session from my posting on MyWordUp and amazed me by saying that he was a terrific fan and had read everything.
Also in the audience were Joanna Thorpe of British Council, Diana Cooper, and Jagdev – a lecturer from UTM. I think the five of us asked all the questions between us.

Joanne asked first of all how we should address Ms. Bainbridge. The British are often sticky for correct protocol. David Lodge had wanted the formality of “Professor Lodge” throughout his interview. But here we were talking to just “Beryl”.

A slightly blurred image on the screen of Beryl, dressed all in black, wearing reading glasses, sitting at a table. She read for us from “According to Queeney” her novel about the relationship between Samuel Johnson and the Thrales. An amazing, luminous novel, which made me feel like a fly on the wall as history unfolded. (It helps too that I’m extremely fond of Samuel Johnson, and if I ever had a dinner party to which I could invite anyone I wanted living or dead, he definitely would be there!)

Her reading was punctuated by coughing. She was an infamously heavy smoker for most of her life, but I’d read that she’d given up for health reasons. (Later she said that she’s only coughing now because she doesn’t smoke anymore!) She also blames giving up smoking on the writer’s block which is preventing her from being able to think of the opening section of her new novel. “Smoking is a release for the soul”, she said. (I came home and quoted that at Abu who loved it.)

Of course the first question I asked was about why she had shifted from writing novels which were largely autobiographical to the historical novels of recent years. I also had the answer up my sleeve – was it, as Paul Bailey confided, that she had killed off all her family in the earlier novels and this had nothing to write about. She hooted with laughter and said that it was very largely true.

But, she said, (and I couldn’t quite believe my ears) “I’ve never seen the point of writing fiction”.

She says that for her earlier books she borrowed the plots from newspaper stories, and then populated them with people that she knew – principally her own family. She says that characters come to life in fiction, because they are people you already know. She wouldn’t dream of including people she hasn’t learned for at least 20 years. For “Harriet” her murder story, she said she stuck herself and her friends in. “The Dressmaker” was based on her aunts. And when Leon asked about whether “Sweet William” was based on anyone she knew, she said “Yes, and I had a child by him.”

For her historical novels she goes back to early sources, journals, letters and so on, but “nothing contemporary”. However, they are still populated by people that she knows.

She works on an antiquated computer (15 years old – the only other one of its type still in existence is in the Science Museum!) . She constantly prints off her work and reads all the pages she has completed out loud – a process which clearly takes much longer as the book nears completion. She has to hear the correct rhythm of words in her head. She also says that she has to get every page right before she goes on to the next, and she revises as much as 14 times until she is satisfied. She says she still feels terrific thrill from seeing her work in print.

She works around the clock starting at 6 and taking a nap in the afternoon, then working again for several hours and setting her alarm to write again at 3a.m. (And I thought I was disciplined for the Nanowrimo.)

Her favourite writing treats are 1) to have a bath because personal hygiene gets a bit neglected when you are writing like this 2) a fried egg 3) to watch “Coronation Street” the longest-running British soap opera (she acted in it in the early days). She says that she and Paul Bailey both love it, and if one of them has to go out and miss an episode, they phone the other up to find out what they missed.

Her advice to would be writers – “Write, write, write till you drop.” She also says that you must write as if no-one were going to look at your work.

All in all, she was tremendous fun and very approachable. Someone it would be great fun to sit in a pub with, and you can’t get better than that.


Chet said...

I wish I'd attended. *sob*

BTW, added your weblog to the list at my site. Hope you don't mind. If you do, please say so.

bibliobibuli said...

Thanks for adding my weblog to your site. Love to have readers!

Yes ... you shoulda come Chet. But the good news is that British Council are planning to hold more events of this kind next year, so will keep you informed. I'm dizzy with happiness to have a chance to talk to the "greats" in British Lit. A real groupie, me ...