Doris Lessing - Interview


Doris Lessing was interviewed at the home of Robert Gottlieb, in Manhattan’s east forties. Her editor for many years at Knopf, Mr. Gottlieb was then the editor of The New Yorker. Ms. Lessing was briefly in town to attend some casting sessions for the opera Philip Glass has based on her novel The Making of the Representative for Planet 8, for which she had written the libretto. Plans for the opera had been in more or less constant flux, and it was only after a minor flurry of postcards—Ms. Lessing communicates most information on postcards, usually ones from the British Museum—that the appointment was finally arranged.

While the tape recorder was being prepared, she said, “This is a noisy place here, when you think we’re in a garden behind a row of houses.” She points across the way at the townhouse where Katharine Hepburn lives; the talk is about cities for a while. She has lived in London for almost forty years, and still finds that “everything all the time in a city is extraordinary!” More speculatively, as she has remarked elsewhere, “I would not be at all surprised to find out . . . that the dimensions of buildings affect us in ways we don’t guess.” She spoke about spending six months in England before the age of five, saying, “I think kids ought to travel. I think it’s very good to carry kids around. It’s good for them. Of course it’s tough on the parents.”


The interview was conducted on the garden patio. Silvery-streaked dark hair parted in the middle and pulled back in a bun, a shortish skirt, stockings, blouse, and jacket, she looked much like her book-jacket photos. If she seemed tired, it was hardly surprising considering the extent of her recent travels. She has a strong, melodious voice, which can be both amused and acerbic, solicitous and sarcastic.


INTERVIEWER

You were born in Persia, now Iran. How did your parents come to be there?

DORIS LESSING

My father was in the First World War. He couldn’t stick England afterwards. He found it extremely narrow. The soldiers had these vast experiences in the trenches and found they couldn’t tolerate it at home. So he asked his bank to send him somewhere else. And they sent him to Persia, where we were given a very big house, large rooms and space, and horses to ride on. Very outdoors, very beautiful. I’ve just been told this town is now rubble. It’s a sign of the times, because it was a very ancient market town with beautiful buildings. No one’s noticed. So much is destroyed, we can’t be bothered. And then they sent him to Tehran, which is a very ugly city, where my mother was very happy, because she became a part of what was called the “legation set.” My mother adored every second of that. There were dinner parties every night. My father hated it. He was back again with convention. Then in 1924, we came back to England where something called the Empire Exhibition (which turns up from time to time in literature) was going on and which must have had an enormous influence. The southern Rhodesian stand had enormous maize-cobs, corncobs, slogans saying “Make your fortune in five years” and that sort of nonsense. So my father, typically for his romantic temperament, packed up everything. He had this pension because of his leg, his war wounds—minuscule, about five thousand pounds—and he set off into unknown country to be a farmer. His childhood had been spent near Colchester, which was then a rather small town, and he had actually lived the life of a farmer’s child and had a country childhood. And that’s how he found himself in the veld of Rhodesia. His story is not unusual for that time. It took me some time, but it struck me quite forcibly when I was writingShikasta how many wounded ex-servicemen there were out there, both English and German. All of them had been wounded, all of them were extremely lucky not to be dead, as their mates were.

INTERVIEWER

Perhaps a minor version of the same thing would be our Vietnam veterans coming back here and being unable to adjust, completely out of society.

LESSING

I don’t see how people can go through that kind of experience and fit in at once. It’s asking too much.
INTERVIEWER

You recently published a memoir in the magazine Granta which, according to its title, was about your mother. In some ways it really seemed to be more about your father.

LESSING

Well, how can one write about them separately? Her life was, as they used to say, devoted to his life.

INTERVIEWER

It’s astonishing to read about his gold-divining, his grand plans, his adventures . . .

LESSING

Well, he was a remarkable bloke, my father. He was a totally impractical man. Partly because of the war, all that. He just drifted off, he couldn’t cope. My mother was the organizer, and kept everything together.

INTERVIEWER

I get the feeling that he thought of this gold-divining in a very progressive and scientific way.
LESSING

  His idea was—and there’s probably something true about it somewhere—that you could divine gold and other metal if you only knew how to do it. So he was always experimenting. I wrote about him actually, in a manner of speaking, in a story I called “Eldorado.” We were living in gold country. Gold mines, little ones, were all around. ...

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