Penelope Lively: ‘I thought short stories had left me completely’

Penelope Lively thought she was done with short stories, when to her surprise an idea popped into her head. She had recently completed Ammonites and Leaping Fish, a book about memory and ageing that she refers to as “the view from 80”, when she went to an exhibition about Pompeii with her son-in-law.

The pair share an interest in birds, and were going around the British Museum in London spotting them in Roman frescoes. One puzzled them, and a curator was called to identify the large, long-legged wetland fowl as a purple swamphen – the creature that supplies the title for Lively’s latest book, The Purple Swamp Hen and Other Stories (Fig Tree).

“I thought the form had left me completely. I hadn’t written any for almost 20 years,” Lively explains as we talk in front of another bird picture – this one painted in oils by her aunt Rachel Reckitt – on the wall of her north-London sitting room. “I thought I’d like to get back to fiction, but a novel is like hacking at the rock face and I didn’t feel like hacking at the rock face. Then a story came, and another, and so forth – they are so totally unpredictable. The prime thing is the idea, that’s the joy of the short story.”

Lively’s career began in the 1970s in the snatched hours before her children got home from primary school in Swansea, and reached the twin peaks of the Carnegie medal for her children’s book The Ghost of Thomas Kempe in 1973, and the Booker prize for her adult novel Moon Tiger in 1987. With more than 30 books to her name, she remains the only author to have won both awards, and in 2012 was made a dame of the British empire.

Her new collection includes a couple of ghost stories but is mostly concerned with character, relationships and contrasting points of view: several stories unpick marriages or partnerships, including one, “A Biography”, which reveals two lost babies to be the sad secret buried in the past of a pioneering TV historian. “It’s the one thing you’re constantly confronted with: other people’s relationships, and how wrong you can be about them too,” Lively says. “I don’t think a relationship is always very visible on the surface. I think they can appear to be quite otherwise than they are.”

Lively’s own marriage lasted 41 years, until her husband Jack died aged 69 in 1998. They married when she was 24, having emerged from Oxford University with a history degree and “no career plan whatsoever”, and she had two babies as Jack took his first steps in academia. Determined to look after her children after her own experience of being cared for almost exclusively by a nanny, she says she knew “something had to be done about a job as soon as the bottom one went to primary school”.

The obvious choice was teaching but Lively, though clever, had not been a good student and was reluctant to take any more courses. She decided to try writing and after a few attempts found her register: comic and poignant; drawing on the classic tradition of English children’s stories she had grown up with, but giving it a sharp contemporary twist. The Ghost of Thomas Kempe, in which a home counties boy is adopted by a poltergeist, was an instant classic, and took its place on the shelf of postwar English children’s novels alongside books by Philippa Pearce, Susan Cooper, Leon Garfield and others. Lively names Thomas Kempe when asked to name a favourite among her books. “It’s about the power of memory, but for goodness’ sake I don’t want any child to come away from it thinking that,” she says. The Royal Shakespeare Company recently began work on a stage version. By contrast her other most famous title, Moon Tiger, which used the wartime Egypt of her childhood as the backdrop for a love story between a war correspondent and an army officer, “was for a while very definitely my unfavourite book, I got very unfond of it,” she says, recalling the days when she travelled hither and thither delivering workshops, talks and lectures at the behest of the British Council and her publishers – a Booker prize-winner who took the responsibilities of a literary ambassador seriously. One of the pleasures of old age, says Lively, is knowing she will never see Heathrow again.

Launch parties were never her thing – she says they make any bad reviews even more embarrassing – but in other respects she embraced the role of the professional writer. Fiction was her career, chosen after a childhood and early adulthood in which books were her constant companions. “From about four, I can actually remember the joy of suddenly realising that I could read, that these squiggles on a page were beginning to make sense,” she says. “I was always reading while feeding a baby, reading while stirring things at the stove, and going once a week to the public library with books at one end of the pram and the children in the other.”

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