The Interview: Diana Athill

Published on 28 March 2015

[T]here’s not much that fazes 96-year-old Diana Athill, conceivably a consequence of being born during a zeppelin raid in 1917. She is stoic without being hard or unapproachable, and has been independent and self-sufficient all her life. In her later years she has bared her soul in a series of memoirs that have inadvertently created a throng of confidantes, poised on her every word. Her latest work, Instead of a Book: Letters to a Friend, which chronicles thirty years’ worth of intimate correspondence with the American poet Edward Field, is no exception. Forthright honesty and brutal self-reflection combine with acute recollections of sights, sounds, smells and states of mind to create the literary equivalent of a photo album that transports you into the heart of Diana’s richly-lived lifetime in publishing.

Her frankness is most apparent when it comes to sex and relationships. She became engaged to her childhood sweetheart, Tony Irvine (referred to as “Paul” in the memoirs to ensure discreetness) while at Oxford University. He joined the RAF, and was stationed in Egypt; when the Second World War hit, Diana did not receive any news for two years. She feared the worst, until a letter arrived from Tony informing her of his desire to be released from their engagement, as he wished to marry someone else. Devastated and humiliated, Diana’s pain was deepened a short time later when she was notified that he had been killed.

After an aimless period of detached relationships, Diana met a Hungarian called André Deutsch when she was 26. Following a brief affair, they became friends. He asked her to join him at his new publishing company, Allan Wingate, as an editor; she later became a director at Deutsch’s self-named venture. When Diana retired in 1993, at the age of 75, she had worked closely with some of the finest and most talked-about 20th century authors, such as Jean Rhys, V S Naipaul, Philip Roth, and John Updike.

She has written throughout her life, publishing her first memoir, Instead of a Letter, in the early 60s. But it wasn’t until she was in her 80s that Diana dedicated her time to writing, with great success. Her 2009 collection of letters, Life Class, has sold more than 10,000 copies. They highlight her connection with the places she has experienced, which share as much space as her encounters with authors and lovers. She talks of the London house that, until recently, she had shared with her cousin Barbara since the 1960s; of her mother’s cottage, the family homes, and the boarding school that she attended. At the heart of each memoir is Ditchingham Hall in Norfolk, her grandparents’ house. Referred to as Beckton by Diana, it was her Eden.

Two years ago, Diana moved herself into a residential home in Highgate. Despite the tragedies that have occurred in her life – the double loss of her fiancé, and a child – she doesn’t feel bitter. Rather than dwelling on the sadness of miscarrying, she appreciates the pregnancy as providing some of her happiest days. Her life, tainted with misfortune here and there, is painted in her memoirs with acceptance and hope. In the past couple of years she has appeared on Desert Island Discs, written for the Daily Telegraph, won a Costa Book Award for her final memoir, Somewhere Towards the End, and, in 2009, received an OBE. The Hunger was treated to an hour in her company.

The Hunger: What I admire about you is how full of life you are. How do you keep so hungry and purposeful?

Diana Athill: I would have to say that it’s genetic. On the whole, the women in my family live a long time – thank God they don’t seem to lose their marbles – and I’m the same! I have also had a very interesting life, which has kept me on my toes.

You have an inner optimism. Do you think that you are either born with it or you are not?

I think that is true: you are very lucky if you are born with it. There have been times when I have been unhappy, when I might have gone into a terrible depression, but I was saved from it being too bad because my optimism always made me think, “Oh well, something nice will turn up.” A very old lady who used to live near me had seen horrors one could not even dream about. She had been in a Nazi camp, lost her son and her husband – she had lost everything, yet she still looked like a happy old lady. In an interview, aged 103, she said, “Look, I know about the bad, but I choose to think about the good. Life is very beautiful.” I’ve always remembered her and, really, that is what I do. I know about the bad – you can’t read the newspaper today without knowing about the bad – but, on the whole, I choose to think about the good. It’s my nature.

Do you think that achieving writing success at an older age has helped you deal with fame more easily?

Insofar as I am famous, I’m sure it helped. If you’re young and you become very well known and everyone describes you as an inspiration, you start believing them. It makes you arrogant, but if you’re old it just seems like a joke. It’s a funny thing to have happened after one is 80. Never did I dream of such a thing. When I go shopping and some lady comes up to me, as they often do, and says, “Oh, I hope you don’t mind me telling you, I do so love your books,” it’s very nice, but it doesn’t go to my head.

Are all your groupies older ladies?

Not all of them by any means. A lot of them are middle-aged people who have reached the stage where they are conscious of coming near to the top of the hill, and are thinking, “Oh my god, I’m getting on and I’m going to be old. How awful!” It cheers them up to meet an old person who is not miserable and is having quite a nice time.

“I found that I don’t really know what I think about something until I’ve started writing about it, and then it comes out. You could say that I write to discover what I think”

You have worked with many famous people in your life. Did you encounter any egomania or selfishness?

It varied. There was a Canadian writer called Mordecai Richler who was uninfluenced by fame. He was his darling self all his life. I remember thinking that that’s how one should be: go on looking at things rather than being looked at. I think the important thing in life is, in fact, looking out. If you’re interested in what’s going on and the people you are meeting, then you don’t spend too much time being interested in yourself.

Your attitude to sex and sexuality is really fascinating. Where did that come from?

I think it came as a great help that I was a hopeless romantic in my youth. I thought I would fall in love; one marries the person you love and that’s that. Then after I had suffered my blow, I found that having affairs or even just casual sex was very cheering!

Has this attitude changed as you have got older?

As I have ceased to be a sexual being – this is the one really nice thing about being old – I have discovered the joy of being able to love a man without wanting to go to bed with him. I have a lovely friend [Edward Field] to whom I wrote letters, which are to be published. We have a tremendous and affectionate relationship: just pure friendship. That wouldn’t have been possible during the sexy days. It didn’t happen to me until I hit my 70s. I don’t think it happens to men at all; they go on hoping to be sexy for much longer. It’s amazing how some old men chase girls forever.

I look at the current obsession with beauty and aesthetics, and find myself wondering whether it would have been better to grow up in the 1920s, 30s and 40s, when it was more about settling down and having a family.

Yes, when it works, it is wonderful. We are lucky that in my family we’ve have had a lot of really good marriages. My sister and various cousins married young, and have continued to have lovely marriages. If you’re lucky enough to hit on the person that’s right, it’s wonderful – and absolute hell if you don’t. My own parents weren’t happy together but they ended up being good friends and it was all right. But, on the other hand, had they split up, they probably would have been a lot better off. I’m not a great one for monogamy.

Monogamy sounds like a swear word, doesn’t it?

It feels like one sometimes!

The memory of WWII is dying out with the passing of your generation. What was your experience of it? Chiefly, before the war was a terrible period for most of the country, but for people like me it was lovely; I was in the lucky realm of society and we had a gorgeous time. I never thought we were going to lose the war when it hit. God knows why I didn’t, although I sometimes thought it was never going to end. It was appalling, going on and on, year after dreary year. When you are in your 20s a year is a very long time, so four or five years seemed like an eternity. People say the 1950s were austere and depressing; to me the 50s were magic because the war had ended! It took a long time to recover, we were still on heavy rationing, but it was getting better and better. We were all very optimistic at the prospect of a Labour government, thinking that peace and justice would finally reign. It took a long time to realise there wouldn’t be anything of the sort. But the end of the war was wonderful, and I could enjoy life again.

Was it a liberating experience?

It wasn’t like that at all; I was very liberated anyway, so I wasn’t aware of that sentiment. They always say that the sexual revolution began in the 60s, but I think it began with the motorcar. People were able to be private in the back of a car. There was a wonderful, awful, News of the World expression that always made us laugh at Oxford: “Intimacy took place in the back of a car.” That’s where the revolution began.

As somebody who edits my own photography, I find myself editing my life in a similar way. Was this true of you as an editor? I don’t think so. Whatever has ever happened to me, just happened to me. I made moving into this old persons’ home happen, but prior to that, I just went along thinking that something would get better soon. I’ve never planned anything in my life! Now, I wish I had done more; I wish I’d travelled to more interesting places instead of just waiting. I would never have gone to America if my job hadn’t required it, and it was wonderful, I loved it.

So how did you end up writing?

I come from a bookish family; my great-grandfather was a master at an Oxford college and so we always read a great deal. I always knew that I wanted to work with books or paintings: something to do with the arts. Getting a job in publishing suited me perfectly. I was interested in writing but I didn’t see myself as a writer. When I was 41, I quite suddenly started writing stories and one of them won a competition in The Observer. It had to be called ‘The Return’ and be 3,000 words long: luckily, one of the stories I had previously written was just the right length. So I sent it in under a pseudonym – I had just won £5 on a horse named Mr Watt in the Grand National, so I chose his name – and I won it! It was a miracle that made me realise that I could write well, and gave me confidence. Writing about my life again came by surprise. I wrote Instead of a Letter in order to sort myself out. I wanted to get to the bottom of this unhappy love affair that I had been through; I wanted to find out what had really happened during the process of my writing, which is why I think it worked.

Do you think that it is crucial to write for that reason?

I think it’s a very important motivation. I found that I don’t really know what I think about something until I’ve started writing about it, and then it comes out. You could say that I write to discover what I think. Even when I’m reviewing a book, it’s not until I start writing – until I have my subject there – that I really get down to what I think about it.

Can you think of an author who has really wowed you with their charisma?

It’s difficult to say really, because the one I spent most time with was Jean Rhys, who was a pain in the neck, but at the same time fascinating because she was so extraordinary. I suppose the most impressive was John Updike, a terribly nice man – but I’m not really wowable.

When you were an editor, how did you get the best out of your writers?

I tried to give them confidence; that’s a very important thing. If you want to do something creatively, go ahead; if you don’t start, it means you don’t really want to. Just do it and see what happens.

Instead of a Book: Letters to a Friend is published by Granta.