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Off the Page: A.S. Byatt

With A.S. Byatt
Winner of the Booker Prize
Thursday, April 22, 2004; 1:00 PM

A.S. Byatt writes novels of ideas. Her work brims over with philosophy, poetry, art, history, biography. And characters. It is perhaps this literary writer's finest trick that, at her best, she writes about characters--characters who are themselves tussling with ideas about history and art and poetry, but who feel like living people.

Virginia Woolf's famous description of George Eliot's Middlemarch -- she called it "one of the few English novels written for grown-up people"--fits all of Byatt's work.

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Byatt, winner of the Booker Prize for Possession and author of more than a dozen books of fiction and criticism, was online Thursday, April 22 at 1 p.m. ET to answer questions about her newest work, Little Black Book of Stories.

Host Carole Burns is a fiction writer with short stories published or upcoming in Washingtonian Magazine and several literary journals. Twice a fellow at The MacDowell Colony, she's at work on a novel.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


Kenilworth, Ill. Being familiar with your work and the themes you've chosen in the past, your connecting of the present and history, I wonder what you feel are the themes and moral questions that wait to be addressed in literature today? Are you personally choosing to address any of them in work in progress?

A.S.Byatt: Most writers are better at treating big moral issues obliquely, unless they are completely possessed by something they must say. I am suspicious of writers who go looking for issues to address. Writers are neither preachers nor journalists. Jounralists know much more than most writers about what's going on in the world. And if you want to change things you do journalism. Books I have read that were written at a moment of social-political crisis tend to be incomprehensible 20 years later. Books that are written about some problem of 20 or 50 or 100 years ago are written with understanding and somehow also illuminate the present and the future.

If there is an issue that I'd like to write about, it's the problem of ecology and global warming. But I can't think of a fictional form that I can do that in.


Carole Burns: Several of the stories in your new book have to do with aging--the man struggling with his elderly wife's memory loss, the writing teacher who becomes enamored with an old woman's stories about wash day. Are you finding this rich territory? Do you think it's too often not dealt with in art and literature?

A.S.Byatt: Yes, I think aging is a very interesting process. I've been wathcing the television in this hotel room this morning, and it's full of denial of aging. There's a huge program on how you can have your whole body remade so you can look 30. Nevertheless aging does and will take place, and is in fact very frightening, because many of us are living into terrible incapacity. We get Alzheimer's, but we don't die.

That's the first part of the answer. The second part is this isn't what I'm experiencing myself. I like the kind of independence of this brief period of my life when you don't feel physically "really" old, and I know that my work is better than it ever has been. So I feel kind of gleeful. But I also know it won't last very long. So I think I should look at aging while I'm still physically fit enough to look at it objectively. So far it's been fun, but any moment now it will cease to be fun.

I spend a lot of my time wathcing tennis. Tennis players are old when they're Agassi's age. Whereas writers, particularly writers who write long novels, they are only starting at Agassi's age. I knew that as a little girl. I knew I had chosen a profession for old people. I hated being a novelist when I was 20--I had nothing to write about. So my life now is a kind of small window of having the knowledge and not dying.


Washington, D.C.: I could not miss this opportunity to tell you how much I love your books. I discovered them only a few years ago and I wish I had not read them all so I could have the pleasure of reading them for the first time. I know Possession is your best known work, but my favorites are The Virgin in the Garden and the rest of the "Frederica" series. I don't have any questions -- just a big thank you.

A.S.Byatt: Thank you. I'm just beginning another really long novel that runs between 1880 and 1918, and I'm really excited about it. It has nothing to do with anything I've done so far. And I'm always glad when someone likes not only Possession.


Charlotte, N.C.: I am embarrassed to admit I came upon your work by accident; the cover of the paperback edition of Still Life drew me to it, and from that point on I was enthralled and have now read everything you've written.

I'm fascinated by your use of fairy tales and histories as plot points that are thematic as well. For example, Frederica playing the young Elizabeth in Virgin in the Garden is part of the plot, but also mirrors her own psyche; ditto her televised discussions of children's tales in A Whistling Woman. In Babel Tower, the "pornographic" story within the story is half the novel. Why did you decide to provide that story in its entirety?

A.S.Byatt: I've always been drawn to works of art that work on several levels. When I was a student, I learnt about the four levels of allegory in Dante, and the different ways of reading the Bible. I used to think much more about poetry than fiction. So I naturally look for metaphors and imaginary forms.

I didn't in fact include the whole of the story in Babel Tower, but I had to include enough to show that a utopian vision can degenerate into sadism and destruction. I was thinking for instance of Charles Manson and the Marquis de Sade himself, and I gave just enough of the plot for my readers to see how it worked. I also wanted to play fair. I was partly dealing with the trial of Lady Chatterley's Lover, but I never felt there was a real problem with that. I wanted to invent a book that was on the edge of what some people might think shouldn't be published, and cruelty to children is the real taboo. But it was dangerous. This does fit to the idea of using fairy stories. I've just written an introduction to a new translation of The Brothers Grimm, and there are all sorts of aspects of human life that fairy stories deal with more profoundly and more directly than realist fiction, including cruelty.


Carole Burns: In your new book, the story "Body Art" ends when a woman, who has a baby conceived during a casual affair because the father wants to take care of it, realizes she loves the child as well. What do we do now, they wonder. It reminds me of the ending of Chekhov's "Lady With the Pet Dog." The end is a beginning, and a realization of love. Did you have this in mind? Did it affect your writing of "Body Art"?

A.S.Byatt: I didn't have it in mind but I was reading Chekhov at the time, coincidentally.

Both parents love the child, but don't love each other. It's an impossible situation. That's the advantage of a short story. A novel would have to provide more resolution, whereas the short story has the right to cast you off into a terrible unknown future.

I have had sort of simple reactions to the male character, which see him as a dominating male who is unsympathetic. Whereas I see him as a good man, who went to bed with a woman in order not to hurt her feelings and does feel responsible for his child. He can't imagine her state of mind completely, but nobody's perfect, and he is good rather than bad.


Harrisburg, Pa.: I hate to admit this, but I never had to read Dante in college. What are the four levels of Dante?

A.S.Byatt: I'm not 100 percent sure of the name of the fourth one, but the levels are the literal, the allegorical, the anagogical and I think the fourth one is the spiritual. And literal level is what the story means at the literal level--Dante traveling from pit to pit in hell. The allegorical is the metaphorical meaning of this--the people who are talking represent the quality of pride as well as being people. The anagogical is to do with the way he relates to the holy stories and Holy Scriptures. For instance, you can read the whole of the Old Testament anagogically as all the stories in the Old Testament prefigure the truths of the world after the birth of Christ. And the spiritual I think is deep meaning. There is a kind of absolute vision, a vision of the nature of things. You end up with a vision of the whole of the heavens singing around God. There's a visionary meaning. The medieval world was used to reading the Bible in all these four ways, and Dante wrote to be read in all these four ways. And I like a sense of levels of reading that go on simultaneously.


Ithaca, N.Y.: Hello, I have seen the movie versions of Possession and Angels and Insects (did I get that title right?). I enjoyed both of them, despite the inevitable loss of detail in the film medium. I was wondering what you thought of the film adaptations and how involved you were in creating the scripts.

A.S.Byatt: I enjoyed both adaptations, though inevitably more was lost with Possession than with Angels and Insects. I thought Philip Haas's film of Angels and Insects was brilliant, that he completely understood that it was a modern work about the Victorian period. I didn't mean to work with him on the script because everybody told me, Take the money and run. But in fact I ended up being quite a close consultant and enjoyed it every much. And I thought all the performances and the costumes were wonderful. I said the costumes must be over the top, and he found this designer, Paul Brown, who had never done anything before but opera.

I love bits of Possession as much as Angels and Insects, but not the whole film quite as intensely. My feeling is that a little too much was cut at the very end of putting the film together, although it has some magical moments. And I admired Gwyneth Paltrow in particular.


Carole Burns: I love how you write about art. Can you talk about that process? What attracts you to writing about painting or sculpture?

A.S.Byatt: I like to write about painting because I think visually. I see my writing as blocks of color before it forms itself. I think I also care about painting because I'm not musical. Painting to me is not a metaphor for writing, but something people do that can never be reduced to words. And I love the difference in time between looking at a painting and reading a book. Looking at a painting is a timeless contemplation. There is no reason why you should stop looking. And this can become difficult. A book must be read from beginning to end, however you divide your attention after that.

The quartet is easy to describe. Virgin and the Garden was red white and green, and the red was blood and the white was stone and the green was grass. Still Life started out very dark purple, and then I felt there ought to be yellow, it was the complementary color to the purple, and because I felt there ought to be yellow, I thought of van Gogh's chair, and in fact van Gogh became an important symbolic figure in that book. He got in because of the color yellow. Babel Tower is black and red, because of blood and destruction. And A Whistling Woman is quite difficult, because it tries to tie them all together. And in fact it combines the colors of all the others. At the end there are two scenes of fire, one is a real fire when the students burn down the university, and the second is a metaphorical fire when Frederica is looking over the moors and it's all the gorse is in bloom, and it looks as far as you can see the land is on fire, but it's only flowers. And the colors of The Whistling Woman are the Babel Tower colors, which are the real fire, and the Still Life yellow, which is the harmless fire.

I think it's the way my brain makes order, which is why I'm interested in order in Matisse.

Another thing that relates to this very strongly, in the Biographer's Tale I'm obsessed with Darwin's cousin Galton, and he is interested in people who use imaginary landscapes or color patterns to do mathemetical calculation. It was reading Dalton that made me able to invent Marcus.


Youngstown, Ohio: Ms. Byatt, I adore your work, and recently read the newest collection of stories. One of the things I noticed in this collection is a conversation that seems they all seem to be sharing about fiction and reality. There's an idea in them about what our lives consist of, and what we believe they consist of, and the gap in between. For example, in "Raw Material", the creative writing teacher who says write what you know, and is inundated with therapeutic stories of domestic strife and violence. He's caught up in the elderly woman's story about blacking a stove, but it turns out she in fact has been suffering some sort of domestic violence for years. It seems to be making some sort of comment on the threshold of fiction, and what we allow to come in, and what stays out. What do you think the act of storytelling is for? And why is it important to write stories about storytelling? Do you think, perhaps, that we have lost the sense of its importance in our contemporary culture?

A.S.Byatt: It's a very good question. I think we had lost the sense of the importance of storytelling, and certainly the English novel went through a long period of just describing personal feelings or being symbolic. But I think recently there has been a huge surge of interest in non-realistic storytelling, such as fairy tale or adventures. I admire the work of two young British writers, Lawrence Norfolk and David Mitchell, both of whom are flamboyant master storytellers. It is also true that Freudian psychoanalysis is a form of storytelling. People tell the story of their own lives, including the dreams, in order to understand them. But I am increasingly interested in stories that move beyond one person's experience. I think we had lost those and are getting them back. In England, there is an increasing art of storytelling for children out loud, both old traditional stories and new ones.


Washington, D.C.: A writing instructor once told me we should all "write for the smartest reader we know." And yet your work has been criticized for being too opaque, too erudite. How do you balance the two? Do you have trusted readers you turn to for insight? Or do you write for your smartest reader, and just hope for the best for the rest of us?

A.S.Byatt: My answer to this question has changed over the years. Before I wrote Possession, I was often criticized for being erudite or complicated, and I used to say, I write for myself or for Henry James. I had a very clear idea of the ghost of Henry James as moral support. However, when Possession became a bestseller, I got so many letters from so many kinds of readers that I decided there are readers who can be interested in almost anything--including erudition--as long as you also tell a story. I enjoy meeting readers because writing is very lonely--and I enjoy being alone--but I am constantly amazed to meet people who have read and liked my books.

American editors speak of some imaginary person, The American Reader, who will not understand things. I have formed the view that they are speaking of somebody who would never buy books anyway. America is full of readers of all different sorts who love books in many different ways, and I keep meeting them. And I think editors should look after them, and make less effort to please people who don't actually like books.


Carole Burns: Thanks so much, Dame Antonia, for such a fascinating discussion. And to the online audience for, as usual, great questions.

Get announcements about upcoming authors on "Off the Page" by signing up for our e-mail list. Email me at offthepage2004@yahoo.com.

See you in two weeks!

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