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Penelope Lively Q&A

Penelope LivelyPenelope Lively answered our questions on her novel How It All Began, our June 2012 book club choice.

"Thank you all so much for your thoughtful questions and also for the perceptive responses. What a wonderful group of readers - I feel privileged to have prompted so much discussion and analysis."

Q: I loved the character of Charlotte - that mixture of fierce independence and high intelligence and physical pain, which she can't deny - and I wondered if she was a character you could have written at any other time of your life? fritter

A: No – I don’t think I could have created Charlotte when I was younger. One of the few advantages of age, for a writer, is that you have been there, seen it all.

Q: You have written a fair few novels now - do you still find it easy to have ideas for new books? And do you approach the start of a novel with as much enthusiasm as you always did? scribblegranny

A: Ideas come more slowly now. The enthusiasm is still there, but I work more slowly, too.

How It All BeganQ: I thought Henry was a brilliant character - pretty awful until he becomes a sad figure at the end. Do you think men generally find ageing gracefully, submitting to the loss of their power, more difficult than women? flopsybunny

A: Ah – men and woman and age. Hard to answer. I would think it depends entirely on individuals. I know women who find it hard to face up to age – and men who are robust about it. A matter of personality.

Q: There is a powerful theme in the book of stories teaching people the really valuable things in life, and especially how to put yourself in other people's shoes. Is this something you personally believe about novels and do you worry that young people are reading less because of so many other distractions? if they are, do you think that will affect the way they empathise with each other? sneetch

A: Good question. I do indeed think that we learn much from literature – I certainly have. Good fiction enables you to see the world – and how people behave – through someone else’s eyes. Great literature serves up revelations about morality, about the human condition.

Q: How It All Began is beautifully structured, with all the stories spinning away from each other. Do you have to work hard on the architecture of a book before you start writing? Do you always know where you're going to end up? popsiclegran

A: I plan a novel long before I start writing it. I will have a skeletal frame before I begin, and then fill in the rest – the main characters are already there, and the setting, and I will probably know how it ends.

Q: What comes first, the plot or the characters? nanakate

A: The theme of the novel comes first – that it is about the operation of memory, or the nature of evidence, or choice and contingency (as in How It All Began). Plot and characters are worked out next.

Q: I found How It All Began surprisingly funny. Does the humour just keep breaking out or do you think carefully about adding in humour in? closetgran

A: I’ve never thought about that before! No careful thought, definitely – I think humour either just arrives or does not.

Q: Which is your favourite novel of the ones that you've written? Do you feel that there are any that were/are unfairly underrrated or neglected? frangipane

A: Moon Tiger is probably the best known, but I feel now as though some else wrote it (which in a sense is true – you change over decades, both as a person and a writer). Actually, the book I sometimes think works well is non-fiction – the memoir of my Egyptian childhood I wrote twenty years ago: Oleander Jacaranda.

Q: Has having children been a help or a hindrance with writing? Did you get going when they were young? zedbed

A: Children have been the best thing in my life, but of course they were a bit of a hindrance when I first started writing. Back then, I was writing mainly children’s books – which left me long ago, alas.

Q: I think it was Samuel Johnson who said, "nobody ever wrote except for money" (or words to that effect). Did you expect to make money from writing when you started out? Did you succeed? sailorgran

A: I never expected to earn quantities, but I always hoped I would eventually be able to help out the family income. That took a long time, I have to say, but in time I was able to “pay back” my husband for supporting me.

Q: You were honoured by the Queen in the most recent New Year's honours - I think you have a CBE. What was that like and what did it mean to you? distaffgran

A: I was made a Dame in the New Year’s honours, which vastly amused my grandchildren (six, ranging from 5 to 23). They say I have to get more Dame-like. How?

Q: Why do you think novels have tended to focus on young people, and marriage plots? Do you think as people live longer we will get more novels about older people? getmehrt

A: The great fiction of the past never focused on the young – plenty of older characters. There is indeed the problem, for writers, of trying to portray a situation you don’t know (see first question). That may have something to do with it – but a bold writer has a go at anything. After all, women need and want to write of men, and vice versa. And just as, with people living longer, there is the “grey vote” for politicians to worry about, so there is the “grey reader”, and plenty of them, and they don’t always want to read about twenty-somethings.

Q: I read somewhere that you don't approve of people reading on Kindles. A lot of us on here are very attached to our Kindles! What d'you think is wrong with them? (You can't alter the font size in a book!) timebomb

A: I was entirely misreported on Kindles. What I said was that I prefer to read a real book, myself, but that I would certainly be getting a Kindle if I still travelled, or if I was going to be in hospital – practical and useful. No way do I disapprove of Kindles.

Q: Do you set out to write a book on a different theme each time, or do you think the same themes have preoccupied you throughout your career? spid

A: Every novel is differently inspired, but I suppose there are themes that run through my work – the operation of memory especially.

And some comments….

I got How It All Began from the library yesterday, and could hardly put it down, but made myself so that I can savour it! I have just gone back to it and am half way through now. It is lovely to have people of our age in a book; it makes it so much easier to identify with. Though one hopes one won’t identify with being mugged!

I am left feeling sad - would have liked Anton to have a love life and he so wanted Rose. But a very moral book, all husbands and wives reunited! I identified with Charlotte, we are the same age, and like her my mother/daughter relationship has altered and I often feel I am the daughter! This was very perceptive of the author! Dear old Henry was a lovely caricature of elderly men who were "someone" in their day, and still think they are. I know a few of them, though not in high positions like Henry, but old chaps who were managers etc and used to being listened to and respected. A very enjoyable book. I am ashamed to say I have not read books by this author before but am going to remedy that. Milly

I was lucky enough to get a copy of how it all began from the publishers, thank you Gransnet. I loved the two themes, connectivity, how one event affects others and story. The characters are beautifully drawn and you want to know what happens to them. Henry's decline is as sensitively described as is Charlotte's recovery. Great to see how story is best used to teach literacy and a wonderful portrait of contemporary life. JennyB

I felt so sad for Rose and Anton, but also pleased that the author recognised the implication that marriage sometimes leads to hard choices and that perhaps one cannot always have everything one wants. Would I be moral enough to make the same choice as Rose, or would selfishness have won? Makes me question my own motivations. So glad Jeremy's wife finally managed to break free of her dominant sister, and that Henry can decline contentedly without ever quite realising how it happened. Altogether a really satisfying read. Thank you, Penelope Lively. MrsJamJam

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Like Milly I had to pace myself when reading it, otherwise I would have wolfed it down. As it is, I gave myself time to think. Interesting how the author juxtaposes the lives and thoughts of different characters: eg Charlotte muses that she is the sum of her experiences, and then in the next section we find Rose and her friend wondering what they've forgotten. Like MrsJamJam I felt sorry for Rose and Anton - but suspect I would have made a different choice (and this as a result of my own life experiences). I haven't read Penelope Lively before, but I'm going straight on to Amazon to list her on my wish list! fatfairy

Not all the characters were "oldies" but the majority were in that group so often overlooked by authors, so it was good that "we" had our moment in the sun! The domino effect core of the book was well developed; the idea being that all the events described in the action were as a direct result of Charlotte's mugging and resultant physical incapacity. If you choose the correct point to apply your lever, you can shift the universe...Some characters were far more appealing than others: Anton, for instance, was more likeable than Henry, and Stella developed throughout the narrative and seemed to be freeing herself not only from her rather unpleasant husband Jeremy but also from the dominant sister Gill. It would have been good as well to see more positive stuff happening to the progenitrix Charlotte. I shall certainly seek out more books by PL now that she is on my radar! ctussaud

Thanks Gransnet for the copy of this book. It was such a lovely surprise, so smart in its hard back and its pretty dust jacket. And what was inside was just as good. I have just been doing a course on creative writing (yes, another wannabe) and have been thinking about point of view and how authors get inside a character's head and give the character a unique voice. It was good fun to concentrate not only on the story but on how Penelope Lively manages to give each of her characters a particular way of "speaking" in their internal dialogue. Jeremy always finding a justification for his bad behaviour, and two-timing his mistress with his wife (very clever), Stella never knowing her own mind, Charlotte thinking alternatively about her past and her painful present. Actually I thought the description of pain was very well done. Another thing that we "learned" in our creative writing course was that, in a conventional novel, the "initiating incident" that sets the ball rolling, happens about 25 pages in. By that time we usually know about the main characters, the setting, time and place etc. But good authors are free to break the rules. Here PL puts the incident right at the very start of the book, before we even know who the other characters are going to be. It's very entertaining the way the story unfolds. I'm looking forward to reading more Penelope Lively! nanakate

Just finished the book and enjoyed it immensely. Thank you for some very pleasant hours reading it in the sunshine. No questions but more Penelope Lively for me. hankipanki

My first job out of secretarial college was at the Institute of Historical Research, oh how I recognise Henry. Lots of the famous, in those days, names came in and out. Of course PL's husband was a history don, so she has got it absolutely spot on. Takes me right back. Moon Tiger is still my favourite though. Ganja

Penelope replied: "Thank you - this is a gratifying change from a writer’s most usual response, which is the newspaper reviews. These of course are written by people who have to read the book – I’m a reviewer myself – and that is rather different from having decided to do so, which is what I imagine most of you did. So the reactions are those of real readers, rather than the slightly professional reading of the reviewer.

"When writing, you don’t think much of the reader – which may surprise you. You yourself are the reader, and if what you have got down doesn’t seem to stand up the next day, you junk it. But you are also an unreliable reader, as you know only too well – you may not be making the right judgements. So the eventual response of real readers is hugely important, and I am delighted that some of you feel that this book works. I was interested in the reactions to Rose and Anton and their eventual parting – my eighteen-year-old granddaughter took me to task on that: 'Oh! They should have gone off together!' I think that’s very much a young response – my gut feeling was that they should have done what they did.

"Anyway, many thanks to you all. And for those who said they will go on to try more of my books – I hope they will come up to scratch!"