Michèle Roberts: Confessions of a cultural heretic

The former Catholic is happy to discuss unfashionable ideas – such as feminism, modernism, even republicanism – with Stephanie Cross

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In the 1980s, Michèle Roberts published a book of essays entitled Food, Sex & God. Happily for journalists, that serves rather well as a summation of her themes. These have been the subjects to which she has returned across three collections of short stories, four books of poetry, and 12 previous novels; an inventive, provocative and playful oeuvre that, in its immense sensuousness, has seen her compared to Debussy and Monet as well as Colette.

Food, sex and God all feature in Roberts's new book – although, being set in wartime France, the food is hardly haute cuisine. A powerfully immersive and moving novel, Ignorance encompasses several narrators and shades of not-knowing, but centres on two very different girls: Jeanne, the daughter of a poor Jewish widow who has converted to Catholicism; and Marie-Angèle, the child of comfortably-off Catholics.

In many ways, Ignorance feels like a companion to Roberts's 1992 Booker prize shortlisted novel, Daughters of the House: the young female protagonists, the period, the setting. A "reprise" is how Roberts describes the book when we meet, before explaining that it wasn't consciously intended as such. "I was just impelled to write it," she says.

Roberts was born in 1949 to an English father and a French Catholic mother. This novel, she explains, came partly out of a desire to explore "how family stories veil, or put differently, what might have happened". Thus, while Roberts's maternal grandfather liked to present himself as a hero of the local resistance, Roberts became aware that he was, nonetheless, still obliged to work daily under the occupying forces. But Ignorance – which is also "on one level, simply about mother-daughter separation" – draws too on tales that Roberts's mother told in the final years of her life; tales full of resonant, but unexplained, images. "They resurrected themselves and haunted me, and I had to do something with them: that's what writing is, I think: that you're haunted by images, and you want to make something with them."

Listening to Roberts talk about her work is a fascinating, slightly intense experience. As she describes the creative process, she draws shapes in the air, seeming to see deep inside. She talks about dissolving the ego – "the kind of black line you might draw round yourself" – and the "golden bubble" of the imagination. Conventional realist structures of storytelling are fine, she continues, "but I want to get away from that as much as I can".

The structure of Ignorance is somewhere between Russian doll and baton relay, being narrated by a series of distinct voices that are all also Jeanne's. "I'm a modernist, and I always want to know where a voice is, and where it's placed, and who's created it," Roberts says. But while she clearly takes her work seriously – even when it involves what she terms "making a big mess in the sand pit" – Roberts is very far from precious: generous and warm. "I think it's good to be subversive – of yourself as well," she says.

Roberts's life has certainly not followed any script. A convent school education led on to English at Oxford; Roberts specialised in the mystics, and St Teresa of Avila remains a "muse". She then firmly resisted full-time employment, to focus on becoming a writer. Her acclaimed 2007 memoir Paper Houses describes her subsequent flâneuse's progress through Seventies and Eighties London, her discovery of socialist feminism, and her struggles with the sexual guilt and terror that were the legacy of her Catholic upbringing.

Catholicism has proved an abundantly rich seam for Roberts – an atheist who "absolutely believe[s] in mystical experience". Her novels – Ignorance included – are also fed by her interest in psychoanalysis, although it enrages her when academics treat them as though they merely explicate its ideas. During her twenties, Roberts spent some years in therapy. It was "a lifesaver"; "amazing". Do writers have to be a bit mad, I ask? "Well, I think you need to question what our culture calls sanity, that's the position I'd take up. So that just as I'm a heretic for the Catholic Church, I think I'd be a heretic for the culture we live in, with its notions of what sanity is."

The "H" word crops up again when we discuss the "women's fiction" label: "I'd still like to say – if it seems relevant – that I'm a woman writer, but as long as I'm allowed to explain that for me, that still means being subversive, heretical, and exploring difference." Roberts acknowledges that many of her peers feel uncomfortable with the term, as she does with gender-based marketing: "As though men write one kind of writing and women write another, which is nonsense."

The significance of female friendship and feminism in Roberts's life is stressed in her memoir, and Roberts refers several times to the importance of her friends as we talk. On the subject of feminism, Roberts cites the authors Kat Banyard and Natasha Walter and the website UK Feminista as evidence of its continuing existence. "And I think there are also lots of young women who are terrified of it, and they think it means ugly women with hairy armpits who Hate Men. [She manages to convey the capitals.] That's because their mothers are reading the Daily Mail, and that's what the Daily Mail's telling you."

Roberts has been married twice and is currently in a long-term relationship; her life is split between London and France. In 2003, she rejected the OBE because of her republican views; have they softened? Not a bit, it seems. So no plans for the Jubilee holiday? Roberts smiles, explaining how, in London, she is part of her local tenants association, which means mucking in with the inevitable street parties. "I will be there as a revolutionary, with a tricolour and some kind of banner saying, 'Cut their heads off!'" She laughs. "But I will also be helping and dancing and having a great time."

Ignorance, By Michèle Roberts

Bloomsbury £14.99

"... I forced my feet to drag away, past the shuttered smithy and towards the bridge. Mist hid the water. I trailed my hand along the low stone parapet, dampening the fingers of my woollen glove, counting the slabs as I crossed. One mother two mother three mother four. My mother's face hard as a paving-slab. 'Be off, darling. I must get on'."