Penelope Lively: ‘I was a traumatised teenager’

The Booker-winning author on starting late as a writer, her clear recall of growing up in Cairo, and the TV programme that kept her going during lockdown

Penelope Lively, the author of many novels and short story collections, is the only writer to have won both the Booker prize (in 1987, for her novel Moon Tiger) and the Carnegie Medal, an award that recognises an outstanding book for children and young adults (in 1973, for The Ghost of Thomas Kempe). Among her memoirs is Oleander, Jacaranda, about her childhood in Cairo before and during the second world war. Her latest book, Metamorphosis: Selected Stories, spans 40 years of writing. She lives in London.

You edited Metamorphosis yourself. Was it hard to choose which stories to include?
In a way it was easy. I kept thinking, “Oh my God, not that one!” I did feel I was exercising editorial judgment. There are two new stories, written in 2018. At the time, they were a problem: they’re quite long, but they were too short to be published as novellas; effectively, they’d been shoved in a box. I thought: “Oh good, we can use those, too.”

Do stories come from a different place to novels?
They’re two completely different operations. The novel is hacking away at a block of stone. You’re hunting for what’s inside, and you’ll be doing so for a couple of years. For me, short stories just arrive – or they don’t. They’re nearly always derived from life as it is lived: a sudden flash of inspiration, or recognition.

Which other short story writers do you admire?
It’s such a flexible form. The sort I don’t like are the Roald Dahl kind, where there is always a sting in the tail. Isn’t there one where the murder weapon is a frozen leg of lamb? I find that irritating. I do admire Chekhov, but only up to a point. His stories don’t seize me in the same way as William Trevor’s. Jane Gardam and Helen Simpson are marvellous.

Selecting the stories must have given the opportunity to consider a long career. How does it look to you now?
When I started, publishers didn’t expect a breakthrough with a first or second book. They were prepared to stay with an author for a long time. They seem to be more driven by marketing now, and a lot of extremely good writers’ careers have tapered out because of this demand for the starry, attention-seeking book. I started quite late. I didn’t publish my first children’s book until I was nearly 40. That’s almost unheard of now. People must publish before they’re 25.

What about the move from books for children to adult fiction? Was that difficult, or entirely natural?
I’d begun to realise that I couldn’t do everything I wanted to do as a writer if I wrote only for children. There is a wonderful Auden quote: “There are good books which are only for adults. There are no good books which are only for children.” I felt that was quite right. So I thought I’d have a go. At the time [The Road to Lichfield, which was shortlisted for the Booker prize, was published in 1977], an editor said that he thought I should publish for adults under another name. I could see what he was doing. He was belittling children’s literature. He was saying I wouldn’t be taken seriously. I said: “No way.”

Your Egyptian childhood has often bubbled up in your fiction, and does so again in one of the new stories. Is it still as vivid to you as ever?
Yes, I have it in my head with absolute clarity. I could draw a map of our garden in Cairo to this day. I knew at some point I wanted to use it in a book, but that didn’t happen until I went back to Egypt as an adult. I found the house that I’d lived in, and I began to see how I might use it in a novel – the novel that became Moon Tiger.

Do you think your childhood – the feeling of being an outsider, looking in – played a part in your becoming a writer?
The polyglot, cosmopolitan world of Cairo was all I’d ever known as a child. I’d never been anywhere else. I was English in a society that was Islamic and also very French. I remember my astonishment on first coming to England and realising that everyone spoke English. It sounded very odd to me. But to answer the question: yes. Writers are always trying to imagine worlds that aren’t theirs. If you’re a woman, for instance, you need to write about men as well. There isn’t a way round that.

Was your return to England at the age of 12 a huge shock?
I was a traumatised teenager, wrenched from one place and brought to a completely different one. Until then, I’d never been to school; I’d only had my nanny, Lucy. It was just before the end of the war, and it was freezing cold. I was saved by my beloved grandmother in Somerset, who accepted this waif, and digested her into her life. I stayed with her in the holidays. My poor father was a single parent, and he was at work, so I would have been on my own all day if I’d been with him.

What about your mother?
She didn’t ask for custody when my parents divorced. She’d met another man, and didn’t come back to England for two years, by which time I was a different person. I should say that she wasn’t being particularly neglectful. She’d only ever looked after me on Wednesday afternoons, when Lucy had time off, which was just what women of that class did then.

Was it very unusual, in those days, to be the child of a divorce?
Yes. In my boarding school there was only one other girl in the same situation. When I arrived, I was summoned by the headmistress, who said: “You have divorced parents, that’s not very nice, and you mustn’t talk about it.”

After university how did you see your future?
The expectation was that women would marry. I had a job in Oxford, working for a don. I remember my father driving me to Paddington to get the train back to Oxford after a visit. At the traffic lights he said: “Shouldn’t you be thinking about getting married?” But then I did marry [Jack Lively, an academic, died in 1998]. I started writing when my youngest child was at primary school, though I felt very diffident about it.

What was it like to win the Booker prize?
I wasn’t expected to win, and I wasn’t expecting to win. Jack said: “I don’t think you’ll win, but just in case, you’d better think of something to say, and don’t drink too much.” The result was that I now remember, having been swept away in this flurry, pathetically asking if I could perhaps have a glass of wine. But there’s a lot of luck to it. You haven’t written the best book. You’ve simply written a book about which the judges have been able to come to some sort of agreement.

What kind of lockdown did you have?
I didn’t love it. I was worried about members of my family; I missed seeing people. I can’t read for as a long as I used to, so I also watched a lot of television. I discovered Spooks. There was the marvellous matter of the weeks when I went all the way through Spooks – and then, to my horror, it ended.

Are you writing now?
No, I’m not. If I have an idea I might suddenly start, but for heaven’s sake… I’m 88.

Metamorphosis: Selected Stories by Penelope Lively is published by Fig Tree (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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Rachel Cooke

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