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Meet the WritersImage of Penelope Lively
Penelope Lively
Good to Know
In her interview with Barnes &, Lively shared some fun facts about herself:

"I came late to writing -- I was in my late 30s before I wrote anything. The years before that had been busy with small children, and I seem to have fallen into writing almost by accident. Since then, I have never stopped -- books for children to begin with, then a period writing for both adults and children -- short stories also -- then for adults only when the children's books, sadly, left me."

"It has been a busy 30 years, but because writing is a solitary activity and I like the company of others, I have also always had other involvements -- with writers' organizations such as Britain's Society of Authors, with PEN, with the Royal Society of Literature, and, for six years, as a member of the Board of the British Library (the opposite number of the Library of Congress) which I regarded as a great privilege -- what could be more important than the national archive?"

"I have always been an avid user of libraries; like any writer, much of my inspiration comes from life as it is lived -- what you see and hear and experience, but my novels have sprung from some abiding interest -- the operation of memory, the effects of choice and contingency, the conflicting nature of evidence -- and these concerns are fueled by reading: serendipitous and eclectic reading."

"I am first and foremost a reader myself. I don't think I could write if I wasn't constantly reading. I both wind and unwind by reading -- stimulus and relaxation both. I used to love tramping the landscape, and gardening, but arthritis rules out both of those, so I do both vicariously through books. I live in the city now, but feel out of place -- I have always before lived most of the time in the country: I miss wide skies, weather, seasons."

"Never mind, there are compensations, and London is a very different place from the pinched and bomb-shattered place to which I came as a schoolgirl in 1945 -- now it is multicultural, polyglot, vibrant, unpredictable, in a state of constant change but with that bedrock of permanence that an old place always has. I like to escape from time to time -- mainly to West Somerset, where we have a family cottage and I can admire my daughter's garden -- she has the gardening gene in a big way and is far more skilled than I ever was -- bird-watch, walk a bit, talk to people I've known for decades, and see the night sky crackling with the stars that the city blots out."

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What was the book that most influenced your life -- and why?
Andrew Lang's Tales of Troy and Greece. This is the classic late nineteenth century re-telling of mythology, and I read it -- or had it read to me -- as a child. I was growing up in Egypt during the Second World War, a solitary child who did not go to school but was educated in a haphazard way at home. I depended on reading for companionship and imaginative stimulus, gobbling up the few books that came my way.

The great stories of Greek mythology fired me more than anything -- the siege of Troy, the wanderings of Odysseus, Jason and the Golden Fleece, the Minotaur -- all of it. I acted out the stories on my own, playing in the large garden that became the backdrop for it all -- Troy and everywhere else. And of course I was in there anyway -- Penelope -- but with what I saw as the dud part, sitting at home weaving while the action was elsewhere. One needed to be Helen, or the glamorous Nausicaa, making overtures to Odysseus on the beach. So I did a bit of rejigging. More significantly, steeping myself in those stories back then fostered a passion for narrative -- and also gave me a grounding in those myths without some knowledge of which you cannot make sense of much poetry, let alone Western art.

What are your ten favorite books -- and what makes them special to you?
Goodness -- only ten? Impossible to make such invidious choices -- but here are ten of my favorite books:

  • Henry James's What Maisie Knew -- this novel, along with the following two, are books that I admire and reread because they seem to extend the boundaries of what fiction can do. What Maisie Knew is an exposure of adult deception and bad behavior seen entirely through the eyes of a child, who does not herself understand what it is that she is seeing. But of course the adult reader understands, and is thus subtly made to feel identified with the adult chicanery, and is disconcerted; it is a clever and very moving exercise in a viewpoint, and also a picture of early-20th-century social mores.

  • Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier -- another groundbreaking novel, in which key information about adultery and betrayal is released only at intervals, so that the reader keeps on realizing that nothing is as had previously appeared in the dance of love and death among a small group of characters. There is an extraordinary tension -- these are vivid people -- and a mastery of narrative technique that is unrivaled.

  • William Golding's The Inheritors -- I am out of step with most in finding this novel even more compelling than Lord of the Flies. This is the one in which Golding imagines the confrontation between Neanderthal man and Homo sapiens and tells his story entirely through the perception of a little group of Neanderthalers -- an extraordinary feat. As in What Maisie Knew -- the reader is always able to see over the shoulder of the Neanderthalers, as it were, to understand what is going on when they do not. It is a story of innocence and the beginnings of evil -- one of the saddest books I know.

  • Willa Cather's My Antonia -- I loved this when first I read it, years ago, and revisit it frequently. I love it for the sharpness of its imagery, which conjures up frontier life in the way that only words could do. Cather never wanted a film to be made of it, and quite right too -- her image of the ploughshare silhouetted against the vast setting sun stands best in the mind, just like that. And the characters -- Antonia herself, the tragic Mr. Shimerda -- are so richly drawn that one would never want them interfered with, superimposed with the picture of an actor. I enjoy other Cather novels too, but My Antonia seems to me the one in which her gift for accuracy and her sharp vision of a time and a place shine out best.

  • Vladimir Nabokov's Speak, Memory -- This is one of the great memoirs, in my mind. It is brief and episodic, but conjures up time and place, once again with such clarity that you feel you must have been there also. There is a passage in which he describes hiding under a mesh-seated chair in his parents' drawing-room in St. Petersburg that is so vivid that you realize you have been seeing, for an instant, through the eyes of a four-year-old before the Russian Revolution. Whether he is remembering a train journey or a butterfly hunt, he does so in language so elegant and compelling that you share the experience. The book is also a remarkable account of what it was like to be caught up in one of the major turmoils of the last century.

  • Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse -- I have an on/off relationship with this novel, as with much of Virginia Woolf's work. Sometimes I read it with fascination and notice layers that have escaped me before; at others, I can be exasperated by prose that seems opaque and self-indulgent. To the Lighthouse is less inclined to these excesses than The Waves, from which I shy away, and its failings are far outweighed by its strengths, especially in its evocation of memory -- the way in which she suggests its shimmering, random quality and its rejection of any linear, chronological process, the strange way in which it preserves some moments with absolute clarity and loses others entirely. I read To the Lighthouse for its language and its insights, and in a way I also relish the ambivalence I feel about it. A relationship with a book can be like a relationship with a friend -- at one moment you are close, at another, things are not going quite so well.

  • Sir Thomas Browne's Hydriotaphia -- My husband introduced me to this, when we were both very young, he having been amazed by it as an avidly reading schoolboy. "The treasures of time lie high, in Urnes, Coynes, and Monuments, scarce below the roots of some vegetables. Time hath endless rarities, and shows of all varieties; which reveals old things in heaven, and new discoveries in earth and even earth itself a discovery." When first I read that incomparable 17th-century prose I thought that this must have been the high point of our use of language; that, and the King James Bible. I go back to it again and again when I want a shot in the arm -- a glimpse of how people once used the English language.

  • Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass -- Carroll is one of the only writers to have been able to suggest a child's vision of the world. Alice's view is the eye of childhood; she is the voice of rationality, confronted by an anarchic and unpredictable cast of characters, whose behavior is inconsistent, outrageous, and unreasonable. This is what children face -- the orders and requirements of adults, which seem quite impenetrable but to which they must accommodate. They navigate a mysterious world and have to work out the codes as they go along, which is what Alice does in Wonderland. The Red Queen and the White Rabbit, the Caterpillar, Tweedledum and Tweedledee, and all the rest of them stand for the vagaries and eccentricities of adults, as seen by the mystified child. And then, on top of that, there is the wonderful fun that is had with language -- the play on words, the jokes.

    Plus, if you want to delve deeper, the parodies of Victorian life and manners. But when I first read the book, as a child, I knew nothing of all that, and cared less -- I simply responded to the characters and the adventures. It was just a splendid read. Only as an adult did I come to see what an amazing confection it is -- one of the most complex of all fictions.

  • Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence -- I came late to Edith Wharton, and with relish. This is probably my favorite of her novels, though The House of Mirth would run it close. There can be few richer and more intricate depictions of a particular kind of people at a particular time -- the complacent and impenetrable society of wealthy New Yorkers at the end of the last century. It is dense, detailed and powerful, and also dramatic and entertaining. The central love affair between the young, wealthy Newland Archer and his wife's relative Ellen Olanska stands in a sense for the impending downfall of this hidebound society, but it is also compelling in its own right and leaves the reader with curiously ambivalent views about who is behaving well and who is not. And there are some marvelous minor characters -- the dinosaurs of that vanished world.

  • Charles Dickens's Dombey and Son -- I revisit a Dickens every few years, and probably this one most frequently. I first read him when I was that solitary child in Egypt, or rather, read him with the person who gave me such education as I had, and we reveled in Nicholas Nickelby and David Copperfield, suspending all disbelief and weeping copiously. Dombey I did not meet up with till much later, and now that is my preferred grown-up Dickens, for its sobriety, its portrayal of unrelenting self-righteousness, and its atmosphere of London at a particular moment.

    Favorite Films?

  • Casablanca
  • High Noon
  • The Third Man
  • The English Patient
  • Singing in the Rain
  • The African Queen

    Favorite Music?
    Too much to list, but here's a few – Bach's unaccompanied cello suites, Schubert's "Trout" Quintet, Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro, Schutz's Easter Oratorio, and, for lighter moments, I like a bit of country and western.

    If you had a book club, what would it be reading, and why?
    Something by Carol Shields, probably either The Stone Diaries or Mary Swann, because she writes fiction that lends itself to discussion -- not just to enthuse about her subtlety and her deft touch but also because her books have that quality common to all the best fiction, whereby different readers find different resonances and respond differently to characters and situations, so there is plenty to discuss.

    I am a huge supporter of book clubs and have been a member of one -- the most profitable books for discussion always seems to be those with an underpinning of ideas, a seven-eights of the iceberg beneath the narrative.

    What are your favorite books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
    I tend to give books that I can't wait to share with someone else -- a new poetry collection, perhaps, or a writer new to me. I read a lot of history and archaeology, so a welcome gift is something in that line that I might not have come across.

    Who are your favorite writers, and what makes their writing special?
    Again, the list could go on and on -- but it mustn't, so I'll stick with a handful:

  • John Updike -- for his marvelous use of language, his relentless inspection of how people behave, his creation of a particular American landscape.

  • Elizabeth Bowen -- for her insights into emotional life, for her elegant prose, for the way in which her novels and short stories preserve a particular society in prewar England and Ireland.

  • Evelyn Waugh -- for his satire, his savagery, his accuracy, his relentless dissection of the world of which he was himself a part.

  • Ivy Compton-Burnett -- because she is utterly unrealistic but also absolutely credible. Her characters are like no one you have ever known, and their domestic lives of barbed exchanges that conceal suggested mayhem are both unbelievable and entirely convincing. And she wrote some of the best dialogue going.

  • Ann Tyler -- because no one writes so pungently of family life in all its manifestations, and few other writers give you such persuasive characters. Her books have that classic "unputdownable" quality -- and you want to go back to them.

  • Jonathan Raban -- the best contemporary travel writer, for my money. He is original, innovative, takes you to places you are never going to get to otherwise, and with a style that is at once entertaining and provocative.

  • Barry Unsworth -- for his versatility, his reinvention of the historical novel, his humor.

    What are you working on now?
    I am writing a fictional anti-memoir. I have got to the point in life when you wonder why you have ended up as the person you are, doing what you do, with family you have, rather than all the other outcomes that there might have been. So I am looking at those crucial points in life that we all have, when we went in one direction rather than another, and writing fiction about what might have happened, in which I am usually a peripheral figure, seen through the eyes of others, an accessory to the lives of others -- the child I didn't have, the man I never met.

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  • About the Writer
    *Penelope Lively Home
    * Good to Know
    * Interview
    In Our Other Stores
    * Signed, First Editions by Penelope Lively
    *The Whispering Knights, 1971
    *The Wild Hunt of Hagworthy, 1971
    *The Ghost of Thomas Kempe, 1974
    *The House in Norham Gardens, 1974
    *Boy Without a Name, 1975
    *A Stitch in Time, 1976
    *The Road to Lichfield, 1977
    *The Voyage of Qv66, 1977
    *Treasures of Time, 1979
    *Judgement Day, 1980
    *The Revenge of Samuel Stokes, 1981
    *Next to Nature: Art, 1982
    *Perfect Happiness, 1983
    *Dragon Trouble, 1984
    *According to Mark, 1984
    *Uninvited Ghosts, 1984
    *Pack of Cards: And Other Stories, 1986
    *Moon Tiger, 1987
    *A House Inside Out, 1987
    *One, Two, Three, Jump!, 1988
    *Passing On, 1989
    *City of the Mind, 1991
    *Oleander, Jacaranda: A Childhood Perceived, 1994
    *The Cat, the Crow, and the Banyan Tree, 1994
    *Good Night, Sleep Tight, 1995
    *Heat Wave: A Novel, 1996
    *Spiderweb, 1998
    *The Five Thousand and One Nights, 1998
    *A House Unlocked, 2001
    *In Search of a Homeland: The Story of the Aeneid, 2001
    *The Photograph, 2003
    Photo by Robin Matthews