The Books Interview: Lesley Glaister - A cutting edge in Sheffield

Lesley Glaister's suburban-Gothic novels delight and disturb all at once. Emma Hagestadt met her

Emma Hagestadt
Saturday 23 January 1999 00:02

It is a bit of mystery why Kate Atkinson sells more books than Lesley Glaister. Her novels cover much the same territory, but Glaister is one of those women writers whom readers have either come across by accident (and gone on to become devoted fans), or have just plain never heard of. A writer of addictive emotional thrillers - as if Ruth Rendell had got hold of an AS Byatt novel and stripped out the digressive bits - she ought to be packing out the shelves in the local bookshop.

Glaister lives in Sheffield and, like York-based Kate Atkinson, is more likely to be found stoking up in a Betty's tearoom than schmoozing in the Groucho. A resident of Eccleshall, one of the city's posher addresses (complete with a Cafe Rouge and Botanical Gardens), Glaister has a hill- clinging home that still bears the traces of South Yorkshire soot. Sitting at her cosy kitchen table, dressed in a nifty scarlet fleece, this petite 42-year-old, with clear eyes and uptilted nose, looks exceptionally cheery - as writers of the darker kind of fiction often do.

January is an important month for Lesley Glaister. Not only does she have a new novel, Sheer Blue Bliss (Bloomsbury, pounds 15.99) and the paperback of her last book Easy Peasy, but Bloomsbury is republishing three of her best-known works: Honour Thy Father, Digging to Australia and Partial Eclipse. She's a little nervous at the prospect, but also thrilled: it must be every writer's dream to be so emphatically back in print. "I don't like the idea of other people knowing things about me that I don't know myself", she says of the reviewing process, but she does not mind the publicity razzmatazz - especially, she says, if the event involves a hotel with fluffy towels, and time to go shopping.

Glaister's territory is suburban Gothic, but unlike Angela Carter or Margaret Atwood, she's not interested in folkloric excursions into fairy tale forests or the thornier thickets of feminist irony. Her stories, couched in humour and social observation, are firmly rooted in the domestic and mundane. Babies are dropped on floors, young women locked in attics and fathers murdered in their beds, but they are usually polishing off a Pot Noodle in between last breaths. She says that, "I hate it when a writer mentions a meal but doesn't tell you what was eaten". Her characters, in contrast, are always well-fed, well-bathed and sleep best between cotton sheets.

An adopted Northerner, Glaister settled in Sheffield in her early twenties. Brought up in Suffolk, she's not that interested in talking about her childhood ("pretty normal") though she says that her last novel, Easy Peasy, was the closest she has come to autobiography. A voyage around a bad-tempered father, it tells how a daughter comes to terms with her parent's death and his secret past as a Japanese PoW.

"What interests me is memory and the tricks that it plays," says Glaister. Her stories are often told from the point of view of a child, but intercut by the narrator's older self. It's a device that makes for a satisfyingly complete emotional landscape. Her first novel, Honour Thy Father, about four ageing sisters trapped in a remote Fenland house, uses the technique to great effect, alternating between their unhappy girlhood in turn-of-the century Norfolk and their even more bizarre present.

"My imagination is fired off by the thought of someone full of experience, yet still living in the moment that they're in," she says. "People recast what happened to them, depending on what's happening now." Her yellow- toe-nailed old ladies (often sad, often lustful, usually hairless) don't so much regret their pasts as find it hard to decide on a final version.

Sheer Blue Bliss is also told in flashbacks. Constance Benson is perhaps the author's most likeable old biddy so far. A reclusive portrait painter, diminutive Connie is in her eighties when she unexpectedly becomes the subject of a National Portrait Gallery retrospective. More used to a quick whip around with a scratchy flannel and a whisky at bedtime, she has to leave her Norfolk hidey hole for the lights of London. Her first clothes- shopping trip in 30 years is the comic highlight of the book.

Dual narratives are not easy to pull off - readers generally end up preferring one to another - but Glaister is a dab hand at moving between decades and emotional states without losing the plot. The Private Parts of Women, the story of a woman with a multiple-personality disorder, takes the problem one or, in Trixie's case, three steps further. "I was 10 when I read Flora Rheta Schreiber's case study `Sybil'," says Glaister. "I was fascinated by the idea of 16 different personalities being packed into one body with one face. I remember longing to suffer from the same problem." Becoming a writer was probably the next best thing.

There were no other writers in her family (dad was a customs officer, mum a housewife and singer) and Glaister says she always believed that writing was "something too special, too out of reach". One of her great pleasures since becoming an established novelist was to meet Margaret Drabble, whose novel The Millstone (along with Dickens, horror novels and cereal packets) was her preferred girlhood reading.

Not until her early thirties, when Glaister was into her second marriage and pregnant with her third son, Leo, did she begin work on Honour Thy Father, while the baby napped. The writing came effortlessly - she calls it "dreaming on to paper". Glaister is convinced that although childbirth left her "in a peculiar state of mind", it also lent her a "heightened perceptiveness". (She's almost tempted to get pregnant again.) The novel walked away with both a Somerset Maugham and a Betty Trask award.

Not afraid of the odd pram, or Fisher Price garage, in the hallway, Glaister maintains that "domesticity and creativity" are the perfect match. "You have to be prepared to live in chaos," she says, "but living in a pigsty is OK if you're achieving something."

Young families and teenagers often feature in the more disturbing of Glaister's novels. "There are so many strange things going on in families, particularly the love/hate you can feel for the same person," she explains. Whether it's post-natal husbands and wives, mothers and babies, or parasitic siblings, her technique is to exaggerate the irritation and disgust we all feel for each other. In the brilliant Digging to Australia, she even gives the adolescent heroine (just into sanitary towels, just out of Blue Peter) a naturist grandfather.

Glaister may have had to discard a couple of husbands en route, but for the first time in her writing career she has her own study. There's room enough to do yogic headstands - "it gets the blood moving" - and privacy enough to speak her ideas out loud. Sheffield's Botanical Gardens are a good place for that, too.

The gardens certainly helped with Sheer Blue Bliss. One of the central characters is Patrick Mount, an eccentric visionary in 1940s Derbyshire who develops an arcane philosophy based on the pleasure- enhancing properties of plants. The book drips deliciously with wet lettuces, rhubarb leaves and potent sex: "I was interested in the idea of a guru without followers."

In the past, Glaister says she was at the whim of ideas blasting through her. Sheer Blue Bliss "came from an altogether different place ... I poured myself into the story rather than the other way around." She sounds unusually satisfied with the book, pleased that she had more time to think about the actual writing. "It's a lovely feeling doing anything that comes out the way you planned, whether cooking a meal or painting a room."

Lesley Glaister has every reason to look cheerful. Her novels may flirt with the macabre, but the only thing that goes bump in the night is her partner of the last two years, the Orcadian poet Robert Greig. I didn't get to meet him, but I suspect he has a beard.

Lesley Glaister, a biography

Lesley Glaister was born in Wellingborough in 1956. Brought up in Suffolk, she dropped out of university to live with her future husband in a caravan. When their life of self-sufficiency failed to work out, the couple moved to Sheffield where he took a degree and she had babies. They split up, she met someone else, gave birth to a third son, and started work on Honour Thy Father. In 1989 she took part in an Arvon Foundation school, where Hilary Mantel was so impressed by her work that she introduced her to her agent. Glaister's novel was sold to Secker, and won Betty Trask and Somerset Maugham awards. Since then she has written Trick or Treat (1991), Digging to Australia (1992), Limestone and Clay (1993), Partial Eclipse (1994), The Private Parts of Women (1996) and Easy Peasy (1997). She lives in Sheffield and teaches writing at Sheffield Hallam University. Her eldest son has just left home.

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