Interview

John Fowles November 14 1977

Interview

John Fowles November 14 1977

Interview

John Fowles

I rewrote The Magus’ because it was a first book; technically it never satisfied me

What does an internationally renowned, 51-year-old novelist worry about when he’s 3,000 miles from home, promoting a new book in North America? Wearing his fingers to the bone autographing copies for students? Not being late for that literary luncheon? Saying the right things to all those boring critics? Some such matters may have been on the mind of John Fowles (The Magus, The French Lieutenant’s Woman) when he made a 48-hour stopover in Toronto recently, to help launch his latest and most ambitious novel, Daniel Martin (published in Canada by Collins Publishers). But what Fowles was really fretting about, amid all the ballyhoo, was whether he could get back to harvest the potato crop in the garden of his Georgian home at Lyme Regis, in Dorset, before the frost got it; and cursing the luck that was to keep him in London for a furtherweekon his return to Britain. While in Toronto, however, he did manage to talk to Maclean’s David North about his life and times as a best-selling novelist.

Maclean’s: A lot of readers look to novelists for entertainment, much as they watch television or go to the movies. Is that how you see yourself, as an entertainer?

Fowles: I am not ashamed to be thought of as an entertainer. I think that’s one viable function for the novel. An equally viable one, I think, is criticizing society, another is didactic teaching. 1 think at the moment the novel actually has got too obsessed with entertainment because that’s where the money is and I hate this American phrase, “the recipe novel.” 1 have just been in New York and that’s certainly what all the editors are looking for there. They want novels that are written according to a recipe. Very often the editor seems to do as much writing as the actual writer. This seems to be a dangerous encroachment on something very important about the novel which is that it is one person’s view of life. Maclean’s: A lot of people are writing off the novel asan art form. Do you think that’s the reason—formula writing?

Fowles: I think a lot of formula or recipe writing really is bastard television and it’s written to sell film rights, not on publication but before publication. That is one danger. But I don’t see any chance of the novel dying. There’s no evidence in libraries or in book shops that poetry or the novel is dying. I think that the novel and poetry are very close in a way because they are both one man’s view of life. Maclean’s: When did you actually start writing?

Fowles: Rather late compared to most writers. I should think in my mid-twenties. 1 tried to write a little in my last year at Oxford but I was of the war generation and went late to Oxford in any case. When 1 left Oxford I taught in a French university for a

year and then I went to a very weird boarding school in Greece where 1 taught English. It was very much like an Evelyn Waugh school. I used it in my novel, The Magus, but for libel reasons I couldn’t really tell the truth about that school. Maclean’s: Is it still going?

Fowles: Only two months ago, the present English master came to see me and he assured me it is much reformed.

Maclean’s: But you haven’t been back to perform an autopsy?

Fowles: I have never been back. The Greek educational system is a peculiar law unto itself so the school is not, I think, very exceptional in Greece.

Maclean’s: What made you decide to start writing? What drove you to write?

Fowles: My view of this is heretical. I think writers are made genetically. You have to have a certain natural gift in your brain (with words) obviously. I think you also have to have a sense of loss implanted when you are very young. In other words, I think writers are quite literally born, therefore, I do not believe in creative writing. The Freudian theory of this, that I would apply to all artists, is that some people have had a very peculiar experience after the loss of their mother and the discovery of their own separate identity. Young infants really don’t have clear frontiers between themselves and their mother. With some people it’s the kind of fluidity of this experience, the changing of shape and the supreme happiness from the sort of union with mother that probably dominates their adult lives, unconsciously of course. All this goes into the unconscious. Although I am not a total Freudian, I find this very convincing because I think what is interesting about the novel is the obsessive repetitive need in true novelists to go on telling stories. We always have to be telling legends, myths, which very often try in some way to make the world more perfect. Obviously, there is some dim memory somewhere of a more perfect, happier, magical state and we are all trying to get to that. It’s very obvious in novelists like Thomas Hardy who was totally fixed on his mother. All the women he fell in love with all through his life even had his mother’s physical features.

Maclean’s: How do you organize your writing? Do you, like some writers, churn out a regular 1,000 words a day?

Fowles: Absolutely not. It’s not that I sometimes don’t wish I couldn’t do that but it’s partly because a novel for me is a kind of voyage, let’s say a sailing voyage, and I rather rely on whether the wind is there. If the wind is there then I will write hard. If the wind is not there, and I go into doldrums, then I don’t worry. American writers call it “writers’ block.” I think it’s usually a signal that it’s best to stop and it doesn’t worry me. It’s just like being becalmed and I do other things.

Maclean’s: How do you, in fact, spend your days?

Fowles: I suppose I live a rather 19th-century pastoral dilettante’s existence, perhaps rather like a lucky 19th-century vicar who has a parish he doesn’t need to worry about. My parish is my garden, I do a certain amount of gardening, but I spend an enormous amount of time just wandering around it doing nothing.

Maclean’s: Afternoon tea on the lawn? Fowles: No, nothing formal like that. It’s a wild garden, I have a fine rich natural life in it which I encourage and it’s just really my birds and the insects and the plants. 1 am a terrible seed stealer. Everywhere 1 go in the world 1 pinch seeds and take them back and that sort of thing. I read a lot too. Maclean’s: Does it help your writing to live in one of the most beautiful spots in Britain? Fowles: I don’t think so at all. I do have a marvelous view in front of my study window. A number of writers have stood by me and said, “How on earth can you write in a place like this?” I remember Peter Ustinov once telling me that he had gone to Sicily to write a book. He had a marvelous 18th-century Sicilian room with a superb landscape of the sea, and he hadn’t written a word. In fact he spent the whole time just admiring, staring out of the window. I told him what was wrong was that, of course, he went there for a holiday.

On the whole I think women writers are rather better today than men writers

Maclean’s: A re you a tidy worker or do you litter your desk with paper and stuff? Fowles: I think the untidiest writer I know of was Charles Dickens. If you’ve ever seen a Dickens galley with corrections . . . unimaginable. I am rather like that. 1 am not tidy.

Maclean’s: Can a novelist be a family man? Fowles: I think it’s an enormous advantage for novelists not to have children. But I think novelists need a particular kind of wife. It’s a peculiar profession being a novelist’s wife and I am very fortunate in having a very expert wife. But I think if you get too involved and too worried about your family that must handicap your work. But my wife does have a daughter by a previous marriage so we are not familyless. Maclean’s: Where do you get your ideas? Fowles: In all sorts of ways. It’s difficult to be very specific about that. I read a lot in the past and I am a great collector of 19thcentury books, 18th-century books, even 17th-century books, and I have a bad memory. I have a very distinguished, or I had, sadly, a very distinguished Russian fan who was the great neurologist and memory expert, Professor A. R. Luria. I wrote him once and said, “I can’t understand. I know when I have to recreate a scene my memory is good and all sorts of things come back, but I forget authors’ names and dates and I’m appalling like that.” He said in his experience, and he had probably more experience of memory than anyone else in the world, this is absolutely normal of writers and artists. Our memories work laterally. They don’t work logically. If you say what is the date of something, you know, we are stymied, but we will remember tiny relevant facts. For instance, I could write a very good description of the Battle of Waterloo. I have collected one or two old books on the Battle of Waterloo and if you asked me to give a good sort of academic answer to the question, “How did the Battle of Waterloo happen?”you know. I’d be terrible. But what it was like actually to be in the battle, I think, I could give a good account. Maclean’s: How do you do your research? Fowles: I don’t believe in research. I believe in my fallible memory. I think if my memory forgets details about a place or a mood then it probably suggests that the reader doesn’t want those details. I am very suspicious of writers who say“ I’ve got to set a scene in Toronto, Canada, therefore I must go to Toronto, Canada!’ It’s quite enough for me that I have once spent two days in Toronto. I would never, if I wanted to write a chapter on Toronto, come back to Toronto to research because the things I would have forgotten probably should have been forgotten for literary reasons.

Maclean’s: Do you work on one book at a time or do you have several on the go? Fowles: The first book I wrote was The Magus which was published second. This last one I broke off to write a collection of short stories called The Ebony Tower. Maclean’s: When you have finished a book what’s your chief emotion—relief elation? Fowles: Depression. Every writer, I think, feels depressed. I think of it in temperature terms. When a book is being written it’s warm, and somehow when you’ve got the final galley it’s cold. You can’t alter it any more.

Maclean’s: You do rather enjoy tinkering, don ’tyou? I was astonished to read the other day that you had completely rewritten The Magus.

Fowles: Not completely, I have partially rewritten it.

Maclean’s: Why?

Fowles: It was the first book I wrote and technically it never satisfied me. I’ve learned more about the tricks of the trade since then. I wanted to put in one or two new scenes and I wanted to clarify one or two things a little bit.

Maclean’s: What did the publisher say when you told him he’d got to print another edition of it?

Fowles: I wanted it to be slipped into the normal reprint cycle. But my English publisher said, “This book is going to sell.” I said, “Nonsense.” And he said, “Alright, do you want to bet?” Because he is a very good publisher, I didn’t take his bet but, in fact, it has been, I think, a best seller for 10 weeks in England. That amazed me. Maclean’s: The Magus became rather a cult because it coincided with a particular era. Did that bother you?

Fowles: Some rather mad things happened in the United States in the Sixties. One university, I was told, used to put on the trial scene and I had quite a lot of cranks after me. I think that’s finished now. Maclean’s: In rewriting The Magus were you trying to lay that ghost?

Fowles: No. Because I think it was always based on a misreading.

Maclean’s: How do you feel about your readers?

Fowles: The readers’ reaction is much more important to me than the critics’. That takes many years to come in, though. Especially with a complicated book like the new one.

Maclean’s: Which of your fellow novelists do you most admire and why?

Fowles: I like Joseph Heller in America. In Britain, I like David Storey. I think Margaret Drabble is a good writer. I like Alison Lurie, another American woman writer, and I like Joan Didion, another American woman writer. On the whole I think women writers are rather better today than men writers.

Maclaan’s: Do you know why that should

be?

Fowles: I think women writers are generally more honest and I think they are closer to the ground. I think they are less obsessed by best-selling and the whole recipe novel side of the business. I find them on the whole more serious than most men novelists. I did like Joseph Heller’s last novel Something Happened. Of course, in a way, it seemed to be a sort of feminine novel. He’d probably be deeply insulted. Maclean’s: The novelist is sometimes compared to a skilled lover. He builds up the excitement, it is said, by every technical art before allowing the reader the satisfaction of a conclusion. Do you think perhaps this is why women writers are so good?

Fowles: I think that might be one reason. I mean, I don’t think of women actually as very good at suspense. There are very few good women thriller writers, but that for me is a mark in their favor. I think they are much better at the domestic side of things.

I mean daily realities. Men writers get bored with daily realities. Someone like Margaret Drabble is terribly good at that. But 1 personally wouldn’t use the sexual analogy. I think I’d rather use one of cooperation, because another reason I think the novel will survive is that the reader has to work in a novel. In a film, you are presented with someone else’s imagination exactly bodied out. The marvelous thing about a novel is that every reader will imagine even the very simplest sentence slightly differently.

I know I have a gift; I can have readers turning pages as fast as I want them to

Maclean’s: A nd at 300,000 words in Daniel Martin that’s quite a feat of imagination. Do you have any mercy on your readers? Fowles: I am not writing for reviewers. Reviewers have said the book should have been shorter. A lot of them said, “Why wasn’t it shorter?” Somebody in America said that there’s nothing wrong with this book that a good editor couldn’t have cured. That, to me, that is just a weakness in reviewers. I mean, it’s possible that the book is too long and there may be literary reasons why it’s too long but I am writing for readers who are prepared to spend a week or two weeks reading a book. Maclean’s: And you are prepared to take the risk that the 300,000 words may be just a few too many?

Fowles: Absolutely. I mean, I know I have a gift as a writer. I can, if I want, keep people turning pages as fast as I want. I know how to tell stories. But people who read that book have got to look for other pleasures. You know, this book is what one 20th-century man feels about his century and generation in one particular country. Maclean’s: What in your view is the chief distinction between fiction and the real world?

Fowles: Well, it’s a metaphor for reality and this is why 1 think poetry and the novel are so close, because all novels are really metaphors for reality and I personally would not distinguish between the reality and the metaphor and reality and reality. I think once the thing is written it assumes a certain reality. I suppose you could say some of Shakespeare’s great speeches are unreal, but that seems to be an equally important reality, a mental reality. Maclean’s: So it’s not really an illusion? Fowles: It’s illusion at one level. If you are talking in terms of, for instance, 20thcentury empirical philosophy, of course it is an illusion, but personally 1 don’t think so ... I am not much in favor of the documentary novel. I think that really is rather a bastard form and I have never really liked extremes very much, extreme naturalism, writers like Zola. I suppose my greatest liking is for the average stream—the Voltaires, the George Orwells, the allegorists. Certainly there are, I think, allegorical realities surely as strong as many forms of actual reality.

Maclean’s: What, therefore, would you say were, not necessarily in order of priority, a novelist’s duties toward his readers? Fowles: I think I would doubt your question. I think a novelist’s first duties, oddly enough, are really toward himself. To be honest to his own imagination, his own total knowledge of existence. That’s the prime duty to me. You always write for yourself first, to discover yourself first. Then there are, I think, lesser duties down the line. I personally feel that my duty is to write for an educated majority. That’s not an avant-garde minority, in other words. I think we’ve seen quite enough of avantgarde art in the 20th century, so in a way in this book 1 am going back a little from that. Maclean’s: That seems nicely to combine acceptability as an artist and profitability as a journeyman.

Fowles: It does. I must say “Guilty” if that’s said. But I’ve never written to make money. I never was more amazed than when The Collector was a best seller and I

didn’t think The French Lieutenant's Woman would ever make it.

Maclean’s: How many copies of all your various books have you sold?

Fowles: I am not very interested in that side of my life. I honestly couldn’t give you a figure. I think The French Lieutenant’s Woman is coming up to three million in paperback. The Magus. 1 suppose, must be somewhere near there.

Maclean’s: And the money, are you interested in that?

Fowles: I am economically free to write, but, for a best-selling author, we lead very simple lives. We really have no expensive tastes. We don’t go in for a car. I don’t even drive. I refuse to pay high prices for antiques. I wouldn’t want to live with valuable things around me. And if they are very beautiful things I think they ought to be in public museums anyway.

Maclean’s: What, then, would you say is the greatest benefit you’ve derived from your success?

Fowles: Freedom. I am fortunate to be a very free person. I work when I like. We could live where we like, travel when we like. Nobody tells me what to do. Everyone else today has to work in some form of organization. I sometimes feel I am from another planet.

Maclean’s: I would have said that Daniel Martin is probably by far the most ambitious book you have ever written, would you say that?

Fowles: I would say it is ambitious and it is risky. I know that book is going to be misunderstood, misinterpreted and all kinds of things but, again, I think if you are a novelist you have to put yourself out on a branch.

Maclean’s: How seriously are we to take some of the hates expressed in the book? The commercial cinema, for instance.

Fowles: I’ve had a bad time with the commercial cinema. I think the commercial side of Hollywood has done America more damage than anyone at the present moment actually realizes. It gives such a false image of what America is about, and anyone who has been in that world knows that the decisions are taken on such absurd grounds. Art hardly ever comes into it. Maclean’s: A nd the North American, I am quoting here, “heresy that size and looks are everything’’?

Fowles: I don’t like to lump Canada in. I have been here for 48 hours ... I think, if I talk of the United States, yes, I think their addiction to size is insane and evil. Even in the kinds of things like the portions in certain restaurants. At the end of a meal in a New York restaurant you always see the plates half full because nobody can eat it all . . . and the waste of electricity, the absurd cars. But America is difficult because I noticed in Boston compact cars now seem to be in the majority but for some ridiculous reason that is not so in New York. Maclean’s: You write in Daniel Martin about the printed word and I quote: “It’s only the spoor of an animal that has passed and is now somewhere else in the forest. ” You have already said that Daniel Martin is your major work so far. Whereabouts in the forest. . .

Fowles: Well, no .. . Whether it’s my major work I don’t know. Technically I shall never beat The French Lieutenant’s Woman. I think that that is a very good craftsman’s job at imitating certain tones of voice. I don’t think I’ll ever write a book as good as that. I am talking on this technical level.. .

Maclean’s: Alright, so I come back to my question: whereabouts in the forest are you? Fowles: I don’t know at the moment. I shan’t know because you write books to find out where you are in the forest. I shan’t know until I have written another book. I really meant by that that in a wáy, as soon as you’ve written a book, you know it’s not enough. It doesn’t really say what you wanted tosay,and for some peculiar reason, until it’s published and you see it in print and it’s reviewed, criticized or even praised, it’s only then that you see what was wrong with it very often and that’s why you have to write another novel. v>