Real lives: The Hester Lacey Interview; Rachel Cusk
It comes as a relief that Rachel Cusk doesn't speak as she writes. For this glamorous prodigy of the London literary scene is famous (or notorious) for her convoluted style. Some critics mention her name in the same breath as Henry James and Jane Austen. Others are less gracious about labyrinthine clauses such as: "She had been disappointed by the park, for having decided to grace the art of contemplation with her indulgence in it, it had not occurred to her that the proper accoutrements for its execution would fail to present themselves", a gem from her second novel, The Temporary. But, happily, in conversation she is quite likely to describe things as "nice" in a perfectly down-to- earth way and that she says "sort of" and "kind of" and "like" and "you know" just like any ordinary person.

Which, she claims, is precisely what she is. So she won a Whitbread Prize at the tender age of 26, for her first novel, the universally praised Saving Agnes. So she was then featured in Vogue, while breathless interviewers noted her "bluestocking glamour" and "trademark" bright red lipstick. So her life then became a whirl of literary festivals, competition-judging and book reviewing, while The Temporary simmered away. So she is still only 29, and has just completed her third novel, Country Life, which will appear early next year. But the glamorous prodigy, she says, is a chimera.

"I'm a girl, so no one could have talked to me about my ideas, what I've read, or what I think about anything, so that's the only route to go down," she observes (no sign of the "trademark" scarlet gob, her lipstick is beige, while her dress is loose, black and understated). "There are four newspaper articles a year about young, attractive women writers. They never discuss how good the books are. It's just this fact presented over and over, that a young, attractive woman has had a book published, 'ho ho, look what we've discovered'. I always get included even though I think I have a right not to be at this point. I've written three novels, I'm almost 30, forget it, that is over. Looks don't sell books. I could get a T-shirt made with that on it. It's just annoying."

Her career, she says, would have followed the same path if she'd looked like the back of a bus. "It wouldn't have affected the side of things I care about, which is prize-winning and bookselling. People like writers to be invisible, they don't want an intrusive personality looming too large. The writer is your secret friend, and you don't want to think about their gender or looks or age. That's why when books are liberated from their authors, when the authors die or get old and beyond that stage, they have an entirely different resonance."

She hopes her own books will still be read in 100 years' time ("I always thought that youth thing was weird, because I knew I was here to stay"); though she now says that Saving Agnes, the story of a 23-year-old graduate's angst-ridden first job and failed love affair in a grim and hostile London, is "narcissistic". "But at least it's funny, because I think there's nothing worse than those incredibly solipsistic books, dripping with self-seriousness, that women excel at. Even though certain things about it are now embarrassing, I can still look at it and laugh at jokes that I'd forgotten. Humour is very important. I think of myself as a comic novelist."

The book is semi-autobiographical. Like the fictional Agnes, Rachel Cusk detested her boarding school ("I spent five years there, living for the day I could leave"), and, like Agnes, she went on to read English at Oxford. Unlike Agnes, she was born in Canada, and lived in Los Angeles until she was nine. Her abiding memory of that time is the Charles Manson murders "just down the road". The contrast when her family returned to the mean streets of Bury St Edmunds made her homesick. "Playground humour in England was much crueller. I hated English children, they were snotty little Fauntleroy types, much nastier than American children."

And, again like Agnes, she early discovered a talent for unhappiness. After her miserable schooldays came a miserable apprenticeship teaching herself to write. "I was living with my parents, I was on the dole. That was grim. I didn't live in London, I didn't have a boyfriend, I didn't go out, I never took Ecstasy and I never went to clubs. I was 23 then, and that phase lasted till I won the Whitbread. I had put everything into writing, and if it didn't work then I had no idea what else I was going to do."

But with success came confidence. "I couldn't care less about reviews, I care more about sales. If a book didn't sell well, I would feel that was the verdict of a greater mass I cared about more. There is a proliferation of lame literature and appalling standards; most writing is basically very shoddy indeed. I have no fear of the market-place; readers are sophisticated and they like what's good."

On the vexed question of style, which so fascinates critics, she says: "People just talk about your style, they don't say anything about what you're actually doing with it. And I see it as very fleeting, very transient. The book I've just written is completely different." Country Life is the story of Stella, who runs away from her husband while on their honeymoon, and takes a job as an au pair with a rich family in the country, where she enters into a strange relationship with a disabled 16-year-old boy. "People have been influenced by cinema in the way that their imaginations work, and so you need to tell stories in a different way," explains its author. "Psychological drama is very hard, because it isn't necessarily visual. I was influenced by Ishiguro's novel The Unconsoled, because I realised there are alternatives to this action-driven direction. Ishiguro used dreams as a way of telling a story. To me, that's a brilliant innovation. I think it's a very under- rated book, and it will be seen as very important, because that's the way now to discuss people's anxieties."

She does not like being asked "girl questions" and is not ashamed to declare herself a feminist, "for what it's worth. No one says that any more, it marks you out as being over 25. But yes, I am. I think people are amazingly ungrateful to feminism. Nobody applauds it, but we're all feminists whether we like it or not. We all go to school, we all have the opportunity to have a career, and we all believe in our right not to be groped and discriminated against, which to me constitutes feminism. All feminism means is that you believe women are equal to men. You'd be hard pushed to find a women who'd say that she didn't believe that."

She has found, however, that feminism and the Roman Catholicism she was brought up in are uneasy bedfellows. "I think the Catholic Church is behaving appallingly, being singularly unhelpful to people, especially women, so I have no truck with it. The older you get, the harder it is to sustain a practical moral agenda if you live a certain type of life. Once you're starting to clash with such things on an almost daily basis, you end up in such a questioning mode that you feel you've deprived yourself of the right to practise. I would describe myself as a Christian rather than a Catholic."

One of the central scenes of The Temporary describes an abortion, an issue about which she feels passionately. "It is never written about. I've only found a few instances in books that are well-known. I'm amazed how taboo it still is. I think it's a moral conflict which is visited on people who are in no position to understand it. There are so many aspects of it that are interesting to a woman and a Catholic, because I think you probably are a woman before you're a Catholic. I think it's a scandal. With sex education and contraception, no one needs to get pregnant if they don't want to be."

Her words are tumbling out. "Perhaps people do dissociate sex from pregnancy. The act has lost its power and its danger, because of contraception and abortion. And there is such hypocrisy. How can the Government moralise about abortion and at the same time criticise single parents?"

Do such strong feelings stem from personal experience? "Oh, I've had several, darling. Hahaha. No! I'm sure only women writers get asked questions as though you have to have experienced something to write about it. Its interest is way beyond the personal." Does she consider herself a moral person? "I think I'm amoral, increasingly so. My major criticism of Catholicism is that it's easy to be brought up a Catholic and never think about Christian virtues as they should be practised in daily life."

Moral or not, she settled down a year ago to being a "married lady who doesn't go out as much as she used to", cocooned in her "very nice flat" in north London. Her husband, Josh, who is a year younger than her and works for a bank, is Jewish. "I'm very interested in why people insist on getting married. I think for my generation there aren't any proper boundaries between childhood and adulthood, so we're all obsessed with being adult and growing up and things beginning and being real. We have a strong sense of the unreality of our own present. Marriage is almost a way of forcing restraints on yourself, so that you don't drift away, so you have something that limits you and you know what you are. That's the attraction, but it's also the terror of it, because the minute you've done it, you think 'is this what I am?' "

She says there have been no splits or divorces in either her or her husband's families. Does she plan to keep up the tradition? "I couldn't possibly know. Anything could happen. It's a gamble, you're betting that you and this person are going to be able to keep to roughly parallel lines and that you can build a structure that will encompass your lives satisfactorily. So who knows? If one of you became incredibly right-wing or a Scientologist it might be hard to cope. It's a progression, an altering state."

Whatever happens, though, she has cheered up a lot. "When you have given a lot of years to being unhappy like I did, you have a sense of wanting to make the most of everything. I've wasted enough time being unhappy."

8 'Country Life' will be published next May by Picador.