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On writing: authors reveal the secrets of their craft

How do you set about writing a novel? What inspires a poem? Pencil or computer? Pain or pleasure? Listen in to interviews with some of our most celebrated writers recorded for the British Library.William Faulkner In Hollywood 'I always felt something of an outsider' ... Ian McEwan on the writing life. Photograph by Alfred Eriss/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

What is it that makes a writer?

Beryl Bainbridge: When I write a novel I'm writing about my own life; I'm writing a biography almost, always. And to make it look like a novel I either have a murder or a death at the end.

Ian McEwan: Ancestors, distant relatives and the past really were not part of my sense of family as I grew up. Something of my father's exile from Scotland – self-exile really – and then exile from Great Britain, has rubbed off on me and probably affected the way I write. When I started writing, I didn't feel that I was quite part of the English literary world or its systems of class or whatever – I always felt something of an outsider in it. That's faded over the years, but I think it has made quite an impression on me, this sense of not being deeply connected to all the branches and roots of family. I could make a narrative of my writing which goes something like this: that I began as a kind of existential writer, much more interested in casting characters almost, as it were, outside of history and outside of identifiable places, and as the years have gone by I've become perhaps a more traditional writer, or at least a writer much more aware – consciously, expressively aware – of the traditions of the English novel, the treasures that are laid up for us by the great 19th-century expositors of character and psychology. And so the gap between my early short stories and a novel like Atonement, with its country house – a novel that looks partly back over its shoulder towards Jane Austen, but also back towards the hallowed traditions of Agatha Christie and crime novels, in that you set up a scene, you have a stranger arrive and everything follows from that. So there's an enormous gap from Atonement to the earliest short stories with their very dispossessed, alienated characters who are living in a city with no name, often in a time that's not fixed.

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Hilary Mantel: In the ideal world, all writers would have a Catholic childhood, or belong to some other religion which does the equivalent for you. Because Catholicism tells you at a very early age the world is not what you see; that beyond everything you see, and the appearance – or the accidents as they're known – there is another reality, and it is a far more important reality. So it's like running in the imagination. I think that this was the whole point for me – that from my earliest years I believed the world to have an overt face and a hidden face, and behind every cause another cause, and behind every explanation another explanation, which is perhaps of quite a different order. And if you cease to believe in Catholic doctrine it doesn't mean that you lose that; you still regard the world as ineffable and mysterious and as something which perhaps in the end can't quite be added up. It could be summed up as saying "all is not as it seems", and of course that's the first thing Catholicism tells you. And then it just runs through everything you write and everything you touch, really. Plus, it's good to have something to rebel against.

Ian Rankin: It wasn't the thing my parents wanted me to be good at, but if you're working class and your parents have never owned their own house and never owned a car and stuff; they think you go to university to get a trade, to get a profession. So accountant, lawyer, dentist, doctor. There was one relative, an aunt of mine who had grown up with my mum in Bradford; she was married to an accountant, and he had a nice flash car; they owned their own home, seemed to have a very good standard of living, so I thought, "Well, I'll become an accountant." So by the age of sort of 15 or 16, that's what I thought I was going to do, and I was doing economics and accounts . . . and then there was this sort of epiphany. I was 17, I'd just sat my highers and I'd scraped a C for economics – just passed economics – and I thought, "Why the hell am I going to university to do a subject I'm really not that interested in and obviously not that good at? The thing I really like is English; I like books." I knew very few professional writers who made a living out of their writing, so there at university I was thinking, "Oh, I'm going to have to become a teacher, or hopefully an English lecturer, and I will continue to write as a hobby part-time; in the margins of my life I'll be a writer.

Penelope Lively: When I was about 11 or 12 I think I must have said something about how I wanted to be a writer; I don't remember having any such aspiration until much, much later. But I must have said something, because Lucy [my governess] wrote to Somerset Maugham and said that she was governess to a little girl who wanted to be a writer and what would Mr Maugham suggest? Heaven knows how she managed to write to him – I suppose care of the publishers. He wrote a very nice letter back saying absolutely the right thing: "If your little girl is interested in writing then the best thing she can do is read a lot." Perfect answer; exactly what I'd say myself.

Howard Jacobson: I cannot remember a time when I didn't want to be a writer, and specifically a novelist; I can't remember ever wanting to be anything else. I never wanted to be a sportsman, I never wanted to be a musician. I never had the slightest bit of interest in music; we were too clever in my school to be interested in pop music. So when other boys had pictures of footballers on their walls or they had pictures of musicians on their walls, I swear to you, I had a picture of George Eliot, I had a picture of Jane Austen; I had a picture of Ben Jonson, a copy of Sargent's portrait of Henry James which was in the National Portrait Gallery . . . I only ever wanted to be a writer and I only ever valued writers. And it hasn't changed; I only ever value writers.

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PD James: I knew from very early childhood I wanted to be a writer – never any doubt in my mind about that. I used to tell stories to my brother and sister. At one time we were in one room; my sister and I shared a bed most of our childhood – a double bed – and my brother had the single one against the wall, and they would want a story last thing at night, and they were very unimaginative in a way because they were all about the adventures of a pig called Percy Pig. I just knew I was going to write one day.

UA Fanthorpe: I never thought of being a poet because, a) poets were men on the whole, and b) they had to have studied Latin and Greek. My school didn't do Greek, so as far as I was concerned I was ruled out. I know this was ignorance on my part, but . . . you get the impression that to be a poet is something rather highly educated and special.

Apart from reading, what is it that makes someone want to write and what happens on the path to becoming an author?

Beryl Bainbridge: The only reason I wanted to write was to write down my childhood, to write about things I knew, the people I knew . . . I don't believe anybody makes anything up, there's no such thing as the imagination. I mean people may say they don't know where the story came from, but they must do . . . there's nothing you can make up. In general, you're recalling memories I think, and that's the only thing that interested me about writing.

Michael Morpurgo: One of the things that frightened me about writing when I was a small boy is that I had no ideas and no imagination. I was constantly being told this anyway, and I couldn't write very well. I could joke around like other boys, but on paper I had nothing really serious to add, no adventures I wanted to write down, because I didn't – I just didn't link the two up. I think I learnt at some point that the imagination is not something that you either have or don't have. For me – and we're all different – it's triggered by real people, historical events, memories, by reality of some sort. I don't think in my life I've ever written a story which does not have some little root, some little seed of truth or observation.

Hilary Mantel: I'd been reading about the [French] revolution for a while. I'd retained an interest in it since school days, and I'd dropped the whole thing during my university years. And then I kind of remembered it, and I picked up one or two biographies and got back into the whole thing. And then I began to look for more and more books and I began to take notes, and one day stopped myself and said: "What actually are you doing?" – and the answer was "You are writing a novel". That was the day I remember because it was drawing a line in the sand, I think, admitting to myself that this was what I was going to do and setting my stall out to write a very big novel as well – nothing like the kind of thing people are supposed to produce as their first novel. And I think then, at about the age of 22, I channelled all my ambition into my book [A Place of Greater Safety]. I had severe reservations about my capacity. I knew I could write from the point of view of style; I knew I could make a scene work, but I didn't think I had very much imagination, and for the longest time I concentrated on finding out every possible detail I could ferret out of the record. And then there came a point where with a particular episode the facts ran out, and I thought: "This is going to be hard, I will have to make it up." And that was the second part of becoming a novelist, because I realised I could do that too, and I don't know how but I really believed in it. I would stake anything on the fact that one day it would be published, and I gave it the best parts of myself and I gave it the best of my time.

But when I look back, would I have advised myself to do this? Well no, I don't think you give anyone that advice, because it seems such a mad enterprise to undertake. I wanted to write this book because it didn't exist already. I wanted to read a really good novel about these people; I wanted someone to have worked out their imaginative dimension for me. I suppose it seemed like the one certainty in life: I would finish it and it would be published. The path to publication was far more torturous than I could ever have imagined, but the day that it was published I was able to . . . to shake hands with my 22-year-old self.

How did you decide which form or genre was right for you?

Howard Jacobson: After all the years of trying to write like Lawrence or James or Tolstoy and just giving it up and thinking: "Oh God it's not going to happen," I found myself at the end of my academic career teaching at Wolverhampton Polytechnic, which was a job to me so humiliating, in a city so ghastly, at a rubbishy time in my life, that I started to write about it – a satiric campus novel which I'd never thought I would write anything like in my life, and I thought: "It's working, this looks as though it's working." What partly gave it life was my realisation that I was a Jew in this, it was something about being a Jew in Wolverhampton, I don't know why. And I called my character Sefton Goldberg and I kept coming up with this phrase which is repeated many times in the novel, "Being Jewish, Sefton Goldberg," and I thought "That gives me a little comic edge." Never thought I'd write a comic novel, never thought I'd write a campus novel and I never thought I'd write anything about Jews. Here was all that and that was beginning to work.

PD James: I never read romantic novels, ever; I didn't enjoy them. And as I never liked fantasy and I've never liked science fiction, I suppose that leaves for one's comfort reading the detective story. The form is often quite nostalgic; if you're reading some of the earlier ones it's a different world, it's a more ordered world, it's a safer world – despite the fact they're dealing with murder. You're back in this English village with the well-known characters; there's a sense of nostalgia and security about them, and in the end a terrible crime is solved and peace and order is restored. And in real life it isn't, and in modern detective stories, especially mine, it isn't restored, but in most classical detective stories it is restored. You know it's going to turn out right, that virtue is going to be rewarded and evil is going to be punished. So they do have that ability to provide for the reader some kind of solace. I don't think we choose our genre, I think that a genre chooses us. The idea that you would lose control has always horrified me, and I suppose this is a very controlled form of writing.

Michael Holroyd: I like to think that biographers can sometimes be messengers between past people and the present. What are all these letters and journals there for? Is it possible that when we're dead we have different priorities, that we no longer wish to be silent as it were? I believe there's a case to be made for bringing the dead to life, for a bit, in a way. To be a messenger going backwards and forwards is worthwhile.

Where do your ideas come from?

Penelope Lively: Usually the idea for a novel comes to me, in a strange way, from reading rather than from living or observation. It's often what I can only call an intellectual concern – some sort of large issue I've got very interested in. The operation of memory is an obvious one because several novels have been prompted by that. Or again the nature of evidence – that's another important theme to me. Then the problem is to find the vehicle, to find the story and the characters and the backdrop, because they're going to be the vehicle for this idea. Because then I don't want the idea to show very much; I want the idea to be a sort of seven-eighths of the iceberg, a kind of ballast, but without which the whole novel would flounder.

Ian Rankin: There's a kind of question I want to answer, a theme I want to explore. It could be something as basic as the financial crash and what it meant to Edinburgh as a city built on money, when so many jobs depend on money. It could be xenophobia, it could be people-trafficking, immigration policy, the G8 coming to Scotland, who changes the world – do the politicians change the world or do activists change the world or do terrorists change the world? It's stuff like that, and it's just something – usually from the newspapers or from the news or from conversations I've been having with people. There's something bugging me; there's something I'm mulling over. So then I just find a way of doing it as a novel.

Michael Frayn: Ideas for things come into one's head, or bits of ideas; you feel there's something – there's some meat on the bone, there's something there that lures you on. The more you think about it the more you're led into this new world and the more of that world you see. And part of having an idea is having some notion of how you would tell the story. It's not just thinking it would be nice to write something about the Crimean war, it's having some particular way in mind of writing something about the Crimean war, and the idea for the way to tell the story helps you to see what the story is. The story suggests the means, the means suggests the story; it's mutually dependent. And you don't have very much choice in the matter. Ideas come, characters suggest themselves, and the nature of the story and the nature of the characters dictates how it's going to be done.

I suppose if people are not writers or painters or whatever they see the life of the artist as being one of great freedom, but it's not really; it's as constrained as anyone else's by the material that's available. The thing seems to have some kind of reality in one's head; it seems to be something that one is discovering, rather than inventing. I see that as a kind of psychological trick on oneself, because the whole point about fiction is that it's invention. It doesn't really seem like it at the time – it seems as if you are slowly discovering something that already exists and seeing how the different parts of it relate to each other.

Hilary Mantel: The idea that kicks off a book is usually quite slight and circumstantial. So I see something, hear something, think "That would make a story", and then I find its vast hinterland. No story is ever simple. And when I'm in the middle of it I think: "Oh, but this is what I'm intensely interested in, more than I'm interested in anything else." But that's just for the while of the book; it's a way of being in it and dwelling in it. What you're going to do is put your intellect and your emotions and your personality in its service. But when you begin you don't know how all encompassing a narrative will become. It's like hearing a distant sound and thinking: "Well, is that actually thunder?" and then the storm comes closer and closer and you're caught in the middle of it before you know where you are.

What makes a poem work and can a poem ever be willed into being?

Wendy Cope: You've got to have something to say, but you don't always know what it is. It's often just some words in your head that you think could be a line of a poem, so you write them down and see where it goes. One of the major misconceptions about poetry is that the poet has some kind of agenda and intentions, not just that some words come into their head and then they start playing with them and seeing where they go. Because sometimes I will try to write a poem and it just comes out dead because there isn't really anything that's deeply felt or worth saying. One thing that makes poems work is strong emotion, and I remember hearing James Berry, I think it was, saying that one characteristic of a good poet is that they feel things intensely, and he said: "Of course poets are not the only people who feel things intensely, but it is one of the qualities," and I think that's true.

John Fuller: Can you choose what you write? I suppose as I've got older I've been readier to choose topics and simply sit down and get on with them, rather than waiting for something to hit me sideways. I had been trying this business that Browning notoriously tried, on a New Year's resolution, writing a poem every day. It is utterly impossible because, for instance, if you're writing quite a long poem you won't write that in a day. And if you had to go to the dentist on Tuesday and then something happens on Tuesday afternoon the whole day has gone and you're not going to sit down in the evening and complete a poem, so it's not possible for any number of reasons. But the general wish to keep writing, to go at it, to find the new poem, the new subject immediately is quite an interesting experiment. I once kept going for quite a long time, and most of that material was discarded, but I think the very business of doing it uncovered a lot of things for me that did ultimately lead to poems; it was material I could make use of and it suggested other things to me beyond what I'd actually got in the notebook for that day. Browning gave up after three days, but he did write "Childe Roland" on one of them, so that's pretty good going – that's a long poem.

Do you have a routine? What tools do you use?

Michael Frayn: It's very difficult when each day you start with a sort of cold brain and nothing happens. In my case I look back over what I was doing the day before and make a few small corrections, often to typing errors, then maybe a few grammatical errors, and then I see a better way of putting something, and gradually you get drawn into the world you've created and you start rewriting what you did the day before and gradually coming up to the point where you left it the day before and going on. And certainly at the end of each day's work I try – when my brain is hot and stuff is happening, but when I'm really too tired to go on – to make hasty notes and write down bits and pieces of what's going to come, anything that's already in one's head, sort of scatter it down on the page so that when you start the next day you've got some stuff there to work on.

Ian Rankin: You get these writers who say: "I go to my office at nine and I write from nine till 12 and then I revise from two till four and that's my day, and I do 2,000 words a day and when I've done my 2,000 words a day that's me," and you go: "What?" I have days when I do fuck all. I sit down at a computer, nothing's coming, I'm having to tear each word out, it's like digging for coal, and I'll go: "No, this isn't working," and I'll just walk away.

Anne Fine: The first bit usually is in pencil, and then later in the day or whenever I will often type that up, and from then on I will be correcting and then I'll work on it in pencil again – over and over and over and over and over – and some pages come fairly easily and don't take much correcting, especially if it's a book for very young children where you're keeping the prose extremely simple. The older the intended reader of the book is, the more complicated it becomes, so you might end up printing certain pages out 20, 30 times. I have novels where, out of sheer interest, I've kept every version of it and I can fill a box two, three feet off the floor with drafts.

Michael Holroyd: What I really like is rewriting, but you cannot rewrite until you've already written, and that is terrible. And then rewriting the rewritten text, and so on, up to 10 times, hoping always to get it shorter, more condensed, pack more energy into it. Even if it's a sad thing, you want to get the essence of the most dolorous phrases and connect them in some way, [and] so in that way try to perfect something. You have the energy from the first draft, the momentum, the "go", but then you try to shape it more.

Hilary Mantel: When I had an ordinary typewriter I had to do much more in longhand, and the typing was a kind of copying of it, or a polishing-up, but not original work. But as soon as I moved to a computer I began to work on the screen and I had a sense of the words appearing, almost as if they were appearing out of my unconscious because the effort to type is so little compared to a manual typewriter. So you haven't anymore got that chop chop chop of the keys – you've got an almost silent process so you can hear the rhythm in your head better. Fludd was the first book that I worked on entirely by that process, from inception, and I think that's made a huge difference to me. I can think of it as far more like composing, like hearing a tune and composing a piece of music, if you like, than I ever could in the days of typewriters. Of course soon nobody will understand this: there'll be no one alive who wrote on a typewriter, but it was a very cumbersome process.

What sort of a relationship exists between writers and the people they create on the page?

Michael Frayn: Well, you do get very obsessed with them. You can't help thinking about them a lot. However much you think in advance, however much you plan, the events will get changed as you come to them and work on them. And the events are the characters, the characters are the events. So they are in flux. It's not like thinking about friends, or people one knows, whose lives are not under one's control. With characters, you are actually creating their lives with them. It does seem – and I realise this is a psychological trick and it sounds very coy – but it is as if they are speaking and leading those lives. It's a very symbiotic relationship. You do seem to be with people who have minds of their own, thoughts of their own, but at the same time you're very much involved in leading their lives with them.

PD James: How it works for me is best described in the opening of Devices and Desires. This book begins with the murder of a young girl, I think she was called Brenda. The murderer is a serial murderer of women who cuts off their hair, and whistles, so he is called the Whistler, and it had the opening that Brenda was the fifth victim of the Whistler and she died because she missed the bus. And the bus she missed was from the country town, which was obviously Ipswich, where she'd been to a dance, home to her village. She gets a lift with two women drivers, but they can only take her part of the way; they leave her at the end of this country road. She never reaches the bus because the murderer is there on that road. When I was writing that passage I was Brenda, feeling first of all the relief that she was going to be on the bus and then the realisation that there was this murderer, and then an increasing fear and unease. I was Brenda knowing everything that had happened at the dance, although I wasn't going to write about it. I was Brenda knowing exactly who she would meet at home when she got there and what her relationship with her parents was, although none of that was going to be in the book; I was just Brenda.

But then with part of my mind, of course, which was detached from being Brenda, I was thinking how can I describe this journey. I think: I'll have bushes on the left-hand side where she's walking because that's more frightening than the open fields, and then on the right I'm going to have some of those distorted trees you get in East Anglia, distorted by the winds – some of them look like witches, waving witches' arms; very sinister. And then I'm going to have a car coming past, and then there'll be this familiar, reassuring sound, and then just a blaze of light and sound as it rushes past, and that will make her feel even more lonely and isolated. So there's this duality of actually experiencing what your character is experiencing, at the same time with part of your mind thinking of the technique of bringing this alive for the reader.

Ian Rankin: Where do all these characters in your books come from? They come from inside your head. You're a role-player, you're an actor, and you've got all these different characters who you invent and who then are there forever. I must have a cast of thousands by now of people I've invented. It's not really putting on someone else's clothes, it's putting on someone else's skin, their mind and their body. For example in The Complaints, Malcolm's sister has a fairly abusive relationship; you know, she's living with a guy who she loves but who's not a very nice guy. Well I didn't just want to look at her through Malcolm's eyes, I wanted to know what it was like to be her. But I didn't go and talk to lots of battered women or abused people; I just thought, "What's it like to let yourself get in a situation where you can't escape, you don't want to – you don't want to walk away, you know you should but you won't and you can't?" And I think that's the whole thing about loitering with intent, and Muriel Spark's notion that that's what writers do. You just think about these people until they become real to you and you can inhabit their bodies, for a short space of time. I mean only for a page or two, but a page or two is all you need.

Penelope Lively: I'm very keen on dialogue as a way of defining character, so I often find that the notebooks fill up with passages of dialogue between a couple of characters who at that stage will be called A and B or X and Y; they haven't even got names. I know sort of who they are, that they're a he and a she, and they're central characters, or not. But I haven't named them yet because that comes later, but I want to hear what they say, I want to get some idea of what their voices sound like because in that way I shall be able to fill them out as characters. It's the most odd business, the naming of characters in fiction, because it's so unlike people's names in real life. Your name has not been chosen for you by your parents because they think you look as though you might be a Sarah or a Penelope – they've plucked it because they think it's a name they rather like and it perhaps goes with your surname. Whereas in fiction you do feel that you have to match the name to the character and a character who sounds very much like a Tom or a Dick you're not going to be calling Percival.

Hilary Mantel: Where do you pull your characters from? You have to create them out of your own self; where else could they possibly come from? To create the protagonist of a book you really have to be prepared to live through them, and for me the process is physical as well as mental: I don't quite know how to put this, but I am so intensely engaged with my characters that their physicality passes into mine, and I've only just discovered the joys of working with a really healthy central character. When I started writing Wolf Hall, my novel about Thomas Cromwell, I got extremely strong. My health suddenly improved and I felt as if the boundaries of my being had become firmer. Cromwell is physically a short, broad, squat, strong man, and what I've always thought about him is that he was probably very hard to knock over. This is important because he had been a soldier, he had led a very adventurous youth, and I thought, well, if I'd only known what a tonic it would be, I'd have started writing this book years ago! It is just amazing what imagination can do – what it can cause to happen in the real world, and every day I'm proving and exploring how strong the products of one's mind can be.

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How much planning is required when it comes to structuring a book?

Beryl Bainbridge: Structure is the most important thing of all, I think, in writing. You may think of a marvellous plot, but unless you know how to structure it, which bit goes where and where, you won't get the full impact of it.

Ian Rankin: I'm really not in control at all of what I'm writing. It's almost as though before I start writing there's a shape sitting there that I've not seen yet, and when I start to write the novel the shape will reveal itself to me, the novel will decide which way it wants to go. Does it want to follow this character or that character, is this minor character really interesting and worth blowing up into a full-scale character or is this major character unnecessary and needs to be done away with? Maybe the shape is sitting in my subconscious, buried way deep down. It's like a high-wire act, because you've no idea when you start the book if you can finish it or not; will it have a satisfactory denouement? A writer like James Ellroy, for example, will do a two to three-hundred page synopsis of the book before he starts writing it because he needs to know everything that's going to happen in the book. I don't need to know everything that's going to happen; I'm much happier playing the detective; ie, the first draft is me getting to know the characters and their motives and everything else, so I start the book knowing almost as little as Rebus does, or whoever the cop or main character happens to be. I think that keeps the suspense level up, because if I don't know where the story is going probably the reader doesn't know either. So I'm not giving stuff away because there's nothing for me to give away; there are no red herrings at the start. I don't like all that kind of stuff like red herrings, a sense of holding back necessary information from the reader, which Agatha Christie did brilliantly throughout her career. To me that's the least interesting part of the crime genre.

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PD James: By the time I begin writing, the plot is there and there's a chart which shows in which order the things come so that the structure is right. But that will change, as new ideas occur during the writing, which makes the writing very exciting. New ideas: sometimes one greets them with huge enthusiasm and thinks, "Oh, that's really clever, yes, this is how it happened and this is logical and right and inevitable and that will be how it will be." So I never get exactly the book that I thought I was going to write.

Michael Holroyd: When you write biography or history or non-fiction you always look for a way of escaping from the prison of chronology before you come back into it, and sometimes what I try to do is to have two lines of progress in a narrative: one is the "and then and then and then", 1900, 1901, 1902. But then there's the thematic line as well, and that doesn't keep exactly in step with the other, so the challenge is to have a narrative where you can stop the sequence of things and have a thematic break from that and then return. I once, in my biography of Shaw, left Sidney Webb I think on the top of a hill – at a certain date, of course. Then we had a lot more "and then", and 30 pages later I thought, "Okay, he can come down now".

After the writing's finished, how do you judge the quality of your work?

John Fuller: I don't think a writer is necessarily a good judge of his own work, whichever way it goes. He can be over-fond or overcritical.

Peter Porter: I'm not at all confident about the quality of what I do, and I suffer like all people do, I think, who are writers, an intense disappointment – not at the reception of what I've written, but at my own inability to bring off what I want to bring off. Auden in his introduction to his Collected Poems (well, the first one of his collected poems), said in a writer's work there are usually four categories – he loved categorising things. First, sheer rubbish which he greatly regrets ever having done. Second, poems he's got nothing against except they're not very important; they're not very good but, you know, he doesn't hate them. Third, the saddest of all, the fair notion, fatally injured. And then the last one, the handful of poems he's truly grateful for, which if he were to publish would make his work seem dangerously slim, and vitiated.

How do you handle the reviews?

Penelope Lively: I would love to just disappear to the other side of the world at publication time, or put my head under a pillow or something, but you can't. So I simply dread it. I love a year in which I don't have a book coming out and dread a year in which there is one. A bad review doesn't get any easier to take, so you just have to sit and suffer for the period that it happens. Some writers say they don't read their reviews. I never quite know whether to believe this or not. That must mean not picking up a newspaper for about two months.

Hilary Mantel: You have to give an author the elementary courtesy of getting the basics of their book right. But if that's in place, well then opinion is free, and from time to time you are going to be horribly misunderstood, but after all, you gave that book into the world to be misunderstood. You can't staple yourself to it and go round explaining yourself and protest that the critics have misunderstood because that is something they're perfectly at liberty to do. The secret is that by the time reviews come out you must be deep into another project, and that is what gives you your energy and the motivation to carry on; it's the new book not the old book. Such a lot of it is about keeping your confidence up. But I think that's got more to do with what happens day by day than what the critics say, because the blank page breeds a crisis of confidence every morning. And once you've navigated your way through all the difficulties thrown up by a particular book, and done it again and again, that's where your confidence is drawn from.

Michael Holroyd: I have altered one or two things as a result of reading reviews and thinking: "That's a valid point, never thought of it. If I get another chance to do it in a new thing I'll make a note of that," and I have had a chance and I have changed it. It could be even a single word. But I think I've probably become more sensitive to them. I would say people as they get older become either more like stones or more like sponges, and I'm probably more like a sponge. One is investing everything in it and one wants the child to be well received.

And what about publicity?

Beryl Bainbridge: In the old days you wrote a book, and if you were lucky it was reviewed, and then after about a few months the whole thing was forgotten till you wrote another one. But nowadays, if you have a book coming out you go all over the country – you have to really flog it; your publisher expects you to, and you're forever giving readings or talking about it on the telly or the radio . . . You could turn down invitations to America, to India, to Australia, to all the different festivals. I always turn them down because I hate travelling. You'd have various articles in the newspaper, they'd come round and interview you and take another dreary photograph, and you'd go from city to city doing readings, because nowadays there is a so-called book festival practically every month, so there's always somewhere to go.

Peter Porter: The way things are today you couldn't be as successful, in the sense of having your works put on and esteemed, as Shakespeare was and yet be completely unknown to everybody as Shakespeare was in his time. If he were alive today he'd be on everything. Every morning he'd be on the Today programme, he'd be having special sessions at the South Bank, he'd be in 1,000 different pictures and he'd be interviewed and he couldn't avoid it.

Michael Holroyd: When my career started, you did perhaps something on the radio, the Third Programme maybe or the Home Service, and that was it. There was much more advertising, there were more bookshops and advertising in newspapers and magazines, but that didn't involve you. You might do an interview, yes, but then from the 70s onwards writing became more and more a younger brother of the performing arts, so you have to go out and blow the trumpet and beat the drum in front of your book. I think that because we're no longer a literary culture, as we used to be, it isn't the word that speaks: you have to perform the word a bit, you have to demonstrate it, you have to appear, you have to be the book, and that's quite different. And there's something terrible about it really, because you finish a book and it's not published for another year or so; possibly you're writing a different book – involved in that – and when people say, "What's your book about?" Well, what is my book about? A terrible blank that stares you in the face. The book should do the speaking and I should stay at home.

So why write?

Hilary Mantel: It's always worried me, is writing a way of life or is it a way of not living, is it essentially a second-hand pursuit? I think it probably worries all writers, but then they say the onlooker sees most of the game, so that's the virtue of it.

Peter Porter: Literature is a sort of keeping going while the various destinies all around about you are being enacted. It's a way, I think, of coping with time. We don't seem to live very long, and yet on the other hand 24 hours can be a tremendously big burden.

Michael Holroyd: The only happiness one gets from writing is doing a good day's work, of suddenly discovering something on the page which works. You pick up the page, you shake it, it's there, it doesn't come to bits, and you didn't know it at the beginning of the day and now you know it. Now that's a real happiness, and unless there is some element of that, well why on earth is one writing? Because otherwise moving a pen across the page is not all that enjoyable.

PD James: There are times of boredom, there are times of regret, there are times of disappointment and there are times of it's just hard work and times when you wonder if you'll go on today – better not leave it and wait till inspiration comes? Always fatal, I think. But basically, yes, hugely pleasurable, and certainly a writer is happiest, I think, when either writing or plotting or planning a book, or most of us are. Although some people would say – when asked if they were happy as a writer – would probably say: "No, not particularly, but I would be very, very unhappy if I weren't a writer." I think there must be a kind of compulsion about it.

Beryl Bainbridge: I don't write for readers; I don't think many writers do – I don't think any. They say they do, don't they? But . . . well, I only write for myself, and when somebody says: "Oh, your book has given me so much pleasure," I just think, "How peculiar". I don't know what to say. Of course I don't say that; I smile and say "How nice" – but I think I'd have written books whether they were published or not. I just liked writing.

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