Stories Of Changing English Life In 'Smiling Woman'

Originally published on July 14, 2011 8:30 pm

Margaret Drabble was named a dame of the British Empire in 2008 for her contribution to contemporary English literature. Her 17 novels have mirrored the changing lives of women over the past 50 years. In 2009, she announced in the Guardian that she would not write another novel, because she is afraid of repeating herself. However, the complete short stories of Margaret Drabble have just been published in a volume called A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman.

The collection gathers 14 stories from what Drabble herself calls "a lifetime of really not writing short stories."

"My problem is that when I write a short story it usually grows into a novel," Drabble tells Liane Hansen on Weekend Edition. "I'm not very good at a short length."

Many of the stories were previously published in periodicals, and a Spanish academic name Jose Francisco Hernandez gathered them together and presented them to Drabble.

"He wrote to me and he said, 'I've assembled all your stories' ... and he edited the text, and he'd just done it out of pure love," Drabble explains. "It was a bit like a fairy story, to find a handsome young man who really loved your work and wanted to see it in print."

She hadn't seen the stories arranged in that chronological order before and says that it gives a kind of emotional biography of herself, from the breakup of her marriage in the '70s, the rise of her career, and the care and raising of three young children. Some of the stories, like "A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman," which gives the volume its name, go over tough emotional territory. In that piece, a woman on the precipice of a breaking point struggles to maintain the illusion that she has it all, even though she's abused at home and at work.

Drabble says she couldn't write that story today, because its distinct message of being combative and fighting on was tied to its time, when women lived in a different social context. But she felt strongly that it should not be altered or revised in any way for the new publication.

"That is a reason for not altering stories – you leave them as they were, and they remind you of how you felt then," she says.

Eventually, she sees her writing moving on to what Hernandez calls in the introduction to the book "a mature, idyllic sense of the English landscape" — though there's always anguish, she qualifies.

"I don't know how mature and idyllic I feel ... But I can certainly see a movement that reflects the stages of my life."

Though Drabble did declare in 2009 that she wouldn't write another novel, she has reconsidered that notion. Writing for her isn't the most pleasurable process – but she says she feels she needs to be writing, "even though it's difficult and I don't always enjoy it."

Drabble also works as a journalist and says she likes the finality of knowing a piece is complete after a requisite 2,000 words. In fact, she says, she'll be in the countryside writing a piece on the British artist David Hockney while the royal wedding happens next weekend.

"I may turn on the telly, and I may not," she says.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

Margaret Drabble was named a Dame of the British Empire in 2008 for her contribution to contemporary English Literature. Her 17 novels have mirrored the changing lives of women over the past 50 years. In 2009, Dame Margaret announced in the Guardian newspaper that she would not write another novel because she's afraid of repeating herself. However, the complete short stories of Margaret Drabble will be released next month. The collection is called "A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman," and Dame Margaret joins us from London. What a pleasure it is to talk to you.

Dame MARGARET DRABBLE (Author, "A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman"): Thank you.

HANSEN: You are not associated with short stories but this collection contains 14 of them that have been published during your career. What appeal do they hold for you as a writer?

Dame DRABBLE: My problem is that when I write a short story it usually grows into a novel. I'm not very good at a short length. So, these 14 stories are the distillation of a lifetime of really not writing short stories. I'm very pleased to see them in a volume because I think one or two of them on rereading them, I thought were really good and I'm very glad that they're in a volume now and not just lost in a lot of paper in a drawer.

HANSEN: Which ones?

Dame DRABBLE: I particularly like "Hassan's Tower," which I think was the first story I ever wrote. And I think that was suggested to me that I should write a story for an anthology. Some of them come from suggestions, some just subjects I wanted to write myself. And they're a sort of mixed bag of stories written over a very, very long period.

So, it was interesting to me - really interesting to me - to see them gathered together and read them as a sequence.

HANSEN: "Hassan's Tower" is a wonderful story about a couple on a honeymoon. You were not tempted at all to revise it for this publication?

Dame DRABBLE: Not at all. In fact, on principle, I didn't revise any of the stories. I just left them as they were. And they were rediscovered by a Spanish academic. And this young man really loved my stories. And then he wrote to me and said I've assembled all your stories, and he got the comparative editions from America. They'd all been published but in periodicals. And he edited the text. But he'd just done it out of pure love.

And I thought it would be wonderful, for his sake really, if they could be published in a volume. And really that's how it all happened. It was a bit like a fairy story, to find a handsome young man who really loved your work and wanted to see it in print.

HANSEN: That's Jose Francisco Fernandez, who...

Dame DRABBLE: Indeed.

HANSEN: ...writes the introduction to the book and really makes all these connections in your novels and your work.

Let's talk about the title story, "A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman." This is published in 1973, just as the feminist movement was starting to gain some traction. And it's about a woman on the precipice. She seems to have it all. She struggles to maintain that illusion, even after she has this pretty dramatic breaking point, even when she's abused at home and at work. Do you think it's a story you could write today?

Dame DRABBLE: I don't know if I could write it today. It was very much of its time and of the lives that we were leading then. It was about being combative and surviving and fighting on. And I think that some - probably the context has changed so much that I wouldn't wish to write that. And that is a reason for not altering stories. You leave them as they were and they remind you how you felt then.

HANSEN: It's interesting though that when you're reading these stories you can pick up bits of you. Do you almost see a little bit of an emotional biography of yourself in this collection?

Dame DRABBLE: Yes, I do. I mean, reading the whole volume through consecutively, it was quite obvious that my marriage was breaking up in the '70s. And the stories track the confusion of the breaking marriage, a succeeding career and three small children, growing children. And I can see the emotional backdrop of all of those and the stories move on eventually to what Jose Francisco very kindly referred to as a mature idyllic sense of the English landscape, but I don't know how mature and idyllic I feel. There's more anguish under there all the time.

But I can certainly see a movement that reflects the stages of my life.

HANSEN: You don't much like writing.

Dame DRABBLE: I find writing quite difficult. And as I get older it doesn't get any easier. On the other hand, I do find it completely absorbing. It's the only thing that I do when I'm not aware of time passing. That, of course, is when it's going well. So, it's not pleasure. I do enjoy doing journalism because of the sheer joy of knowing that you've got 2,000 words and at the end of the 2,000 words you've finished the piece. And that is a pleasure.

HANSEN: So, you declared in 2009 that you weren't going to write another novel. You're still sticking to that?

Dame DRABBLE: Not really, no. I found I need to be writing, even though it's difficult and I don't always enjoy it. So, I am writing what I think is a novel, but it's been very laborious.

HANSEN: Well, if you don't mind, since you've expressed an interest in journalism - and this is slightly off the point - but what do you think of the royal wedding hoopla?

Dame DRABBLE: Now, that is a really astonishing story to those who are interested in that kind of thing. I am going to go off to the countryside and write a long piece about David Hockney. So, that's how I shall spend the royal wedding, happily writing a wonderful commission. I may turn on the telly and I may not.

HANSEN: Dame Margaret Drabble. The complete collection of her published short stories called "A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman" will be released next month. She joined us from London. Thank you so much.

Dame DRABBLE: Thank you.

HANSEN: And to read an excerpt from Margaret Drabble's title story, visit NPR.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.