Twelve Questions

Sarah Daniell poses 12 questions to well-known faces

Twelve Questions with Fay Weldon

Author Fay Weldon. File photo / Nicola Topping
Author Fay Weldon. File photo / Nicola Topping

The British-born novelist, playwright and essayist spent her childhood in Christchurch. Then at 15, when her parents separated, she returned to Britain with her mother and sister. As a copywriter, she wrote the line, 'Vodka gets you drunker quicker.' The client rejected it. In 1967, she wrote The Fat Woman's Joke. She also wrote the first episode of the TV series Upstairs Downstairs. Weldon, 80, has just published her 33rd book, Habits of the House. She teaches creative writing and lives in Dorset.

What is the first thing you think when someone says "New Zealand"?

I think of that road between the Coromandel and Auckland and the pohutukawas and the rocks. Sometimes I think I'd like to come back and live. But I'm 80, as you know, and it's so far away. I'm glad it's so far away because otherwise the world would be far too small. I think of the Christchurch cathedral. I do remember waiting outside the cathedral for a tram once and my knickers came down. I remember that with great aplomb, I simply stepped out and walked away from them.

How much of your writing started from a New Zealand germ rather than a literary germ?

I suppose most of my reading was English literature. There was a lot of Victorian literature being brought over. I spent my first 15 years in New Zealand. I don't know how I cannot have been influenced. It's the landscape. And there's a very New Zealand way of being. You didn't make a fuss. You didn't think too grandly of yourself.

You wrote the first episode of Upstairs Downstairs; your latest book is set in the 1800s. Why do you write about the past?

When I was a child I had a book called Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management. It was a 1905 edition and it was so completely unusual and so unlike the 1930s - how you fold your napkins into swan shapes. It was fascinating. The parlour fire, the sweeping, the wonderful ritual. It was an insight into lives lived far away and long ago. Mrs Beeton's instructions were kindly and stern. It was an escape from all that was so bleak and practical.

Would writing courses or competitions have worked for you at the beginning?

I had no problems getting things out. I couldn't believe it that if I wrote something, people would publish it. I think working in advertising helped because it's all about persuading people with language.

Was your mother a major influence on your life and writing?

Enormous, as an influence. She was an extraordinary, intelligent, brave and difficult woman. She was a free thinker. A natural feminist. I don't think she felt imposed upon by anyone.

How did you influence your children's lives and dreams?

Well none of my children seem to be very good at making money. They are impractical, which is my fault, because I used to say it didn't matter. I would say money isn't everything, which it isn't. Or, you don't pass exams to get a better job, you pass exams to learn more. I think there are two kinds of mothers - those who have an open-fridge policy or a closed - meaning food is available only at mealtimes. I was an open-fridge mother. Eat if you're hungry and with any luck there'll be something in there.

Do you know how far you've travelled and does it make you happy or are artists plagued by self-doubt?

You're happily plagued with self-doubt. Otherwise you'd never write another one. It makes you keep working. What you do in writing a book is to provide an alternative reality. Since it's human, it will fail. But if you know the working of things too much, you end up taking yourself too seriously. If you get a bad review you're furious and you hate the people who did it and if you get a good review you think, what do you know? It's either not enough or too much.

Whom among feminists do you respect?

Germaine Greer. Because what she says is often wayward but her mind is working. It's easy to become a feminist and not change with society. But one principle at the age of 30 can be different five or 10 years later because you're living in a different society. There's a resistance among feminists to changing your mind.

When are you lost for words?

Never. I splutter a little. But I quickly come right.

If you were a word, which one would you be?

Alluvial. I'm not sure why but I like the way it sounds.

Have you ever flung a book across a room in disgust?

I read the Da Vinci Code in the bath once and I kept thinking, "I could simply throw it in the bath." But the great trait in thriller writers is you are sort of compelled to keep turning the page. You think, "Just one more page." It's a great trait in a writer but it can be annoying for a reader.

Why, 12 years ago, did you go from atheism to the Anglican Church?

I wasn't an atheist. I was agnostic. I'm not sure I'm not still agnostic. I still go to church and it's about hoping it might be true ... In the meanwhile, I like hymns and church. Here we have a traditional service in a terribly old church, which has been around for 600 years. Probably more. People have been walking up that path for centuries. That's a valuable ritual - thinking, today I'm going to consider the nature of reality.

- NZ Herald

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