I lie," says Fay Weldon, with a sly little smile, "for the sake of entertainment, or to pass the time". Well, that's a great start to an interview. And, perhaps, a slightly surprising comment from a former atheist who is now a pillar of her local church. But that's the thing about Fay Weldon. You never quite know where you are with her. You never quite know where you are with her narrators, who are unreliable to the point of psychotic, and you never quite know where you are with her polemic, which has veered from the man-hating to the woman-hating and myriad points in between.
Still, where we are at the moment is a pub in Primrose Hill, where her latest book is set. It's a beautiful, sunny day, but Weldon – a round, smiley figure who looks as benign as a farmer's wife – has insisted we sit inside. "Don't worry, you can make it up!" she says, as I frown over the tape recorder, and the clattering, and her surprisingly quiet voice. Which, of course, is what she has done, in her new novel, Chalcot Crescent, and in the 30 or so that have gone before. In this one, the boundaries are even more blurred than usual. The narrator, Frances, is Fay's would-be younger sister, the girl her mother miscarried two years after Fay was born. Fay is there, a shadowy figure envied by her younger sister, but she is also there in Frances, a once-successful writer, now 80 (Fay is 77) with dodgy knees.
"I used to deny that I used my own life in fiction," says Weldon, delicately sipping a glass of Muscadet. "I thought the whole thing was invented. But if you put yourself in a different body, in different circumstances, it's still you there. In a kind of way, all women are one woman anyway, in a way that all men are not the same man." Sorry? Two minutes into the interview, and we've already got Fay the man-hater-turned-woman-hater saying that all women are the same. Er, why?
"Because," says Weldon airily, and her smile doesn't falter, "we're all kind of governed by these terrible hormones, and have babies, and the same things gratify most women, the same patterns, the same jealousies. If you look at a cat and how she behaves towards her kittens, the sort of movement the cat makes is the movement the mother makes, the movement all women make when they look in mirrors." And this is the author of The Life and Loves of a She-Devil?! But surely male hard-wiring is just as profound as the female version?
"Of course!" says Weldon cheerfully. "But women multi-task and men single-task, and the area that they single-task tends to be different. I don't know," she adds, "but I'm married to a very powerful, male man." Right. The logic of all this isn't instantly clear, but it's certainly true that Weldon is married (to Nick Fox, a poet and former bookseller 15 years her junior) and that the marriage has lasted for 16 years. She has, in fact, been married rather a lot. At 25, a single mother struggling to bring up a small son, she married Ronald Bateman, a headmaster 25 years older than her who, it turned out, only proposed so that he could put "married with a wife and son" on his CV. Bateman wasn't interested in sex. What he was interested in was sending his wife out to have sex with other people (once, in exchange for nylon stockings) and sending her out to work as a hostess in a bar.
No wonder the marriage collapsed, and no wonder Weldon's next marriage, to another Ronald, antiques dealer, Ron Weldon, felt happy and normal in comparison. And it was, apart from the infidelities, and the fact that Fay felt obliged to tear articles about herself out of newspapers and take the fuse out of the plug if there was anything by her on telly. "It seemed to me," she says, "a perfectly sensible thing to do." She was less happy when, after 30 years of marriage, Ron left her for an astrological therapist, an experience which inspired her novel, Affliction. He died eight hours before the divorce was finalised, but by then Fay had met Nick.
So how does this marriage compare to the one with Ron? Weldon twinkles. "Well," she says. "This one is emotionally secure. If it's anybody who plays emotional games, it's me." You don't say. Quarter of an hour into the interview, and I already feel swept away on a tidal wave of energy, which is to say that I already feel charmed, manipulated, and just a tiny bit unsafe. That, presumably, is how the reporter from the Evening Standard felt when he turned up on her doorstep 20 years ago and was told that the person he was speaking to wasn't Fay, but her sister, Frances. "They were so upset when they found out," chuckles Fay, "they believed me!"
And, er, did lying become a habit for her? For the first time, Weldon's smile fades. "Look, truth is very dangerous. You don't tell the truth to people, it's hurtful. But I go about my business as an honest person, and I turn up when I say I will. I do my students' marking [she's professor of creative writing at Brunel University]. I'm reliable. I don't want to be labelled as a liar. I like to think I'm an honourable person, with alarming propensities to invent."
Certainly, the fabrication of Frances is what gave rise to her new novel, Chalcot Crescent, set in a London reeling not just from a recession, but from a Shock, a Crunch, a Squeeze, a Fall, and a Bite. Bailiffs are pounding on the door of 3 Chalcot Crescent, where Frances, a part-time copywriter (Weldon, remember, is famous for coining "Go to work an on egg") and national treasure (a phrase emblazoned on many of Weldon's novels) and has-been writer (Weldon isn't, though she had to move publisher to get this novel published) has lived for 50 years (and where Weldon lived for 15). The National Unity Government is in crisis and the country is on the verge of collapse. Like all her novels, it's sharply observed, entertaining, and with a sparkling satirical edge. So what triggered it?
"First of all," says Weldon, "there was Frances. If Frances was alive, what would she be doing? What would the world be like? I wrote it," she adds proudly, "before the whole Parliament expenses thing." And it's true that it does seem remarkably prescient. Parliament in the novel is discredited, the economy has been wrecked, and food and electricity are scarce. But does she really see the future so bleakly?
"Well, they're all managing, aren't they?" she counters. So, I reply, are people in Zimbabwe, but I'd prefer not to live in Zimbabwe, or in an England like that. "Oh, you will yet," she says with another smile. "If we go on with quantitative easing, and if what is paid out in benefits exceeds what comes in through income tax." Not a big fan of New Labour, then? "I started staunch Labour," she says, "but as you get older you lose your faith in the fact that everyone is good and nice, and veer to the right."
A brief discussion about politics elicits the view that writers would be better at governing than politicians, that the system we have now in Europe is "Soviet Union lite", that it would be a good idea to have a "village-level jury system" of about 12 and that the move to "destroy our institutions, which started in the Sixties, has now become almost part of the conspiracy". Weldon shocked the world nine years ago by announcing that she had been baptised into the Church of England. She now goes to church, "to a sort of regular, old-fashioned, traditional, prayer book service", every Sunday morning at eight. She has talked in the past about the pleasure of singing hymns, but what has any of this got to do with God?
"I think," she says, "God comes into it in a sense of marvel, what you're seeing as a pattern of symbols, which certainly in Christianity involves sacrifice. Nothing is achieved without giving something up." And does it affect her world-view, her sense of the environment-heredity debate that has obsessed her since reading psychology and economics at St Andrews 60 years ago, and which is clearly the central theme of her work? "No. It's something completely separate. In fact, there's so much invented, so much alternative reality, this basic one you come to rather late becomes rather necessary in order to fix you in a spot."
Ah, I'm glad she raised it. Splitting was the title of one her novels, about a single personality split into four bodies, and splitting is one of the words that springs to mind when you think about the complex entity that is Fay Weldon. We're all made up of myriad facets, of course, but she seems unknowable in a rather unusual way. Does she agree?
Weldon flashes a smile of rare warmth. "Oh, absolutely," she says. "Completely." Part of what's confusing, I venture, is that mix of cheeriness and pessimism. As the first volume of her autobiography Auto Da Fay reveals, she has at times suffered from serious depression, but her external face to the world has always been vivacious and upbeat. "My sister," she volunteers, "had schizophrenia and it is a very odd thing to have an older sister who is schizophrenic, because you cannot work out why they don't love you. I had to be the sunshine girl, and I remember thinking that this was simply not fair, that you were not allowed to have the emotions, or to make a fuss."
Was that partly why she aimed to please so much? Or why she slept with so many men? She pauses for a moment. "I think," she says, "I just liked sex. The only way you ever got to know someone was if you went to bed with them. This is probably why I say that men are more different than women." Indeed. Whatever the reason, she became a part of the permissive society she now castigates, a society that has led to what she perceives as the disaster of the "blended" family.
A couple of years ago, she had a near-death experience and a vision – yes, really – of "pearly gates". They were, she said at the time, double-glazed and "vulgar", a sign, she thought, that this could only be "the other place". She was, she thought, being punished, for promoting a lifestyle, and an anti-man message, of which she now disapproves. The story has a familiar narrative ring – oh yes, of a Fay Weldon. Doesn't it?
"No," she insists. "I think it's true. I think if you write anything, you're responsible for what you do. I think that what I wrote in the beginning, which is what people like, really, which is the anti-man stuff, was totally appropriate in 1970, but is not appropriate any longer. Women don't need that. They need to strain every nerve to like men, if they can, whereas before they had to strain every nerve to judge them."
I feel like hugging Fay Weldon. The woman who became a symbol of feminism at its feistiest, but who has spent her life in thrall to men, the woman who believes that what makes women happy is chocolate and what makes men happy is porn (and that women faking orgasms makes them both happy), the woman who believes that children should grow up in stable families, but who did it all wrong and it "worked out fine", the woman who is cheerful, troubled, fearful of envy, economical with the truth, and also profoundly moral, believes she is going to hell. Luckily, her beliefs are rarely written in stone.
'Chalcot Crescent' is published by Corvus next week