On October 23, 1977, John Fowles was interviewed by Melvyn Bragg for the BBC Television show "The Lively Arts." The following is a transcript.
John Fowles is one of the handful of British authors treated with respect by the press and with delight by a wide public. Only a few writers of serious fiction sell tens of thousands of hardback books in this country. Fewer still sell hundreds of thousands in America. His new book is a novel called Daniel Martin. It is his fourth novel and that too, according to the publishers here and abroad, will scale the heights of bestsellerdom and also claim top billing on the serious review pages.
The Collector was John Fowles' first novel. It was made into a film in which Terence Stamp played the young man whose obsession for collecting butterflies was accompanied by an obsession to collect and make a captive of a young girl from Hampstead. Hampstead is the place John Fowles was living in at the time.
But the novel which made him an international literary celebrity was The Magus. It sold a staggering 4 million copies all over the world. He wrote it several times over a period of nine or ten years while he was in and around Hampstead in his 20s and 30s and it is a story of the trials and torments inflicted on a young schoolteacher on a Greek island in the 1950s. For reasons which were increasingly mysterious he's subjected to an immense series of ordeals and tricks and like all John Fowles' novels the metaphysics and the reflections are laid on as thickly as the dramatic plotting. Fowles is 51, he's married and with his wife he lives in a beautiful house in Lyme Regis overlooking the Cobb, which is where another of his novels, The French Lieutenant's Woman had some notable scenes. His garden reflects his passion for botany and his house is as large and roomy as his books.
You've said yourself, I believe, that novelists are formed very young indeed, whether they know it or not. Is it possible to be at all precise about the way you were formed as a novelist?
I meant that statement in general…what I feel about it would apply to any novelist. What interests me about novelists as a species is the obsessiveness of the activity, the fact that novelists have to go on writing. I think that probably must come from a sense of the irrecoverable. In every novelist's life there is some more acute sense of loss than with other people, and I suppose I must have felt that. I didn't realize it, I suppose, till the last ten or fifteen years. In fact you have to write novels to begin to understand this. There's a kind of backwardness in the novel…an attempt to get back to a lost world.
Given that that is shared, then what specifically in your case would you say about your childhood that led or would lead a future biographer to say: Oh, yes, already he was this, that or the other?
I was brought up at Leigh on Sea, which is a suburban town, part of Southend on Sea. I led the normal life of a suburban middle-class child, but the snag was that standing in the way of a smooth progression to a normal suburban middle-class adulthood was a love of nature. I can remember even as a small child that I always adored green things, I adored going out in the country. I was fortunate. I had an uncle who was a natural historian, and a cousin who was also a natural historian and those were the highlights of my first ten years, going out to look for butterflies or birdwatching, country walks. Then Hitler helped me greatly because we were evacuated to Devon and I had five years in a remote Devon village. That was a formative experience for me. I was a lonely child, but my friend was always nature, rather than being the company of other boys.
When you say you were lonely, do you find, did you think that that sort of solitude was enriching on the one hand, and on the other hand good training for the solitary life of a novelist?
I think solitude is a very, very good signal of the future novelist, an inability ...
Or loneliness, which? Solitude or loneliness because you can be lonely without being solitary ...?
Yes, you're quite right to make that distinction. I think a sense of personal loneliness, yes, is a better definition of it. I wasn't solitary in a sense, of course. I went to school and all the rest of it, but I think now that if I was shown a class of children and asked can you pick out the future novelists, I would look for the ones who are actually probably inarticulate. Above all, the ones who do not at any given present contraction of events show up well, the people who back down in an argument and who then walk away inventing a new scenario for the argument that has happened. It's important for a novelist to live in two worlds, and that I would say is really the major predisposing factor…an inability to live in reality, so you have to escape into unreal worlds. I would say this is true of all art as a matter of fact, but perhaps above all for the novelist.
This is you now in 1977. Do you remember feeling this when you were about 15 or 16?
No, not at all. ...