Thirty years of Hay: Christopher Hitchens, Margaret Atwood, Hilary Mantel – in conversation

Christopher Hitchens on God, Margaret Atwood on The Handmaid’s Tale, Hilary Mantel on Wolf Hall … highlights from Hay’s most memorable interviews

Kazuo Ishiguro with Francine Stock 2000

FS: Is the element of self-deception that characterises a number of the figures in your novels always to do with that discrepancy between the way life really is and the way that they rather hoped it might be?

KI: I don’t know if it’s quite that gap, actually. The self-deception of my narrators in my earlier books, I think, is the self-deception that is perhaps necessary when, quite late in your life when it’s too late perhaps to substantially change the course of your life, you start to realise that there are some grave shortcomings about yourself. So people like Stevens the butler in The Remains of the Day – he seems like a very self-deceived man, but I suspect that he’s no more so than many of us would be if we faced the possibility that perhaps we’d failed in some big, profound way. We would all spend a long time struggling with ourselves, trying to persuade ourselves it’s not quite so bad. In the end I think there is a kind of dignity, something admirable, when people do finally come to terms with what they have done or with the shortcomings in their life. But you often have a lot of self-deception to wade through before you get there.

Margaret Atwood with David Aaronovitch 2003

DA: You’ve written two dystopias, and some people would say that if you’ve written two dystopias you must be a science fiction writer. You say: “I don’t like science fiction.”

MA: No, no, no. I never said that. I read lots of it. I just can’t write it.

DA: Really? Then you call it speculative fiction?

MA: No. I think George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four is speculative fiction. Brave New World: speculative fiction. HG Wells’s The War of the Worlds: science fiction. Smart squids in canisters shot from Mars: definitely science fiction.

DA: But Orwell famously only had one. And you’ve had two. Does having written Oryx and Crake make you think The Handmaid’s Tale is less true than it was?

MA: If we’re really, really lucky we’ll get a combination of the two. There is a book by Yevgeny Zamyatin, called We, which was written in 1924 by a Russian in the early stages after the revolution, and he wasn’t allowed to publish it. It combines those two kinds of things: it’s got the Big Brother plus the Brave New World everybody-must-be-happy sort of thing. Oryx and Crake is more global. What goes on in The Handmaid’s Tale [the overthrow of the US government by a theocratic dictatorship that suppresses the rights of women] is actually confined to what used to be the United States. And England, for instance, in that book, is free of it, you’ll be happy to know. Because England already did all of that; it did it under Oliver Cromwell, and so delightful did they find the experience that they’ve never wanted to do it again. In fact, in The Handmaid’s Tale, England is the country of choice where escaped women want to go. It was country-specific. And Oryx and Crake is dealing with tendencies that are global rather than country-specific or allied to national politics. So it’s global, and allied to what’s going on with the Earth. Right now.

Christopher Hitchens with Joan Bakewell 2005

JB: Do you know what it is to have a religious impulse? Can you understand that? Have you ever experienced it or is it simply weird, somewhere else – “I don’t need to bother”? I’m talking about the spirituality within yourself.

‘I remember exactly when I realised the religious impulse was all balls from beginning to end’ … Christopher Hitchens.
‘I remember exactly when I realised the religious impulse was all balls from beginning to end’ … Christopher Hitchens. Photograph: Justin Williams/REX/Shutterstock

CH: I remember exactly when I realised it was all balls from beginning to end. And that was – Mrs Watts, who taught us the scripture class and did our nature walks and biology and introductions to flowers and birds, when I must have been not much more than nine. One day, I remember distinctly, she said, with perfect sincerity, it seemed to me: “Look, children, how the trees and grass are so green. Think how good that shows our Lord to be, because what if the trees had been mauve, or electric blue? How unrestful that would be to the eye.” I knew nothing then about natural selection or about the human genome or the theory of evolution, but I remember thinking very clearly, in my little corduroy shorts: “That’s bullshit.” It’s impossible to believe in the creationist view or the revealed view of any faith, unless you concede to the argument of design. Without it religion is … well, no religion is without it, actually or implicitly. And if you can tell at the age of nine that it’s much more likely your eyes have adapted to the vegetation than that the vegetation has been created for the pleasure of your eyes, you don’t need any more.

I’m perfectly certain that I’m right. But even if I was completely wrong, and there was revealed truth and we were designed by a benevolent dictator – excuse me, creator – who took a benevolent look at all our actions and supervised us from cradle to grave and beyond – in other words, if we were to live in a celestial North Korea, why people should want this, I don’t know. I’m an anti-theist, not an atheist …

I’ve been forced to confront it by meeting people morally superior to myself, braver than myself, who live in terrible countries, or very dangerous situations, and do witness in a wonderful way for the rights of others, and are self-sacrificing. I don’t mean the Mother Teresa racketeers and frauds; I mean people who really do it, and, when they say that religion is their motivation, I’m obliged to agree with that or to respect it, and I do. I don’t myself have any hope about death or any fear about it. I consider myself to be as subject to the laws of biology as everybody else and I may be lucky in another way – I have been born without whatever gene it might turn out to be.

JB: I want to hang on to these very good people you’ve spoken of, doing selfless deeds because their faith has inspired them to do so. What do you believe religion is?

CH: In only this respect am I an orthodox Freudian: I think Freud, in The Future of an Illusion, says it’s ineradicable in us or, at least, it’s not eradicable until we cease to be afraid of death or of dying. Cease to be afraid of the dark. It’s the highest form that wish-thinking takes, wish-thinking being the cheapest form of our emotions and our ambitions. It’s the most elevated form that cheap, narcissistic and solipsistic ambition will take, and I think when writing The Future of an Illusion he condemned us to go on living with it, but taught us what we already knew, which is that it’s a curse. That’s why Freud is right because, until we cease to fear death, or rather until we evolve a bit more, because nothing proves evolution more than the survival of religious belief, we are still fearful, partially formed animals, with a terror of death and the dark.

Seamus Heaney with Gwyneth Lewis 2006

GL: I once heard you say that the term “an established poet” is a contradiction in terms. You’re very, very, very established now. Does that make it more difficult to write, in some ways?

SH: I don’t know the answer to that. Death of a Naturalist was well received, which was a good thing, but being established has its anxieties. So self-forgetfulness becomes the sine qua non of successful secret action, and that is really the test, as far as possible: to forget yourself. That is helped by having friends; you don’t need a large number, just two or three talented, fond mockers – very, very useful. And a feeling of desperation now and again to write something.

“Established” covers everything that has happened, but, as you know, it doesn’t mean a thing, because we’re anxious about the next poem, and I think anxiety is part of the drive also.

GL: At Harvard, I remember one time you asked us to write a poem about our favourite word. And there were some very weird and wonderful words that came out of that workshop. You’ve got a very strong fondness for Anglo-Saxon: snubby, snagging, turnip – “snedder” words. Do you look these words up? You know so many of them!

SH: I can honestly say I never look them up.

GL: Where did you hear them?

SH: They were all part of the first language. “Snedding” is a wonderful word; it means the slicing off of turnips or sugar beet. I once knew a fellow in County Derry who wanted his pencils sharpened; he said: “Sned that for me.” Of course he was being ironical, because the word is usually used for a more hefty engagement of materials. I suppose politically speaking, the vocabulary factor was a little way of pushing back against the centre.

GL: It’s a political choice, that type of vocabulary?

SH: Yes, but I wouldn’t want to go too far down that political protest. It’s just part of the culture of the verity of certain things, to hold on to.

Ian McEwan with Peter Florence Cartagena 2010

PF: Throughout the last 30 years, you’ve alternated contemporary novels with explorations of 20th-century history. How do you find your subject matter, and how do you match it to contemporary or historical modes?

IM: Certainly not by thinking about it. Nabokov, in one of his Cornell lectures, gave some good advice to his first-year literature students. He said: forget for now the moonshine of themes; you’re only just beginning to learn how to read a book. Think about detail in a novel, the details that please you, and learn to fondle these details. Although that advice was to readers, I think it’s also a very good description of what writers do. We don’t generally think: I’m now going to write a novel whose themes are the failure or growth of this or that, or human destiny. We generally start with something small, some particular little suggestion, some question, a sigh, a scrap of information, an overheard remark. Sometimes I doodle, I coax myself into a sentence or a paragraph. If I’m lucky it will have an allure that won’t leave me alone.

David Grossman with David Aaronovitch 2012

DG: Three years and three months after I started writing To the End of the Land, our son Uri was killed in the war in Lebanon in 2006. It’s almost six years now.

DA: How had your book, your writing, in a sense anticipated this possibility, and how did you then manage the book, which had begun with this theme, in the period afterwards?

David Grossman
‘All around me the world has collapsed and I am looking for a word’ … David Grossman. Photograph: Hay Festival of Literature & the Arts Limited

DG: It’s hard for me to answer. I know that I started writing this book partly also because of anxiety for him. When I started writing it we spoke about it in the family, and I said, “I want to accompany him as much as I can”, because I knew he was going to be a combative soldier, that he would have to serve in the occupied territories. I knew he was going to face harsh situations, both physical and moral, and all kinds of dilemmas, and that for him, being leftist in his opinions, it would be even harder than usual because he really would be trapped, even in kinds of inner dilemmas. And I felt that writing the book would allow me not to shield myself from what he would go through.

You ask how it was to go back to the story. I went back to it a day after the shivah, the seven days of lamenting that we have in Judaism. And I went back because writing is the way that I always used to understand my life. I of course had never had to use it in such an acute situation, but, OK, that was the situation and I did what I could in order to understand it. I felt if I was doomed already to be thrown into this accursed land, then at least I would map it as much as I could, and for me mapping is writing about it. I remember very strongly in the days after, sitting and looking for a word or a metaphor or something like that, and then I suddenly ask myself: “Am I an idiot?” All around me the world has collapsed and I am looking for a word. And then when I found the right word there was this feeling that I had done something right in a world that had turned out to be totally wrong. In a world that was then a big mistake for me, I was finding the thread of the story again, and was able to imagine, even, or to fantasise, and to infuse my characters with love and humour and passion. After a while I understood writing is a way to act against the gravity of sadness, of grief, and to choose life in the end of it.

Hilary Mantel with Peter Florence 2012

PF: When you say you’re dealing in “the present”, it’s written often in the present tense. It’s in free indirect speech, and we are with Cromwell – your introduction already gives us this idea, and we’ve read Wolf Hall so we know that we kind of love him, and then we’re made complicit in some of the more terrible things that he is going to do. Now, was it always going to be in the present tense?

‘I had the chilling realisation that this is where Cromwell begins, and it is where he will end’ … Hilary Mantel.
‘I had the chilling realisation that this is where Cromwell begins, and it is where he will end’ … Hilary Mantel. Photograph: Finn Beales/Hay Festival of Literature & the Arts Limited

HM: I didn’t know how it was going to sound until – well, if I say “I heard a voice”, that will make me sound completely mad but – this first line, the first line of Wolf Hall, came to me: “So now, get up.” And I had the instant picture of the 15-year-old Thomas Cromwell lying on the ground in his own blood; his father is kicking hell out of him, and this is the incident that’s going to precipitate his running away. What I didn’t realise was that the moment I sat down to write the line we were going to be behind his eyes. This was going to be the viewpoint, and it began to unroll like a cinema film. So of course it’s the present tense, because we’re living it second by second, as it happens. He can see in close focus the stitching on his father’s boot and he’s thinking: in a moment, he could kill me. And of course I had the chilling realisation that this is where Cromwell begins, and it is where he will end – lying in his own blood, on the scaffold, with a voice in his ear saying, “So now, get up.” And the whole project was bookended. And so the decisions took themselves: the present tense, the viewpoint. They were taken in a second. What I didn’t know was that it was going to be a trilogy.

Salman Rushdie with Peter Florence 2012

PF: Let’s start with Midnight’s Children

SR: Well, I was born on 19 June 1947, eight weeks before the end of the British empire, and my father used to tell a joke, which I never thought to be very funny: “Salman was born. Eight weeks later the British ran away.” And that was not funny the first time, really, but the one-thousand-and-first time it grew a little old. But in some ways it helped me, that joke, because it made me wonder what would happen if there wasn’t that eight-week differential. How about if the boy was born at exactly that moment? And I suppose that was the germ of the book.

PF: I think that the question I ought to have asked is: “What was the tradition that you were both moving into and working against?”

SR: I was very lucky when I was at Cambridge that I overlapped briefly with EM Forster. We were at the same college, King’s, and I met him a few times, and he was interested in my Indian background and I was interested in his Indian background, and I was a great admirer of A Passage to India. And I feel very lucky to have briefly been able to meet him. But actually, when I started to write Midnight’s Children, in some ways I wrote it against the Forster project. That very cool, controlled, Forsterian English, which I admired in the book, felt to me to be not like the sound of India. India’s not cool; it’s hot. And I began to wonder what a language might sound like that was not cool but hot, that was noisy and crowded and vulgar and sensual in a way that the Indian reality is. And that, in a way, is not represented by that Forsterian language.

And so, certainly, the language project of Midnight’s Children was, in some degree, a conscious piece of writing against the language in which English people have written about India, most notably in A Passage to India, which I think is a masterpiece, so it’s not that I want to criticise the book. Sometimes you find out your voice imitatively, and sometimes you find your voice by direct influence and by trying to write like other people. Sometimes you find it by trying to write unlike other people, and, for me, trying to write unlike Forster was a way in which I found out how to write.

Toni Morrison with Razia Iqbal 2014

RI: Even if this chronicling of African-American history – most obviously in the trilogy Beloved, Jazz and Paradise – wasn’t a self-concious project, at what level was it one that required sustained thought? Because you didn’t write Beloved for years. The idea of chronicling the history of a people through fiction has never been done in quite this way, especially with a novel like Jazz, in which the form is as important as the story.

‘Happiness? Don’t settle for that’ … Toni Morrison.
‘Happiness? Don’t settle for that’ … Toni Morrison. Photograph: Jeff Morgan/Hay Festival of Literature & the Arts Limited / Jeff Morgan

TM: I didn’t think of it in those large terms. There was Home, but before that, A Mercy. That was the novel where I wanted to move outside America as a race-based country, to a time before –when white indentured servants and black slaves worked in the field together, before it was useful to separate them. And then the white people figured out something: that if you take poor blacks and poor whites, and make them hate one another, they will never attack you. You could manipulate that, and that has been working brilliantly for a long, long time. And the language is just full of it. So when I was doing A Mercy, I did a lot of research into where those people came from, what were they coming over here for. Well, land: they couldn’t get it in England, the poor ones, because it was all owned by the lords and so on, so they wanted land.

And as I am always able to tell people, my understanding is that, when the Declaration of Independence was written, Jefferson specified inalienable right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of property”. Then he changed it – for which I am glad, because I would have been that property they could pursue – and changed it to happiness, which I thought was a little silly. Pursuit of happiness, who does that? Especially in the 18th century. Nobody’s thinking about being happy. Saved, maybe, or secure, or comfortable. But that happiness thing has taken Americans and they are very upset if they’re not happy. I just tell graduate students: “It’s not good enough.” I want you to be happy when you graduate, but you have to be better than that. This world is interesting, and it’s difficult … and happiness? Don’t settle for that. There’s much, much more.

  • Hay Festival Conversations: Thirty Conversations for Thirty Years is published by The Hay Festival Press. The 30th festival in Hay-on-Wye, Wales, runs to 4 June. hayfestival.com. Box office: 01497 822 629.
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