Fay Weldon’s new novel is The Cloning of Joanna May to be published this spring. The filmed version of The Life and Loves of a She-devil starring Meryl Streep and Roseanne Barr is currently in theaters.
Fay Weldon’s fiction is rife with asides, tangents, meditations, addenda, digressions, appendices, direct addresses to “Dear Reader” and even the occasional recipe. Her novels are nonlinear in the way life really is as opposed to the way we think it is. They are well-crafted without the lacquer of craft slopped all over them.
Dear Reader, this is fiction as messy and artful as life itself.
Craig Gholson You’re very adventuresome—novels, plays, screenplays, even librettos. One of your librettos deals with an ecological theme. How did you manage that without seeming sappy?
Fay Weldon Oddly, if you sing the words it’s easier. If you have an area where you’re going to be accused of sentiment, and you just start singing, you get away with it. Like all sorts of songs say “I love you, I love you, I love you,” but it’s the hardest line in the world to get away with in a script. If there’s anything an actor hates saying, it’s that. On the other hand, you can sing it. A singer has no problem with it at all. And I think this is probably why there are so many musicals. And then I’m doing another thing with Petula Clark.
CG I love her. Was this an idea between the two of you?
FW No, I never think about that sort of thing. They came to me for some reason.
CG And you knew that she was involved?
FW Yes, yes. She had done the music. I have an amiable nature, and I don’t sneer at people, so people come to me with all sorts of absurd things.
CG And the more absurd it is the more you’ll go for it.
FW It’s more likely.
CG You’ve written two studies of English women authors: Rebecca West and Jane Austen.
FW After a fashion.
CG What intrigues me is why England has such an incredible tradition of women novelists.
FW They just had to earn a living, I suppose, and it was one of the easiest ways. Well, not the easiest way, but most women writers had to support themselves. They stayed home, looked after the children, and wrote as a protective occupation. I suppose it was a large middle class, quite highly educated, with no jobs out there in the world for them, and so they would sit at home and write.
CG Still, I think those conditions probably existed in America too. I mean we have this huge middle class, and when you look back to our history, there is not the equivalent.
FW I would be at a loss to answer. I simply don’t know. Perhaps, they were readers. Perhaps there were more readers in Europe at that time. The culture was just different and enabled them to flourish. I mean, I’m sure there were as many born writers here as there, but there was something in society that enabled them to come forward or to be recognized or taken seriously. Once you’ve got one, it’s easier for the others. You have poets, you see, don’t you? A lot of women poets. That’s a more respectful occupation. Until lately there have been a lot of Soviet women poets, but very few Soviet women writers taken seriously. Poets are taken seriously because it’s seen as a proper female, feminine thing to do—to be sensitive, to be particular, to be picky, if you’re a writer.
CG Like knitting with words.
FW That’s right. If not knitting, embroidery or fine work, petit point. And for the female imagination to go off on its own is always—
FW Yes, and really very rude indeed, because God knows, it’s not anywhere she’s ever been before. It was always the pressure on women to describe rather than to invent. Until recently, women have been pressured to describe what they know and never to make up what they don’t know. But if you look at Jane Austen’s early works, before this had been dinned into her and she was imagining things, they’re wonderful! Wild and impossible and energetic! Then they get very genteel and acceptable and focused.
CG Even within those constraints, they’re so brilliant. Would you consider yourself a feminist?
FW It depends on the society. In anti-feminist societies, I come out very feminist. In feminist societies, I come out just a little reactionary. (laughter) Traditional woman. I’m married and have three sons, you see. I don’t do what I ought. I don’t write the books I ought. I don’t present women as heroines particularly. They’re simply central to what I write which makes them appear as if they must be feminist, because it’s out of the old tradition in which men were central. Even if the books were written by women, women were just reacting to men. In my books, women might still be reacting to men, but they take up more space on the page, and this makes men feel at a loss which, by inference, means I’m feminist.
CG One could look at your portrayal of men as basically sexist because they end up, for the most part, being unfeeling, stupid louts.
FW Mostly they just go away. They leave at the beginning. Occasionally, they come in halfway through and go away again.
CG They’re very much peripheral characters.
FW But are women portrayed as anything other than miserable, self-pitying, vicious … (laughter) … horrible creatures who deserve their own misfortune? If I was most of those men married to those women, I would certainly leave at once.
CG However, as you said, there’s a certain un validation that comes with the amount of space you do not devote to men.
FW Yes, let us be a little truthful about this. (laughter) On the whole, that is how I portray men. This is not necessarily how I see men. I simply can’t help doing it on the page.
CG But I have to say that even though you do that, I, as a man, don’t feel threatened by that portrayal.
FW You don’t take it personally, because your conscience is clear.
CG Or maybe I’m such an unfeeling, stupid lout, I don’t recognize it. (laughter) That would be the other alternative.
FW That is the kind of awful thing that occurs to oneself in the middle of the night; supposing all your enemies are right about you. (laughter) I don’t think that men are worse than women or women are worse than men at all. I think they find themselves in different situations because society pushes them one way or another and it is much, much easier for men to behave badly and everyone behaves as badly as they can get away with. Except me, I’m nice.
CG So what do you do for fun?
FW I write these books.
CG Are some men offended by you and by your portrayal of them? Do you get irate men coming up to you?
FW I do get a lot of men coming up to me blaming me for their divorces. It’s quite extraordinary. Of people that I know, if they get divorced, the men blame me. I get worried by this. So for consolation, I looked at the Soviet Union where there are 290 million people with a 50 percent divorce rate and none of them have read me. So I think people manage this sort of destruction of their private lives without any help from me.
CG You are not the literary hussy that they claim you are.
FW Or so I attempt to persuade myself. Men are just incapable of blaming themselves. Women are better at blaming themselves than men are. When they divorce, women will quite naturally say, “Oh, it was all my fault. I should have done this. I should have done that.” And the man will say, “Oh, the bitch and all her friends. That Fay Weldon and all her monstrous regiment.” And so on.
CG Are you vengeful in your own life?
FW No, actually I think that I am possibly the most unvengeful person I know. If other writers write disagreeable things about me in their reviews, I take good care to write only the nicest things about them in my reviews. (laughter)
CG That could be a form of revenge.
FW Yes, it could, couldn’t it? I try to be good. I am not particularly vengeful at all, nor am I the queen of vengeance or revenge. Although The Life and Loves of a She-devil was assumed to be about revenge, actually it was about envy, and revenge was a very minor part of trying to cope with envy. But these may be distinctions known only to me which I failed to make apparent.
CG If it is indeed envy, it is a particularly rabid sense of envy. Your novels generally tap into three of the most prevalent or popular fixations that human beings have in this day and age, those being revenge, self-help, and romance.
FW Revenge, do you reckon? The only novel that could be said to be about revenge is The Life and Loves of a She-devil. She’s vengeful. Alright, I will stop denying it. I’m terribly defensive about this kind of thing. If one novel, She-devil was about revenge, it certainly struck a popular chord because people apparently do long, at least in their fantasies, to be revenged. But then perhaps, revenge is the wrong word. Perhaps it’s a desire for justice. It’s a balancing of things. Usually the nicest thing about these characters is the child’s cry that it isn’t fair. Now, life obviously isn’t fair. It is so obviously not fair the minute you open your eyes as a baby that you wonder where the feeling comes from that things should be fair or the whole desire of society to make things as fair as possible allowing a certain amount of self-interest. But you can look at it not as a desire for revenge, but as a desire for natural justice and the rather sad lengths people go to to achieve this justice which you can see as revenge. I wish to pay this person up because nobody will acknowledge how badly I have been treated. I say, whereabouts is justice, anyway? And people took to that. What were the others?
CG Romance and self-help. For example, you might have a story where in the process of one lover destroying another you’ll pull the reader aside and give a tasty cake recipe.
FW (laughter) Oh, yes. But I don’t do that all the time. I do that in some novels. I did it in The Hearts and Lives of Men, but that was for a very good reason. See how defensive I am? That started as a serial in a woman’s magazine. And because you’re in a woman’s magazine you’re surrounded by bits of personal advice and cooking and recipes and how to make dresses and how to conduct your life so it seemed only natural to put that in.
CG If I bake that cake, would it be good?
FW Oh yes. (laughter) Little angel of light and mercy, that’s me.
CG Relating to the self-help and romance elements in your books, did you choose those forms to satirize these mass preoccupations of our time?
FW I don’t think you have to satirize them. They’re just there. Again, it’s just the human capacity to take what is serious and what is unserious at the same level. I do it myself. The Shrapnel Academy has the development of weapons mixed up with cucumber salad. (laughter) But that’s slightly different because it’s all so out of control, out of context, or so extraordinarily insane. You’ve got to bring it back to cucumber salad because you’ve got to get a reader to believe it’s true. To bring it down to a domestic level so that you can focus. You bring back the mind to an everyday level, both in order to underline the awfulness of what people are doing but also to see that the people who are doing it are no different from you who bought cucumber salad. It’s just where you go if you’re in that situation and not watching out as it were. You end up blowing up the world.
CG I was curious as to why you chose a modified romance form for your novels.
FW I don’t know any other way to do it. How do you mean?
CG Your novels have elements to them that are very common to romance novels although what you do with those elements is very uncommon. Very simply, in terms of that form, they have female heroines and they’re very easy to read. They could be sold in supermarkets.
FW It’s true. It depends where you stop, doesn’t it? A romance is true if you stop at a certain time—if you stop at three o’clock, Saturday morning and don’t take it through ‘til Sunday. (laughter) Like Hollywood Wives by Jackie Collins is oddly true because if you only look at that part of people’s lives, if you only look at Hollywood in particular, if you only look at their sex lives and their little spasms towards cars or whatever, then that’s what you get. It sells well and for good reason because it does accord with a kind of truth. Books that do well on the whole do. But there are other truths. So it’s not that that’s untrue, it’s just a very limited truth. You deal with that because it seems to me to be true which really just means I don’t know what else to write about, that’s all. (laughter) It’s just my perception.
CG How did you pick that arena to work in?
FW I don’t think you pick it really, do you? Presumably, you write about what most interests and motivates and obsesses you or strikes you as extremely interesting. Or areas that you want to work out for yourself. You perceive there’s something there that you don’t quite understand and by writing about it, it becomes clearer to yourself and with any luck to an audience too.
CG A lot of your characters are motivated by serious self-interest.
FW Yes. (laughter) I like that, yes.
CG They get what they want by any means possible.
FW I would like to believe this is true. I hope they do.
CG I think they get it in one form or another. One of the things which really fascinates me about them is that in their self-interest which often takes the form of anger and they become virtuous in that anger.
FW They delude themselves that their anger is valid. And everybody does that. I’ve never met anybody who acknowledged they were wicked. (laughter) Which makes one worried about oneself.
CG And when your characters become good …
FW They die. Like poor Mary Fisher of She-devil. She just died with the very effort of being good. They start becoming uninteresting.
FW This is true.
CG Do you think that good people are uninteresting?
FW Well, no. But they certainly don’t make very good fictional characters, do they? There isn’t much tension in there really, I suppose. The effort to become good is interesting. Mary Fisher was obliged to become good because she was given these female obligations of looking after parents and children and all the rest of it. She became good because she was forced to be good and then she got cancer and died. When she was bad and selfish and awful, she had a lovely time and was perfectly healthy. And Ruth who started by being good but divested herself of the obligations which rendered her good, became nearly fiendish. She did what she wanted.
CG I suppose the question for me is do you have any respect for virtue?
FW I have an enormous respect for virtue, but I don’t think it’s a very good fictional subject. I suppose to resist temptation is a good story like Jesus on the mount. The devil is obviously doing this and that and Jesus says, “No, I’m going to be good.” I think it is people’s attempts to be good which is the substance of fiction. Fiction is about people dealing with their own natures in an attempt to make, or come to some understanding, or make something less damaging of their lives than they would otherwise. But you can’t start with good people because there aren’t any, I suspect.
CG Who’s your favorite character in your fiction?
FW I like Carl May in The Cloning of Joanna May who’s a really wicked man. I find him in some awfully murderous way admirable, even though his response is to quite innocently blow up the world and do these terrible, awful murders.
CG Would you consider yourself a Darwinian?
FW I veer from one to the other. I’m a socio-biologist. I think if you were to believe in simple Darwin, in natural selection, we are all obviously being selected to be meaner and nastier and stronger and more horrid, each generation more so than the last generation. I don’t think that’s true. If you are a socio-biologist, you see that survival amplifies to genetic groups and survival depends upon your capacity to cooperate with others. Then we are actually getting nicer, you see, because those who survive are those who are best able to cooperate. The society that’s best able to cooperate, is best able to survive. And probably in the long run, that is true, so all is not lost.
CG You’re very prolific.
FW I’m never sure if that’s an insult. I suspect it is. You’re supposed to think before you write. In the end, the more you write the easier that process becomes so that you can then afford to have more complex thoughts in your head. And still you’re able to get them down and then you get to a stage, really, in which it’s scarcely conscious at all. You don’t have to struggle for expression. You simply express, almost bypassing some mental stage. If you observe it, the thoughts and the hand (I use a pen), are synchronized in some way. What you have to worry about is not the means of expression, but the quality of the thought.
CG The mind is a muscle.
FW Yes, yes. And the more you use it, the more it’s capable of doing, right? When you realize this, it’s quite a terrible sort of body building. Perhaps it goes too far, don’t you think? (laughter)
CG Do you have any superstitions you need to write?—special pens or papers?
FW I used to get very excited and upset if I didn’t have the right sort of pen. But now the desire to do it is stronger. At first it’s so astonishing that you can write at all, that you think it must be the pen or the paper or the window or the desk or something that does it. Not you. It’s a kind of modesty.
CG Sometimes I think those taboos or superstitions don’t take that form anymore but take a more insidious or sophisticated form; not so much about a physical object but maybe about some sort of emotional manipulation within your life that you, yourself don’t recognize.
FW Life is full of this awful self-doubt. We wake up and think that I am probably the wickedest person in the world, but I just don’t know or I haven’t been able to detect this area of wickedness. (laughter) But I think writers seek out scenarios of disaster. (laughter) I have a great bit of difficulty with driving. And in learning to drive, you envisage what’s around the corner. You see these terrible scenes of things that are going to be just around the corner, so you have to go rather slowly around the corner. Other people don’t project these awful scenarios of doom, destruction, hell, or wickedness ahead. You feel it’s a terrible fate, these nerve endings on the wrong end of your skin. Really, it’s a most uncomfortable situation.
CG Your work certainly has as much of a fantasy level as Angela Carter’s and it is certainly as black as her work is. What’s fascinating to me is the way that you construct those things is in such simple prose as opposed to the way that she does it, that it almost seems like magic to me, like reading a sleight-of-hand. In a way it doesn’t make sense.
FW I think this happens if you write a lot. If I think of the earlier novels, they didn’t have that element because they were too rational.
CG For the English, there has always been an audience for the Gothic. As opposed to America where there was one point in history—the time of Hawthorne and Poe—when there was an audience for the Gothic. What is it about the English that there is this constant audience for the Gothic?
FW What do you mean by the Gothic?
CG A literature of the macabre.
FW I think we’re nearer to it. You do get a feeling in America that people don’t realize how awful life is. Or how shocked and alarmed they are when things are wrong. They know things are wrong because you just have to look at the television to see it, but somehow they see something that doesn’t quite touch them or that doesn’t apply to them. I think the English realize that it’s us.
CG I would say that Americans don’t need a literature of the macabre because they’re so busy enacting it within their society.
FW There’s a concept of the American self as being good. Which is why your foreign policy is always so ravenous, because everybody at home is so nice. The British are a nastier, meaner society but perhaps slightly less damaging. Do you find what I write Gothic?
CG I would say there’s an element to it.
FW I don’t see myself particularly as coming out of an English culture anyway because I was brought up in New Zealand. It’s nothing. It’s kind of nothing. (laughter) What I write in is the English language but I don’t see myself as coming out of an English or European culture particularly.
CG Even though the process of reading a novel is really a one-on-one experience between the page and the reader, when you read a lot of writers, you get this sense they’re writing to a number of people, a larger audience. When I read your work, I really think of it as one-on-one, very specifically. It’s almost as if the story is whispered in my ear. There’s this immediacy to it that I don’t get from many other writers. It seemed to me that you might have had a lot of stories read to you as a child.
FW Not having read Hans Andersen since I was a child, but going to the Hans Andersen Museum where there was Laurence Olivier reading a story aloud, I realized I was writing Hans Andersen in a way. He is quite extraordinary. The stories aren’t really childlike particularly. They’re quite complex. But there is this sense of the tale, of the parable, of the narrator’s voice, that you’re putting your finger on. It certainly hasn’t been conscious but you can’t help it. It’s much better than someone picking up Remember Me and throwing it down in disgust because it just plagiarized Under Milk Wood. Which someone did. I thought well, it’s right. There is this peculiar, lilting sing-song in that particular novel which is like Under Milk Wood. I don’t know that you can escape it because it’s there.
I don’t make a moral judgment, but hand it over to the reader who is expected to come to their own conclusion. I put things too strongly, or over the top or Gothic or a little more to the bizarre. But they’re usually only normal situations taken to an extreme so that the reader has to react. He has to say, “I can’t stand this or this is nonsense, or this is not true, or this is too depressing, or this is not funny” or, “How dare she!” It requires a personal response.
CG The “Dear Reader” is engaged.
FW Dear Reader. (laughter) Yes, I remember denying at one stage, that the reader was at all gentle. I thought he was even nastier than I was. Gentle reader—a likely tale. (laughter)
CG I would imagine that the nature of your work might elicit the most horrific confessions from some readers. That they might be willing to come up to you and confess things they wouldn’t admit to anybody else.
FW Yes. They relate injustices. Which is different from confessing, isn’t it? Or if it is confessing, it is grounded in tales of injustice so that the act itself is justified.
CG You visited the set of The Life and Loves of a She-Devil yesterday.
FW Yes, I did. I thought it was great. It’s always very gratifying to see people working away, pleased to be doing what they’re doing and grateful for the ability to work. What I found very strange was that they’d taken half the floor of an office on Wall Street, so one side was the film and the other side was the office. And you were the last to know who was who. The ones who seemed best dressed and the more beautiful were the ones who were working in the office. The ones who looked more like movie stars were the real people.
CG They’ve changed the story considerably, haven’t they? Does that bother you?
FW Once I have sold something to someone, I don’t feel particularly possessive about it. Because if you’re going to be possessive about it, you better not sell it. (laughter) But I think they have been as faithful as they can, which is nice. What they have done is stop it before the end. Now the end is a quite wholesome, positive tale because they haven’t turned it on its head by having Ruth turn herself into her husband’s mistress via cosmetic surgery. But that’s okay. It doesn’t worry me because, actually, it’s what, if I had a nicer nature, I would have done.