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Paige Nick

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

What A.S. Byatt said

Here’s number four in the series of notes I took at the Cheltenham Literary Festival in October. So far we’ve covered what Salman Rushdie, Bernhard Schlink and James Ellroy had to say. So I thought it was time to hear what a woman had to say.

I managed to do my homework and read both Possession and The Children’s Book before I saw Byatt speak, so I was curious to hear what she had to say about them. She mainly discussed The Children’s Book, as it’s her most current.

She describes herself as ‘a greedy reader’, which I liked.

You don’t have to read more than a hundred pages of any of her books to know that she’s big into research, so she spoke a bit about that.

She says she grew up on childrens books, and they’re very dear to her.

She speaks a bit about her parents. She says they were Utopian Socialists. And when she started to research The Fabians she realised that she hadn’t known her parents at all. Writing the book became a process of understanding them after they were gone.

She says of her father: ‘I didn’t know the kind of mental manure that fertilised his plant.’


‘Money always crops up, like muck, where humans are.’

She says of Olive, one of the main characters in The Children’s Book; ‘Women writers made money back then. Independence caused Olive to be generous.’

She says she was inspired to write The Childrens Book when she came upon the statistics of suicide in the children of children’s book authors. 

She said she feels ‘it’s because there is no room for the child in the house where the writing  is going on.’ and ‘So much misery in these households. There’s something intolerable in being the child of a children’s writer.’

Kenneth Grahame, who wrote Wind in the Willow’s had a son, Alastair, who committed suicide just before his twentieth birthday. So tragic. Byatt speaks of how Grahame had sent him The Wind in the Willows in letter form over the years while his son was at school.

She said, ‘for example, Christopher Robin, it couldn’t have been easy being him.’

‘The children feel pressured to remain a child. But the author is childlike too, which leaves the space of adult open.’ ‘The parent is also the child, so it’s harder for the children to remain children naturally. they have to grow up fast, while maintaining the muse of childhood for their parents.’

She also said of writing for children: ‘The imaginary world belongs to the constructor, not the reader.’

She speaks at great length about fairy tails. She says she adores Hans Christian Anderson, but his work is different from fairy stories. As a child she figured out that he was hurting her. She says: ‘He means his readers to be hurt. He is dangerous. For example if you are a girl who wanted red shoes, in the end you would get your feet cut off. That is the way it is with Hans Christian Anderson.’

She tells a story written by Hans Christian Anderson about a disobedient child who died and was buried, but then kept sticking his hand out of the ground. His mother would beat his hand with a broom until it went back into the ground again.

Charming tale.

On a different theme of the book she says that her ancesters were potters, which is why she always avoided it and wrote about glass in her books until now. ‘Glass is much more transparent,’ she said.

‘Ironically’, she said, ‘the best clay comes out of the graveyard.’

She calls The Children’s Book ‘an ensemble book’. She says the characters grew out of the reading and research she did. She says it starts with ghostly whisps of characters and builds from there.

Of her writing process she says: ‘For a moment the whole world hangs together in your head, that’s what happens when you have a click moment.’

‘I don’t start with characters, I start with a world.’

‘If you don’t come to writing for pleasure, you might as well give up.’

‘You imagine the room a scene is taking place in. That’s not wisdom, that’s pleasure.’

‘And the more awful the things you write, the greater the pleasure.’

She says in The Children’s Book, Dorothy is her very favourite character. She says she loved writing it because it was a time when women’s lives and place were changing daily. She says Dorothy was based on DH Lawrence.

The house lights come on, and the audience are allowed to ask questions.

Someone asks her how she feels about illustrations in childrens stories.

She says: ‘Well, think about Winnie the Pooh. Supposing there weren’t illustrations? What would I think he looked like?’

Another audience member stands up to ask a question, which starts with: ‘Hello, well I haven’t read any of your books yet, but…’

The audience groans. Chop. There’s one in every session.


Recent comments:

  • Christine
    November 3rd, 2010 @09:39 #

    After reading The Children's Book (Possession being one of my all time favs) I found fascinating reading in 'JM Barrie and the Lost Boys' by Andrew Birkin, also 'Captivated: J. M. Barrie, Daphne Du Maurier and the Dark Side of Neverland' by Piers Dudgeon.
    Lots of parallels.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Paige</a>
    November 3rd, 2010 @10:33 #

    Yes, Byatt did make mention of JM Barrie and Peter Pan and The Peter Pan Syndrome quite a bit in her talk. Not sure why I left those notes out. Christine, I'll look out for those titles, it's a fascinating concept.

    - Phew glad some of you 'like' this, i thought perhaps i'd overkilled it on the author notes.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">moi</a>
    November 3rd, 2010 @13:02 #

    I enjoyed your piece, Paige, and most 'specially I love a good malapropism (if that's the right term?) - which may be why I love to read poetry, not becasue of the malaprops but because of the double/triple duty words get to do in that genre.

    Please don't fix the one in your HCAnderson para - it's a beaut and had me visualising Sugar Plum, Tinker Bell and the Tooth Fairy all lined up with the Godmother to shake their collective booties a la the can-can ;-)

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Paige</a>
    November 3rd, 2010 @13:16 #

    Aha! I seriously had to search for that! Bwahahahahahaa my mistake! Well-spotted, eagle eye.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    November 3rd, 2010 @14:03 #

    Hee hee. I thought it was deliberate. Paige, I loved this esp as Possession is one of my top five fave books. Not overkill at all, v. generous of you to share your experiences.


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