Interview with the 2007 Nobel Laureate in Literature Doris Lessing at her home in London, 14 April 2008. The interviewer is Professor John Mullan.
Doris Lessing talks about the inspiration for her first book, ‘The Grass is Singing’, the autobiographical nature of her ‘Children of Violence’ sequence of novels (10:29), ‘The Golden Notebook’ (12:23) and how it became a cult book (21:30), and why she took a foray into science fiction writing with her ‘Canopus in Argos’ series of novels (22:50). She also talks about the two novels she published under the pseudonym Jane Somers (26:45), why her autobiographies go no further than 1962 (36:55), and being an earth mother in the 1960s (37:20). Finally, she discusses her latest novel, ‘Alfred and Emily’, which explores the life of her parents and the horrors of war (44:30).
Telephone interview with Doris Lessing following the announcement of the 2007 Nobel Prize in Literature, 11 October 2007. The interviewer is Adam Smith, Editor-in-Chief of Nobelprize.org.
Transcript of the interview
[Doris Lessing] – Hello.
[Adam Smith] – Good morning, may I speak to Doris Lessing please?
[DL] – Who is that?
[AS] – This is Adam Smith from the Nobel Foundation’s website. We have a tradition of recording very short interviews on the telephone with new Laureates for our archives, and I was hoping that we might speak for just a very few minutes?
[DL] – OK, well let’s go ahead then.
[AS] – Thank you very much indeed. Congratulations, of course.
[DL] – Thank you.
[AS] – I wonder, have you had a chance to see the citation from the Swedish Academy?
[DL] – No, not really, I haven’t seen it. You know, I was coming back at midday from taking my son to the hospital. I’ve never seen anything written, or … I did talk to the chap who runs the Nobel Committee.
[AS] – So you’ve spoken to Horace Engdahl?
[DL] – Yes.
[AS] – They describe you, in their citation, as “that epicist of the female experience, who with scepticism, fire and visionary power has subjected a divided civilisation to scrutiny”. Do you think that goes some way towards capturing the mission with which you write?
[DL] – Well I don’t really know what they had in mind when they wrote it, you see. I mean they were faced with a quite astonishing number and range of writing. To sum it all up must have been quite formidable, don’t you think?
[AS] – Yes, indeed.
[DL] – Not easy at all.
[AS] – Well over 50 books and a combination of styles of writing which defies description. Quite so. Do you think of yourself as having a mission when you write though, more than to tell stories?
[DL] – Absolutely not. No, because don’t forget that I was a communist once, and we had very, very nasty examples of the writer as engineer of the human soul. It’s enough to make any of us scared. You know, I was of that generation.
[AS] – So you leave it to the reader to decide what mission they find in your writing?
[DL] – Well you know the reader does anyway. The reader makes up his or her mind and the writer goes along with it. There’s nothing you can do, really, if they get something that you’ve written absolutely wrong. You’re not then going to issue a sort of statement saying “Oh dear, that’s not right at all. What I really meant was something else.” No, no, you write, and then they make what they want of it.
[AS] – And so, for those who … on past experience the award of the Nobel Prize will encourage millions to come to your writing who haven’t been there before. For those who haven’t experienced your writing, would you suggest a starting place for them?
[DL] – Well I’m going to suggest something that might surprise you, simply because I know the young people like it. It’s The Fifth Child. Much to my surprise, I found out that the adolescents like it very much. So they could begin with that, and see how they did. I’ve written an adventure story called Mara and Dan, which I know young people like, about the … Then my very first novel, The Grass is Singing, is still very much alive. They might like to try that.
[AS] – Your productivity is of course phenomenal, and I suppose some people may wonder just how you manage to produce so much literature. Is it that you have an unstoppable workaholic tendency? Do you just have so many stories to tell? What drives it?
[DL] – Well, it’s certainly true that I have a, I’m driven myself, about writing. But you know I don’t do anything else. I don’t have much of a social life, and I’ve been very circumscribed by other circumstances in my life which keep me writing. You know, if I hadn’t (I am a naturally social person) I think I would have frittered away my life having fun, which I’m quite good at.
[AS] – So is this a self-imposed exile, or is it just that writing always presented itself as a better possibility?
[DL] – Well it’s what I do. I naturally turn to it, always. I always, I’m usually thinking about what I’m writing now. But you know I don’t have a great range of other interests, let’s put it like that. For one reason or another.
[AS] – And seeing the televised coverage of your reaction to the news yesterday, one might guess the answer to this question, but how does the prospect of the increased attention that the prize will focus on you, um, grab you?
[DL] – Oh I don’t think … you know, people are going to lose all interest in a month or two. They can’t spend all their time wanting interviews. And I haven’t got time you know. I haven’t got time for all that. So the problem will solve itself.
[AS] – One other question I wanted to ask is about the range of styles you write in. You’ve tackled almost everything, except perhaps poetry. Is that a conscious choice to try and expand your repertoire, or are these just the forms that you need to use to express yourself?
[DL] – No, once I have an idea, a story, or something, in my mind, then it has to find the right expression. You know, I don’t say “Oh, now I’m going to write a, I don’t know what, a realistic book of 50,000 words”. What happens is that the book, the story dictates how I’m going to have to do it. The story dictates the means of telling it. So I have written a lot of different styles, if you want to call it that, because I’ve written a lot of different stories. It’s not at all a question of wanting to try out this or try out that. I mean when I started to write the Shikasta series, which covers millions of years, that fact in itself dictates a style. You can’t start that by saying, “Oh well, Joe Bloggs sat in his kitchen and drank a cup of Typhoo tea, and wrote a letter to his sister-in-law”. You have to have a different way of doing it. So that’s how that comes about.
[AS] – Yes. It has perhaps contributed to the length of time that the Swedish Academy has taken to make the decision to award you the Nobel Prize that you’ve adopted styles that are perhaps non-traditional.
[DL] – I think that, probably, the Nobel people didn’t like what they call ‘Science Fiction’. I mean I think it’s a very mistaken label that they use, but they probably were put off by, I mean Memoirs of a Survivor for example, or Briefing for a Descent into Hell. These are hardly easy to categorize. It probably was difficult for them.
[AS] – Well there seem to be a lot of people who are delighted by the choice. There was an enormous cheer went up when Horace Engdahl announced your name yesterday.
[DL] – Thank you, thank you, thank you.
[AS] – Well thank you very much for speaking to us and when you come to Stockholm in December to receive the award I think Horace Engdahl is going to interview you at greater length. So we look forward to seeing you then.
[DL] – See you then. OK, thank you.
[AS] – Thank you very much indeed.
[DL] – Bye.
[AS] – Bye, bye.
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