Penelope Lively: The roads not taken

After a life full of achievement, Penelope Lively has imagined what might have been. Clare Colvin talks to her about fiction, family and the lure of alternative lives

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The re-making seems the result of curiosity rather than regret, for she is a successful novelist, a Booker Prize winner for Moon Tiger in 1987. She had a long and happy marriage until the death of her husband, Professor Jack Lively, in 1998, and has two children who have been, she says, "the light of her life". She lives in a pleasant house in a garden square in Islington. There should be nothing to regret, but story-telling is an ingrained habit. Just as her earliest fictions, as an isolated and bored child growing up in Egypt in the early 1940s, were fables about herself drawn from Greek mythology, so at the other end of life, the mythology that intrigues her is of imagined alternatives.

"When you're making climactic decisions, they do all cluster in younger life. Most of my crucial decisions seem to have been taken before the age of 25," she reflects. "I have always been fascinated by the business of choice and contingency, the way in which we think we make choices but we're directed by contingent events, from the little things like the car that won't start, to the large directives of history. Choice and contingency land you where you are, and the whole process seems so precarious, you look back at those moments when things might have gone entirely differently, when life might have spun off in some other direction.

"For a fiction writer," she notes, "this gets very interesting, because in fiction you're making choices all the time - nothing is left to contingency, or shouldn't be. Every sentence is a question of choice. The writer is able to impose a pattern. Real life is quite out of control, and the paths not taken look like an evolutionary tree that spreads off in all directions. What I tried to do was look at one possible alternative at different stages of my life and turn it into a fictional road not taken."

Curiously enough, another Booker-winning novelist, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, had a similar idea for a semi-memoir My Nine Lives, published a year ago. Lively had just sent her manuscript to the publisher when Jhabvala's book came out. Her first thought was that there "must be something in the air," but then she realised that as Jhabvala was of a similar age, she too may have been thinking in the same way. Why am I who I am rather than somebody completely different?

The Jhabvala alternative selves are at the centre of each narrative, whereas the Lively alter ego is usually at the edge of her stories. Thus, in the first, "The Mozambique Channel", a British family is fleeing Egypt in 1941 as the Germans advance towards Cairo. In the "bookends" at the beginning and end of each story, Lively begins with an introduction to the real circumstances, and ends with an afterword as to the actual outcome. In real life, her mother, nanny and herself were evacuated to Palestine. The fictional family - the child re-named Jean, and younger than Penelope - take a boat to South Africa via the Mozambique Channel. As happened with a number of boats, it is torpedoed by a German submarine, and the child dies. The story is told from the viewpoint of a nanny, whose character is based on her own nanny, Lucy.

The foreword to the second story, "The Albert Hall", describes the young Penelope at the Chelsea Arts Ball in 1951, wearing calf-length blue jeans, a checked shirt with its tails knotted so that her midriff is bare, and vast hooped gold earrings. She was in love with the older man who had brought her and, in the small hours, they left for his flat. For her, the night of the Arts Ball was just a heady rite of passage - but suppose, in those pre-pill days, she had become pregnant, and faced social disgrace as a single mother, or death through a backstreet abortion? Here again, the fictional story is told from the viewpoint of the illegitimate daughter, Chloe, ashamed of her freewheeling mother and determined to lead an orderly life, with job, mortgage and husband. Naturally, Chloe's own children rebel.

There were two reasons for Lively's decision to shunt herself aside as a character. "I was thinking about the artificiality of the perception of one's own life as being the central figure," she says. "No one else sees it like this. For others, you are peripheral, a bit player. You may be someone in their lives who has loomed largely as a parent or as a wife, or you may have been just a passing ship. Then again, it's more interesting for me as a novelist to be dealing with different characters rather than trying to think of an alternative me for each section... The bookends of each section are what really happened - it's a kind of alternative memoir."

The characters often share Lively's preoccupations of the era. In "The Temple of Mithras", Alice, a student on an archeological dig in 1973, does not expect to live very long as she is waiting for the bomb to drop. Lively remembers her similar fears: "I was a young mother and I seriously didn't think I would see my children grow up. Today is frightening in a completely different way. We used to hope, with the bomb, that reason would prevail, but the trouble this time around is that reason can't prevail because you're not up against forces that are reasonable."

With all these alternative lives comes the question that must occur to any writer. What alternative would she have found if no one had wanted to publish her? "I could have been snuffed out quite easily. I was lucky and got published quickly, but many wonderful writers don't and I admire people who crusade on through several books. I don't think I could have done that. I would have packed it in.

"Only gradually did writing come to seem inevitable, and what I would always do. I was ignorant about publishing, had never heard of literary agents, and when someone told me about them I picked one with a pin. He was Murray Pollinger and we had a long and happy relationship for the rest of his working life. There now seems to be a career structure of MAs in creative writing. Young writers are much more clued up about publishing".

Towards the end of Making It Up, she detects some directing factor in her childhood that has been constant in her life - that she was programmed to become addicted to reading and writing, to prefer thoughtful, argumentative men and to want children; unlike her mother, who was happy to let her father have custody of 12-year-old Penelope on their divorce. As a result, she was determined when she became a young mother that no one else would look after her children. They seemed to have been unharmed - Adam is now a documentary film maker and Josephine, an oboist, a professor at Trinity College of Music.

"You're very much formed by circumstances. In my case, by not going to school and having no one to play with, books became my imaginative life. I also married somebody who was widely read and who led me to reading the books that were always the right thing to read at that moment. He was a man totally interested in ideas and he was hugely supportive of my writing. It has felt very different, writing since he died, because he was the first person to read anything I wrote."

And as she grows older? She says she's much slower. She suffers from spinal arthritis, which means she can't use a computer, though she is able to write at an electronic typewriter. She used to write short stories at the same time as a novel, but they left her about five years ago. The stories sprang much more from life as lived than the novels did, the ideas coming from a snippet of personal experience. "Over time you could see a way you could bleach it of the personal aspect and turn it into a story that would have some sort of universal relevance," she says. "I would say to Jack, 'I've just recognised a short story today,' and we would both laugh about it, particularly as it was something he might have seen or heard as well. It just does not happen now, the same way as children's books left me.

"The novel seems so far not to have done so. I seriously thought that Making It Up might be the last but to my astonishment I got a new idea literally the week I finished it. It suddenly dropped into my head one morning. It was extremely satisfactory because I had wondered what on earth I was going to do with myself."

Biography: Penelope Lively

Penelope Lively was born in Cairo in 1933. She came to England aged 12, and read history at St Anne's College, Oxford. In 1957 she married the political scientist Jack Lively (who died in 1998); they had two children. She has written more than 20 books for children. Her first adult novel was The Road to Lichfield (1977). Others include Treasures of Time (1979); Perfect Happiness (1983); According to Mark (1984); Moon Tiger (1987; Booker Prize winner); Cleopatra's Sister (1993); Spiderweb (1998); and The Photograph (2003). She has also written plays, screenplays and volumes of stories. Her non-fiction includes the memoirs Oleander, Jacaranda (1994) and A House Unlocked (2001). Making It Up is published this week by Viking. Awarded the CBE in 2002, Penelope Lively lives in Islington, north London, and has four grandchildren.

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