Likening herself to a French maid in a farce caught fluffing the pillows onstage as the curtains draw back to encourage an air of intimacy with the audience, Barker starts with a short reading.Leave a Comment
Pat Barker – Noonday
Alex Clark is in the chair and Pat Barker is on sparkling form to celebrate the opening night of the Independent Bath Literature Festival.
With the publication of Noonday, Barker, “a novelist not content with writing one trilogy,” concludes her second. She admits that, perhaps, the impetus to write a series of three novels set during the years of World War II did not come from her: “I read in the papers that it was meant to be a trilogy, so I thought I’d better write one.”
Likening herself to a French maid in a farce caught fluffing the pillows onstage as the curtains draw back to encourage an air of intimacy with the audience, Barker starts with a short reading. Not enough to spoil the plot, but it’s a good teaser.
Inspiration is one of the questions Clark puts to Barker: where does it come from? How far to you trawl contemporary sources, eye-witness accounts and personal memoirs for detail and anecdote? A fair bit, Barker says, but ‘it’s always better to get personal reminiscences in: they have greater force than taking things from a book of memoirs or memories.” There’s also the danger that you might not be the only writer rummaging in the ‘bran tub’ of source material as she realized, on reading a William Boyd novel and recognizing they had both drawn on the same story. Although, she graciously says, “he did it better.”
She was drawn to the subject of World War II by a desire to explore the lives of a generation who ‘dropped the catch’. They had lived through the ‘war to end all wars’, knew the horrors of being gassed in the trenches, and yet here they were, fitting gas masks to their own children.
There’s always the danger, says Barker, of confusing writing from the depths with succumbing to a tendency to exercise your craft. “I like to think that I throw away the stuff that isn’t genuine,” she laughs. I throw a lot away! You can’t do it by rote.” And re-reading earlier novels can be hazardous. Either you’re convinced you’ll never write that well again, or you think ‘that’s not very good’. Either way, the characters ‘all start rabbiting on’ which proves most distracting.
And what keeps her from writing about contemporary conflict? A sense, Barker says, that it is the nature of all conflict that underpins her work and she is more interested by the idea of the common man drawn into battle through conscription as in the world wars, rather than the experience of the professional soldier. Besides, ‘what can an English writer truly write about a war on foreign soil?”
A cluster of rejections by publishers shaped Barker’s determination to write, as did significant encouragement from Angela Carter, despite their work being very different in style. Carter encouraged Barker to give the ignored lives of women some air. “I was drive back to the fundamentals of my experience,” she says. In time, however, she realised that she didn’t want to focus on women’s lives to the exclusion of men. Writing from a male perspective, she says, forces her to be more considered, as it isn’t an intuitive process.
And what next? No more trilogies! Instead, a re-telling of The Iliad from a female perspective. “So totally unlike anything I’ve done before.” She’s jettisoned the entire central section because “the cake has sagged in the middle” but what is the life of a writer if not one in which you go on challenging and surprising yourself?
The 21st Independent Bath Literature Festival continues until Sunday 6 March view the full programme here
Bath Box Office 01225 463362