Books: Durban and Oxford shenanigans: Peter Guttridge talks to Barbara Trapido, a novelist who talks to her characters in dreams

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Barbara Trapido began writing to appease her mother. The 51-year-old author of four acute and funny novels about different sorts of family relationships had an intense relationship with her German mother, who died two years ago. 'She gave me the illusion that I was her best friend, so of course I kept failing her; I used to write hundreds of stories for her to make it up to her. My mother was artistic and musical and thought I was quite a lot like her. When I was a small child, we both had asthma: we wheezed together, drew pictures together. She identified with me so much I think she felt let down that I didn't turn out to be her clone.'

Trapido, whose fourth novel, Juggling (Hamish Hamilton, pounds 9.99), comes complete with an encomium from Mary Wesley and the cachet of being selected for special promotion by W H Smith, is curled on a sofa in her book-cluttered house by the river in Oxford. She is married to Oxford don Stanley Trapido. They have two teenage children. She is a thoughtful talker who takes her time to such an extent you're not sure when she's finished answering a question. And even less sure she's heard the question you then ask until she weaves an answer to into her remarks some minutes later. 'I'm not very directed,' she says by way of explanation.

Juggling is a sequel to her third novel, Temples of Delight, and like her other novels is full of sharp, humorous insights and sexual shenanigans. It picks up the story of Pam, the baby girl Alice Pilling inherited from a dead schoolfriend, and Christina, Alice's own daughter by a man other than her husband. Juggling is full of Shakespearean resonances, especially in the relationship of the two girls with the boys, Peter and Jago. 'Together the quartet form a perfect and propitious symmetry.'

'I didn't intend to write a sequel,' Trapido says, almost apologetically. 'I was playing around with the idea of two sisters very close in age. Then I thought, I know why I'm doing this, I'm writing about Alice's children. Why don't I bring it out in the open?' Christina, stroppy and defiant, is the main character and Trapido is pleased at the way she turned out, if only because it answers a common criticism of her work. 'At a reading for Temples of Delight, Anne Fine said I allowed my women to be bossed about by men because I live in Oxford where there are such a lot of bossy, opinionated men. I took her point, but I think that's a blueprint you get in childhood - men stomp and make a fuss to get their own way.' Trapido's father, a Dutch- born mathematician, was her blueprint. 'He would have sudden outbursts,' she says. He met her mother in Cape Town where he had gone as an exchange student. Her mother's family had emigrated from Germany in the Thirties to escape the rise of Fascism.

Trapido was brought up in Durban where her father taught at the university. 'Going to school was quite a shock. My parents were very other-worldly. My mother played piano all morning because there was a communal houseboy who did all the sweeping up. I had no contact with popular culture at all - no comics, no radio. At school I had no idea what terminology the other children were using. It was the first time I was aware of racism too - Durban was the worst kind of English, united Empire settlement with this small group of Britons raising the Union Jack in the front garden and a whole hinterland of impoverished Zulus.' She took an English degree in Durban after her art teacher dissuaded her from studying architecture on the grounds it was inappropriate for a woman. 'I was rather a timorous type so I acquiesced, especially as I liked English well enough.' She met Stanley, her future husband, around that time. She describes him as 'an old rad who used to get beaten up on his way to school in a one- horse town in the Transvaal because it was full of Afrikaaner fascists and he was Jewish'. (On the day of this interview, Stanley is attending a special lunch with President Mandela for those active in the opposition to apartheid before 1960.)

In 1963 she and her new husband came to England where for some years she taught, including a stint at the remand centre at Newton Aycliffe ('I taught a bunch of little hoods there').

She began her first novel, Brother of the More Famous Jack when she had two young children to bring up. 'I'd forgotten how much I used to write when I was little. 'When I was at university, the proper pursuit was criticism. Only one or two chronically pretentious types carried around their poems in their pockets. I was much too humble. Now, addicted to being a stay-at-home mother, I started to write to entertain myself.' Her first novel won a special fiction prize at the Whitbread Awards in 1982. Three years later she produced Noah's Ark.

There followed a five-year hiatus while she was 'seduced' by TV and film projects, adapting her first novel into six one-hour TV episodes and then rewriting it as a mini-series. 'They paid me well so I could buy loads of glamorous jerseys, but it came to nothing. All my novels have attracted film interest but nobody has been able to adapt them in a workable way.'

Her mother was pleased by the books. 'She read them convinced I was writing my autobiography, which I never was. I think I put the demon lover into Temples of Delight to tease her, so she would imagine I was having an affair.' While denying autobiography, she acknowledges that the new novel is influenced by her experience of growing up with a sister close to her in age. 'Although I was the favourite when I was a child, all my adult life I had the impression my mother was much fonder of my sister. And she deserved it because she stuck around when I defected to England. So when I wanted to write about these sisters maybe it meant in my head I'd stopped murdering her.'

Trapido is an intuitive writer who works from dreams and daydreams. 'I start with characters. I walk around in their shoes for a long time. I stay in my pyjamas all day talking to people who aren't there. Of course, when I read somewhere that 70 per cent of writers have mental problems, I understood completely.'

Trapido's books are very funny, but that does not therefore make them lightweight or cosy. 'I was surprised when people said Temples of Delight had a happy ending. Alison looks like she is about to cross the Atlantic with a crazy man and one child got by fraud and another by some other man. Is this happy? And that's what got me thinking about comedy - it's not about happy endings. It just happens you choose to write about terrible things in life in a humorous way. As I say in Juggling, comedy is a better kind of tragedy.' She's been mulling over her next novel in recent months. The idea of continuing Christine's story is in the back of her mind but she's been brooding on relationships across great ethnic differences. 'I'm daydreaming, writing sequences provisionally in my head,' she says. 'But as yet I haven't started to talk to non-existent people. I expect that will come shortly.'

(Photograph omitted)