The promise of the future
Celebrated novelist Penelope Lively shares a lifetime of writing and gardens. By Catherine Larner
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 is in conversation with Alex Preston at Aldeburgh Literary Festival on Saturday, March 3 at 10am. Life in the Garden is published by Penguin