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IN CONVERSATION, Volumes 1 and 2, with Christopher Bigsby
(£12.99 and £10.99, University of East Anglia)

I could have been writing this morning. I have the day off from my day job at Northern Arts – where I spend much of my time in conversation with writers, or talking about writers, or publishers or promoters – to take delivery of a new sofa and so someone can come and unblock our drains. Instead I’m writing about a book about writers in conversation. Talking about writers talking about being writers and their books.

Now, if you’re interested in my drainage problems, and how I work at Northern Arts to keep mind, body, soul and family together (and to pay for sofas), and how that might interact with my writing (positively in many senses, but often negatively in terms of time and energy, just in case you are interested), then you’ll probably enjoy these two books of interviews by Christopher Bigsby, with authors ranging from Edward Albee to August Wilson in Volume 1, and John Ashbery to Tom Wolfe in Volume Two. Just re-reading them now – sitting on my lovely new sofa – I’ve been fluctuating between a variety of emotions.

Many of these interviews are fascinating. They tend to be those which are about writers whose work I know, but about whom I’ve not know very much. So it’s interesting to know, for example, that Albee was adopted by millionaires, from whom he felt he had to break free by moving to
New York aged 19. That throws a whole new light on Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf for me – though this is not an avenue which Bigsby pursues.

Bigsby is of course the constant presence in all these interviews, but I didn’t get much sense of his personality – he often seems to channel writers down lines of thought concerning nationhood, class, and the struggle to establish themselves as writers, rather than exploring particular byways. He is a balanced and unbiased interviewer, always very knowledgeable and thoroughly researched, but in a way I would have preferred it if he had been a little more argumentative. Read at one sitting these interviews can feel very samey, and with not enough debatable material to get one’s teeth into.

There is something a little deferential about many of these interviews, although given the status of the writers that is perhaps not unsurprising. The books will be a valuable resource for students of contemporary literature, but with writers so well established  - and so well covered previously as Paul Auster, Derek Walcott or Kurt Vonnegut – there is sometimes little new that Bigsby can bring out with his measured, reasonable questioning.

Many of the interviews were carried out for BBC radio in the late 1980’s, and focus rather heavily on what was at the time the writers current novel. This has a slightly odd effect in 2002, privileging the reader with knowledge the writer doesn’t yet have. Martin Amis talks at length about Time’s Arrow, for instance, and about the controversy surrounding it, the difficulties in writing it and how it fits, or doesn’t fit into his oeuvre. We know that just over the horizon was a change of agent, a row with Julian Barnes, a massive advance for The
Information, an artistic and commercial failure by the standards of Time’s Arrow, and a new set of teeth. In the case of Amis – who displays a characteristic mixture of self-confident bravado and unease – this timelag can be quite entertaining, in others, it feels rather like reading last weeks news – neither recent nor old enough to be gripping.

Partly this is because these interviews are so career-based, rather than craft-based. Bigsby is fascinated by how writers live, and by how they became writers, how their early work moved them slowly or swiftly into mid-career. However, no one interested in Paul Auster or Margaret Atwood can be unaware of their progress from poets who did prose into full-blown advance and prize-winning novelists. Those more interested in the nuts and bolts of the writing process, as opposed to the writing industry, should consult the Paris Review Writers at Work series, or Tony Curtis’s book of a few year’s back How Poets Work.

So whilst not the most exciting selection of writers, nor the most innovative approach to the writer interview (Bigsby is clearly uncomfortable with his role in the publicity/personality industry, but not able to break free of its shackles), these two collections are bound to be of interest to writers, students and teachers of contemporary literarature. How the writing life and the lived life interact is a fascinating area of debate and enquiry, which deserves further, more detailed and expansive exploration.

(The second half of this review was written on the 16.00 from King’s Cross to Aberdeen, on my way back to Darlington from a meeting about Corporate Services within the new merged Arts Council/Regional Arts Boards. I had planned to finish the review yesterday and then write something else, but the drain man arrived several hours late, and we spent an hour looking (in vain) for a manhole cover. The rest of the day vanished beneath his estimate for finding the pipe, and interrogating the neighbours. Today has been unusually full of corporate management speak, and began with a very early train journey spent writing work documents. No doubt this has some bearing on any change of tone. I’m now going to further abuse the Northern Arts laptop by attempting to write a poem using a quote from the Jeanette Winterson novel I was reading on the tube as its title. That quote is: ‘Now that physics is proving the intelligence of the universe what are we to do about the stupidity of humankind?’

That’s one example of how my writing life and my lived life interact. Meanwhile, somewhere north of here, my wife is digging up the garden, looking for a blocked drain. (None of the writers in these books mention blocked drains.)

          © Mark Robinson 2002