Lucy Hughes-Hallett: Here I am, late in life. I wanted to write a novel all that time

The volumes interview: the author of the multi-prize-winning biography of Gabriele dAnnunzio, The Pike, on writing her first fiction at age 65

Lucy Hughes-Hallett had a 40 -year career as a journalist, critic and historic writer behind her when, in November 2013, she reached the publishing jackpot. Her biography of the Italian poet and demagogue Gabriele dAnnunzio, The Pike , written relatively quietly nine months earlier, won, among others, the Samuel Johnson prize for non-fiction and the Costa prize for biography. What had been a well-regarded slow dealer turned into the kind of volume that gets unwrapped across the land on Christmas Day.

Four times on, Hughes-Hallett is about to publish her first fiction. At first sight Peculiar Ground has little real in common with The Pike , apart from the fact that both are big volumes that grew out of small-scale ones: while her research on dAnnunzio began life as a possible section in a volume of essays, Peculiar Ground might have been a novella.

I hate big volumes, I dont belief Ive ever set out to write a big volume, she tells me in the museum coffeehouse where we satisfy. Plutarch wrote wonderful biographies which are brief essays, which is a much better style, I belief, of approaching a life. Big, comprehensive biographies tell you far more than you need to know.

Just as dAnnunzios extraordinary exploits outlined her in, and maintained her gripped until she had written close to 1,000 pages( her brother helped her edit this down to a sizing her publisher could cope with ), Peculiar Ground burst the boundaries of the weekend in 1961 that was its starting-point, spilling all the way back to the 1660 s.

But the two projects have more in common than this. While dAnnunzio fascinated her because he seemed to personify the overlap between romanticism and fascism, what outlined her to the Repair was her sense that this was another meeting place between currents of powerful ideas.

Its a fascinating interval intellectually because youve got Isaac Newton coming up with the beginnings of maths and science while also being an alchemist. The middle ages “re still here” and yet the Enlightenment has already started so theres an overlap between science and witchcraft, she explains. Popular history has it that here was Charles II the merry ruler everyone is was having a lovely hour, the theaters were open again, there was Nell Gwyn being a wench and everything was fun, fun, fun when in fact it was a society wholly subdivided against itself, as is any society following a civil war.

With dAnnunzio, Hughes-Hallett arrived at a period of history many British readers are familiar with world war i from an unexpected tangent: Italy. In Peculiar Ground , she comes at the civil campaign from its aftermath. Lord Woldingham has returned from expatriate to his Oxfordshire estate, Wychwood, where he has commissioned the building of a wall around the park. His parliamentarian sister-in-law has been the caretaker during his absence, for this is a liberal enclave where political conflict, religious disagreement and magical are tolerated. Landscape gardening, and the act of enclosure, are symbols heavy with meaning.

Three centuries on, the houses modern proprietors and their friends find the autumn of the Berlin Wall. When she started writing this novel all about boundaries, did Hughes-Hallett have modern perimeters such as Donald Trumps proposed wall in brain?

It was quite spooky, she tells. When I was writing the section about people fleeing London from the beset, the newspapers were full of pictures of migrants walking up through the Balkans and trying to get into Hungary. But the truth is there have always been migrants, and privileged communities who try to omit those others who are trying to get in.

Hughes-Halletts father was the framework for Hugo Lane, the manor director in her fiction, and the determine is based on Cornbury, the Oxfordshire estate that was her childhood home. She has not been asked to talk much about herself by interviewers before: with biography, “members attention” tends to be on the subject, and her quiet life could not compete with dAnnunzios totally extraordinary one.

She tells the portrait of her father-god in the fiction is greatly idealised, or not so much that he is idealised but his relationship with his daughter is very much better than any relationship I ever had with my father theres a bit of wish-fulfilment there. Like most men of his generation he had not much interest in his children at all. Its pathetic, isnt it? She laughs at herself.

She had an old-fashioned and privileged English country childhood: This is going to sound sadly Jane Eyre-ish but to begin with I was taught at home by a governess, she tells. The teacher, Mrs Shaw, lived in the attic and there were up to half a dozen children in the class. It truly didnt follow any kind of national curriculum, we investigated literature by reading verse off by heart.

Miserable at boarding school, she was allowed to leave and was tutored through her -Alevels, failed to get into Oxford and, following a gap year in Florence, aimed up studying English at Bedford College in Regents Park. After that, she got a job writing profiles for Vogue. On the literary circuit she bumped into the man who would become her husband, the publisher Dan Franklin, whom she had known vaguely as a teen because he was friends with the son of a friend of her moms. They induced their life in London, and have twin daughters who are now grown-up.

He was saturnine, she tells of those early, brief encounters, with long dark hair, and would listen to very cool music Howlin Wolf and John Mayall but we never spoke to each other.

Hughes-Hallett, who had a younger as well as an elder brother, was not chill, and was more interested in 19 th-century novels than the American-influenced counterculture. Her autodidact mom supposed infants should start on grown-up volumes as soon as they perhaps could, she would have been appalled by the concept of young adult fiction, I belief rightly, so when I was 11 or 12, I was reading Charlotte Bront and War and Peace .

She bought the Rolling Stones first single( Come on, in 1963 ), and walked around barefoot because thats what people did in those days, but was always a bit of a swot truly, and never liked dancing all nighttime, I wasnt a wild child at all.

There are an dreadful plenty of English novels about grand people in grand homes, and I was more interested in the outsiderish view of Restoration landscape architect Mr Norris than in human life and adorations of Wychwoods modern denizens. There are families in Hughes-Halletts fictional walled park who have been there for hundreds of years, and the intrusion of a TV crew and the 1980 s nostalgia industry make for a tawdry refuse, while the deaths of two children seem to underline the fact that this is an jeopardized way of life.

Is it fair to read her novel as conservative, then an elegy for a pre-industrial system already on its last legs when she was growing up?

Yes, I think theres a bit of that. Paternalistic is now a derogatory word Obviously there were landowners who were ruthless and exploited their employees, but some were not. Those estates were business not designed for profit but for amusement and beauty and all sorts of non-utilitarian things, so thats interesting. The planting of trees is very important in the book, and Im quite moved by people planting trees they are able to never appreciate develop. Its partly about self-aggrandisement but its also about posterity.

She envisions Kazuo Ishiguro the best novelist of her generation and talks admiringly of his control of language. But she has also procured herself wondering why people revere novelists so much what the hell is do is easy compared against non-fiction. But here I am, very late in life, Ive been wanting to write a novel all that time and somehow I only couldnt seem to do it.

There is this theory, isnt there, that you can write a volume by going for long walks, but that doesnt seem to work, she tells. I expend a lot of hour gazing desperately out of the window guessing how can I fit these things together? What do these facts and suggestions mean? Whats the point of them? That in-between process is genuinely the more difficult and surprisingly few writers ever talk about it.

So what is the point of novels, does she belief? Entertainment, definitely, amusement: I truly enjoy reading fiction, thats hugely important and shouldnt be lost sight of, ever. I belief get inside other people chiefs, even if “they il be” imaginary people, is very important. One life isnt enough and when things start to go really bad politically is when people forget to see the other sides point of view. Thats the style in which fiction can be useful.

Hughes-Halletts book about dAnnunzio, an inspiration and precursor to Mussolini, seems remarkably relevant today, as authoritarians gain in strength from the US to Turkey, France and the UK. She has been thinking about this type of figures for a long time, and how populists, maybe someone who is colourful, or has a military background or who is very sexy can win power away from thoughtful, democratic, liberal folk. In her biographical collection Heroes she argued that the Scottish historian Thomas Carlyle, along with Nietzsche, cleared a track for the 20 th-century despots with their hero-worshipping, anti-democratic ideals.

Suddenly its happening all over and how frightening is that? But I dont feel surprised, I dont belief people select nominees for rational reasons, I think they select them because they feel attracted to them. Mussolini and Hitler were both popular presidents, they didnt have to fight their style to power.

Her next volume is gonna be a collection of retellings of fairy tales and myths, and she is thinking about a London story too. What a boon to write of a debut novelist aged 65: Lucy Hughes-Hallett is a new and unusual flair to watch.

Peculiar Ground is published by 4th Estate. To order a print for 12.74( RRP 16.99) going to see bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p& p over 10, online orders merely. Telephone orders min p& p of 1.99.

Read more: https :// www.theguardian.com/ volumes/ 2017/ may/ 13/ lucy-hughes-hallett-interview-pike-novel-peculiar-ground

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