Saturday, 30 January 2010

A S Byatt

Here's a real treat. I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to interview the brilliant A S Byatt late in 2008, but unfortunately, because of space constraints, I was only able to use around half of the material. Here, for the very first time, is the complete interview.

Booker-prize winning novelist AS Byatt has published more than two dozen novels, short story collections and critical biographies since her first book, Shadow of a Sun, in 1964. The sister of novelist Margaret Drabble, she was awarded the CBE in 1990, a DBE in 1999, and received the Shakespeare Prize in recognition of her contribution to British culture. She’s in town as part of the Festival of Ideas.

Q: You’re in Bristol to discuss art and science with Semir Zeki, of the Institute of Neuroesthetics. He feels the artist is a neuroscientist, exploring the potentials and capacities of the brain. Do you agree?

A: I agree with Professor Zeki that there is no difference between mind and brain – art is produced by the brain, shaping and arranging the material it works with, including its own memories. I don’t like words like “creative” and “inspiration” because these are religious words, and the artist is neither making new things ex nihilo, nor receiving messages breathed in by higher beings. I like words like “making”, “crafting”, most of all “imagination”, which represent the human animal using capacities it has developed. “Intelligence”, “understanding”, comparing and relating things and experiences. Language occurred and was developed and refined by human animals over time – every good writer adds something to what language can do, and hands that on. I don’t think neuroscientists are yet in a position to say anything about the most complicated art or writing – though Professor Philip Davis in Liverpool has done some interesting work, with experimental subjects, on the effect of Shakespeare’s syntax. Even so, what Professor Davis himself says about the sentence structures is very considerably more interesting than the experimental statistics.

Q: You’ve picked up an extraordinary collection of awards over the years. Are you comfortable with that level of veneration?

A: Being venerated is a horrid idea. I understand the Yeats poem about becoming a “smiling public man” and I don’t want to be a smiling public woman. Katherine Whitehorn, I think it was, wrote about being a “statutory woman” who gets put on committees because it is thought politically necessary to have a woman. I have sat on various committees but I try to choose them so that I shall find out something I didn’t know, and want to know. I like talking to scientists, for example. And they talk to me partly because they know who I am. Writing my last novel was very exciting because when I asked people to help – people in museums, and historians, - I got answers to queries, and personal tours of closed places because I was taken seriously. And then I make friends where I once couldn’t have expected to make friends. It is useful to have won the Booker because all sorts of foreign countries run university courses (for better for worse) on a list of Booker winners – and suddenly I find I have messages from extremely interesting people in China who tell me things I didn’t know.

Q: You once said that the Harry Potter books were "written for people whose imaginative lives are confined to TV cartoons, and the exaggerated mirror-worlds of soaps, reality TV and celebrity gossip." Do you think we’re too easily pleased?

A: This remark has been taken continuously out of context. I was trying to compare J.K.Rowling as a mythmaker with things I read as a child, and particularly with Tolkien. Tolkien’s great strength is describing landscape. He describes a world without machines and his creatures exist in forests and mountains and marshes and rivers in a spacious landscape which has vanished more and more from our consciousnesses during my life time. Rowling knows how to invent magic for people who live in confined spaces, don’t run wild, and have their heads full of images from the magic mirror or window of the small screen. She is very successful in magicking – reinserting the sense of the magical – into things which would have been in themselves inconceivably magical when I was a child – cell phones, animations, pop videos. She makes them strange which is difficult because they seem magical anyway. I don’t think she is good at sub-myth as Tolkien is. Her evil creatures don’t really threaten; her sense of the nature of things is confined inside the boarding school where her child characters have magical powers and good jokes. All I was trying to say in that article is that I can’t see why a very good children’s writer has become a kind of literary guru for grown-up people.

Q: Many of your novels have been concerned with characters from the 19th Century. Do you hark after a time when intelligence, sophistication and the use of language were more highly regarded?

A: Not really. I have no desire to live then. Though you put it well – I do write about the nineteenth century because the language was adapted to serious thinking. Really I write about that time because I think that we are its descendants and need to understand where we came from. We have made gruesome and sentimental images of gloomy Victorian men and women in black crape and repressive suits. We don’t need any nostalgia for then – the streets were horrid with horse dung, the chimneys blasted out smoke, kitchens were grim and laborious. But we do need to understand the complexity of people’s lives and thoughts.
Q: Who are your own favourite authors?

A: Oh, impossible to start. Shakespeare, Coleridge, Proust, Balzac, George Eliot, John Donne and George Herbert. Ambivalently Thomas Mann.

Q: Your early education was at a Quaker-run school. How has that influenced your outlook on life?

A: It’s left me wracked with guilt about almost everything, and sure that I am inadequate. Also the Quakers in a good and strong way felt that the arts were either bad or relatively unimportant and that rubbed off on me. For many years I wrote novels knowing I ought to be a Social Worker. And finally they left me with a respect for silence. I need silence as I need food and exercise. And it’s harder and harder to find. There is too much music, there are too many building works, the Heath Row traffic goes incessantly overhead. Travel has potted music, so do lifts, you can’t buy a dress in silence in a store. “Our staff would leave if you asked for the music to be turned off.” They are even beginning to play music during tennis grand slams.

Q: Is there a God?

A: Not one I think anyone knows anything about. I’m an agnostic, not an atheist, because there is so much we don’t know – and going back to Professor Zeki – are not equipped to apprehend or understand. It is clearly, as E.O.Wilson says, universally ingrained in human societies to have gods. If there were a personal God, It would appear to be somewhat insouciant, unjust and evil. But I see no evidence that there is. There is what Professor Zeki calls a Brain Concept...

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