Margaret Drabble on the importance of reading and writing

PUBLISHED: 11:33 29 March 2016 | UPDATED: 11:33 29 March 2016


Essex Book Festival authors

Margaret Drabble - picture Ruth Corney


EADT FEATURE 2.1.10 Essex Book Festival authors Margaret Drabble - picture Ruth Corney contributed

Margaret Drabble, author and honorary president of the Suffolk Book League, talks about a lifetime of writing and her next visit to Suffolk

Margaret Drabble has probably been one of the most influential British authors of the last 50 years. From her 1963 debut work, A Summer Bird Cage, to her soon to be published The Dark Flood Rises, she has focused on the contradictions of inner anxiety in a seemingly affluent society.

She is coming to Suffolk this month in her capacity as honorary president of the Suffolk Book League (SBL). But given that she lives in London and Somerset, how did her association with the group begin in the 1980s?

“I had many contacts in Suffolk in those days, and often visited my parents, who lived in Martlesham. My father was a County Court judge of Suffolk and Essex. I attended several literary events at the beautiful Angel Hotel in Bury, where I met Ronald Blythe, Lorna Sage, Norman Scarfe, and other writers associated with East Anglia”.

“Also the author Sir Angus Wilson, who was my great hero, and his partner Tony Garrett were living in Suffolk, at Felsham Woodside. They were very hospitable and gave great parties for students, including Ian McEwan.

“Like me he had been chair of the National Book League and it was during my period as chair that the idea of regional branches sprang up. I do know that the SBL was the only one to survive and thrive.

“They run an excellent programme, with good audiences and good speakers. This success is due to some very dedicated members.

Is her own role terribly onerous, I wonder? “I turn up when asked, if I can!” But given the travel times involved has she ever considered standing down?

“I have pointed out that it’s not an easy journey and I am too old to travel as much as I used to do, and tried to resign, but the committee seemed happy for me to stay on in an honorary position, and I always like to hear what is going on,” she confesses.

Drabble herself has survived and thrived. Her literary focus, though, has shifted back and forth.

“It’s gone from the domestic to the social and back to the domestic again – reflecting my circumstances, and my energy levels. The Needle’s Eye is, I think, my best book, though it is very long. I enjoyed the research for The Radiant Way, including visiting Sheffield during the Miners’ Strike and Thatcherism, interviewing people like David Blunkett.”

This comment encapsulates Drabble’s own clear political leanings which have always been on the side of the marginalised and critical of the powerful. Yet she has accepted numerous establishment gongs. Which mean the most to her?

“I was delighted with my first award, the John Llewellyn Rhys, because I was very young and at the beginning of my career. Also with the Golden PEN award, though I’m not quite sure what I did to deserve that. I didn’t think much about accepting the CBE and the DBE. I was just pleased to be honoured”.

Being progressively minded, Drabble is frequently associated with causes that seek to promote reading and writing for all sections of society. This zeal extends to defending public libraries, which she considers to be immensely important features of this country’s cultural life.

“I still use libraries a great deal, and am sorry to see the funding and hours cut. There are some very good local library initiatives, such as the one run by the support group in the neighbourhood where I used to live, in Keats Grove, but they depend on a literate catchment area and keen volunteers.”

“And neighbourhoods without these assets have even more of a need for a good library service, and are less likely to get one. Sheffield Public Library was my favourite place as a child, and my husband Michael (Holroyd the writer and broadcaster), who never went to university, always says that Maidenhead Public Library was his college.”.

So much for old school ways of accessing literature and the like. To what extent does 76-year-old Drabble, believe that new technologies, especially the rise of e-publishing are changing the way people write and read books?

“It’s impossible to quantify yet, but the change has been vast already. As a reader, I am extremely keen on e-books and buy them all the time, but preserving the rights of the author remains a problem. I think publishers were caught napping. They should have seen what was coming. They were very slow.

“Writing novels hasn’t changed so much, but distribution has changed the way we read and reach out to readers. This has many advantages for beginners, but it’s hard for the mid-list writers.”

Drabble’s own writing regime has adapted, being shaped by what else has been going on in her life. “I used to work in the evenings when the children were in bed, then during the day when they were at the school. I am still a morning worker though I do sometimes begin again about 5pm. But I never work late, and I write less than I used to do”.

Whilst on the subject of the craft of writing, I wonder if she discusses the progress of her work with her husband for advice and feedback and vice versa?

She appears slightly aghast at the thought. “Not very much. He hasn’t read a word of the one I’ve just finished. But I know he knows what it’s about, because we share ideas and talk about the things that preoccupy us, and these always inform what I’m writing. The personal is the political, the personal is the social. I can’t disguise what’s on my mind, but would never trouble him to read drafts of my work. Nor he me.”

Yet when the personal is the personal, Margaret Drabble feels very uneasy. Her difficult relationship with her sister and fellow author, AS Byatt, has probably accumulated more column inches than discussions of her literary output.

When I try, as delicately as possible to raise the matter, she is having none of it. “I never write about her, and don’t talk about her much either. The press loves trouble, and I don’t,” she emphatically and conclusively explains. That particular inner anxiety is best left to her novels. w

Margaret Drabble will be reading from her works at the Suffolk Book League AGM at the Ipswich Institute on April 13. Doors open at 6.30pm, free to SBL members, £8 to others.

Her new novel, The Dark Flood Rises will be published in late 2016 by Canongate Books.

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