The promise of the fu­ture

Cel­e­brated nov­el­ist Pene­lope Lively shares a life­time of writ­ing and gar­dens. By Cather­ine Larner

EADT Suffolk - - Aldeburgh Literary Festival -

WE should be un­der no il­lu­sion – writ­ing a novel is hard. Even for one of our great­est liv­ing nov­el­ists, Dame Pene­lope Lively. “You can get so stuck on the plot,” she says, “or there might be two char­ac­ters in a room and you have no idea what they can say to each other. Non-fic­tion is the most won­der­ful re­lease, an ab­so­lute joy.”

She is speak­ing hav­ing re­cently pub­lished Life in the Gar­den, a beau­ti­fully pre­sented book re­flect­ing, through six sec­tions, the in­flu­ence gar­dens and gardening have had on her life as a daugh­ter, a mother and a writer. She con­tem­plates age­ing, mem­ory, time and fate, themes she has ex­plored on many oc­ca­sions through 21 nov­els and more than 30 children’s books.

“I’d given a talk a few years ago,” she says, “look­ing at the ways in which dif­fer­ent writers have writ­ten about gar­dens – from Beatrix Pot­ter to Vir­ginia Woolf. Even­tu­ally, I saw a way in which the idea could be ex­panded and be­come the ba­sis for a book.”

Ex­pand­ing the theme to con­sider fash­ions and in­flu­ences in gar­dens and plant­ing, town ver­sus coun­try, and the char­ac­ter­is­tics of a gar­dener, Pene­lope also gives the reader an in­sight into her own life grow­ing up in Egypt, start­ing fam­ily life in Som­er­set, and med­i­tat­ing on old age through her court­yard gar­den in Lon­don.

“I love the way gardening is cycli­cal,” she says. “You move through the sea­sons. It keeps you in touch with the pas­sage of time. I went out this morn­ing and no­ticed that al­ready the nubs of tulips are com­ing through. It’s about watch­ing con­stant change, con­stant de­vel­op­ment. Noth­ing stays the same in the gar­den. There’s al­ways the promise of the fu­ture.” The pro­gres­sion of time does mean that our ac­tiv­i­ties are al­tered, though. Pene­lope is now 85 and un­able to dig beds or veg­eta­bles as she once did, al­though she en­joys plant­ing pots and dead­head­ing flow­ers in the court­yard of her Lon­don home. She can­not at­tend as many fes­ti­vals or au­thor events as she used to, but she is pleased to be re­turn­ing to Alde­burgh this month. And while she can no longer sit at her writ­ing desk all day, she finds that two hours of con­cen­trated work in the af­ter­noon are suf­fi­cient.

“You can’t con­cen­trate long in old age. I find a cou­ple of hours or so is the best I can do.” In re­al­ity, the writer is work­ing all the time, she says. “You can have an idea or a thought at any time of the day, and then I’ll stop what­ever I’m do­ing and jot it down. But there is also an old age lux­ury – you don’t feel you have to work ev­ery sin­gle day.” Pene­lope has re­luc­tantly taken a break from writ­ing non-fic­tion but she en­cour­ages us all to con­sider writ­ing from life.

“The thing all lives have in com­mon is the roads not taken, the de­ci­sions you made that set you off in one di­rec­tion rather than another. Try to look at your­self from an outer view­point. Every­body would look dif­fer­ently at their own lives.”

Pene­lope has en­joyed a long and very suc­cess­ful ca­reer. The win­ner of the Booker Prize for Moon Tiger in 1987, she was short­listed three times, and for her children’s books, she won the Carnegie Prize in 1973 for The Ghost of Thomas Kempe, and the Whit­bread award for A Stitch in Time in 1976. She has also writ­ten ra­dio and TV scripts, short sto­ries, ar­ti­cles and re­views, and has re­cently taken part, with Kamila Sham­sie, in a project by Pen­guin to pub­lish new edi­tions of four ne­glected works by women au­thors, to mark the cen­te­nary of women’s suf­frage.

Now she is cur­rently work­ing on a short novel. “When­ever I’ve fin­ished a book I’ve started think­ing about the next,” she says. “I’d find it very dif­fi­cult not to have a book of some kind un­der­way.”

“You can have an idea or a thought at any time of the day, and then I’ll stop what­ever I’m do­ing and jot it down”

Pene­lope Lively

Pene­lope Lively is in con­ver­sa­tion with Alex Preston at Alde­burgh Lit­er­ary Fes­ti­val on Satur­day, March 3 at 10am. Life in the Gar­den is pub­lished by Pen­guin

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