Hello Helen, thank you for joining me today. Can you tell me about your book, Why Women Read Fiction and what inspired you to write it?
I have always been fascinated by the fact that the main readers of novels and short stories are women. Currently we buy (and also borrow) about 80% of all fiction. Women are the vast majority of members of book clubs, attendees at literary festivals, visitors to libraries and bookshops, and organisers of days out to literary heritage sites like the Brontës’ Haworth Parsonage. Many years ago, I wrote a book about Gone With the Wind, and more recently a Daphne du Maurier Companion, and while researching both these, I was struck by how many women told me of their passion for both writers and their books, and how profoundly they had wrapped words, scenes, characters and settings into their hearts and their own life stories.
They had even called their daughters, dogs and cats after the protagonists (Scarlett, Rhett, Rebecca). So I set out to ask what it is about reading fiction that appeals to women – and I found it offers escape, a special space just for us (‘me-time’), and the opportunity to spread our wings intellectually and emotionally. It helps us through the night, and gives us insights into our relationships and families, as well as the world beyond. Jackie Kay suggests ‘our lives are mapped by books’.
Fiction is important to so many people (including me.) Which fictional novel has made the most impact on you and why?
At different stages of my life, particular books have resonated. As a girl, I wanted to be like awkward, unconventional and ambitious Jo March in Little Women. As a young student, George Eliot’s Middlemarch taught me about social and intellectual pretentiousness, and warned me never to marry an emotionally stunted man.
As a middle-aged and older woman, I’ve learned about worlds very different from my own through writers such as Ralph Ellison, Eudora Welty and Hilary Mantel. Toni Morrison’s Beloved about American slavery is the most devastating novel I’ve ever read, and Kate Chopin’s The Awakening is very dear to my heart because set in a special place of mine, Louisiana.
What were the challenges you faced when writing When Women Read Fiction?
I decided to send out questionnaires to women about their reading, and to interview women writers too. The enthusiasm with which over 400 women responded to my questions and the wonderful material they provided me with, were very humbling, and I had to try to do justice to it all. Women love to tell you about what reading fiction means to them – ‘a lifeline,’ ‘my best friend,’ ‘the love of my life’ – and all the ways they have found it helped them in sorrow, joy, sickness and health.
Women writers are very aware of their responsibility to, and friendly relationship with women readers, though they gave me angry accounts of being ‘Little Womaned’, as Hilary Mantel put it – reviewed, paid and valued less than male fiction writers.
What’s your writing day like and what do you need around you? For example, coffee, tea, music, silence?
Alas, I’m not an early riser, but when I get going (after many cups of good English Breakfast tea) I like to write to music – Joni Mitchell, Kate Rusby, Mozart, Leonard Cohen)- but when I REALLY get going and the writing is flowing, I work in silence. Those are the most productive and precious times.
What’s the first thing you do when starting a new project? What comes next?
I am a slow burn writer. I was commissioned to write a BFI book about the film of Gone With the Wind and I finished it in three months, but usually it takes me years to shape an idea and produce a book.
I had the germ of an idea for Why Women Read Fiction thirty years ago, but I worked on it seriously for about five years. I think it’s a better book for taking so much time.
How do you approach the editing process?
Editing is my favourite process of all. I find research and first drafts time-consuming and difficult, but I love to edit.
Years of teaching students have given me considerable experience here, and I love to spot my own repetitions, clichés, weak phrases and poor arguments – then brutally cut and reshape. It’s the most creative process.
What’s your favourite word and why?