AN Wilson: ‘Writing novels, I still feel the terror’ | Books

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AN Wilson is a prize-winning novelist (My Name Is Legion, Winnie and Wolf, The Potter’s Hand); a biographer whose subjects have included John Betjeman and Queen Victoria; and a former columnist for the London Evening Standard. He has presented documentaries for the BBC, most recently Return to Larkinland, about the poet Philip Larkin. He lives in London, where he’s working on a biography of Prince Albert: “When I was writing about Queen Victoria, I came to loathe him; he just seemed to want to control her, like Rob Titchener in The Archers. But now I see his genius.”

Your new novel, Aftershocks, is your 23rd work of fiction, and your 44th book. Are you blase about publication, or does it still hold terror for you?
With novels, I still feel the terror. You put much more of yourself into a novel than a work of nonfiction. It is a bit raw.

Aftershocks is set in a place that is very like New Zealand, before and after an earthquake. How did you come to start thinking about it?
I went to New Zealand. I’d never been there before. The first stop was Christchurch. I knew there’d been an earthquake; 185 people were killed, and that was awful for their families. But compared with earthquakes in other places, it was small. I didn’t realise that this city had been obliterated. It was strange, sitting in my boarding house – one of the few Victorian buildings to survive – and realising I was in a place that was like a bombsite. I went to Australia next, and by the time I left I’d already started to write it.

The novel will remind some of the second world war. It’s about people slipping their moorings – falling in love – during a time of great devastation.
Yes, that is what happens in this book. The main character, who is very stiff and peculiar, takes leave of both her husband and the Almighty, and she becomes free.

In fact, it’s about two women falling in love. How trepidatious were you when it came to writing their story?
They caught me by surprise. After the first draft, I realised that having written it in the first person, I wasn’t going to be the narrator: a character called Ingrid was. Then I did feel quite trepidatious: did I dare to do that? But I told myself: you know what it’s like to fall in love.

You’re so prolific. What drives you?
Elizabeth Bowen once said that the pleasure of writing exceeds even the pleasure of making love, and I know what she meant. I think it’s the most enjoyable thing you can do: more enjoyable even than eating and drinking. I love it.

In 1983, you were on the first Granta list of the best young British novelists, beside Martin Amis, Julian Barnes and others. Can you match that writer with the one you are now?
I’d forgotten about it until you mentioned it. But I certainly thought in those days that I would mainly be a novelist. I think I feel a sense of disappointment. That young man had a serious desire to be as good a novelist as Balzac or Dickens. And of course, one isn’t.

Was journalism a distraction?
It’s completely complementary. What distracts me from novel-writing is my wanting to write the life of Queen Victoria or something. That takes vast amounts of time; you have to be a serious person in a library. Journalism is an art form with strict rules, just like novel-writing. It’s the truth extracted in a peculiar way.

Your 2017 life of Darwin was attacked for having a poor grasp of science and for what some perceived as character assassination. Do you stand by it?
The Darwin thing was a little bit scary. They [supporters of Darwin’s theories] are fundamentalists. When I realised the extent of the trolling, I was a bit upset; it struck me as frightening that you’re not allowed even to ask questions. But yes, I stand by it. I think the Darwin who formed social theories in The Descent of Man, as opposed to the Darwin who wrote about earthworms, was a positively evil force. But I never pick quarrels. Richard Ingrams [the former editor of Private Eye] once said to me: “You’ll never starve. You’ll always find employment in the [Fleet] Street.” When I asked him why, he said: “Haven’t you noticed? Everyone finds you so irritating.”

What was the last great book you read?
Sense and Sensibility, on holiday. I prefer rereading. I’ve read it 20 times, I should think.

Which writers working today do you most admire?
Fiona Mozley [author of the 2017 Booker-shortlisted Elmet]. Katherine Rundell, the children’s writer. Frances Wilson is one of the very best nonfiction writers. Her biography of Thomas de Quincey is an absolute masterpiece. I read her to find out how to write a book, because she really knows.

Who is your favourite literary hero or heroine?
I’m going to choose Falstaff [Shakespeare’s boastful outsized knight]. I love him. I’m everlastingly fascinated by him.

What kind of reader were you as a child?
I don’t want to sound melodramatic, but I was too unhappy to read as a child. I was at boarding school. They didn’t let you have books [of your own]; they gave them to you, and they were supposed to be manly: Biggles, Scott’s Last Expedition. I was absolutely wretched, as miserable as it’s possible to be. I only began when I got to Rugby at 13 and I started reading Dickens. After that, I never stopped.

Which books are overrated?
Don Quixote. It’s very unpleasant, the same joke again and again; this silly old git who doesn’t know what windmills are. And the picaresque tradition that follows Cervantes. Smollett is absolutely yawn-making. I don’t like Trollope, and Galsworthy is terrible; I hate the good old English middlebrow tradition.

What do you plan to read next?
Matthew Sturgis’s new biography of Oscar Wilde, which comes out next month. He knows more about the 1890s than anyone alive. I’m sure it’s going to be a masterpiece.

• Aftershocks by AN Wilson is published by Atlantic Books (£16.99). To order a copy for £14.44 go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99

Source: The Guardian
Keyword: AN Wilson: ‘Writing novels, I still feel the terror’ | Books

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