Interview by Anna C Goodall
It could not have been a clearer spring day when I visited the nonagenarian writer and editor, Diana Athill. The sky was a limpid blue, the sun casting warm light into crisp, cold air.
The gated Highgate residence where she lives could be mistaken for one of the area’s large mansion-style properties, but is in fact an extremely pleasant old people’s home where residents enjoy their own living quarters. Following instructions I slipped through the gate and down a side path until I found myself at a modern annexe with a small glass door, beside which were several rows of room numbers and corresponding names.
This door was open, so me and my companion, my seven-month-old schnauzer, Betty, negotiated the linoed stairs and followed a dim corridor round to a door with the sign ‘Ms Athill’ fixed upon it.
My knock was answered by a cheerful call to enter and we found ourselves in a small sunlit room with a generous view of a verdant well-kept garden. Inside was a small kitchen area, a bed, a bookcase, an armchair and small table and, right by the window overlooking the lovely garden, a desk at which Diana Athill was at that moment sitting at her computer.
Athill is legendary in the publishing world. She joined and helped start Allan Wingate in 1946 with André Deutsch whom she was introduced to at a party by George Weidenfeld. Deutsch, who in Athill’s words was ‘a born publisher’, then made her a director of the eponymous publishing company he began five years later that was to make his name. The two were briefly lovers, then friends, and would work together for almost fifty years.
Though she was horribly underpaid in what was still a man’s world, these years at André Deutsch were varied and enjoyable for Athill who worked with and got to know some of the twentieth century’s literary greats, among them VS Naipaul, Jean Rhys, John Updike, Philip Roth, Mordecai Richler and Norman Mailer.
And she might well have remained one of those figures, revered and renowned amongst her peers but unknown to the general public, had she not discovered, almost by accident, her gift as a writer.
She pinpoints the exact moment she began writing in Instead of a Letter, her wryly observant and strangely uplifting account of the heartbreak she suffered when she was abandoned by her fiancé, who was then killed in the Second World War.
Fittingly for a writer who often deeply engages her readers with information and observations that from a less-inspired pen could seem mundane, this epiphany occurred after a seemingly insignificant incident.
Walking her dog early one morning in 1958 a car slowed down right next to her. Initially she thought the driver an acquaintance of hers, Marcel. But she was mistaken:
‘The name is Mustafa Ali from Istanbul,’ said the stranger. ‘I was wondering whether you would have a cup of coffee with me.’ […] I explained that I had mistaken him for someone else, told him I was busy, and crossed the road, laughing. ‘What optimism,’ I thought, ‘at nine o’clock in the morning!’
But the incident stirred memories of her friend and when she returned home that evening she immediately began to write about him. The next morning, reading over what she had done, she realised it wasn’t working. But once she’d substituted Marcel for another man she had briefly known the story began to flow: ‘“I know what I’ll do: I’ll write about him, and I’m going to get it just as it was.” That story came straight out, with no pause, exactly as I meant it to’.
Her first short story collection An Unavoidable Delay (1962) was followed by Instead of a Letter (1963) and then a novel, Don’t Look at Me Like That (1967). Her later works are memoirs: After a Funeral (1986); Make Believe (1993); Stet (2000) – about her life as an editor; Yesterday Morning (2002) – an exquisitely vivid account of her childhood in Norfolk; and most recently the Costa Biography Prize-winning Somewhere Towards The End (2008). Life Class, the collected memoirs, was published in 2009 by Granta.
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Diana Athill is talking about how family and friends have reacted to her candid autobiographical writing: how her mother graciously accepted it without strictly approving, how some have said she is ‘brave’ for writing so personally about her life, and that whilst many have been supportive and complimentary, others have been appalled she should take herself so seriously. As she speaks there is a twinkle of mischief in her eyes. When I mention that I think it’s odd people use the term ‘brave’ or do not pick up on the wit and self-deprecation inherent in her finely tuned writing, she wholeheartedly agrees, ‘They’ve rather missed the point, haven’t they?’
She mentions one especially close acquaintance whom she dearly loves and whom she describes as a hugely generous, intelligent person, who simply can’t comprehend why she’s done it. I quickly ask her if she thinks she herself is a generous person and as quickly she replies, ‘No, I don’t think I am.’ To which I admit that I’m not either – and we both laugh.
There is no pretence to her, either in her writing or in person, and having read her memoirs talking to her feels like talking to a friend, albeit one too observant to miss any of your faults.
Although she claims not to have a ‘novelist’s imagination’ and admits she found the writing process for her novel only occasionally enjoyable and mostly ‘too much like hard work’, she certainly has the novelist’s eye and sensibility, and is a natural-born writer.
In her books, she often describes herself watching people, observing and trying to understand relationships, and makes reference to her ‘beady eye’. Her observation is not cold, however, it’s an instinct; a desire to understand people, and their relations and reactions to each other as a way of understanding the world. Besides, that beady eye is often keenly trained upon herself: not in arrogance, but as her most immediate resource.
I ask, then, her how she came to write Instead of a Letter, which even now is startling in its frankness, and must have been a revelation when published in the sixties. Well over forty years since the book was published her face is still alight at the memory of its writing: ‘That book simply came […] that book was a very strange experience because I didn’t know I was going to write it and it has never happened [again] with any of my other books.’
‘It just happened’, with Diana rushing back from work each evening, reading the last few pages she had written and then going on, the words just seeming to come to her in an almost subconscious outpouring – ‘which is why it was such therapy’.
The book also charts the very beginning of her career in publishing, (later fully described in Stet). She describes a typical hour in the office: ‘No sooner have I settled down to edit a typescript, or to read some unhappy writer’s work […] than the internal telephone rings and the sales manager says, “I promised Hatchards a showcard for such and such a book” […] the telephone rings again: have I remembered our copy for the six-inch advertisement in the Observer […] “There’s a lady on the line who wants to submit a manuscript, only she says it’s written in Polish.”’ She concludes: ‘It is not a peaceful job.’
But the memories are good and today she recalls that they were, ‘Always, actually having a nice time in that firm’ despite the many dramas; that there was ‘a family feeling about it’.
I wonder, in all her years of editing, which new manuscript gave her the greatest thrill when she first read it. She always loved getting work from the Irish novelist Molly Keane whom André Deutsch ‘rediscovered’, publishing her three last novels; but considering further she adds, ‘And Jean [Rhys] of course when finally, finally, finally Wide Sargasso Sea came in […] after a long, long wait [and thinking] oh, this was worth waiting for.’
In particular her portrait of Rhys in Stet is the most fascinating and affecting and she says, ‘She [Rhys] was and remains a mystery to me. How any-one who was so incompetent had this one gift that was so assured…’ She refers to her in Stet as ‘an artist of absolute steel.’
I mention to her the intriguing similarities I found between her portraits of two such different writers and people, Rhys and Naipaul, both of whom she portrays as outsiders, their sense of self solely existing through their identity as writers. ‘Not particularly good at living, either of them,’ she remarks today.
I ask her if this was a trait she found in many of the literary greats she worked with. She’s not so sure: they were all utterly focused on writing but were not all difficult. She recalls Mordecai Richler as ‘an absolute darling’, and remembers Updike as, ‘an extremely nice man, a thoughtful man and a good father. On the other hand,’ she pauses for dramatic effect, ‘Philip Roth was an absolute bastard!’
When I ask her if she is writing at the moment, she says not, though she is writing articles and reviews when asked and always finds the ‘act of writing, fun’. She does say that a woman from Tulsa University, which owns the entire André Deutsch archive, has been obsessively studying the firm’s correspondence, in particular Athill’s letters to Rhys, and wants her to write a book about her editorial relationship and friendship with the author.
Athill concedes that having read the letters again there is a lot of interesting material there, but is not sure she has the energy to embark on such a project. One can only hope she will, as the chapter about Rhys in Stet is fascinating.
So what fiction does she enjoy reading? A collection of William Trevor’s stories lies on her side table. Yes, she admires him, but only when he is writing about Ireland. She feels that Alice Munro is truly the greatest short story writer – ‘as good as Chekov’. She is also a huge fan of Hilary Mantel, ‘a novelist born’ and urges me to read A Place Of Greater Safety – Mantel’s first novel about the French Revolution from the perspective of Robespierre. ‘I mean the nerve, the nerve!’ she exclaims, ‘But of course it’s tremendously good.’ She is also a big fan of Mantel’s Booker Prize-winning Wolf Hall, which she has persuaded me to read, when no one else could. ‘She gets into the skin of these people.’
It’s almost lunch time at the house and as if in recognition of this fact, Betty, who I brought along with me as I know Diana loves dogs and animals in general, is getting restless having spent the last hour on an extraordinary run of best behaviour. It’s time to go.
Just before I leave Diana tells me a story that perfectly illustrates the sense of fun that exudes from her in person. She was invited to open the International Festival of Authors in Toronto last year and part of the reason she agreed to this trip was the fact that she would have a chance to meet Alice Munro there.
The festival organised a conversation between these two literary greats and Athill explains that Munro, with whom she got on extremely well, hates the publicity side of being a writer and is extremely shy. So the two ladies found themselves sitting rather nervously backstage, and just before they were about to go on for their talk, Munro admitted, ‘I don’t have a clue what I’m going to say.’ To which Diana responded, ‘Neither do I!’
The event ended up going well with Diana beginning the talk and getting a big laugh straight away, which relaxed them both – she admits that despite professing otherwise, she does rather enjoy taking the limelight every so often. I just love the idea of these two great literary ladies giggling conspiratorially together backstage.
Perhaps one of the reasons for her admiration of the Canadian writer is Munro’s ironic yet precisely serious observation of the world. Athill too is a keen observer. Near the end of Instead of a Letter, having discovered her writer’s gift she notes: ‘Eyes are precarious little mechanisms’ but that ‘sight brings in objective reality.’ She also quotes Carlyle: ‘No most gifted eye can exhaust the significance of any object.’ Hers is a gifted eye.
lllustration by Michael Constantine www.mconstantine.co.uk