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Possession at 20

NAB: Do you notice a difference in the writing?

ASB: Yes. Everybody says that computers make them write longer. They make me write much shorter. If it’s a thousand word review, whenever I do a word check, I quite often find I have said everything I want to say in 750 words; whereas if I’m doing it by hand, it will run over. It’s nice to be able to push two keys and get an exact count.

Reviewing is like an art form. It’s like the sonnet in one sense, it’s got to be done precisely. And most reviews are about fourteen lines. There are a lot of young men reviewing in England at the moment who don’t seem to realize that you can’t quote extensively in a review of a thousand words, because it leaves you no time to say anything. They don’t do it out of laziness, they do it because they have been taught close reading at university, and they feel they have to demonstrate their point. What they do is they pick out a paragraph which is part of the much larger structure, which of course they haven’t left themselves space to describe (if they understood it), and then they say, “Look at that silly word in the second line of that paragraph, how could she use that word?” They make themselves look very clever, but actually what they’re doing doesn’t mean very much. It’s always very lopsided because of that silly quote. Whereas where I grew up, in a thousand words you could quote one and a half lines, maximum, of what you’re reviewing.

NAB: Today a thousand words is quite an indulgence.

ASB: A thousand words is about as big as you can get in a newspaper. I can do six hundred words too. I can even do two hundred words. There the challenge is to say anything at all.

NAB: I really am interested in getting back to whom you are writing for. Do you have a reader in mind? I know you certainly have a very strong academic background, and I know you bristle at suggestions, rightfully so, that you are an academic who writes novels for a general readership. Perhaps you could address all of those concerns?

ASB: I’ve never thought of myself as an academic. When I was very young, I made a choice about whether to be an academic or whether to be a writer, and I did decide to be a writer. I taught university for eleven years, but that was mostly to earn money to put the children through school.

I used not to have a reader in mind very much. I mean, I used to say as a joke, if I was asked, “I write for Henry James.” He has had a surprisingly large and endurable readership of people who are not academics. Anyway, I used to think I was writing for him. You know, I used to think he would understand what I was trying to do. And now I do know that I have a lot of readers of very many different kinds. This makes you actually feel quite comfortable with yourself, because if you can write something as historical and as intellectual as Possession and become a bestseller, you can presumably do anything.

NAB: Did the success of Possession shock you?

ASB: I thought it would sell quite well. I would have guessed it would have sold 25,000 or so in the hardcover. In fact, it got itself up to 120,000, which is a big difference. But 25,000 is quite a lot. I knew it was a sort of good story that people would enjoy, and I got terribly upset when all the publishers tried to take all the things out. Writing Babel Tower was quite good, because I’ve done so many readings in so many countries, and people kept saying, “What’s happened to Federica? Why haven’t you finished it?” I knew it had readers who were waiting for it.

NAB: I am really interested in how extensively writers are influenced by their reading, and I wonder whether you are quite a voracious reader, perhaps even a bibliophile. Do you collect books, by the way?

ASB: I own a large number of books, but I only collect them for the contents. It would never occur to me to go out and look for a first edition. I should guess I have about 12,000 volumes. The house is full of books...

NAB: Does your reading influence what you write?

ASB: Oh yes. I feel that the great writers of the past are my ancestors, as it were. You can always learn something. And also, I think my books are as real to me as people. You get the sort of sense of a shape of a book. Occasionally, you’ll go into a house, and there isn’t a book. My mother-in-law had about eight books. They were books of poetry, and she read them and reread them with a great passion. How she could stop there and have just eight?

She had one little bookcase, with an arch over the top, and it had this row of books, and there were two or three 1930s novels, and in the back, half a dozen good books of poetry, and a gardening book, and that was it. I just can’t imagine that. I feel that isn’t quite a life.

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