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Feature: Interview - Margaret Drabble talks to Andrew Johnson

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Published: 19 May, 2011
by ANDREW JOHNSON

MARGARET Drabble may be one of Britain’s best-known writers of literary fiction, but the very literary form of the short story isn’t really her bag. In fact in her long career, which began in 1963 with the publication of A Summer Bird Cage, the chronicler of women in a changing society has written barely enough to fill a single volume. There are, however, just enough. Her complete short stories – 14 of them – are being published in collected form for the first time next month. 

The collection – A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman – is not  of her own doing. Rather the detective work of one of her admirers, a Spanish academic called José Francisco who has spent the past few years tracking them down.

“Fourteen is very, very few,” she says. “I did write one more short story last year which isn’t in this volume. The New Statesman asked me to write a ghost story for their Christmas edition, although in the end it was a story about immigrants washing up in the Canary Islands. 

“It’s the only one I’ve written very recently. I was quite pleased with it and I might write more to go with it about the same sort of material.”

The short story has spent the past few decades in the literary doldrums. While the novel has become something of a commercialised juggernaut, its literary cousin has been edged out of the spotlight.

But the short story is back in vogue.  

“As to whether this is because people’s concentration span is shorter – television serials are becoming shorter and shorter – or whether it’s because the nature of our perceptions are so fragmented I don’t know,” Ms Drabble adds. 

“There are many things I’d like to write a short story about which I could never write a novel about – the [July 7, 2005] London bombing, for instance. I’ve had a very strong reaction to that, as we all did in London, but I couldn’t write a whole novel through the eyes of any of the people.

“I couldn’t write a lot about Islamic people in W10, for instance. I see them every day but I can’t write from their point of view. There’s a difference between what you know and what you see. I suppose I’m talking about ethnicity.”

Ms Drabble, who was made a Dame in 2008, is married to the writer Michael Holroyd and recently moved from Hampstead to her husband’s west London home after many years being together but, famously, living apart. The couple also have a home in Somerset. 

Writing is very much a family business. Her sister, AS Byatt, is also a well-known novelist and her daughter, Rebecca Swift, is a poet and runs The Literary Consultancy in Clerkenwell.

This organisation, which is celebrating its 15th birthday with a series of talks and events, helps new writers by offering unrestrained criticism.”

“When I started, your editor did that for you,” Ms Drabble explains. “You had your person­al editor at your publishing house. Very few publishing houses have anybody like that now. Editors in pub­lishing houses don’t have time to read carefully – everything is so big and busy. And that’s where The Literary Consultancy comes in. 

“A lot of the readers are pro­fes­sional writers. They will spend the time and go over it in detail. They know if it’s saveable or not saveable and where it should go. And I think that’s very valuable.”

Ms Drabble says her own small supply of short stories was simply down to the fact that the subjects she wanted to write about lent themselves more to novels and she often wonders why she wrote the short stories at all. 

In the end, she says, the difference is that her short stories were about places she visited – such as Morocco or Cappad­ocia, while her novels looked at the role of women in soci­ety, with children, work, husbands and lovers. 

“I’ve never set a novel abroad but some of these stories are in a foreign setting – as if I wanted to say something that wasn’t quite a travelogue, but some place that had struck me particularly forcefully. 

“In this collection there’s one about Mor­occo a very long time ago and it’s interesting to read it because the Arab world is so different from what we thought it was going to be then. Some of the short stories about women and children could easily have fitted into a novel but they never did. I’m very glad that these do exist though. They are a record of a long period; little windows of what I was thinking at the time. 

“The last one or two are very rustic and I think that’s me being in the countryside and enjoying walking in the country. It’s a record of my interests.”

Ms Drabble, now 71, famously said two years ago that she wouldn’t write any more novels for fear of “repeat­ing herself”. That, however, was two years ago.

“I am trying to write another novel,” she reveals. “I get slower. At the moment I am writing. I wouldn’t call it a novel – it’s a piece of long fiction. It might turn into a novel. I’ve got lots of bits of journalism on the side. What I enjoy about journalism is that it’s finite. You do something. that’s your 1,000 words and you’ve got a subject, you can do a bit of research or just travel around and look at things. With a novel you never know when it’s going to end. Short stories are halfway between really.”

• A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman is published on June 30 (Penguin hardback £20).

• To celebrate the short story collection, Margaret Drabble will be in conversation with Helen Simpson, the UK's leading short-story practitioner, at the Free Word Centre, 60 Farringdon Road, EC1, on May 26, 6.30-8pm, £10, 020 7324 2570. See www.literaryconsultancy.co.uk/events/info for booking details 

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