Diana Athill: "Nobody likes the thought of dying – which could be very disagreeable indeed."

The editor and memoirist on death, life writing and nannying Jean Rhys.

Diana Athill in 2009 (Photograph: Getty Images)

On Saturday 25 August, the former editor, publisher and memoirist Diana Athill will be appearing at the Voewood Festival in Norfolk in conversation with Damian Barr. (To buy tickets, click here.) I visited her at her home in north London last week to talk about her remarkable life and career, a substantial proportion of which was spent as an editor at André Deutsch. She has written four volumes of memoir since retiring in 1993, at the age of 75.

Are you writing anything at the moment?

I’m not. I do a bit of book reviewing and write the odd article, but I haven’t got another book going.

Why is that?

If something comes out, it has to have gone in first. By the time you’re 94, not a hell of a lot goes in. I’m not a novelist; I haven’t got the imagination to be a novelist – I’ve always written about experience, but I’ve had it all now and have said it all.

You have written fiction, though?

I’ve written one novel, many years ago. In those days, they’d always nag one to write a novel if one’s first book was quite good. I didn’t do that as a publisher because I thought quite enough fiction was getting written anyway. So I wrote a novel. And it was terribly hard work. It was alright, quite a nice little novel, I think. But it was really, really hard work. I thought, “This proves I’m not a novelist.”

But you did write a very well-received book of short stories, An Unavoidable Delay, published in 1962.

Those stories were the first thing I ever wrote. And they just came out of the blue. Then they stopped coming. And that was a very long time ago. So long ago that I had, in fact, completely forgotten them when Nicola Beauman [at Persephone Books] phoned me up and said, “I’d like to do your stories.” I was amazed.

What was revisiting those stories like?

I was surprised, really. I’d said to myself, “Surely they must be terribly dated.” But I quite enjoyed re-reading them. It’s difficult to be detached about your own writing, but on the whole they were better than I’d expected.

You started writing fiction relatively late in life didn’t you?

I started writing those stories in the early Sixties, quite by chance. They did just come. I suddenly got a little itch and thought, “I’ll write a story about that.” And then they came very quickly – nine stories. There was a long pause, and I thought, “That’s that.” Then I moved house and I found, in a drawer, the beginning of a story which I thought didn’t work. And I thought, “I wonder if I can finish this?” I sat down to have another go at it and what came out was my first book, Don’t Look At Me Like That. Again, it just came. I’ve never sat down and said to myself, “I’m going to write this or that.” It just happened. It had been stowed away inside me, waiting to come out.

So there was no writerly ambition burning inside you, then?

None. I would liked to have been a writer, but I thought I had satisfied that wish by becoming a publisher. We were a very bookish family when I was young – we all read and read and read. A life in books – it was perfect. It seemed to me that being a publisher really used up that interest. And I didn’t think my writers wanted their publisher to be a writer.

Because they saw you as a threat?

Because you’re supposed to be interested in them.

No thwarted ambitions then? No sense that being a publisher was somehow second best?

I think that there were two occasions on which I thought I might write something and I started and said, “I can’t do it.” And so I stopped. And by that time I saw myself very clearly as an editor, as someone who helped other writers to write.

What made you a good editor?

Probably being a writer manqué. I had no problem seeing what people were trying to do. And no problem in wanting them to do it as they wanted it to be. Some editors are too intrusive. I always wanted people to be what they wanted to be. I think that made me a good editor. And I learned an awful lot about good writing. What sort of writing I liked.

And what was that?

I don’t like fantasy. I like writing to try and be as accurate as it possibly can be. The one writer who said what I wanted to do was Jean Rhys. She’d say, “You must get it right. You must get it as it really was.” And that’s I want to do in writing.

Jean Rhys occupies a special place among the writers you worked with doesn’t she?

Being an editor, most of the time, is a very simple thing. We would not have published a novel if we couldn’t have published it as it came in. To begin, with yes, because you’re building a list. But if a book could not have been just as it was, straight out, I wouldn’t have taken it on. Then, I just worked to polish it up a bit. And the people whom one is always congratulated for being an editor of – like Vidia Naipaul, Updike – I didn’t do a thing to that text; I wouldn’t have dreamed of doing anything. You were a nanny. And Jean needed more nannying than any writer who ever lived. It was pastoral care with her. With some people it was, “You’re wonderful, darling.” But with Jean … Sonia Orwell was wonderful and would bring her up to London every year. When Jean was in London, I’d have to go round in the evening and fill her hot water bottle, as she’d have scalded herself otherwise. She was absolutely helpless in real life. Her daughter lived in Holland once came over to see her, in Devonshire, where she lived. Then she came up to London and invited me to lunch. She said, “Look, Jean is talking about wanting to come to Holland and live near me. It is out of the question. If she does that, my marriage is in ruins. I am prepared to come over in the event of emergency, but apart from that, you have got to cope.” I knew by that time what it meant and my heart did sink. But I said, “OK”. You see, I was very fond of her really. In the end, it was worthwhile.

Didn’t she have an agent who could look after her?

She had innumerable agents! Jean couldn’t have tea with someone without telling them a sob story and they’d then offer to be her agent. Whereupon infinite muddle would arise.

Did it get harder or easier to deal with agents as your career in publishing went on?

Oh, it was always quite easy to deal with agents. But it was nice when one didn’t have to do, because we then got to handle the rights. But we always felt scrupulously that we had to say to people, “Do you want to deal with an agent or not?” Most of the agents were very good friends. I don’t know any of the agents now. I think they play a much bigger part today than they used to. I think they’ve rather taken over from the publisher’s editor. I think they work much more with authors on their books before they go out.

The list of authors you worked with is extraordinary. There’s V S Naipaul for instance. Did he require nannying like Jean Rhys?

He didn’t require nannying. He required a good deal of encouragement at certain points. He was alright while he was writing. But once the book was delivered he then went into a depression – deep depression – and life would become quite hopeless. You’d have lunch with him and Vidia would say, “That book’s damaged me.” He was a terrible depressive. And depressives are terribly difficult to deal with. You have to try and boost them. So he was sort of hard work in that respect. But he was not at all hard work about his writing. He was an absolute perfectionist.

It does sound as if you expended enormous amounts of emotional energy on your authors that might have been expended in other areas of your life.

That might have been so. Although I always kept my private life completely separate. André Deutsch, who was a publisher to the very marrow of his bones, liked nothing better than a business breakfast, and business lunch and a business dinner. He never stopped thinking about. But I never took work home. I would have died rather than have a business breakfast and a business lunch. I had quite a full life going on.

You also worked with Philip Roth, Norman Mailer and John Updike …

The Americans were no problem. The heavy editing had all been done in the States. It was a nice relationship. When they came over to England, one had them to lunch and it was fun. Updike became a great friend. He was an extremely nice man. Updike was probably a publisher’s perfect author. He knew the trade very well. And he didn’t expect impossibilities. He kept you up to the mark, but he knew what you were doing and why you were doing it. And he was very helpful. He was brilliant with jackets. Updike’s jackets, the best ones, were always thought up by him. Updike was pure pleasure. He really was a very agreeable and amusing man.

You once said of yourself that you have a “beady eye”. That’s an asset in a novelist isn’t it?

I think so. I think it’s a writer’s thing that, on the whole, you’re not often so much involved in a situation that you’re not watching it from the outside. One of the things that makes me enjoy painting so much is I come out of a good exhibition having just looked at the pictures and having forgotten myself completely. Mostly one doesn’t. I think many writers say that about themselves. They’d sit down at their wife’s deathbed and still be making notes about it!

What happened with Philip Roth? He left André Deutsch after his second book, Letting Go, didn’t he?

Letting Go was very good, I loved it. But it was a lot too long. I remember André saying it ought to be cut by a third. There was a tremendous amount of dialogue in it. It was him discovering in that book how good he was at dialogue, and he couldn’t resist it. And I said, “Yes, but …” He was one of those writers from America whom everyone was after. Everyone knew he as the golden boy. I said, “Look, if we start messing him about, saying, ‘You’ve got to cut this, you’ve got to cut that,’ we’ll lose him – he’ll be gone.” And André said, “Well, then we’d better publish it as it is.” We did and it didn’t earn its advance. So when the next book came in, When She Was Good, which was the one book he wrote that actually wasn’t very good, I remember thinking, “It must come alive at some point.” But it didn’t. It was about his first wife, and he was trying, I think, to prove to himself that in fact he could write from the point of view of a woman, and he could write from the point of view of a non-Jew. And he couldn’t really! We obviously wanted to go on publishing him, but we’d had our fingers burnt with Letting Go. We were cautious. We suggested a modest advance based on what we thought we’d well. Which lost him at once. And of course the next book was Portnoy’s Complaint! We couldn’t bear it. We tried not to think about it. But I think André would not have liked it. He didn’t like indecency. It’s funny, but he was quite prudish. It’s quite possible that had that book come to us, André would not have wanted to do it. Which would have been even worse!

One of the most striking things about your memoirs is their candour – particularly about sex and then the disappearance of sex in old age. Are candour and honesty virtues that you prize?

Yes. If you are writing about yourself, there’s absolutely no excuse to do it unless you try to do it really truly. What that first [non-fiction] book, Instead of a Letter, was was a therapeutic exercise. I didn’t realise it until afterwards. I realised the immense effect writing it had had on me. While I was writing it what I was thinking was, “What was it really like, what really happened? How much of that was my fault or somebody else’s?” I had this very strong need to get to the bottom of a very painful experience. And once I emerged from it, that was that. The painful experience was finished. It was wonderful. But it wasn’t done in order to do that. The thing must have been bubbling away. I’d felt happy for quite a long time – I’d had this big unhappiness in my life; I’d a very interesting job, I’d have several love affairs. I’d had a good time, really. But there’d been this curious sense of failure. In those days, when I was young, it was transparently obvious that the one thing that anyone wanted was to get married and have children. I wanted that as much as anyone. And I failed to achieve it. Only after I finished that book that I realised that perhaps I hadn’t actually wanted it very much. And I was free. It was very much what one would achieve through therapy. For quite a long time, I thought that I was only able to write for therapeutic reasons. The next books, After a Funeral and Make Believe, were both about horrible things that had happened – not to me, but to other people. Experiences that I had been closely involved with that were haunting me. Both of them were written much more consciously in order to write things out. After that, nothing awful happened. Happily, I didn’t have anything to write out. So I thought my writing days were over. When I retired,everybody kept on saying, “You were a publisher for so many years, you must write about it”. But I said, “I don’t do that kind of writing.” Then I found myself gradually creeping up to it, learning that I could write for fun rather than to cure myself of something. And that was a very nice discovery that I made in my eighties.

There seems to be an insatiable appetite, doesn’t there, on the part of readers and book buyers for this sort of stuff – “life writing” or whatever you want to call it?

It sort of became a fashion. I love it myself. I’ve always loved reading real things. I love diaries, letters. My favourite books are Boswell’s diaries and Byron’s letters. I read fiction much less. Nowadays, fiction has to be really very good; otherwise I get about 50 pages in and say, “Oh, I know where this is going.” Hilary Mantel I will always read and love, but my choice now is to read interesting non-fiction.

Do you find yourself re-reading things?

Oh yes! One’s memory has got so bad! I could re-read George Eliot or Trollope until I was blue in the face. I’d be terribly happy.

In Somewhere Towards the End, which was published nearly five years ago, you wrote that you were approaching the prospect of death with equanimity. Is that still the case?

That is still true. But it’s something I felt way back. Montaigne said that everyone should spend at least 15 minutes a day thinking about death. I remember thinking when I read that, “How sensible!” It was a bit overdone – I don’t say to myself, “Right, now I shall think about death for 15 minutes.” But I think one should be aware of it very early on, and think about it, so that it isn’t frightening. I had a terribly sad time last week meeting a very old friend, who is awfully ill and who is terribly frightened of death. I asked him why and tried to get him unfrightened. My father, if you talked about death, got up and left the room. He couldn’t bear it. But to me, it’s always seemed part of life. Nobody likes the thought of dying – which could be very disagreeable indeed. But it doesn’t have to be. My mother’s great gift to me was that she died easily. So I realised being with her then that it wasn’t necessarily horrible. I hope that I’m going to have the same luck. My friend said to me, “What’s going to happen afterwards.” I said, “Darling, nothing’s going to happen. It’ll be like going to sleep.” I think he’d had a rather religious upbringing and thought he was going to burn in hell.

Have you ever felt religious impulses?

They’ve been singularly lacking. I think this is a matter of temperament. You either are religious or you aren’t.

Was your upbringing religious in any way?

My background was gently Church of England. It was a very mild God and so very easy to drop. Not at all vengeful. We were not brought up to believe in hell. My grandparents, though, were very anti-Catholic. They felt that strongly. I thought it was damned silly. What everybody has is a feeling that there is something they don’t understand. I don’t see any reason why human beings should be able to understand everything. The most sensible thing anyone ever said to me was when I was talking to a man when I was at Oxford. I said, “I suppose there must be something that started it all up.” And he said, “Why? It could be that our human minds are such that they just have to think in terms of beginnings and endings. And maybe that’s just our limitation.” What a wonderful thought! I don’t think there’s a single society anywhere that hasn’t had to invent causality. I’m perfectly contented not to know.