Tom Hodgkinson visits literary legend Margaret Drabble to talk about how she writes and the art of napping
Margaret Drabble lives in a large Victorian house off Ladbroke Grove in west London. It’s owned by her second husband, the biographer Michael Holroyd. She asked to be interviewed at home because Holroyd is quite ill, and cannot be left alone for long periods.
I arrive there at 4pm one spring afternoon. She applauds me drily for my punctuality, thanks me for the flowers I’ve brought and asks if I’d like a cup of tea. She’s neatly dressed in black, and has a grey bob. Her accent borders on grand, but with the odd Sheffield inflection and a very occasional stutter.
Drabble was born in 1939 and was sent to a Quaker school in Sheffield. She did English at Cambridge, published her first novel, A Summer Bird-Cage, at 23 and has had a long and successful career since, with honours, literary awards and around 30 books to her name. Her first marriage was to the actor Clive Swift, who was Richard Bucket in Keeping Up Appearances. She had three children with him, a daughter Rebecca who died of cancer in 2017 and two sons, Joe, a gardener and TV personality, and Adam, a professor at UCL.
We sit down with tea and biscuits and discuss the writer’s life…
Tom Hodgkinson When do you write?
Margaret Drabble It’s dictated by the circumstances of life. When my children were small, I’d write for an hour or so after they’d gone to bed. Pretty soon I had a novel written. Later we had a house at Porlock Weir in Somerset. I’d go down by myself for a couple of weeks and really dig into work. I’d get up in the morning and go to my machine – an old manual in those days. I had about 20 years of that. The children weren’t at home and Michael had his own life. So I was able just to concentrate.
TH How would a typical day go?
MD I’d get up at seven and go back to bed with a cup of coffee. That’s the best time of the day. I’d get up properly at eight and start work around quarter to nine. I’d then work through till lunch and probably write around 2,000 words. I had a little garden house at the bottom of the garden where I used to work, a really nice one built by a friend of Joe’s. But that was in the old manual typewriter days. When I needed a laptop, we put electricity in the garden house, but the rabbits kept eating the wiring. So I worked in the house instead. As for lunch, if I’d remembered to put a baked potato in the Aga, then that was good. Otherwise I’d have a boiled egg.
TH And after lunch?
MD I would fall asleep.
MD Always on the sofa. Never in bed. If you get into bed, you lose your sense of time. You wonder where you are. In our Porlock house, there’s a lovely spot with a nice view. I’d put my feet up, read the Guardian – and then drift off. But only for 20 minutes. And then, in the summer, I’d go for a good walk, for an hour or two. And I would think. I would plan what I was going to be writing the next day. Walking is part of the process. I still walk quite well but not as well as I used to. I’m quite upset about that.
In London, she works here on the ground floor. It’s a huge room with high ceilings and large windows which, she cheerfully admits, could do with a clean. There are books everywhere, piled up higgledy-piggledy. The walls are painted yellowish. Her desk is by the window, facing the street. Behind that is a large table with an unfinished jigsaw puzzle on it. There’s another desk at the back of the room which faces onto the neat garden, and in the middle is a very seventies-looking corner sofa and black coffee table. Above it is a lovely painting of her with Holroyd and their late daughter Rebecca sitting in a room overlooking the sea. There’s a small kitchen area at the back. On the side are a few bottles of Peroni and a case of Wine Society white wine. It’s completely unpretentious, very literary and has clearly not been invaded by the interior designers of Notting Hill.
TH What about drinking?
MD I never used to drink in the day, though nowadays Michael and I have a quarter of a pint of beer at lunchtime. We’re on Peroni at the moment. He’s so housebound, so it’s nice to have a little treat. In the evening we’ll drink white wine and because I’ve been going to bed earlier, I’ll have a drink at around six. We watch the telly. Michael’s viewing habits are very different from mine and it’s hard to find things we both like. Since my children forced me to buy an iPad, I go to bed at nine and watch things he wouldn’t be interested in. They said I needed an iPad and they were right.
TH What have you enjoyed recently?
MD The children made me watch The Queen’s Gambit. It’s good but about three quarters of the way through I was annoyed to discover it wasn’t a true story. The most interesting thing I’ve seen recently is Dark Waters. It’s a big legal case about a guy who sued Teflon. He sued DuPont because everyone was falling ill. I love a court-room drama.
TH What about Dopesick? You’d have to get your children to get you on to Disney Plus, though.
MD Oh God, I can’t do that, I can’t! I subscribed to Sky because Michael likes watching the test match. But now they’ve put the test match on some other channel… it’s absolutely infuriating. It’s horrible, I won’t do it! I could watch Kiss Me Kate whenever it’s available. It’s a wonderful musical and it occasionally comes round.
TH You could surely watch it on demand via Amazon?
MD That somehow seems to be cheating. You can’t always watch what you want. I feel you ought to wait for things. I have a friend who never plays music of her own choice. She depends entirely on the Third Programme…
TH Which we call Radio 3 now.
MD Yes [laughs], which we call Radio 3 now! She thinks you should have someone selecting for you, and then you can switch off if you don’t like it.
TH Just live simply, with one radio.
MD This is what happens when we have power cuts in Porlock Weir. They’re quite frequent because we’re the end of the line. So you’ve just got your radio, and that’s it.
TH And when do you read?
MD I read in the early morning before I get up, and before my siesta. I read a book or two a week. I was commissioned to write a short story set at CERN so I read a lot of books about particle acceleration and quantum mechanics. There’s a very nice one by Jim Al-Khalili. I wouldn’t say I understood quantum mechanics, but I’ve got a good handle on what the particle accelerator was doing.
This is an extract from a longer piece which appears in the current issue of the Idler (May-June 2022) – out now.
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