Michèle Roberts has mud on the brain.
“My imagination is like a compost heap. The unconscious is like a muddy bed full of seeds that will sprout.” Certainly there is an earthy element running through her most recent collection of short stories, Mud: Stories of Love and Sex, although she hadn’t noticed until her editor pointed it out. Grieving lovers, jealous lovers, lovers rolling together on a muddy river bank; a whole spectrum of love revealed through the characters in Mud.
Some of the stories featured in the book have been previously published or broadcast on radio and then rewritten for the collection. Mud in content, mud in form, Roberts likens her stories to the mud pies she used to make as a child, explaining that she likes the process of “squidging” them into shape. “I think I could redraft until I’m on my deathbed. When you look at your own work a year or so later you nearly always see something that you feel could be improved. You get a bit more detachment and objectivity so you may see weaknesses that you haven’t noticed before.”
We meet at the Edinburgh International Book Festival where Roberts is taking part in an author event with Helen Simpson, both writers having newly published short stories to read and discuss. Before our meeting, Roberts warns me that she has changed a lot since the author photograph on her book jackets was taken. I recognise her instantly, however, the tall woman dressed in green with blonde curly hair, smiling and kissing her friends in the authors’ yurt goodbye.
Over coffee in the book shop café we chat about her books and writing career. After graduating from university in 1970, Roberts spent many years struggling to support herself while writing, taking on a variety of part time jobs to pay the bills. “I used to write at night. It was very difficult because I was so exhausted but I had to have money to live on, even though I was living very cheaply.”
I confess that my idea of living cheaply is to eat beans on toast for every meal and Roberts offers a more palatable alternative: “Save up to buy really nice bread, get seasonal vegetables and toss them in a frying pan with olive oil. Put them on your toasted bread and you’ve got a feast!” Born to a French mother and an English father, she suspects her love of good food comes from her French roots.
Going full circle
After her novel Daughters of the House was shortlisted for the Man Booker in 1992 then won the WHSmith Literary Award in 1993, Roberts was finally able to concentrate on writing full time. During her long and varied writing career she has published short stories, novels, poems and non-fiction. Now she has gone full circle and is teaming up with the group of writers with whom she published her first ever book, Tales I Tell My Mother. She counts off the members of this feminist writers’ collective, “Sara Maitland, Michelene Wandor, Zoë Fairbairns, Valerie Miner and me. We decided to get back together all these years later – forty years later! – to see if we could do another collection, so I’m writing stories for that.”
She’s also working on a new novel, in which she revisits the theme of Daughters of the House. “I’ve returned to the subject of the Second World war in France. I’m still obsessed by it. In Daughters of the House I was writing about two contemporary people, little girls who discovered wartime secrets, but this time I’ve gone straight in: I’m writing about the people who actually lived through it.”
Roberts’ novels start out as images that take root in mind: “Sometimes it’s a visual image, or it could be an image in words. It may come out through dreams, just this thought that keeps coming and coming so you feel that you’re haunted by something and you need to explore it. This new novel that I’m working on came out of a black and white feather and a house I’d visited in France which had a lot of dead animals in it, a lot of dead insects. The two things clashed somehow, or struck each other, and out of that clash of images came an entire novel.”
This clash is crucial to Roberts’ creative process, supplying her with a moment of connection and conflict. She attributes this to being a twin. “I’m connected and in conflict with my twin just as I was with my mother. Those kind of personal relationship conflicts propel you into language because you want to sort things out and you want to make things better, so my idea of creativity is linked to the notion of conflict.”
Her idea of creativity is also intrinsically linked to form. “Form and content are not actually separable. The form is the content. We use two different words but it’s the same thing.” Roberts is famously experimental with forms. Her 1994 novel Flesh and Blood, about a broken mother and daughter relationship, is composed of a series of short stories which have been halved. Up until the midpoint of the book, the narrative jumps from one half-story to the next. Past the midpoint, the second halves of the stories are presented so the narrative knits itself back together, signifying the mending of the relationship. Roberts is particularly proud of this zip-like form, which she invented. “Writing means inventing new forms. It’s not that I don’t want to tell stories – I do – but you’ve got to find a new way to explore the subject matter each time, to express what you want to say. I don’t believe that inherited forms will do it on their own. I need to remake them.”
She says that the new novel she is working on is, in a way, “the same story as Daughters of the House, but it will come out completely differently because it’s a different form. This time I’m using the form of memoir because I want to investigate how unreliable people are, how much they tell lies.”
How truthful then was her own memoir, Paper Houses? “It had to be censored because of privacy law so it is in some places quite an untruthful book, which upset me terribly. There are some simply wonderful stories about my sex life – comic, horrific and tragic moments of my sex life – and I wasn’t allowed to put them all in because the person might recognise who it was I was talking about. One or two friends made me take out references about their wild youths, they really didn’t want their children to know about that, and I thought, what hypocrites! but I understood really.”
Paper Houses chronicles Roberts’ life in the ‘70s and ‘80s, a period when she moved from location to location all over London, taking in a year in Bangkok, following her first husband to Italy then the States, before returning solo to the UK. It was a time of poverty and hardship as Roberts struggled to make a living while leaving herself precious time to write. She rented rooms from friends and lived in communes. Through the disruptions of her frequent moves, writing provided her with constant refuge. As she writes in the memoir, “the act of writing means inhabiting a paper tent. You carry the tent, your paper house, with you, scrunched up in your pocket, and then put it up when you need it and it magically inflates.”
Friends too, provided Roberts with stability. “I had some very strong, close friendships – mainly with women, but I had some very good men friends too. One lovely thing about being in the women’s liberation movement was that we were really committed to friendship. We were women who loved each other and were there for each other. You need people who believe in you and in what you do to give you support.”
While writing the memoir, Roberts referred to old diaries to refresh her memory of the period she was writing about. Snatches of description capturing the sights, smells, tastes and sounds of a moment hint at the writer that young diarist would become, the intimate observations and sensual imagery that would characterise her later works of fiction. Roberts says she was grateful to have the diaries to look back on because they enabled her to “check my perception of things, my subjectivity.”
Roberts is less concerned about the intimate personal details that she reveals in the memoir, her love affairs and sexual exploits, than she is about the elements which she feels are missing from the book. “I think one thing I didn’t really speak about at great length was how extremely painful and difficult my life was, the suffering of having had a painful adolescent experience with my parents and feeling that they disapproved of me to the point of thinking I was really evil.” The conflicts with her parents arose partly from Roberts’ politics: her involvement in feminism, her participation in protests and strikes. Her writing too, was a source of tension. Her parents couldn’t understand her decision to give up a secure job as a librarian to write. They were sure she would fail. Roberts too, had her doubts. “Sometimes I felt my life was a disaster, a complete mess. I did always keep going, I always kept writing, so I was very strong and a good survivor but at the time I thought I was mad, that I should be locked away, because that’s what my parents thought. I don’t think there’s quite enough of that in the book, so it’s more a story of courage and survival than at times I felt my life was.”
The Secret Gospel of Mary Magdalene
Religion was another area where Roberts clashed with her parents, particularly with her mother. Raised Catholic, Roberts was an “intensely religious” child and adolescent. She believed it was her vocation to join the Carmelites but after her first term at Oxford she renounced Catholicism. In Paper Houses she refers to the damage caused to her by her Catholic upbringing, stifling her sexuality. Writing her 1984 novel, The Wild Girl, helped Roberts to repair some of that damage. Taking the form of a gospel, The Wild Girl is written from the point of view of Mary Magdalene, who, in Roberts’ book, is Jesus’ disciple and lover. Reimagining a Christ who loved women equally and who celebrated their sexuality and creativity allowed Roberts to challenge the idea that Catholicism had instilled in her as a child that women could be holy or sexual, but not both. “Writing does heal wounds. If you think of a real wound with blood and torn skin and broken bones and you take all that brokenness and make something with it, it may not be a repaired human being, it may be a sculpture full of blood and bones but you’ve made something and it makes you feel better.”
Reading the book now, after the storm created by Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, the idea of Jesus having a lover no longer has the same shock impact. At the time of publication, The Wild Girl was hugely controversial, meeting with criticism from Christian groups and politicians. “There was a furore. A conservative MP was asking questions in the House of Commons and they were going to sue my publishers for something called blasphemous libel. I got a lot of hate mail from Christians saying ‘I hope you burn in hell and suffer horribly.’” I was rather naive I think, not expecting to get that at all. Of course we know Christians can hate just as much as anyone else, history shows us that, but I was shocked and upset.”
In 2007 The Wild Girl was reissued as The Secret Gospel of Mary Magdalene. “That was my idea because I felt very crossly that Dan Brown was getting all the credit for inventing Jesus and Mary Magdalene having a love affair. It was a very deliberate commercial decision.”
It seems surprising that Roberts would make such a decision. She is critical of trends in commercial publishing, of the “attention paid to celebrities who don’t pretend to be writing literature but who sell a lot of books.” She concedes, however, that “being a writer you have to have a commercial streak. You have to think about making a living. All writers want that. But I’ve always written books that I want to write, that I’ve felt I could stand by.”
Alternative publishing routes
While Roberts is bleak about the “tough world” of traditional publishing, she is enthusiastic about the opportunities available to writers to self-publish. She recalls when she was a young woman producing books of poetry with her writers’ groups. “We did about three collections of poetry and flogged them around pubs and pop concerts. I was very involved in self-publishing and it seems to have come back now because of computers. A lot of young writers I know just post stuff immediately onto internet sites. There are some very good writing sites out there so that’s how you can find an audience.”
She warns that freedom to self-publish whatever we want, whenever we want, online is not necessarily always a good thing. “Some of the blogs I’ve read are so badly written, it just irritates me so much. And there are a lot of people writing on the internet who are writing abusively, violently. It’s a very interesting phenomenon which has arisen because these people don’t have to see the consequences of their speech.”
Writing for the web is something that Roberts herself would consider, because it appeals to her desire to explore different forms of writing. “I don’t write purely for the internet using purely internet speech but I can see I’ll have go at it. Tradition is very important to me and I like past literary forms but I’m living in the 21st century.” She has dabbled in blogging in the past, enjoying a brief spell as writer in residence for a website. “It didn’t work out because it was a website that needed me to hit deadlines very sharply and I was crafting these blogs a bit too much and fell behind. I think I would like to start my own blog but I need so much time for writing. When I’m not actually writing at my desk I’m pottering around and daydreaming so I’d have to fit blogging into a certain little space in the day.”
Twitter, on the other hand, she believes would fit more easily into her writing day, and she likes the idea of combining her love of language with the condensed form of tweets. “I adore texting so maybe I’ll get onto Twitter sooner or later. I can see how you could get hooked on it: tweets are like little tiny poems, little tiny stories.”
Teaching creative writing
Roberts is currently Emeritus Professor of Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia, where she teaches a semester on literature. “Teaching literature is much less anxiety making than teaching creative writing. When you’re teaching creative writing you feel so responsible. You become a figure for the students who’s not the real you. You might stand in for the writer, or even the internal mother or critic. There’s a great deal of emotion that flies about and great projection. It gets a little bit close to therapy sometimes and you have to say, this is about criticism not therapy.”
There’s also the problem of how to go about teaching creative writing. “I think really writing is an experiential activity. You learn by doing it, and by living and suffering and loving, and by reading enormous amounts. You can teach the craft stuff but if the students don’t read, they don’t read. I can’t put that into them. I also think that if you want to write, that’s what matters, it’s the desire to write. Nobody can give you that desire, it’s got to come from inside you, although perhaps someone like me could help you recognise that you’ve got it.”
It is her own desire, as well as commitment and bloody-mindedness, she says, that has got her this far. “That’s what you need as much as whatever talent is: bloody-mindedness to survive poverty and another meal of beans on toast.”