Linda Grant: ‘Who would I be if I wasn’t writing?’


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If you’re the sort of reader who devours Linda Grant’s novels while wondering just how much Linda Grant they contain – spoiler alert: usually nothing; clue’s in the word “novel” –  well, you’re in for a treat with her latest. “I sort of like Adele more than I like myself in my way,” she admits, over a coffee in her newest north London hangout, an art house cinema (what else, it’s Crouch End?).

The confession, about the main character in her latest book, is pertinent because the 63-year-old broke with tradition to raid her own life to write Upstairs at the Party. She pauses, thinking of the right phrase: it’s “quasi-personal”. It was, she says, “a very conscious decision” to spin the plot from the “point of view of a character that wasn’t really me, but did have some of me in her.”

The sneaky giveaway is Adele’s surname: Ginsberg, which Grant fans might know is her own birth name; her parents changed it when she was three. Adele wangles herself a place at university by claiming she’s Allen Ginsberg’s cousin, leaving her always to wonder if she deserved it. “Part of the joke was I used to say that Allen was my cousin, when I knew perfectly well that he wasn’t.” Although Grant got a place at university under her own steam, she, too, was slightly on the outside by dint of applying only after she’d left school early to work on a local paper in Widnes. Both Adele and Linda were born in Liverpool, “the product of people with tricky back-stories” as she writes in chapter two. Yet neither was Liverpudlian, in the working class sense, making it harder, later, working out how to fit in.

In Grant’s case, this delayed the start of her novel writing career until she was 45, by which time, yes, she “thought it was never going to come”. The struggle for Grant, the daughter of two Jewish immigrants, was finding a voice. “I didn’t feel that I could write from the perspective of an English middle-class person, which was what my education had given me – I went to a private school – because that was completely alien to me. I couldn’t write out of Howard Jacobson territory either, that wise-cracking Jewish schtick. Then I lived in Canada from 1976 to 1984, in Vancouver. There, I remember feeling, ‘I’m this person without a history, no one understands who I am.’ Back in Britain, I thought, ‘Actually, I’m a product of cosmopolitan places, and places that are not rooted in national or ethnic identities. People who feel themselves to be outsiders looking in.’”

Eventually, the outsider thing became Grant’s “schtick” when, finally, the former journalist knuckled down and got on with it (after listening to a friend moan about a soon-to-be-ex-husband who wouldn’t crack on with writing his own book). “I thought, ‘Oh, right, I’ve been waiting for some muse to strike me.’ So I went home and turned on my computer and wrote about 5,000 words over a couple of weeks. My agent then said, ‘Write another 10,000,’ so I just cast off into the future.”

Adele’s university is never named but it isn’t too hard to fathom that it’s Grant’s own alma mater, York. She “dithered” about naming what was still a newish institution when Grant was an undergraduate, with only 2,700 students. “Small means you don’t have quite the leeway you do with Harvard, Oxford, or Cambridge, which already have myths attached.” In many ways, it’s the university that’s the real protagonist: alluring yet unfathomable and, above all, unsettling. The university and its framework, or lack of, provides the backdrop to the story and what exactly happens upstairs at the party, Adele’s 20th birthday.

Grant on York (but it might as well be Adele): “It was a really small place. The phrase we didn’t know at the time was liberal arts college. I said we had this unprecedented freedom but there was no safety net and quite a few people that I knew went under: mental illness, or left, because they couldn’t hack the intensity and the lack of any kind of support. I saw now that that was quite irresponsible. What I hadn’t known then was that whole background of being ideologically-based was this bulwark against ideology, against extremism. I think I’d spent many years thinking about it and what a strange place it was and what strange relationships we’d all had.”

Grant studied English, naturally enough given that the “only thing I’d ever wanted to do was write novels”. This comes across strongly in an e-book she’s just published, I Murdered My Library. She uses a house move, from something “really big, worth a huge amount” to a smaller flat, to cull her books, books that had taken over her very existence, piled high on every surface, even the stairs. My favourite detail was learning that we’d shared the same childhood favourites, dreaming of galloping to the same Northumbrian Peel towers or dancing at Sadlers’ Wells, courtesy of Lorna Hill, or competing at a gymkhana with Jill (thank you Ruth Ferguson).

Despite the Kindle Single – “too long for a newspaper and too short for a book” – she has “massive, massive, massive qualms” about Amazon; making all her book purchases from shops rather than online. That said, she’s pragmatic and expects to be out of print within 20 years of her death, tops, like “most of the writers I know”. She also holds little truck with the “sanctity of the printed book, in the sense of it as a beautiful object,” not even when it’s a proof of something she’s sweated over for 300-plus pages. “I’m always much more interested in the words.” The happy upshot of the cull is that her bookshelves have gaps for the first time in years, so she’s back to browsing.

Despite taking her time getting started, she’s thankful for making it when she did because the current “crisis in books” is making it hard to get published and even harder to make any money if you do. This creates a Catch 22 by forcing budding novelists to take creative writing courses, something she thinks “are a scam”. “What’s happened is writers, eminent writers, who are unable to make a living from writing, have to teach creative writing courses in order to create more writers who won’t be able to make a living. The whole thing seems completely screwy.” 

Unusually, she has yet to get stuck into her next novel, blaming the major stress of moving house and not feeling the vibe from her new office. Plus “emotionally” Upstairs at the Party also took its toll. So is she worried? “I think about it all the time. Who would I be if I wasn’t writing? Would I be some completely different person? Then I think maybe I’m free of it; maybe I don’t have to write. Then I think, no, that’s not possible.”