author of Last Chance Café, Bad Behaviour, Gang of Four and more…
Ten Terrifying Questions
1. To begin with why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself – where were you born? Raised? Schooled?
I was born in the East End of London in the last years of World War II – I’m actually a cockney. My father was an electrical engineer, my mother taught ballroom dancing. By the time I started primary school we’d moved to beautiful Tudor cottage in a small Sussex village – low beams and diamond paned lead-light windows.
I had a very fortunate and happy childhood; my parents were quite conservative and I was sent to a small convent that specialised in turning out ‘little ladies’ – we put a lot of effort into keeping our legs crossed, wearing pure white gloves and ensuring our stocking seams were straight. I loved the nuns to bits, they were wonderful to us and entirely unlike anything I have heard or read of the experiences of other women of my age who were educated in convents pre-Vatican II.
On reflection I think the educational standards left much to be desired, but the discipline in terms of behaviour was pretty serious, and we were encouraged and rewarded and never put down or shamed. I lived at quite a distance from my school friends and the bus service was poor and so I spent a lot of time alone, reading, writing stories, listening to the radio. It was bliss and it trained me to appreciate solitude, reflection and the fact that as long as I can write and read I will never be bored.
2. What did you want to be when you were twelve, eighteen and thirty? And why?
At 18 I wanted to be a writer. I wanted that from the age of 14 by which time the appeal of the stage had worn thin and writing was the only thing I was good at. When I had told my parents this at 16 they were horrified because it wasn’t a ‘real job’. My father said I would become a burden on the economy. My mother said women writers were bossy, opinionated and interfering and no man would marry me. She was both right and wrong; I am bossy, opinionated and interfering but two men did marry me (not both at the same time) and I think they’d both agree it wasn’t a particularly good idea.
At 30 I still wanted to be a writer. I was working part time as a journalist by then and had two small children. Journalism was the only way I could find to earn a living by writing. I wanted to write books, particularly fiction, but I was first a wife and mother and soon after that a sole supporting parent, which made it essential to earn a reliable income.
3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?
I had two over-riding beliefs at that age. The first was that if one was honest, paid the bills on time, went to church on Sundays and didn’t have sex before marriage life would work out smoothly, trouble free and according to plan. The second was that people in authority: the government, the royal family, the police, captains of industry etc were, without exception, fine upstanding citizens and models of honesty, morality, and ethical living. (Hmmm! Yes, I know, pathetic really, but I had had quite a sheltered upbringing.)
4. What were three works of art – book or painting or piece of music, etc – you can now say, had a great effect on you and influenced your own development as a writer?
The first book that influenced me as a woman wanting to write, was May Sarton’s journal Plant Dreaming Deep (1968), and five years later, Journal of Solitude. Sarton’s journals are passionate accounts of being a woman and a writer, of the joys and challenges of solitude, the ways in women suppress their needs and their anger to meet others’ expectations and what that costs them. She gave voice to what I felt. The other profoundly important book was Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room, which I read in 1978. It was hugely successful and it proved to me what I had always thought – that women can connect with each other in ways that transcend the boundaries of class, education and frequently of race.
5. Considering the innumerable artistic avenues open to you, why did you choose to write a novel?
From the age of 20 into my late fifties I was a journalist, freelance writer for government and NGOs and I wrote a number of non-fiction books, in order to earn a living. But I had wanted to write a novel since my teens and when my sons had grown up and left home I was free to take time to experiment with fiction as I had only myself to support. I was also angry and frustrated that in the bookshops and libraries there seemed to be an absence of novels that focused on the lives of women over 50. I wanted to read books about older women’s lives but I couldn’t find them, so I thought I’d try to write them instead. I thought I could say quite a lot about women’s lives through the medium of the contemporary, feminist, consciousness raising novel, so that was what I set out to do.
My latest novel is called Last Chance Café and, just like my earlier novels, it focuses on the lives of older people, particularly women. It’s a novel about the pleasures and perils of ageing, about love and friendship, some dark secrets, and unfulfilled dreams. The older characters in this book are eager for change, and determined to make the most of whatever time they have. When they bring their experience passion and concern about the sexualisation of children together with that of much younger women they find themselves on a rollercoaster of personal and political change.
7. What do you hope people take away with them after reading your work?
First of all I hope they feel they’ve had an enjoyable, satisfying read that has also make them think. All my novels are really about mid-life and old age as opportunities for change, and about the pleasures of experiencing ageing and valuing it rather than trying to fight it. I believe the years beyond fifty can be especially rich and rewarding and that pressure to stay young or stretch middle-age denies us the chance to fully experience what age has to offer. I always want to celebrate the importance of women’s friendship, and to show that the ordinary elements of women’s lives, their conversations, their desires, the ways they manage their relationships and their aspirations are fascinating topics for fiction. So I hope that’s what they take away.
8. Whom do you most admire in the realm of writing and why?
May Sarton for the courage and insight of her journals; Joyce Carol Oates for her extraordinary range and breathtaking productivity; Ian McEwan for pristine prose in which every word counts; (the late – sadly) Hazel Rowley for taking readers, through her biographies, in to the hearts and minds of her subjects; Penelope Fitzgerald and Rachel Cusk for their ability to make the ordinary extraordinary; Andrew O’Hagan for his lyricism, humanity and humour; Jonathan Franzen for the grand scope of his realist fiction; A.A.Milne for introducing me to Pooh, Owl and Eeyore which meant that I have rarely been taken by surprise by eccentric, interesting and sometimes grumpy, old men.
My goal is always to arrive safely at an ending for whichever novel I am writing at the time, and then to do it again, only hopefully better, with the next one.
10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?
Keep writing. Keep reading. Be prepared to re-draft, redraft, re-draft. Don’t take yourself too seriously and believe that your writing is sacrosanct, it isn’t. Don’t show it to friends or family expecting to get useful critical feedback – you won’t. What you’ll get is reaction based on how they feel about you at the time. If you want feedback show your work to an experienced writer, editor, publisher or literary agent and be prepared to listen to what they say. Never underestimate the value of a good working relationship with an excellent editor – it’s a blessing and a joy. Give up the idea that you know a hell of a lot and people need to know about it – they don’t. Readers want a wonderful story that moves them and makes them think whether it’s in popular or literary fiction.
Liz, thank you for playing.
Filed under: Author Interview, Contemporary Women's Fiction, Fiction, Writing Style, Writing tips Tagged: | Bad Behaviour, Belly Dancing for Beginners, FoodSex&Money, Gang of Four, Last Chance Cafe, Liz Byrski, Ten Terrifying Questions, Trip of a Lifetime