|Margaret Drabble at home in Somerset. |
Photograph by Mark Passmore
Portrait of the artist
The novelist talks about the death of feminism, her first novel and the worst thing anyone ever said about her
"I think about Shakespeare every day."Laura Barnett
Wednesday 6 November 2013 08.00 GMT
What are your earliest memories of writing?
Doing family plays – Christmas shows, that kind of thing – with my sister (1) at home. Then writing short stories and sonnets at school in York in my teens.
What was your big breakthrough?
Being forced by circumstance to sit down and write my first novel (2). I'd just left Cambridge, I was newly married and unemployed, so I needed something to do.
How has the publishing industry changed during your career?
Beyond recognition. When I finished my first novel, I put it in a brown envelope and sent it to Weidenfeld & Nicolson. Now, I don't imagine they'd even look at it. From what I hear, there's much more pressure on novelists, too: you're very lucky to get your first book published, then the publishers watch the bottom line on the second book – and if they don't like it, they drop you. That just wasn't true in my day.
Of which book are you most proud?
The Needle's Eye (3), for most neatly getting across what I was trying to say about equality and the human condition.
Novels by women are often dismissed as "domestic fiction". Have you had to work harder to be taken seriously?
No. I don't think this is as true as it's perceived to be. Alice Munro has just won the Nobel for very small-scale stories. And in the 1960s, women's fiction was both fashionable and intellectual – just think of Sylvia Plath and Doris Lessing. I hear that feminism has died a death now, and that everyone just talks about makeup. Presumably the mis-categorisation of "domestic fiction" could be part of that. I'm just lucky not to have been affected by it.
Do you suffer for your art?
No. I find writing increasingly difficult, but I still think being a novelist is a fairly pain-free choice.
What advice would you give a young writer?
Stick at it. It's very important to finish a novel rather than begin lots of new ones. You learn a lot just from getting to the end.
What's the worst thing anyone ever said about you?
Al Alvarez (4) once said I'd never written a sentence worth reading, or something like that. It seemed quite harsh.
What's the biggest myth about being a novelist?
That everything is autobiographical. But it's even more of a myth that nothing is.
Which artists do you most admire?
I think about Shakespeare every day. And reading Wordsworth makes you feel that ordinary life has dignity and beauty.
Is there anything about your writing life that you regret?
There were times when I regretted taking on The Oxford Companion to English Literature (5). It took five years, and was a tremendous burden – but in the end, I was rather glad I'd done it.
How would you like to be remembered?
For keeping faith with the world I lived in. I see books as part of a continuum – you do your bit in your lifetime, and hope it adds to the sum of things.
Born: Sheffield, 1939
Career: Has published 17 novels, the most recent of which is The Pure Gold Baby, and several volumes of memoir and short stories. She is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, and will take part in its celebration of novelist Angus Wilsonin London on 25 November.
High point: "When my first novel was accepted."
Low point: "About a third of the way through every book – you think it isn't going to work. Sometimes you're right."
(1) Novelist AS Byatt: the sisters haven't spoken for years.
(2) A Summer Bird-Cage, about the relationship between two very different sisters, was published in 1962.
(3) Her 1972 novel about a young divorced woman battling her abusive ex-husband for custody of their children.
(5) Drabble edited this sizeable publication in the 1980s.