The truth about Alison Lurie: Alison Lurie writes best-selling, Pulitzer Prize-winning books. But don't ask her to make the tea. Sabine Durrant visits her London flat

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The Independent Culture
Alison Lurie, the American writer and academic, the Professor of Literature at Cornell University, the Pulitzer Prize-winner, the best-selling novelist, is sloshing curdled tea down the lavatory. She's in the bathroom because the kitchen, to which she's already made several trips, is through the bedroom and there's a rather cross-looking man in there ('Alison - the door'), typing angrily with the curtains drawn. But the tea spills on the loo seat and Lurie, who on top of everything has spent the morning at the dentist and has a lopsided mouth and a streak of iodine on her chin, gives a sort of half-moan, half-tut. 'I don't want it to come out in the newspapers,' she says. 'The Wrong Tea.'

Actually, you suspect she couldn't give a fig about such niceties. Her London flat, where she spends two months of the year (the other 10 divided between Cornell in upstate New York and Key West) is, with the exception of a large vase of lilies, practical and unadorned - bookshelves two-thirds empty (hardbacks: Mary McCarthy, Saul Bellow), almost bare walls, functional sofas. It also demands a fairly admirable absence of vanity to pose for a photograph with a numb jaw. Soon afterwards, armed with a fresh pot, milk ('the cream was a mistake') and some chocolate digestives - 'these rather nice fancy cookies I've recently discovered' - she debates, with some heat, the idea of the writer as personality.

'When you meet a writer, you're bound to be disappointed,' she says, her careful voice slightly slurred, perched on the sofa like a fragile bird. 'Because what you're meeting is a sort of unedited first draft. My books have been through at least four or five drafts and then they've been through an editor so everything's spelt right and nothing goes wrong. But when you meet a writer they've been to the dentist so their face is all puffed up and the cream curdles and not everything they say is clever - in fact most of the things they say are not clever at all. The whole thing is so skewed - why should a writer become a personality? Why should not the most successful dentist have their picture in the Independent and be invited around?'

The answeris that root canal work rarely brings the same pleasure as a new book from Alison Lurie. She's in England now with Women and Ghosts, her first collection of short stories, which continue her interest, though not belief, in the supernatural (she edited the Oxford Book of Modern Fairy Stories). It's a jaunty, mixed bag of 'ideas that have been floating around', quirky and delightful, disappointing only in the fact that they're not a new novel. Her first novel was published in 1962, after growing up in Chicago, studying at Harvard and marrying at an early age ('It was what people did').

Since then, she has published eight - witty, sharp, sad stories set in university towns (Love and Friendship, The War Between the Tates), or strange colonies (Real People, Imaginary Friends), or 'abroad' (Foreign Affairs, The Nowhere City) - dramas about ordinary families shot with holes through which feelings fall out, or about straightforward relationships that go askew. On the surface these are human comedies, but beware: the world shifts, people deceive, friends change. Alison Lurie, who is 67 now, is not how you imagine her to be - she seems more serious, more severe. But if there's one thing readers of her novels have learnt it's to be wary of first impressions . . .

So one minute you're battling with concepts of literary identity, the next you're discussing the mating habits of biros. 'I know people who believe - and sometimes I think they're right,' she says, tossing her neat greying hair, 'that if you only have one pen you will lose it because they're not happy unless they're in a pair. If you have two, then you're OK, or three . . . but of course with three you can get a triangle.' She does this sort of thing a lot - starts off seriously and then elaborates a metaphor ('my first attempt at a book was full of clever putdowns of things that are terribly easy to put down - they don't weigh very much'), finishing with a high, spurting laugh.

Get her on to the subject of her characters, and she becomes kittenish. Here she is on problems with structure: 'It can be hard to get a character to do what I've planned for them to do, they have to do other things, then I have to rewrite because if they won't do it, they won't. Sometimes, for example, they won't go off with the right people - you know how that is? Isn't it true of your friends? I think I put this in some book, you want to say to your friends: 'Why do you love him? I don't love him.' '

And here she is on Leonard Zimmern, the rude, belligerent critic who 'turns up' in several of her novels, including her most recent The Truth About Lorin Jones. 'He is the hero of my first and unpublished novel and I always felt sorry for him because he could never be published, so I kind of began bringing him into other books. But since he's never been published in a book of his own, he's cross and even bitter: wherever he appears he causes trouble . . . Now he's done very well. I think he's probably got a chair at a New York university or something.

'Then there are some books where I don't know what happened to the characters afterwards,' she continues, rocking back into the cushions. 'I don't know what happened to the Californian characters, for example - it's so long since I've been there. In The War Between the Tates, I wanted to leave it open whether the couple got back together again - I'd based them on two or three couples I knew and some got back together and some didn't. So, to be correct, it had to be left up in the air. Since I don't know whether they got back together, I can't write about them any more . . . which is too bad.'

Lurie clearly draws on her own experiences in her novels: she was married for 26 years, went though a divorce, has three sons, has worked in academia, has travelled a lot, has even, like Vinner Miner, the heroine of Foreign Affairs, written papers on children's literature. But her plots, she insists, arise from the lives of other people - usually several.

'The first time,' she says confidingly, 'I didn't use enough and some people I knew were uneasy, so then I learnt that you have to use at least three people - three people who are sort of alike and maybe have their situation or background in common - and then nobody suffers. But isn't it strange? Professors always think I'm writing about someone else and not them. 'I know people like that,' they all say.'

Lurie lives with someone now - the angry man in the other room - in an 'unconventional' relationship, 'and it's a big relief. I didn't feel that kind of conventional marriage oppressive then, not until people pointed it out to me, until we all discovered it was oppressive. It was just the way the world was. Right now, I know that I don't like to go to the dentist, but nobody has told me not to go to the dentist. There's no anti-dentist movement . . .' She breaks off. 'I feel that too many of my metaphors today are dental, but you understand why that is. Actually, it's beginning to wear off. It aches, nothing serious . . .'

(Photograph omitted)

'Women and Ghosts' is published by Heinemann