Diana Athill webchat: your questions answered on Jean Rhys, love affairs and turning 100

Last modified: 03: 29 PM GMT+0

The literary editor and memoirist turns 100 in December, so she answered Guardian readers’ questions about her life, books and career

Diana Athill has to go – thanks for posting your questions

Many thanks for all your questions. I'm sorry I haven't had time to answer them all.

Diana turns 100 on 21 December – remember to lift your afternoon cup of tea or gin and tonic to toast that milestone then.

Thanks all!

'Advice for a woman about to turn 30? Have a very good love affair'

Lislorien asks:

Best advice you would give a woman about to embark upon her 30s?

I should advise her to have a very good love affair if she hasn't had one already.

Wringed asks:

In the early days of Deutsch, was there a sense in your offices that you were building something special or does that kind of knowledge come only with hindsight?

We just thought we were teaching ourselves how to be publishers. We didn't think we were any more special than any other publishers. We were just learning to do it rather quickly.

Shikasta asks:

Do you prefer editing or writing your own material?

I prefer writing my own material.

SofiaNicol says:

I am 36 years old and becoming a passionate gardener. I would like to know if there is anything you wish you had planted in your thirties (I am already looking into tree ferns!)?

I would have loved to have planted a tree fern which managed to survive. It would have needed a good deal of cosy help. I wasn't gardening by then, but if I'd started in my 30s I think I would have developed a really good rose garden.

Aaglak says:

In your book Somewhere Towards The End you mention planting a tiny Caribbean palm tree which you doubted you would ever see grow big. I sometimes wonder, how big is it now? I do hope it’s still alive.

Oh alas, alas, it's dead. It was coming up on a wide windowsill and was too near the glass on a sudden frosty night. When I came downstairs in the morning the frost had got it.

'Most challenging writer to work with? Jean Rhys needed to be helped to live rather than to write'

ZIZI1001 asks:

Which writer proved the most challenging/interesting to work with and why?

Molly Keane was lovely to work with and very, very interesting, and she did need encouragement, so one did something for her whereas Jean Rhys knew exactly what she was going to do. She needed to be helped to live rather than to write. When she was young she was very attractive and was rescued by chaps. When she was old she was rescued by nice kind women like me. Sonia Orwell, Francis Wyndam and I had a Jean committee, trying to find her better places to live and to sort out her money problems. She had a terrible habit of acquiring phony agents who we sorted out. She was a good example of how a very weak person can be very strong. She gave the impression she would be dead in a ditch tomorrow without help, and she probably would, so you all mucked in. Molly Keane wasn't like that at all as a person but she needed help as a writer.

RichardSavory1953 says:

My Dad is a distant (Bright) relative of yours, as am I obviously. He’s 96 and showing encouraging signs of making it to your age. Many Bright descendants in my family tree have lived extraordinarily long lives, if not carried away by war or diseases like TB. Do you ascribe your long life to ‘good genes’, to lifestyle or to an abiding interest in living - or to some sort of combination of the three? Or just to good luck?!

In the end I've decided that good luck is the answer. I look back and think I've been bloody lucky. But I suppose those Bright genes might have helped a little too. They were bookish people, My grandparents' house was absolutely packed with books, so if you weren't out riding you'd be in reading...

Lisa Kane says:

I just turned 50 and already feel invisible in some workplaces. How do you manage to maintain your confidence and continued belief in the importance of your voice?

I believe that in a way the answer is very snobbish: I was born into a confident family that believed itself the best kind of people. My grandparents had a beautiful house, we all rode ponies and were very confident. I look back on it now and find it quite abhorrent, but I do feel it was like being brought up in a greenhouse. You put down roots of confidence, and I'm sure at the bottom of personal uncertainties when one was young there was always this secret family assurance. I think it's rather deplorable, except that it made life easy for me.

'I inherited from my mother a face that lasts well – she died at the age of 96 without a single wrinkle on her face'

CaptainGrey says:

OK someone has to ask. You look fabulous - do you have a picture in the attic, feast on virgins or have you sold your soul?

On a serious side, do you think that your love of your work has helped and do you have any tips? Or are you of the opinion (like the great Sir Nicholas Winton) that it is down to choosing your parents carefully?

Aha, that's my secret... no, I inherited from my mother a face that lasts well. She died at the age of 96 without a single wrinkle on her face. That's my secret really.

As for your second point, I love my work and looking back I feel I've been extraordinarily lucky in my life. I had bad things happen, but I got over them because basically I liked what I was doing. Also I had this extraordinary luck, after I'd retired as a publisher, of starting to write. When I retired everyone said I should write about my publishing career and I said that's not what I do. I wrote one book, Instead of a Letter, which came out in the 1960s, and another about Waguih Ghali, an Egyptian writer who committed suicide in my flat. That was a very upsetting releatiionship that I had to get rid of, I wrote to sort myself out. But I didn't publish it till much later. Somehow

Then somehow I began having memories of things that amused me and it slowly dawned on me that I could write for fun as well as to cure myself of grief, And I had a spate of books in my 80s which meant that life became extremely amusing. And I'm still living on them. I don't think many centenarians are still living by their pen.

'I think I only have about 400 books. I had a terrible time cutting them down'

Elichad asks:

What has it been like, living in one room? I am sincere in the question. Do you depend on your inner life and mind?

It has been far, far easier than I thought. My heart sank when I first saw my room because it really is very small. It's now too full of everything. I think I only have about 400 books. I had a terrible time cutting them down. I had a space for about 300 of them but made an extra bit of shelf. My nephew came with boxes and held up all the books one by one and I had to answer in or out, and I think I made pretty good choices in the end because I have reread everything with pleasure. There isn't an inch that isn't full now, but now I love it. I think that as you get older you don't need more than one room. I certainly don't feel inhibited by it. I love coming back to it - when I get out I come hiding home.

imipak says:

I would be interested in your views of writing that is not necessarily orthodox in its depth or audience, but also in the role an editor would need to take in such cases. I am certain you have encountered such writing.

But I am also interested in where you place yourself in the field of writing. How do you see your own writing and how it has developed?

This is quite tricky because it's perfectly true that eccentric writing often works perfectly well but it might not go down well with you. I think what I would do is call in the other editors, hand it around, and if more people liked it than not then we'd go ahead. I very rarely enjoyed fantasy but I knew some books of fantasy were enjoyed by other people and were very good, so I would hand them on.

My own writing is very conventionally good, in that it is clear and economical. You should almost always cut and get it down to the minimum and that is the way I like writing, but of course I think, insofar as I was taught to write at all, I was taught to write like that. I've always found it very interesting how much you could cut and how much better it worked when you did.

davidabsalom asks:

What one book do you really wish you’d had a hand in publishing?

There are so many great books that I'd love to have published. I can't pick out just one.

'Losing your memory has its advantages because sometimes you can pick up a book and not remember you've read it at all'

mcdz has plans for what sounds like a cracking afternoon:

Hello! I don’t really have just one question, so much as a series of questions that would turn into a conversation that would flow from point to point and back and around and up and down, involving lots of tea and cake. So, I’m free for tea and cake if you are? If not, then I suppose the question I would start with would be, are there any writers that particularly excite you right now? Any old favourites you’ve reread with new perspective? Any old favourites that you’ve reread and wish you hadn’t? Thank you, and happy birthday for the 21st!

I always enjoy the books I reread because I don't bother with the ones I don't like. I've just reread Kenneth Clarke's book about his life, which I enjoyed just as much the second time. Losing your memory has its advantages because sometimes you can pick up a book and not remember you've read it at all, and lo and behold you have. If you've deeply enjoyed a book you don't forget it. I've read War and Peace four times and Middlemarch three times I think, and I once had to make a resolution not to read any more Jane Austen for ten years because I'd overdone it. I think I love Emma best because it's the most complicated and when you come to think of it, its so bold to make your central character so faulty as Emma is, and yet to make her lovable.

'Being Jean Rhys's editor was simply like being her nanny'

manatcanda says:

In an interview, William Boyd said that his editor was now really ‘just someone to contact at his publishers’. I wonder what you think of writers who go on to belittle the importance of good editing? And do you think the importance of an editor wanes as a writer progresses through his/her career?

I think that editors are often quite unimportant in a writer's career. Some writers do depend a lot on the sort of flowback they get from editors but others don't. I'm quite famous for being the editor of Jean Rhys and Vidia Naipaul, Neither of them needed a word of editing. Being their editor was simply like being their nanny - particularly with Jean.

'One of the great advantages of getting older is that one does grow out of minding what other people think of you'

Meoble says:

Do you feel that you have mostly changed as a person during your life - or are there aspects of yourself which remain as true now as they were 70 or 80 years ago?

I don't feel that I've changed at all though I must have done. I feel very much like I always did. I'm more confident now. That's one of the the great advantages of getting older - one does grow out of minding what other people think of you, which is great.

michael goldberg says:

I’m a great admirer of your writing and find you a positive realistic. How can we follow your lead in these depressing times?

Well, I just like writing to be clear and concise. I don't like a lot of words. This is my nature. I like to keep things simple and very much as they really are. I'm not one for fantasy and I'm not one for exaggerated writing, but this - I think - is a matter of personality. I'm not sure you can tell people how to do it. Infact I'm sure it's a matter of personality. Style is!

candidmum says:

I know you have been count yourself as fortunate to live in an excellent care home. What qualities make it so special - please mention specifically the ones every care home should aspire to.

Respecting their residents and allowing them to live as normally as they possibly can. As they get older and weaker, care then comes in, but until it's necessary we can come and go, and do exactly as we want. Its becoming increasingly difficult to run a care home like that because there's an organisation which keeps an eye on them and which makes us, here, scream, because they're so over-careful about health and safety. At the moment we have a rule that we're not allowed to keep our windows open more than five and a half inches and that is going to have to be fought here because we like fresh air.

'Working with women has always seemed to me to be extremely easy and more efficient than working with men'

arobas says:

Big admirer of the exceptional perspective that comes with your age, your gender and your great personal gifts (these regardless of age and gender).

Nevertheless I focus on gender and wonder if working relations between women, also inter-generational, have changed and how? Men seem to be so good at creating alliances that further their careers. Women?

Working with women has always seemed to me to be extremely easy and more efficient than working with men. Publishing was run almost entirely by women. The bosses were men but the people who did the work were nearly all women.
There were moments when the men about the place behaved much more as women were supposed to behave if their love lives went wrong. My word, what a fuss they made, whereas women would just go ploughing on regardless of what was happening at home.

'VS Naipaul was so intelligent and amusing when he was young'

bruar909 asks:

I was wondering if you could explain what it was like to work with VS Naipaul. Was he really as exasperating as is made out?

(A little about Naipaul’s reputation here).

Diana Athill says:

To begin with I love working with him: he was so intelligent and amusing when he was young. But as time went by he became more difficult. He was not really an easy man to get on with.

blindscouse asks:

Where do you see the publishing industry heading in the next 20 years?

It's becoming a good deal tougher than it was, a good deal more money-orientated, though not all publisher are. My own publisher seems to me to be functioning much the way as it did in my day. But people complain that others are becoming too big and they're becoming much sloppier about looking after manuscripts. They're not so good at editing as they used to be.

'I have a very relaxed philosophy - enjoy yourself as much as you can without doing any damage to other people'

Pythoness says:

You are most generous with the charity you give to others, including me a nobody in the USA who received a kind and flowing response to a benign note I sent to you. I was so impressed I have read everything that I can find with your signature. Thank you first and tell us anything about your philosophy of life.

Hello Pythoness
I'm not sure that I have a very distinct philosophy of life. Up till now I've been so lucky and things have come out so well for me that I've been able to have a very relaxed philosophy, which is enjoy yourself as much as you can without doing any damage to other people.

Diana Athill is with us now

And we’re starting with a big question, from CathyRozel:

You have lived through a century. Do you see humanity surviving another?

Oh god knows. It's trying not to, as far as I can see. I'm rather glad that I'm not likely to know the answer to that.

Diana Athill webchat – post your questions now!

On 21 December 2017, Diana Athill will be 100 years old. This is an achievement in itself, though Athill has never been one to congratulate herself for simply hanging on in there. A 50-year career in publishing at Andre Deutsch, working closely with an illustrious portfolio of writers including Jean Rhys, Philip Roth, John Updike and Margaret Atwood among many others, would be more than enough to satisfy most people. But after retiring in 1993 at the age of 75, she simply cracked on with her second career as a memoirist, in the process eclipsing many of the writers whose work she used to edit.

Athill’s books detail her extraordinary life in vivid and unflinching detail, from her childhood at Ditchingham Hall, Norfolk, to working for the BBC during the second world war, to her overseas travels and affairs with various fascinating, unstable men – one, Egyptian writer Waguih Ghali, committed suicide at her home; another, the African-American activist Hakim Jamal, was assassinated. Her most recent memoir, 2015’s Alive, Alive Oh!, reflected on losing a baby at the age of 43 – and almost dying herself in the process. Yet having survived to an age that most people never get to experience, she writes powerfully about what really matters from her special vantage point.

Now’s your chance to tap into that century of accrued wisdom, as Athill joins us for a webchat on Monday 11 December at 2pm. Simply post your comments below!


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