Doris Lessing Interview

A conversation with Doris Lessing

Last month, In Word had the extraordinary opportunity to speak with Doris Lessing, visiting Boston from her home in London to promote Part Two of her autobiography, Walking in the Shade (HarperCollins, 1997). Mrs. Lessing, born in Persia (now Iran) in 1919 and raised in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), was exiled in 1949 because of her opposition to the minority white government. The book opens as she moves to London with her small son, and her soon-to-be-successful novel, The Grass is Singing. A five-novel sequence, Children of Violence, was published next, followed by a collection of short novels, and by the prize-winning The Golden Notebook. Prizes and honors for her later work abound. Mrs. Lessing’s most recent books include the novel The Fifth Child, a collection of short stories, and works of autobiographical non-fiction. The first volume of her autobiography, Under My Skin, was published in 1994, followed by the novel, Love, Again.

Our discussion covered a lot of ground. Mrs. Lessing spoke fondly of her seventeen-year-old cat (“He’s just like me. I get up off the sofa and I groan, and he gets up and he groans.”), of her children and grandchildren, and about the current literary trend toward tell-all autobiography, and its critics (“I’m always interested in people who disapprove of what other people are doing. Switch off the television, switch off the radio, don’t read the book, if you don’t want to read it.”)

Although suffering from a cold, Mrs. Lessing graciously engaged in a lively dialogue, and patiently responded to many questions about women’s issues. We are pleased to bring the readers of In Word excepts of the conversation with this remarkable woman:

Many women of my generation say, “The Golden Notebook changed my life,” or “When I read The Golden Notebook, I couldn’t believe that there was anyone else in the world who felt as I.” Looking back these 35 years, what do you think the book touched for women, particularly women who came of age in the 60’s?

You see, I don’t know, because I find the whole phenomenon amazing. When I became political when I was twenty four, one of the things that everybody talked about then – I’m talking about the 40’s and 50’s – were women’s issues. It wasn’t invented in the 60’s. So when I wrote The Golden Notebook, I was writing about, describing conversations that for me were absolutely commonplace. And that is why I am so amazed that women in the 60’s found something new in them. It’s just possible that it wasn’t the conversations that were new, or the ideas, but that they saw them written down. I simply cannot believe that any of these ideas are new.

In the preface to a later edition of The Golden Notebook, you wrote, “The number of women prepared to stand up for what they really think, feel, experience, with a man they are in love with is still small.”

That’s true.

Do you think that is less true today?

Less true, but it is still so. There are various reasons for that. One is – sometimes relationships are pretty fragile. It’s also a kind of kindness. What I am shocked about in a lot of the women’s movement is the terrible vindictiveness of some of it. So if women are not, and I wouldn’t necessarily have said this when I wrote the preface [in 1971], but now I think perhaps it’s a good thing that women are not too outspoken in relationships, because people get so terribly hurt.

Do you think there is anything that women can do about that today? Women who feel they are in a relationship where they are not able to speak?

They should ask why they are not able to speak. What is it that’s stopping them? Are they afraid? Of what? Ruining their marriage, or losing their bread ticket, or what? If they just want a quiet life and they don’t think it’s worthwhile fighting: fair enough. If women are in an intolerable relationship – you know, you’re making me into an agony aunt, aren’t you? (laughs) – why not say so? Or they should go on the Oprah Winfrey show. It’s amazing what men are prepared to hear in public. It astounds me. I’ve been watching it.

In The Summer Before the Dark, Kate Brown leaves her family and stays at a hotel. You write: “she was able to savor moments like these without pressures of any kind, after the years of living inside the timetable of other people’s needs.”

Well, most women do that for years.

And then you go on to say. “She could have claimed the right to freedom years before.” How? How does a woman do that, particularly when one has children?

Well, not with small children! With adolescents, perhaps, I think we put up with too much. You know, they can be the most appalling tyrants, and they are allowed to get away with it. Well, it’s just amazing what parents put up with. Maybe it’s not good for them to be allowed to get away with so much.

Then how does a woman carve out her own space, her own freedom, whether it be art, or writing or work?

Well I know quite a lot of women who managed to have children and who are artists of various kinds, and writers. If they haven’t got that kind of energy, they can say, “Well, it’s not going to last very long, if it’s children. Of course, when you’re in it, you think it’s going to go on forever. But it isn’t going to go on forever. Quite soon, no one’s going to want you, then you’ll be blissfully free (laughs). You’ve got years and years to live after the kids.”

That’s very helpful to hear. So many women struggle, particularly women who are artists. They say, “How do you do the art AND the kids?” “Where will my art go?”

It won’t disappear. It will not. It will be there. Women say when you are there in the thick of it, you really do feel as if it’s going to go on forever, and you feel so impatient, as if life is passing you by. But we all live so long these days. If you have creative energy, it’s not going to disappear.

You seem to have managed to do it, as a single mother with small kids. You wrote about this in Walking in the Shade, but how?

Well, the phrase didn’t exist when I was a single parent. And I don’t have to tell you, it was very difficult. You have to give something up when you are a single parent. In fact, what I gave up was a social life. You have to choose what you’re going to do. But, if you are going to get married and be the wife of somebody, which, of course means being whatever is needed, it’s not so easy to give up whatever it is. Perhaps it’s easier to be a single parent and write than be a married one. Except it’s very hard to bring up a boy without a father. Very hard! I wouldn’t recommend anybody to do it.

Did you always write?

Yes, always.

Did you always know that that was what you were destined to do?

You make it sound clearer then I was. Yes, I thought I was going to be a writer. Actually, when I wrote Volume One (Under My Skin), I had a letter from someone who said she remembered me from school, and she remembered us sitting around on the bed in the dormitory saying what we were going to be, and I said I was going to be a writer. Well, I had no recollection of this, or even thinking this. But she remembered.

Isn’t it wonderful how our friends keep our stories for us?

Yes, I know! I couldn’t have been more than eleven.

Now you are 77, is that right…?

I’ll be 78 this month. Now I know about being old. All kinds of things, leaving aside physical things. Well, I have very much less energy. This is why I tell everyone who is young, “For God’s sake, make use of it while you’ve got it.” I rarely have half the energy I used to have. And it comes as a great surprise when you suddenly find you can’t do… The other thing is, you find more and more that you are thinking thoughts that you can’t tell other people. And don’t ask me which! (laughs).

Well, then, don’t give examples, but how so?

It’s just that more and more your eye – you become more and more skeptical, and more and more, it seems a great charade, more and more posturing, particularly in public life. You can’t understand why anyone, or you yourself ever fell for it. And more and more you just shut up because it’s too abrasive, what you think.

I understand you are working now on an adventure story.

Yes. I’m enjoying it so much, because I’ve never written one before. It is enjoyable because I am quite surprised at all the adventures my people get involved in. (laughs). Oh, this is interesting! My son Peter said to me – he likes reading very old stories – he said to me, quite casually, “Why don’t you write a story about a brother and sister, who lose their parents, and they have all these adventures, and they end up, well, it’s a happy ending. He said, “it’s one of the oldest stories in the world.”

And I said, “Peter but I AM writing that story. And I’m about two-thirds through!”

Peter says things like, “I just read The Iliad. Why don’t you write as well as that?” (laughter)


Well, you see, this is the candid eye, the innocent eye. “Well, why can’t you write as well as The Iliad?” (Homer’s) only the greatest writer that ever lived. So I suppose maybe it’s a compliment.

Speaking of children, where did Ben come from?

Well, he is actually a throwback to the little people. But also it is from watching people who have had children who are in some way oddballs, and a whole family as you know can be taken over by this for years. So it’s a combination of things. You know, I wrote that book (The Fifth Child) twice. The first time, I left the siblings out. Then I thought, “My God, I’m mad! The siblings would be the ones who suffered the most.” So I wrote it again with the kids. And then I got all these letters from people with autistic children, or some kind of problem, and I realized, “what a world of people out there struggling with an impossible situation.”

In Walking In The Shade you discuss the lessons your father taught you about tithing, about leaving the corners of the field for the poor to glean. Do you think about, or have you written specifically about, women’s charitable giving?

I do think a great deal about it. This is why I feel so disappointed about the feminist movement of the 60’s. I think women could really have changed things a great deal, but in fact not all that much has changed. I really suffer from very great disappointment about what happened. They politicized it and were left wing, which meant that the vast numbers of women who were not left wing were not inside…I mean, I could talk about this for many hours, but what’s the point? (Laughs) We can say what should have happened.

Is it too late?

Well, yes, because that energy is gone now. There was a great burst of energy and now it’s dissipated. One criticism is that I hated the way they treated women with children. Their contempt for women who had decided to stay at home. I really found that unforgivable. And the other thing was, this happens to be a country where women have a great deal of power, particularly well-off women. All women are feminists some way or another. Because they made themselves left wing and despised anyone who wasn’t, it meant that they couldn’t call on these women. If, in fact, they had approached all these women with power, in certain ways, they could have used all that power to change all kinds of things. Legally, to begin with. They didn’t, you see. This seems to me to be a great opportunity lost that really makes me angry when I think of it. It was a political movement. Political movements in our time, they admire themselves inordinately, they hate their opponents, they vilify their opponents, if they split from agenda then they hate their antagonists. Having lived through this in other contexts, it just broke my heart to see it all happening again.

Did we just give up?

Well, you know, there is a sort of an uprising of energy. And you use it, or you don’t use it. It got dissipated mostly in talk, actually. You might have forgotten something called rap groups – (laughs) women sitting around talking about men as they always have done. Anyway, I just feel it’s a great pity. It could have been done differently, and I’m sorry it wasn’t.

You are almost at the end of this tour. You must be glad to be getting home soon

It’s been a very good trip. Apart from getting a cold, it’s been brilliant. I’ve met some very nice people. No complaints about this tour at all.

Thank you very much for taking the time to talk with me today.

Well, thank you!

Copyright © 1997 In Word. Excerpts from an October 1997 interview by Gail R. Shapiro.