INTERVIEW / From hand to mouth: Michele Roberts, WH Smith Literary Award winner, talks to Georgina Brown about food, feminism and sex

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The Independent Culture
For lunch, Michele Roberts has prepared a sumptuous still life: a blue oval plate on which hunks of ciabatta are spread with black and pale-green olive and red-pepper pate, purple wine in a tinted glass. It's no less than you'd expect. When her novel Daughters of the House was shortlisted for the Booker Prize last year, one critic teased that it included immaculate recipes for Dijon mayonnaise. Her sensuous prose, stuffed with a foodie's preoccupations with preparations, textures and tastes, is good enough to eat. Clearly it whetted the appetites of the W H Smith Literary Award panel, winning the pounds 10,000 prize.

The money will go a long way - most of it, indeed, to France; the Anglo-French Roberts is saving up to buy her aunt's brick cottage in Normandy, where she spent childhood summers. Some will soothe the bank-manager. When she was bored of the hippy trail in Thailand, Roberts returned to London where her writer's garret was occasionally a squat. Most of her six published novels, several collections of short stories and poetry, various anthologies including Modern British Poetry and The Faber Book of Sex, a play and a television script, were produced after the day-job as a hospital cleaner. 'I was really poor for 20 years but I lived with great flair. I always had a bottle of wine, I always managed to go abroad; I didn't have any clothes or hot water, but I was terribly happy. I feel hugely rich now - it's spiritual riches as well.'

By which she means her literary recognition, her five-year marriage to Jim Latter, an artist ('I'm overjoyed at my happiness with Jim'), and their life of uncontrived bohemianism in a tatty north London house, where the sunshine streams into dusty corners, over chipped paint and on to haphazardly arranged blue glass bowls and cracked Quimper dishes. She writes on a tiny manual typewriter in a study with screaming parrot-green walls and a little sofa on which she has her afternoon siesta. This is not, however, the house mentioned in Daughters of the House.

That is an imagined manor- house in Normandy with a secret in the cellar, and skeletons in the nearby woods. The 'daughters' of the house are two cousins, possibly sisters. Pious Therese has returned to the home in which they grew up after 20 years in a Carmelite convent; meanwhile, worldly Leonie has laid claim to it, filling it with her husband, her children, her silk clothes, her cigarette smoke. Time has not blunted their scratchy rivalry, nor silenced the ghosts.

While playing with the Gothic and thriller genres, the novel is also a story of betrayal, a painful memoir of adolescence, of visionaries seen and invented, and a moving history of post-war France. It can be boldly scatological, richly sensual, deliberately ambiguous. Daughters is obsessed with physical detail. Each chapter takes its name from a domestic object - The Biscuit Tin, The Pillows, The Buffet - together building into Leonie's inventory of the house's contents. Just as this is Leonie's method of controlling her life (until the final chapter, entitled 'The Words', which symbolises her triumph over materialism and realisation that language, too, matters), so each object reveals an episode in Therese's autobiography.

In creating the characters of the girls, Roberts has drawn upon her own experience. 'Therese is what I feared I must have been like as an adolescent - prim, priggish, sexually repressed and full of terrors, not always able to be honest. Leonie is myself as I would like to have been - tomboyish, independent, free-thinking.' The novel was also an attempt to settle the conflict between the spiritual and materialistic in her own life. At the age of nine Roberts was convinced she had a vocation. 'I was very keen on God and it was wonderful. I enjoyed all the rituals, the mass - I wanted to be a contemplative. I used to feel like a monster, rather unfeminine and not pretty. I read a lot, I was crazy about poetry. It didn't endear me to my peer group or to the nuns. I felt like a lumpy, over-ardent misfit.' Her calling quieted while she was at Oxford, reading English. 'I was having a lot of pleasure, not really in terms of sex - I threw myself about but I was very tangled up about sex and didn't really like these upper-middle-class men who'd been to public school and were horrid to women. I took pleasure in smoking a lot of dope, dressing in wild clothes, learning to cook, and the joys of friendships, staying up all night talking to people, and I did twig that in a convent you wouldn't be able to do any of this.'

Since then she has 'thought my way right out of the Church' and no longer considers herself a Catholic. 'I can't stick the Pope, all those priests. I'm not anti-celibacy and I'm not anti-nuns - communities of women can be fabulous as well as have their negative side, but it's not my path.' There's an irony here that Roberts recognises. Without Catholicism she would have had nothing to write about. Her books are saturated in the iconography and paraphernalia of the Catholic Church, and, in particular, mystical experiences. Both the girls in Daughters of the House claim visions of Our Lady. Leonie's, in red and gold, is considered unacceptable by the surly village priest; Therese's, in classical blue and white, is rewarded with an invitation to join the convent. Roberts herself has had several mystical experiences and considers them quite ordinary, a matter of 'being open. It's the Church that complicates things and corrals them'.

Even the foodie element of her writing relates to Catholicism - the mass has eating at its centre, and transubstantiation as the great miracle. 'Language to me is so powerful and potent that just saying the words olive oil, bread, garlic, butter is like an experience of eating, of bliss and of religion; I'm a very oral person. Like a baby, I think I know the world through my mouth. Food is very important because it's about destruction, it's about creation and preserving; you destroy the world by eating it - it's dead, you've killed it, and yet you've created something. It seems to me it's one of the great mysteries of life.'

Roberts also acknowledges her debt to Colette. 'It's from her that I've got permission to write about hunger and eating more than you should and liking it. I think feminism investigates that.' Roberts is an impassioned feminist. 'I'm part of a generation of writers who can let gender be part of writing, who don't have to deny it, or repress it or be ashamed about gender being what we write about.'

Very early in her writing career Michelene Wandor invited her to join a feminist writers' workshop with Sarah Maitland and Zoe Fairbairns and it was there, Roberts insists, that she learnt her craft. Reviewers have tended to sideline her as an experimental feminist, with one or two heralding Daughters as the breakthrough into the mainstream.

'If they want to say I've come out of a ghetto, that's fine. It's their perception, not mine. I'm happy to be called a feminist writer, but to me that's mainstream. Women are the mainstream. It makes me furious when people say this is a post-feminist age, feminism is dead - A, it's not a post-feminist age, B, feminism isn't dead and C, we need it.'

Nor will she tone down her feminism for public consumption. 'If you write specifically, admitting where you are coming from - female, French, Catholic - then you have to take the risk that some people won't always be comfortable.'

Her next novel will tackle sex in a manner likely to raise eyebrows if not hackles. (By Roberts' standards, Daughters of the House has very little sex in it because it coincided with meeting Jim, settling down and getting married and 'feeling very private about our sex lives'.) 'It's the great discourse of our time. Yet the more people pour out about sex - how-to guides, with no jokes, for heterosexual couples - the less we know about it. Jim has said 'break all taboos, throw out self-censorship' and I'm ready to do that now. You only write well when something is burning you up. Right now I'm burnt up by lesbian sado-masochism.' Food, for a while, could be off the menu.

Almost every day that summer, it seemed to Leonie, there was a hill of beans to prepare, for lunch or dinner. Rose, Victorine, Therese and Leonie pulled up chairs to the kitchen table and set to. The thin green beans only needed topping and tailing. Snap crack as your thumbnail bit, then the fresh green smell gushed into the air. Other sorts of beans had to be shelled like peas, from pods that could be whitish-yellow, or cream speckled with pink. The pods were split and slit with your thumbnail, then the beans thumbed out of the silky inner case. Snugly fitted into it they were flicked out, bulky and milk-white as the pearls from Madeleine's necklace the time it broke and spilt into her plate at lunch. Pearl food. The pearls were fat rice grains you wanted to bite. The pink speckled beans looked like tiny onyx eggs.

While fingers flew in and out of the earthy heap of beans Rose and Victorine talked. They described village life to each other in intricate detail. They passed it back and forth. They crawled across their chosen ground like detectives armed with magnifying glasses. They took any subject and made it manageable. They sucked it and licked it down to size. They chewed at it until, softened, it yielded, like blubber or leather, to their understanding. They went over it repeatedly until it weakened and gave in and became part of them.'

'Daughters of the House', Virago

(Photograph omitted)

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