[This interview was for the Penguin Website, and took place in September 2000. As it seems to be down there, I’ve decided to put it up here. The ‘Interview About Interviews’ follows.]
‘Grand,’ was the request received, and grand most certainly was the Georgian Room of the Connaught Hotel – venue of the dinner marking publication of Muriel Spark’s Aiding and Abetting.
Grand, also, was the entrance of the novelist herself (a “Grand Dame” in all languages – English, French (give or take an ‘e’) and American): diminutively sized, immaculately dressed, comically a-twinkle and canonically present.
My interview with Muriel Spark was divided into two parts: fax and phone. In order to render it readable, I shall mix it up with the meeting – at dinner, in the Georgian Room of the Connaught Hotel.
This was only the second interview I had ever conducted. The first, with Michael Caine, was ten years previous. He was about to shoot Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.
When I asked if he had ever seen Steve Martin live, Michael Caine said, ‘No, but I’ve seen him in the flesh often enough, ‘cause he used to come round my house.’
(‘Where would you like your publication dinner?’ her publishers had asked Muriel Spark.
And the request had come back, ‘Somewhere grand.’)
‘What,’ I faxed, ‘is the question that you are most commonly asked?’
‘“Do I write by hand?”’ (The answer, I know, is yes.) ‘I’ve got a passion for paper and pens.’
(And in fact, taking a fancy to the pen I had brought with me to the dinner (in hopes of getting her to sign my copy of The Driver’s Seat), Dame Muriel asked if she could keep it. Of course, I said, ‘Of course.’)
‘Is there any question that you wish you were asked more often in interview?
‘No,’ came the reply, faxed.
‘Do you ever feel that during an interview you have been prompted to come up with a new idea – an idea that has subsequently contributed to the writing of fiction?’
‘Yes, but I don’t recall any specific occasion.’
All my questions, in the first, faxed interview, were entirely concerned with interviews.
There was a reason for this: ‘Your latest novel, Aiding and Abetting, is centred around an interview of sorts – a psychoanalytic session. Do you believe in ‘the talking cure’?’
‘Psychiatrists are mostly fake, but they obtain results merely by being consulted.’
This approach – an interview about interviews – did strike gold a couple of times.
In response to the faxed question, ‘Given a choice, which person – living, dead, divine, mythical, semi-mythical or fictional – would you choose to interview? Why? What would you ask them? Where would this interview take place?’ I got the reply:
‘M. Heger, Charlotte Bronte’s master at Brussels. I would ask did he encourage her as a lover.’
When later, on the phone, I inquired whether the shortness of her replies had suggested some annoyance with the limitedness of my questions, Muriel Spark said, ‘Oh no,’ and then, ‘I always write briefly.’
Aiding and Abetting, which has been deservedly well received, concerns the adventures of a number of fakes: Lord “Lucky” Lucan, a second faux-Lucan, a fake stigmatic, her false lover…
The central fact of the novel, unfake, is the blood of the Nanny whom “Lucky” Lucan bludgeoned to death (Sandra Rivett) after mistaking her, in the dark, in the basement, in November 1974, for his wife.
‘He hated his wife with a psychopathic hatred. He caned his wife. He was one of those men.’
Even having completed the novel, and the publicity tour, Muriel Spark is still fascinated by Lucan.
‘I’m longing to see if there are any further developments. I can’t help feeling that there must be.’
(One can’t help feeling that the novelist hopes that Aiding and Abetting might, in some small way, instigate further developments.)
Her portrayal – both in the novel and in conversation – of “Lucky” seems to bring him to life at the very same time as killing him off.
‘He was a very stupid man. He didn’t see himself. Or else he only saw himself – which is ridiculous.’
And, ‘He was a bit laughable.’
And also, ‘He came at the end of an era. It was ‘74 when he disappeared. His world was disappearing, too.’
During dinner, in the Georgian Room, which was grand, Muriel Spark had referred to it as Lucan’s ‘pinstripe world.’
‘I always write briefly.’
Which could, in itself, stand motto for Dame Muriel’s entire career. Not brief in duration (her current author biography states she “has been active in the field of creative writing since 1950 when she won a short story competition in the Observer”). But brief in the radical concision of the storytelling.
The suspicion of not writing novels long enough to please her publishers seems still to trouble Muriel Spark.
Out of real curiosity, whilst on the phone, I asked a few questions about how and where Dame Muriel worked.
‘I have a bedroom with a lovely view looking over the Tuscan hills and fields. Off that room is a little room. I usually work in there. Down some stairs is a study. I don’t work in there any more. I have a bad leg.’
As for revisions:
‘Very little. I think of the book first, and then I strike. If I do [revise], it’s as I go along. I go through the typescript, for commas.’
Ah, commas. Was this a late Jamesian revision – removing?
How was this speed possible?
‘I’ve been doing it for a long time, so it comes quite naturally. I think in the style that I write. I have a way of manipulating sentences in my mind.’
Which had been the hardest of her books to complete?
‘The autobiography. [Curriculum Vitae.] Because it’s fact.’
And the easiest?
‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.’
‘It was closest to my own experience.’
In reply, either in person or on the phone, there is never any hesitation. The thought is as clear as the expression.
The simple phrase is not a simplification.
When, finally, I asked Dame Muriel if she had any advice for me, she said, ‘I think you should always be tough with publishers. Keep smiling, but tell them directly what you want. And the same with agents. Say to the agent, “I want this.” Then double it. I’ve always found that worked.’
During dinner at the Connaught Hotel, the question had come up of whether the novelist was working on another novel, and if so…
Yes, was the answer. It’s called…
Whilst on the phone, I decided to check whether she would mind my mentioning its title here.
‘No. No. You do that. If someone pinches it, I’ll call it something else.’
The title, like Muriel Spark herself, in person, by fax and phone, (an unusual thing for someone one thinks one knows so well) is pure Muriel Spark – poised, apposite, comic, grand.
The title of Dame Muriel Spark’s next novel will be, The Finishing School.