Books by Michèle Roberts:
When reviewers discuss Michèle Roberts' work, the adjectives they use tend to run to words like "sensuous" and "voluptuous." It's something that the writer understands. "It's a compliment," she says. "I want to put the body always into language."
In Roberts' work, we share the scents, tastes and feelings she wants to share with us. It's a heady experience, though not unplanned. "I wanted to rescue the body and cherish it and love it and touch it and smell it and make it into language." This richness of experience reflects her. "I'm voluptuous: I'm not thin and I never will be, so I want to celebrate voluptuousness in real life, too."
The physical voluptuousness is as much a part of this writer as curling blonde hair and pale blue eyes. While no one would call her petite, neither is she large. She is, quite simply, voluptuous, with all of the pleasing connotations that word brings with it. Her laugh is full and rich and unrestrained; her voice is melodious and pleasantly modulated, the pitch slightly lower than high, but easy on the ear.
Over lunch, she asks if I'll think she's terrible if she has a glass of wine with her meal. (I don't and make the ultimate sacrifice by joining her in a glass of chenin blanc.) And when the waiter informs her that the appetizer she has ordered won't provide much in the way of sustenance, she has him double the order rather than asking for something else. Voluptuous then, in her approach to life and work.
The Looking Glass, Roberts' 10th novel, brings us this informed sensuality in fine style. It's a book that Roberts says " just burst out," when the author's mother sold the family cottage in France. "My theory is that inspiration is born of loss. So that if there's an empty space inside you, something can come and fill it. Something can get born inside you. And I felt I proved that with this novel."
The Looking Glass follows the path of Geneviève, a young convent-raised orphan and a large portion of the story is told in her voice. However, the novel's main character, Gérard Colbert, was in part inspired by a biography she read of the French poet Mallarmé. The Looking Glass is about Colbert and the women that love him -- his niece, her governess, his mistress and Geneviève, who becomes his maid. The poet is the sun around which these women revolve. However, in a style worthy of the voluptuous feminist she is, Roberts rescues these women from history's margins and creates a tale of beauty and triumph that echoes under their feet.
Nominated for the Booker Prize for Daughters of the House in 1992, Roberts, now 51, lives in London, England and Mayenne, France with the artist, Jim Latter.
Linda Richards: I understand that you're Anglo-French. Were you raised in France or England?
Michèle Roberts: We had two childhoods, really, because my mother is French -- from Normandy -- and every summer we had this long visit to the grandparents'. And, although it was only six weeks, when you're a kid it really stretches out. So I felt I had two separate childhoods.
That's influenced your work, as well.
Very much so, I think. There are certain landscapes that I've really got inside me. The Looking Glass begins with a lost landscape because, just recently, my mother felt she had to sell the little, tiny brick cottage where we'd spent our summer holidays. She couldn't really keep it up anymore. She's getting on. And my Dad had died. I went to help her clear it out and pack it up and we cried and we went to the sea one last time and then I drove home to my little house in France and I immediately began writing this novel. It just burst out.
My theory is that inspiration is born of loss. So that if there's an empty space inside you, something can come and fill it. Something can get born inside you. And I felt I proved that with this novel. It just began, "It is the sea I miss most," and that was my truth. And then I found that the voice talking wasn't my voice. It was someone else. That's the interesting thing when you write in the first person. You're haunted. You've been taken over and possessed by somebody else and you write to find out who it is. And this 16-year-old girl turned up: Geneviève. Just left an orphanage, going to work in a cafe and I tracked her through the novel. I sort of listened to her.
She has a very French cadence to her voice, even though, of course, the novel is in English. But she's definitely a French girl.
I found that, since I grew up more or less bilingual, when I write in English I'm often using a construction that's a French one: putting the object first and then the verb. Things like that. And I thought: Well, that's OK if it's a French character. That's allowed.
Do you write in French as well?
I don't think my written French is good enough that I could write in it. But I've recently begun scripting French into poems, because I'm a poet as well. And I think I'd like to try writing something in French, but I'd have to exploit the fact that it would be a clumsy, halting, childish French. A kind of fossilized French: very polite and way back from the 60s when I was a little kid visiting my grandparents. But I thought that could be the basis for a story: someone who can't speak French well. But normally I just write in English and that's it.
I'm always amazed when writers write well in a language that isn't their first. It seems a tremendous accomplishment.
Yes, indeed. And I think that lots of writers in today's multicultural world are at home in more than one language. For people writing in English who can write well in another language, it's a fantastic achievement. I can speak French and I can speak Italian and I did Latin in school -- though I can't really speak Latin -- but I couldn't write in them.
Your French is fluent?
Yes, although not really sophisticated, adult French full of wonderful adult slang. It's a bit prim and proper, my French. But it's OK.
You love to cook. And that's another creative outlet.
You do create with it, thinking up ways to make a recipe even better or putting different tastes together. It's like painting or, for me, it's like writing a poem.
I cook a lot. I make lunch every day. I live with a painter, so we'll both work all morning and then have lunch together. Then I'll often make something to eat in the evening as well. I don't find it terribly oppressive and, when I do, I just don't do it. It's a choice. That's the point, isn't it?
It is. Sometimes I find it relaxing. To get into my kitchen and make a nice sauce or something to unwind.
And use your hands, don't you think that's part of the pleasure? When you've done something quite cerebral.
Cooking is sensuous, too. Your novel is quite sensual.
It's important to me. It's important to actually write a novel that's about people, which not all novels are. Some novels are just about voices or a landscape. But I've got people in mine. Then they have a sensual experience of the world and I want to make that real to the reader, if I can.
I think the other thing about trying to write sensually: it makes you more precise. And that's important, because it makes you write better. I find that if I write too quickly -- if I write really madly -- it becomes blurry and unfocused. It gallops away and it's banal and it's full of clichés. To slow myself down, I try and get into the skin of the person or the place or the food and really convey the sensual reality of it. So it's for technical reasons, as well. It improves my writing when I do it.
That's interesting. Because it's one of the things reviewers are fond of saying about your work. Both "sensuous" and the word "voluptuous" come up a lot.
It does. It's a compliment, but maybe it's a sort of political urge I've got, as well. A feminist urge. I want to put the body always into language. I was brought up in a tradition of reading and thinking at university that, in a sense, left the body out. It was all about your mind. That good writing didn't have a "self" in it, didn't have an ego in it. Oh my God, I had so much to unlearn when I became a writer! And because I'd been a Catholic and the body is very scorned in Catholicism -- particularly the female body -- I wanted to rescue the body and cherish it and love it and touch it and smell it and make it into language. Make language actually a body, as it is to be human. That's one of my aims, I think. So there are a lot of smells and tastes. And I'm voluptuous: I'm not thin and I never will be, so I want to celebrate voluptuousness in real life, too. [Laughs]
I was very inspired by the French writer, Colette, who actually late in life was a big, beefy woman. She writes very beautifully about the body and its hungers and appetites and she sticks in women who love food and they may love sex, but en route to the assignation they stop off at a bistro and have something nice to eat. I fully approve of that. [Laughs]
Is this book number eight?
Number 10. Tenth novel.
When was your first novel?
In 1978. Because I decided early on I wanted to write. And as a young woman I, well... it was like a vocation and I didn't do things like get an academic job or I didn't get married and have children, I decided not to. I made these terribly serious decisions about art. So, in a sense, I was earning my living doing part-time work so that I did have the time to get on with writing novels and it meant I could publish quite a lot.
Babies do tend to get in the way of that.
It's difficult for women, I think. I mean, in later life when I met the man I'm now with who I love very much, I wanted to have a child. And then I discovered that, because of some stupid birth control I'd been given, I'd been made infertile and I couldn't have babies. I kept having miscarriages instead. And it was incredibly sad. I don't mind, but I think the consolation is that I have stepsons and I brought up my niece partly. And books, of course, are like babies. But it's nice to say to people -- it's important to say to people -- that to be a serious artist, I think you do have to make sacrifices. If you're going to work very, very hard and really try and get better and better and better, then you have to give up certain things. I think it's important for people to know that, otherwise they can just be a bit envious and say: Oh, it's so great to be an artist. Like: Oh well, it must be such an easy life. And when I say I have a house in France, people say: What a fantastic life. You're so lucky. Well, I took risks and I made sacrifices and, you know, you don't have everything in this life. You make choices. And I made choices that were OK, I think.
You sound very in control of your destiny.
Um, I don't know if I'm in control of it, but I think I've got a very strong desire to write and create and I'm also quite hardheaded in one side of myself. I know about making enough money to live on. I've always been independent financially and taken care of myself financially. So, I can live well on very, very little. In my young days when I was starving in my garret I'd still have my cheap Spanish red wine and my artichoke for dinner.
That's part of the food connection for you, then. Because you can't just go and open a box, because boxes are expensive and they're not very good.
Well, I was brought up partly by a very thrifty French aunt, my mother's sister. In this culture, in northern France, you didn't waste anything. So the leftovers from yesterday you'd make into exquisite little things for lunch. A little tiny bit of leftover minced meat, you'd stuff tomatoes with it. Or put it in a sauce or make a croquette.
It feels good to do stuff like that.
It does. It's very inventive. It's the art, again. It's what we were saying earlier about creativity. You feel so proud when you've made something magically delicious and the people you're serving think you've spent all kinds of money on it when actually all you've done is take what you had in the fridge and reassemble it.
The Looking Glass came out in May in the United Kingdom?
Yes. And Holt is bringing it out in paperback in 2001 in the United States. So I'm pleased about that.
Do you write on a computer?
I do, but I'm afraid it's just a very basic little one that's just meant to be a word processor for people in offices, I guess. I do have this old-fashioned thing called a notebook which I write in, a lot. Then it gets transferred at some point, so the machine is important.
Are you working on anything now?
Yes. I've just finished a book of short stories which is a mixture of new stories special to the book and stories that were written over the last three years. It was just very nice to pause between novels and do stories. And I'm about to start a new novel. I can feel it beginning to simmer away in my head. It's at a very early stage when you just feel this little tug on the ear: Aha. Something wants to happen.
Does the short story collection have a name yet?
It's called Playing Sardines. Is that a game that is played in North America?
Not as far as I know.
It's a very nice game that little English children play. You put the house in darkness and one of you goes up and hides somewhere in the house. And the others have to come and find you. When you find the person who has hidden, you hide with them in total silence. So eventually there are like 10 people in a cupboard trying not to giggle and there's one person left wandering around the house thinking: Where is everybody?
It's a game about intimacy and danger and risk and children love it: because, of course, it's quite sexy. One of the stories is about tins of sardines and marriage -- a marriage that doesn't work, because the key to the sardine tin keeps slipping. And it's about the desire to play sardines in the dark and find a lover in the dark who is the right one.
I like writing about images. Again, it's a food image. It's an image in the real world. But it's also based on a tin of sardines I bought in the gourmet food market where I live in the city of London. It's a very beautiful oval tin of Spanish sardines. It has such a beautiful label that I could never open it. So the tin sits on the shelf in my kitchen and it inspired a story.
Your work is not conventional.
No. I don't think it is. I mean, I feel OK about that, but there's a lot of pressure in England to write the kind of conventional novels that will sell in thousands and thousands and make you and your publisher lots of money and that's that. And I'm not that kind of writer. I write the books I want to write. I'm delighted if they sell well and I'm not expecting my publishers to just keep giving me money, but there's no way I want to bow to commercial pleasure. I mean, there's plenty of people publishing very good commercial stuff. If my stuff is commercial that's great, but it's not why I write. | December 2000
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine and the author of several books.