Very occasionally I suffer from insomnia. I have to get up because of the whirligig of negative thoughts that hammer in my head. I’m too distracted to write, too sleepy to read so I turn on the television and channel - hop to find something soothing to make me forget the hammers in my head.
The other night I hit on an old edition of The Book Show on Sky. One small segment was a visit to a writer’s writing room. So at three o’clock in the morning I reacquainted myself with Diana Athill, the legendary editor of household-name authors such as VS Naipaul . She is also an exquisite memoirist of publishing life in the twentieth century and also the nature of old age. She retired in 1993 at the age of 75, after more than 50 years in publishing. at the point of this interview she was in her nineties, still writing and still being heard,
We are in the top rooms in a house in London. Sitting in a comfortable chair is an white-haired elderly woman who looks tough and solid - anything but fragile. She speaks with the clipped, educated London speech of the nineteen thirties and forties.
Opposite her is a colourful rocking chair upholstered in tapestry, worked by herself. Fine pictures and prints hang in a more or less convenient fashion on the walls. Around her there are overflowing bookshelves and piles of papers and folders. She says, ‘I live in a state of complete chaos. When I was in publishing my desk was famous for the horror of it.’ Her smile has a touch of glee about it
Her wisdom about writing emerges as blazing self confidence. ‘I write on a lined pad of paper, then go across there and put it onto the laptop. There are changes from the scribble on my pad. ‘ She nods towards the heaped desk. Then we see her writing with the pad close up to her face. ‘All my books have come to me spontaneously. I tend to write late in the day.’ She nods. ‘I look up and it is three in the morning.’
‘I write and then I look at it. I find the work is perfectly shaped as though a lot of thought has gone into it. I suspect that for some people a lot of the work is done when they’re sleeping. One’s subconscious is working away at it.’
As her watchword in writing she cites similar phrases from two writers. ‘Jean Rhys said to me, You have to aim to get it like it really was. And Vidia Naipaul said, if you get things right, then people understand. however remote from their own experience it is.’
‘Both these things count for me,’ she says firmly. ‘I feel I must get it as it really was. This is the kind of writing I really enjoy – rather plain, exact writing. That’s what I try to do.’
In 2009 Diana Athill won the Costa Biography Prize, for her memoir Somewhere Towards The End' - a book about old age. My favourite is her publishing memoir Stet. There is a new book out now - Life Class: The Selected Memoirs of Diana Athill. London. These books demonstrate that this tough, graceful writer has succeeded in what she has tried to do.
I have to tell you I went to bed, slept like a baby and woke up fully inspired to get it like it really was and make my writing even more plain and exact than I think it is.
Which is all very good for me as I am embarking on a new novel, which might have been the reason for the hammers in the head.