The books interview: When the wind blows

No longer menaced by the fatwa, Marianne Wiggins still feels pretty hunted.
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The Independent Culture
In the past 10 years, Marianne Wiggins has had quite a time of it. She has been on the run with her former husband Salman Rushdie, and she has been reviled for not staying on the run, but emerging to resume her own life. She has moved back to the US, after living in England for over 10 years, moved back to London again, come up against the "closed ranks of London publishing", written a novel (Eveless Eden) which was shortlisted for the Orange Prize, had cancer, chased tornadoes in Nevada, fallen in love again and been down the Amazon with Claire Bloom. If her novels weren't so good, you would be tempted to say she had put her talent into them and her genius into her life. I wouldn't go quite that far, for fear of appearing too charmed and electrified by her and by her writing. But when she says "I'm not an individual with an interesting story to tell," you can only reach for the maxi-size tub of Saxo.

Although the same fierce energy and virility that drives her prose and her extraordinary characters is present in every sentence she speaks, talking to her is like playing squash in a cell padded with discretion. Her ex-husband's name comes up once or twice in two hours of conversation, glancing off and rolling quietly into a corner. She has her own stories to tell. She grew up in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Her father was a grocer, her mother didn't finish her high-school education: "My own daughter Lara is the first one in the family to go to college." When Lyndon Johnson offered exemption from the Vietnam draft to anyone who married in haste before a certain date, she got her parents to sign for her, since she was still only 17, below the legal age for marriage in Pennsylvania.

The couple went to Paris, where she started writing, in an apartment halfway up Montmartre. When the marriage broke up, she went to New York State with her daughter and took odd jobs (midwife, cashier) to earn enough money to keep them both. "Every time I'd got enough money together I'd throw up the job and stay at home and write two chapters of my book. I was able to stop doing other work for the first time when Separate Checks was published. That's when I came to London, and stayed." After her second divorce, from Salman Rushdie, she returned to New York for a couple of years, taught creative writing at New York University, for the money, and wrote Eveless Eden.

When I first read Eveless Eden in spring 1996, it was not so much my eyes I couldn't believe as my ears. The novel is about a love affair between a print journalist called Noah and a photojournalist called Lilith, narrated in Noah's virile, soundbite prose, where every soundbite has a real aphoristic power, more sermon-on-the-mount than a government press announcement. "I write to a metre," Wiggins says, and it's true. There isn't a single limp sentence in any of her books. The rhythm of the sentences reflects not only the way the characters speak and think, but the way they move, even the way they make love.

When Lilith leaves Noah for Adam, the unbelievably sleazy Romanian minister for trade, Noah says: "There had been an act of violence in me. On some internal plain a holocaust had rained. The cost was stunning. The cost was everything that made me happy... That's what sadness does. It robs you of your wonder and usurps your surprise. It unfurls an isolation like a tundra, yokes the mind to drag a furrow of self-pity, burrows in the backbone of determination like a feeding worm."

Eveless Eden was short-listed for the Orange Prize: pretty good for a novel she says only one publisher in London would touch. She adds that, when copies of the manuscript came back from major publishers they had quite clearly not been read, and nor had any attempt been made to pretend that they had. When Almost Heaven was offered around last year, I heard people say things like "yes, of course she's an interesting writer, but we couldn't quite see what to do with her" - mentioning her age, that it's her fourth novel to be published here, that "the sales have always only been so-so", and that she's American. Everything, in fact, except that any publishing house that touches her can say goodbye to the chance of publishing the Booker-of-Bookers author if Jonathan Cape ever gets collectively run over by a bus.

In America, she is considered one of the strongest voices writing fiction today. Kevin Costner is about to star in the film of Eveless Eden. Melanie Griffiths has bought up Almost Heaven, but in London, by her account, she's still in stamped addressed envelope territory. "I can't say it's not humiliating, at my stage, to be going round with the begging bowl in the country where I've chosen to make my home. I can't say I'm proud of my advance. But I understand how London works now, and it's okay."

Almost Heaven (Anchor, pounds 9.99) is an almost-sequel to Eveless Eden. Noah and Lilith are off-screen, in hiding. Noah's young protege is Holden Garfield, a journalist in his late twenties. His first big story was the fall of the Berlin Wall. When Noah disappeared, Holden went to Bosnia to cover the war. At the start of Almost Heaven, he's back in America, trying to forget.

Like the Bible, Almost Heaven opens with the weather in a world where there's no love. "You can't stop feeling something strange is going on when people disappear entirely from the narrative, from news - when news starts coming to you faceless. That's what news about the weather is, it's faceless. It's the absence of man's fingerprints on history."

Noah's sister, a happy wife and mother, has lost her four sons and her husband in a freak tornado incident, and on top of that has also lost her memory of the last 20 years of her life. It's Holden's job to find Noah, to bring him out of hiding to help his sister remember. Instead, he falls in love with her, although she is 20 years his senior. Even at the end of the millennium, human love is still the same - potentially healing, usually devastating, the only terrible hope.

The book opens new windows onto talking about the weather. "It's just another way of giving up responsibility for one's life. The God in the Old Testament is not very loving, not very responsible at all. Christianity filled the void. Humans were longing for some compassionate response." And if you don't get one, you have to write it into the story? "Of course. The whole New Testament. And now, in this postmodern world, it's almost as though individuals have harried the ego to death. God damn! We have nine-year-olds going into therapy. So now we're looking for some other thing to believe in, that will allow us to say `I don't have to be responsible for my life'. But we do. Your life is this wonderful malleable material. It's all you've got and either you are actively shaping it and forming it and forming attachments to other changing shapes, or you are not."

There are no plans for another sequel. If we want to know what happened to Melanie when she woke up and remembered she had a family and they were dead, we'll have to wonder for ourselves. "I couldn't take her back to Noah. She'd just become another woman defined by two men. It's like The Graduate. They're defined by pursuit. When Dustin Hoffman gets on the bus with her at the end, they have absolutely nothing to say to each other."

What interests her is the dynamic between extraordinary people in crisis. There is no seal at the end of her books. "My next novel's about people exposed to radiation, downwind from a nuclear research station, whose cancer could be cured by the very thing that's caused their disease." There is a Brechtian rigour to her plots, which arise entirely out of a central geometrical idea, shown in three dimensions. There is no final solution; only more questions.

She is not involved in writing the screenplays for Hollywood. "I probably won't even go and see the films." She has an advisory role, but says that she is 20 years older than the producer and scriptwriter. "The Guy guys in Hollywood have killed off Lilith. As if disappearance isn't always more powerful than death. But they couldn't understand the subtlety of that. So what do they do? They put her in the way of one of Kevin Costner's flying bullets! Isn't that just totally unbelievable?"

What? That they killed her off, or that a woman like that would get caught in bullet-fire? "The second, obviously." When Marianne Wiggins laughs it's a real laugh, not just a baring of teeth with the right noises. She has said this before, I think, but it's worth saying again: "What possible resolution can there be for a man who falls in love? Only one! The woman's got to die!"

Marianne Wiggins, A Biography

Marianne Wiggins was born in Lancaster, Pennsylvania in 1947. She first came to Europe in 1965, when she moved to Paris with her first husband, before starting her writing career while raising her daughter in New York State. She moved to London 15 years ago and later married Salman Rushdie; they subsequently divorced. She has published five novels, beginning with Separate Checks and including the widely acclaimed John Dollar, and two collections of short stories, and has taught creative writing at New York University. Eveless Eden was shortlisted for the Orange Prize in 1995. Almost Heaven is published by Anchor this month.