Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Lesley McDowell talks about Between the Sheets, literary couples, and more

Lesley McDowell's Between the Sheets is the kind of fascinating book you carry around with you because you can't stop reading it--I know I did. An exploration of nine literary partnerships, from Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes to Martha Gelhorn  and Hemingway, Between The Sheets ponders just how much these unions hurt--or helped--these women in their creativity and careers. I'm honored to have Lesley here on my blog. Thank you, Lesley.

What sparked the idea for the book?

The book has its origins in two sources; the first was a relationship I had with a writer when we were both working on our first novels. The relationship lasted about fifteen months and wasn’t anything like one I’d had before. For bad and good reasons – bad, in that he didn’t want to acknowledge me publicly as his girlfriend because he was separated from his wife, he didn’t have any money and I would bail him out with food and wine and cigarettes, he had no intention of being faithful and was seeing five other women when we met, and so on.  Lots of things I would never have put up with before yet found myself putting up with this time. Why? I loved him, but that wasn’t enough. The good part, for me, was the help and encouragement I was getting with my writing. We’d read each other’s work and edit; he got me started on my first novel; he told me all the time what a good writer I was and made me try things I’d been too nervous to try before.

After we split up, I read a review of Christopher Barker’s memoir of his parents, George Barker and Elizabeth Smart, and this is the second source for my book. Barker, a hugely promising poet when they met, seemed in many ways like the man I’d just split up with. He was unfaithful, penniless, unscrupulous, but he was also hugely encouraging to Smart. I began to think that, perhaps women who put up with men like him and who had always been seen as victims of that type of relationship, weren’t quite the victims they’d been portrayed as. I didn’t think I was a victim, so why see Elizabeth Smart as one? And I started thinking about other literary relationships, especially ones where the women had been viewed as the victims in them. Was that really the whole story?

How did you decide which literary couples to write about?

Once I began thinking about the women who’d been portrayed as victims, the rest came very easily. Sylvia Plath was the obvious one after Elizabeth Smart, and I’d read and reviewed her journals and remembered very well her complex and often compromising relationship with Ted Hughes. I’d also recently read Martha Gellhorn’s letters, and her relationship with Ernest Hemingway seemed like an appropriate one here too, given how their marriage ended. Soon, I had about half a dozen – Rebecca West, like Gellhorn, was a feminist and pioneering journalist, yet entered into an often demeaning relationship with H G Wells which lasted for years – why? Anais Nin and Henry Miller were my last additions, possibly because I was never a huge fan of Nin’s – with projects like this, the names of writers you like tend to come to the fore first.

Anything surprise you in the writing?

Yes, speaking of Anais Nin – I grew to like her better, and to appreciate the kind of feminist project she was engaged in with her diary volumes (which previously I’d just viewed as an enormously egotistical exercise). And I was surprised just how hard she tried to break into women’s writing communities in Paris, and with what little success. Nathalie Barney’s literary salons, Sylvia Beach’s publications, writing to Janet Flanner – she appealed to them all, yet they all gave her the brush-off. 1920s Paris is depicted as a liberating time and place for women writers, especially lesbian women, with little magazines being produced and salons going on, but it seems to have been every bit as exclusive a club as anything else. Jean Rhys was there at the same time, impoverished and hobnobbing with prostitutes in Montmartre – she didn’t get invited into the literary women’s scene any more than Nin did. That surprised me a great deal.

What’s obsessing you now?

I’ve just finished a historical novel about a childhood friend of Mary Shelley’s, whose husband went mad, so for a long time I’ve been immersed in research about the enlightenment and the beginnings of psychiatry. Now, though, I’m back to women’s literary lives – I’ve started research for another non-fiction book, this time looking at literary muses of the early twentieth century. I think there’s a huge story to be told about some very different women who were all cast as muses to great writers (whether they wanted to be or not). Zelda Fitzgerald, Nora Barnacle, Vivienne Eliot, Vita Sackville West, Alice B Toklas are just five of the eleven women I’m researching. My argument is that they rebelled against the limitations of the ‘muse’ role – how they rebelled and what that did to them is part of the story.

What questions didn’t I ask that I should have?

Just who my favourites in the book are! My favourite writer is Jean Rhys but my favourite ‘story’ is Elizabeth Smart’s. Not just because she’s the one whose story sparked it all off for me but also because she’s so human, so approachable, so willing to go after life and take it all on board. I think she must have been a remarkable person to know.   


Anonymous said...

great interview!

marcia Fine said...

Wonderful interview! Brought back names from my Women's Studies classes. I loved The Man Who Loved Children and The golden Notebooknwhen I read them ages ago.