Her answer is, again, typically low-key. “Yes, I suppose so. It’s always a surprise. But I don’t really like literature being turned into a sport,” she says. We agree, though, that at a time when publishing is threatened, anything that supports good writing and its authors is welcome.
By now our main courses have come and gone, and Lively exclaims, “Ah, yes, that’s what I have been saving up for” as a luscious-looking Eton Mess arrives. I have settled for a demure slab of blue cheese, which is accompanied by seven modest grapes. I eye the Eton Mess covetously.
I’m still trying to understand how the prolific children’s author turned, at the age of 44, into the accomplished adult novelist, but Lively is not analytic about her own creative processes. She has mentioned several times that something “comes” to her, or “leaves” her — an idea, a style, whatever. About her work for children, she tells me, “I wrote fantasy. Ghosts and that sort of thing. But I’ve never written anything like that in my books for adults. It just left me, I don’t know why.”
And of short stories — she has written several volumes, most recently The Purple Swamp Hen and Other Stories, published in 2017 — she says, “That book was a complete surprise: I thought stories had left me, I hadn’t written any for 20 years. But it was a bit like buses: suddenly they all come at once, you don’t know why. And now they’ve gone again. They’ve left me.”
Are the two such different forms of creation, I ask. Isn’t a short story a germ of a novel?
“Not at all,” comes the reply, briskly. “A novel is like hacking at the rock face, working away to get the characters, the plot, it takes ages. A short story is an idea that either comes or it doesn’t. I find stories are more prompted by life, by something that happens, a remark someone makes.
“The purple swamp hen idea came when there was a wonderful Pompeii exhibition at the British Library, I went with my son-in-law; we are both interested in birds and, when we saw one in a wall painting that we couldn’t identify, we asked a curator: he told us it was a purple swamp hen.
“So I went home and googled it and sure enough, they still exist. Then I started thinking about what the event would have looked like from the point of view of the purple swamp hen... ”
“I’m a diarist as well, I’ve always kept a diary. But no” — she says quickly, in answer to my inevitable question — “I wouldn’t dream of publishing it. It began as a kind of working asset. I was doing a lot of travelling then, for the British Council and so on, so I thought of the diary as a sort of work support. Not a confessional diary, more for jotting down things that I saw. It’s a good exercise, like doing a workout. You’re not deliberately practising writing, but you are. When I’m asked questions by young writers I usually say, ‘Keep a diary, it’s good for your work.’
“If I wasn’t writing I’d feel I was atrophying.”
Our coffee has also come and gone now, and the restaurant has emptied of its loud lunchers. I think how very far from atrophy this bright and articulate octogenarian is. Keen though I am to talk about the possibility of another of her sharply observed, luminous novels in the future, what brings us here is the book she wrote 31 years ago, Moon Tiger, now one of five candidates for the 50th-anniversary Golden Man Booker award.
“It’s very nice,” Lively says when I ask her reaction to this prestigious nomination, “to see it having a new lease of life.” It’s a characteristically low-key remark: she wears her achievements, and her celebrity, very lightly. The news, she says, came “out of the blue — I just got a rather puzzled phone call from Juliet Annan, my editor...”
And she politely deflects my congratulations, immediately moving on to talk about someone else: “I’m really fascinated by the judge who chose it, Lemn Sissay; I’ve been reading his work and reading about his story, what an unpromising childhood, he sounds remarkable.”
Sissay is a black British writer and broadcaster who has written movingly about his struggles growing up in the care system. One of five judges, each of whom selected a Booker winner from a decade of the prize’s existence, his task was to trawl the 1980s — arguably a stellar moment in English-language fiction. He chose Moon Tiger above Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda, Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, Thomas Keneally’s Schindler’s Ark and other enduring classics.
Much as I admire those fine books, I can’t suppress my delight that an apparently quieter, female voice has stood the test of time against the more headline-grabbing male writers of the era. Lively herself is more diplomatic, merely pointing out her satisfaction that the five shortlisted contenders contain an almost exemplary diversity of origin, gender, type.
Moon Tiger is probably the most formally experimental of Lively’s novels, its multiple, shifting viewpoints weaving an eloquent disquisition on memory, identity, age, love and regret, more kaleidoscope than chronology despite its intricate multi-generational plot.
“I never re-read my books but if I look at it I know I couldn’t write Moon Tiger now,” she says. “Just as I couldn’t write the children’s books now. I’m a different person from when I was 50. But no, it’s not the favourite of my books. Perhaps I talked about it too much at the time.
“And,” she continues, “it’s got a mistake in it, which irritates me.” This is a sudden hint at a steelier side to the relaxed, gentle persona. Pressed, she explains — and it turns out that the “mistake” is a single word. Just the one. Steely, indeed, at least about herself. (And no, I’m not telling you what the word is.)
As we say goodbye on the pavement outside the restaurant, she declines my offer to walk her home and sets off in the sunshine, lightly leaning on her stick, heading first for the supermarket and then home, she says, to plant hostas.
Penelope Lively will be in conversation with Anne Enright on July 7 in ‘Sex, Love & Families’ at the Man Booker 50 Festival. Celebrating 50 years of the Man Booker Prize, the festival will take place on July 6-8. southbankcentre.co.uk