Words that tear

The Observer


Spouses, children and parents recount their frustrations in a book that reveals the chilling ordeal of life with an author.

Vain, self-dramatising, self-pitying, arrogant, callous, foolish, censorious and just plain selfish. Graham Greene claimed that every writer must have a chip of ice in his or her heart and, according to a new book, this is disturbingly close to the truth. For the first time, spouses, children and parents of writers have collaborated in compiling their experiences of living with a scribe, remembrances which reveal the frustrations, irritations and sheer madness of sharing a roof with an ink-stained genius. Judy Carver, daughter of William Golding, recounts how Ann, her intelligent and glamorous mother, subsumed her life into her father’s, only to find herself ignored and sidelined as his fame grew. “To begin with, my mother was the admired, successful one and my father was considered to be lucky to have won her and, by his own judgment, rather a dull figure by comparison,” Carver writes in ‘Living With A Writer’, to be published by Palgrave Macmillan in August. “But by the 1960s, my father was famous and successful. She had merged her life and her ambition with his, and she had relinquished her own occupation. His increasing status sometimes angered my mother. She became an adjunct to him in the eyes of strangers and had to stand by while journalists, readers and academics showered down more flattery on my father than was good for him.”

John Updike admits that, although working at home meant more time to spend with his own children, he feared his writer’s imaginary life nevertheless created an unbridgeable distance between them. “I had more free time with my sons than other fathers, though I wonder now when I was with them, was I entirely free?” he ponders. “A writer’s working day is a strange, diffuse thing that never really ends and gives him a double focus much of the time.” His son, David, a successful author in his own right, agrees. “You do not write a 400- or 500-page book every year by being distracted,” he said. “My father would agree that his primary focus in life is his writing.” Before she became a writer in her own right, Betty Fussell found her role as a wife to the writer Paul Fussell a thankless confidence-sapping task. “I married Paul partly because he was a writer. His talent was evident,” she said. “The books came first, outweighing comfort, pleasure or family. And I had to agree. The work came first.” It was, however, when Betty became a writer herself that the relationship crumbled, unable to sustain the demands of two writers in one marriage.

“Finally, I violated the closed door of the sacred room reserved for writing,” she said. “It was a betrayal that I now put my needs first. There was only room for one pudding at a time in our particular mould. I would have to break the mould if I wanted to continue to write, so I did and am sorry, then and now, that this was so.” Not all relationships between two writers are doomed, however. Margaret Drabble and Michael Holroyd write warmly of their marriage, although they accept that such pairings walk a tightrope above disaster. “Marriage, for writers married to other writers, poses particular challenges,” said Drabble. “It has been noted that it seems easier to stay married to a writer who works in a different genre, thus avoiding the problem of competition or the fear of imitation.”

Drabble, whose marriage to Holroyd in 1982 was considered highly unusual after they chose to continue living in separate houses, believes that couplings composed of biographers and novelists, or biographers and playwrights, are least destined for implosion. “I think biographers tend to be less moody and difficult to live with than novelists and playwrights, and more sympathetic to the moods of others,” she said, pointing to the successful partnerships between Richard Holmes and Rose Tremain, Michael Frayn and Claire Tomalin, Antonia Fraser and Harold Pinter. Holroyd credits the public reaction to his early unusual living arrangements as proof that non-writers can never understand the needs and desires of the writer. “Though we share much, the secret part of ourselves remains our writing,” he said. “Each understands the despair of the other and we understand that a writer’s life is essentially untidy. We shall never be able to organise those tables covered with paper, those bulging drawers.”