The Books Interview: Maggie Gee

You were on the first Best of Young British Novelists list chosen by Granta, along with Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie and Martin Amis. Do you regard them as your peers?
I do feel part of that generation, yes. It was a very good time for fiction. Advances were always increasing. But I think it's also true that if you look at those Best of Young British - that cohort - there were more men, and I think the men have on the whole done better, although there were people like Pat Barker who won the Booker, and Rose Tremain who won the Orange Prize.

In your new memoir, My Animal Life, you write about the changes in publishing since that golden age. What do you think the most significant changes have been?
Drastic oversimplification of the publishing industry. It is easier to sell lots and lots of one product than to have a large variety of products. It's not in the interests of consumers, though. And the power of the book chains has grown, of course. Interest in books is not what is fuelling the huge conglomerates.

It's much easier to sell books by celebrities, because the publicity's already been done for you - the image of the celebrity's face has already been imprinted in people's consciousness, so they don't have to spend much money on advertising, all those things. So the power of the text itself, of the specific words, the skill of the words, is no longer of such interest.

How have those changes affected your career?
I try to understand my own career in terms of structural things as well as in terms of personal things - some of them my own mistakes. So, for example, there was a kind of blindness in the mid-1990s when I wrote my novel The White Family. But I also think I was too early to be writing that kind of book about race. And then, when it did finally come out in 2002, that was evidently a good time for that kind of book - after the Macpherson inquiry into institutional racism in the police.

You discuss the sexual revolution of the late Sixties and early Seventies in the book. You don't think it was unequivocally a good thing, do you?
There were lots of casualties: most of us were casualties at one moment or another. But there was such a strong sense that this must be a good thing that we didn't question it. I don't think we questioned it enough. And I was always aware, I think, that it was difficult for men as well as for women.

One of the things I'm talking about in this book is the women who didn't have children. It was the effect partly of contraception, partly of feminism; I certainly had my child too late, in some respects. A lot of women left it too late, because we didn't make the connection between sex and childbirth. We had the physical means of not making that connection, and we were the first women who really had that chance.

So it was confusing for everybody. It was a huge change in biological behaviour and, naturally, everybody was confused, yet we didn't really know how to respond. But we did have fun - that cannot be denied!

Martin Amis's new novel is about the sexual revolution. Have you read it?
I'm only about a fifth of the way through.

I think he's a very witty writer, and very good on small humiliations - I don't mean on humiliating characters, I mean he's good at writing through characters who are humiliated. Absurdity: he's good at all that.

Which writers have influenced you?
I love J M Coetzee. I read everything that Coetzee writes. He has some of the same preoccupations as me. And I love Doris Lessing for the bigness of scope. I used to read every Kurt Vonnegut until he died, because he's rather different. And I'm still influenced by the modernists - Woolf, Nabokov and Beckett (if he's a modernist). But to that I want to add humour and politics. I think I'm very influenced - you see, it's not just books, really - by intimate emails, emails to friends, emails to my daughter - the quick, short form, which is more like Vonnegut.

Which contemporary writers do you read?
I read non-stop, and there are so many crowding each other out. Of writers between 25 and fortyish, I read and admire Adam Marek, Nii Parkes, Diana Evans, Marian Garvey, Salena Godden, Vanessa Gebbie.

“My Animal Life" by Maggie Gee is published by Telegram Books (£16.99)

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 March 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Game on