Love writers who capture the pulse of life, says Booker Prize longlisted author Alison MacLeod
The Booker Prize longlisted author, Alison MacLeod, talks to Neha Kirpal about her latest novel,
how she pursued Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and writing during the pandemic
Published: 24th October 2021 05:00 AM | Last Updated: 22nd October 2021 09:59 PM | A+A A-
What inspired you to write your latest novel Tenderness?
I loved DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover when I first read it in my teens. I must have gone to it, vaguely curious about adulthood, love and sex.It was all long before the internet, and books were everything. I’m not sure I took away much in the way of sex education, but I remember being unexpectedly moved by the love story of Lady Constance Chatterley and her husband’s gamekeeper, Oliver Mellors. But love in Lawrence’s fiction is never easy or sentimental. It’s a muddy thing in which desire mingles with resistance and even repulsion, and if transformation comes, it’s at a cost. It’s true to life, in other words.
Tenderness was an early working title for Lady Chatterley’s Lover. That feeling—in Lawrence, a fusion of compassion, human touch and insight born in the body—runs like a live wire through his prose. And perhaps it was that—and the way it connects to the creative imagination in us as readers—which drove me to write this book.
In Tenderness, I wanted to uncover the story of his story, from creation to suppression to liberation. I wanted to recreate the ‘pen-strokes’ of creation. I also wanted to tell the story of a book that was both a ‘bomb’ for the Establishment and a ‘bright book of life’ for so many of Lawrence’s readers. In Tenderness, I imagine Jackie Kennedy as one such reader, although there are many others as well.
The book runs on themes such as obscenity trial, censorship, sensuality and then freedom. Tell us about the scale of research that went into putting together such vast-ranging subjects.
The research was wide-ranging and engrossing—and became more fascinating the more I excavated the history. In a serendipitous moment, I discovered Lawrence had spent seven months in Sussex (where I live) during the First World War, and the influence of that period is profound in Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which is also a remarkable anti-war novel. It was wonderful to be able to explore his old cottage, and even to see the fitted bookcase he built. I also travelled into the Tuscan countryside to find the remote villa where he wrote his book, as well as the house where he had his one extra-marital affair, in
1920—with a woman called Rosalind Baynes, who was to become the model for Lady Chatterley.
At another stage, I was working with something entirely different: declassified FBI files. During the Cold War, the Bureau was working hard to keep Lady Chatterley’s Lover banned. I found that extraordinary. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director, J Edgar Hoover, took a personal interest. Into this true FBI 1959-60 history, I insert Jackie Kennedy into the story of the novel’s struggle for freedom—because she was known to have been an ardent admirer of Lawrence’s novels, and, in my story, she acts as a champion. I know Hyannis, Cape Cod—the location of the Kennedy compound—well from family holidays going back to childhood.Finally, I spent years with the archives of the infamous 1960 obscenity trial of Penguin Books (and Lady Chatterley) in London. There was much more going on behind the scenes than is generally known.
You also teach contemporary fiction at the University of Chichester, England. Who are your biggest literary inspirations?
The writers who shaped me include Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Robertson Davies, Charlotte and Emily Bronte, Angela Carter and Lawrence. A motley lot but they all created palpable, breathing worlds and diverted from linear realism in ways that really interested me. That departure is a lifelong exploration, in artistic terms because reality is a mutable thing. As a writer now, I still love spending time with Lawrence, but I’m also inspired by Anton Chekhov, Flannery O’Connor, Katherine Mansfield and Tennessee Williams. I love writers who capture the pulse of life, line by line in their prose.
How has the pandemic affected your writing?
The lockdown in the UK was brilliant for Tenderness. The solitude allowed me to hold my novel’s various moving parts in my imagination at once. The period of concentration was a strange gift.
Apart from Tenderness you have written three novels and two short story collections.What’s next?
Ah, I’m superstitious, so I never say much! But I can’t wait to get to it—my next novel.