Hazel McHaffie

Fay Weldon


You may or may not be aware that I’ve recently added a new page to my website: Interviews. Obviously not all interviews are available in an accessible format, but the ones I’ve done this year that were recorded can be seen at the click of an icon, giving folk an idea of what I think and how I come across. Apparently I do a lot of hand gesturing!

Having added a third interview this week, I was watching other interviews on TV with more than usual interest. And one with Fay Weldon, the veteran novelist, jumped out at me – not just because she has very large hands which she uses a lot close to her face, but also because I’ve actually met, and subsequently corresponded with Fay. We appeared together at a Literary Salon at the Brighton Festival many moons ago, and she gave two of my novels very kind endorsements back in 2005. I was particularly pleased with her comment that they were ‘…medical, ethical, romantic and fascinating. An entirely new genre for fiction‘. Back then it lent credence to my contention that there was an unfilled niche in the market for these stories. Fay Weldon said so!

Anyway, she was on BBC Breakfast this week talking about her new book, Habits of the House, and Bill Turnbull and Susanna Reid asked her lots of good questions. Some interviews come across as very superficial and rigged, don’t they? but this one wasn’t; they seemed genuinely interested and engaged. I discovered that she chose the title because a much-travelled guest in her own home once said, the secret of being an accommodating guest is learning the habits of the house. Fay’s ears pricked at this: an excellent title for a book. I agree, but I like the concept behind the comment too.

There’s a sticker on Habits that says, if you enjoyed Downton Abbey you’ll love this book. No, Fay admitted, she hadn’t watched Downton Abbey – she was ‘too jealous’ to watch it ‘without pain’ – but she was happy with the caption as a marketing ploy. She was also quick to chip in that she was there first, and this I can believe. Publishers have their own speed of working, and the time lapse between conceiving a book and its appearing in the bookshops is considerable, usually years. It’s frustrating when you the author are then thought to have copied someone else’s idea. I’ve had news items as well as TV dramas mirroring points in my plots before my books reach the bookshelves. However, Fay’s an experienced interviewee, and she managed to make all her responses sound amusing and faintly self-deprecating, and she kept her toothy smile fixed firmly in place.

Habits of the House is about a large household with servants and rich masters. I haven’t read it (yet) but the first paragraph sets the tone:

In late October of the year 1899 a tall, thin, nervy young man ran up the broad stone steps that led to No. 17 Belgrave Square. He seemed agitated. He was without hat or cane, breathless, unattended by staff of any kind, wore office dress – other than that his waistcoat was bright yellow above smart striped stove-pipe trousers – and his moustache had lost its curl in the damp air of the early morning. He seemed both too well-dressed for the tradesmen’s entrance at the back of the house, yet not quite fit to mount the front steps, leave alone at a run, and especially at such an early hour.

I draw a veil over the scathing comments my editor would make if I used that many adjectives and parentheses! But then I don’t have Fay’s credentials or track record or sales figures.

She was asked, why this subject? Haven’t upstairs/downstairs stories been done to death? (Now, you might not know it but this question had particular resonance because Fay wrote the first episode of the legendary BBC film, Upstairs Downstairs, broadcast in the 1970s, a fact which I’d forgotten.) Not a bit of it, she said, we’re all interested in injustice, and the haves and have-nots in these large households are just one expression of that kind of inequality and unfairness. Besides this, her personal fascination with the period around the turn of the 20th century, fuelled by her grandmother’s stories and her grandfather’s writing, make such choices natural ones for her.

Habits is the first of a commissioned trilogy and Fay has already finished the second one, so Bill asked her, did she know what happened in the third book? No, she admitted, she had no idea. Wasn’t that daunting? ‘Very frightening!’ Fay admitted. But her laugh and bounce said she would soon crack that little conundrum. And indeed, I know myself that by the time you’ve written two books about characters, they’ve got passports and birth certificates; indeed it can be hard to keep pace with their antics and decisions.

Watching this interview I concluded that I should try to

  • write an episode for a landmark TV series
  • sit on my hands, or at least keep them low
  • find a very good manicurist
  • come across as warm and witty and humble
  • pretend I’m all at sea and it’ll take a miracle or my huge talent to resolve this situation
  • make sure interviewers give my credentials not me
  • read Fay’s book.

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Wanted: one idiosyncrasy, previously unused

I’m a writer in search of an idiosyncrasy. The range of mannerisms and quirks people adopt is truly amazing – see I Thought I Was Crazy! Quirks, Idiosyncrasies and Meshugaas. And yes, somebody really did do a research project on the subject. Imagine getting paid to ask people about their bizarre habits and behaviours. Brilliant!

But I’m hankering after a more literary idiosyncrasy myself.

Philip Henscher – he of The Northern Clemency fame (a door-stopping 700+ pages long) – reckons he’s written all his books in longhand using a green Pentel pen and A4 Black’n’Red notebooks. I cannot begin to imagine the sheer hand-strain and number of trees involved there. Or the consequences of innumerable changes required by fastidious editors.

Will Self says he’s returned to a manual typewriter on the grounds that ‘the computer user does their thinking on the screen, and the non-computer user is compelled to do a lot of thinking in the head.’ Hmm. But what about corrections, and cutting and pasting, and sending copies to editors?

Jane Austen kept a creaking door un-oiled so that she had warning of any impending interruption. Now I like the sound of that …

But I’m looking for something unique. Of course, I could just resort to totally unimpressive and un-noteworthy truths like being compelled to finish any book I start reading. Or having to tidy my environment before I can function creatively. Or needing silence to write … Hmmmm. How sad is that? And if there are any psychologists out there reading this, don’t bother; I already know I’m a crazy mixed-up loon. I didn’t dare study psychiatry during my training because I’m too close to the limit myself.

No, all I’m trying to do is find something stylish for my epitaph. Perched precariously on a couple of planks miles above a stairwell hanging wallpaper tends to foster thoughts of imminent demise.

Maybe something like: She routinely ate pickled onions before meeting her publisher; or She stored her own books spine to the wall lest she be tempted to read them; or …

I’ll need to think. On the other hand, perhaps I do actually do something off the wall, but it’s so normal for me I can’t identify it as a peccadillo. Now there’s a thought to conjure with! So those of you who know me personally, all insights gratefully received.

Apropos of nothing really, I came across a quote recently that I jotted down because it reflects something of my own raison d’être as a novelist:
‘I see myself as someone who drops tiny crumbs of nourishment, in the form of comment and conversation, into the black enormous maw of the world’s discontent.’ (Fay Weldon)
Cool, huh?

Hope you’re all weathering this severe winter intact.

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