A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
I didn’t quite know what to pick for my first Vulpes Libris Classic choice – Simon speaking, by the way – so I thought I’d go through the archive and see what was published on 17 February in previous years. Back on 17 February 2009, this interview with Susan Sellers appeared – and it seemed like a fab choice. Enjoy!
Vulpes Libris would like to welcome novelist, Susan Sellers. Last year we reviewed Susan’s excellent novel, Vanessa and Virginia, and we are thrilled that Susan can join us today.
Welcome, Susan. To begin with, I’m very interested in the creation of this brilliant yet unusual novel, which characterises Virginia Woolf and her sister, Vanessa Bell. How did you come to write Vanessa and Virginia?
In my professional life, I manage an edition of Virginia Woolf’s writing. Woolf produced many drafts of her work – and because she was published by the Press she owned with her husband Leonard, she had ample opportunity to make alterations even once the publication process had started. One of the aims of the edition is to present readers with a record of these changes – which means we can spend a great deal of our time tracing minute textual details, such as the appearance and disappearance of commas. I sometimes think that writing Vanessa and Virginia was an antidote to the more painstaking aspects of this work! As an editor, you have to be 100% fastidious and accurate – in my novel about Virginia and her sister Vanessa, I could allow myself all kinds of freedoms.
Another motivation was undeniably the endless fascination of Bloomsbury. We know so much about Virginia and her sister – and yet there are still so many questions we don’t have answers to. Why did Virginia drown herself at the age of almost sixty? Why did Vanessa – who was loved by many – spend her life in thrall to the homosexual painter Duncan Grant, a man who could never reciprocate her feelings? I often think my writing – whether academic or fictional – is fired by questions.
Finally, I’m the eldest of three sisters, and I have certainly experienced first-hand the fierceness and competitiveness this relationship can involve. Personally, I’ve always thought Freud paid far too much attention to the role parents play in the difficult transition from infant to adult. When I look back on my own childhood, what I remember is all the hours I spent with my sisters.
Why did you choose to write from Vanessa’s point of view rather than Virginia’s?
I think the honest answer is that I felt more comfortable writing from Vanessa’s point of view! Virginia Woolf’s style is so distinctive and I know her work so well, that I think if I had written from her point of view I might well have ended up with literary pastiche. Vanessa, on the other hand, was often described by contemporaries as the silent sister – a woman of relatively few words. We do have many letters by Vanessa and a few essays, but their style is more prosaic and not as familiar to me as Virginia’s. I also liked the idea of writing from the viewpoint of a painter. I spent a lot of time looking at Vanessa’s pictures and drawings, and I talked to friends who are artists about how they work.
There again, the fact that Vanessa is the elder of the two sisters probably made me gravitate towards her. I think I understood the deep feelings of responsibility often inculcated in the eldest child – as well as the frustration and resentment when a younger sibling steals the limelight!
As an expert on Woolf, were you nervous about how Vanessa and Virginia would be received by your contemporaries? Did you expect any resistance to a novel that was fiction, but which characterised real people?
To be honest, such a bizarre industry has grown up around Virginia Woolf that I wasn’t nervous about what I’d done. Did you know that you can buy Virginia Woolf boxer shorts – or how about a Virginia Woolf barbecue apron?! Though I have given myself a good deal of poetic licence in the novel, everything I have written is underpinned by serious research on materials that are held in the public domain: novels, paintings, but also published diaries and correspondence. I think I would have found it difficult to invent so freely if either sister had still been alive. I’m not sure I could have written The Uncommon Reader, for example.
People always like to speculate about trends in fiction, and I wonder if we aren’t currently seeing a cross-over between biography and fiction. Several recent biographies have included a good deal of fictional speculation – and mine is not the only new novel about real people. Just this weekend the papers have been full of Jill Dawson’s The Great Lover, a novel about Rupert Brooke. Perhaps some of your readers have thoughts on whether this might be the case – or what they see the new trends as being? Speaking for myself, I have had quite enough of the recent spate of misery memoirs!
How have you found the publishing industry? Was it a relatively smooth journey from page to publication?
I’d published quite a few books – mostly academic non-fiction – before Vanessa and Virginia, and I was surprised by how hard I found it to publish fiction. It seems to be the case that even if an editor likes your work, this in itself isn’t enough to guarantee publication. Editors have to get your book approved by a whole array of people in-house before it can go ahead, including those responsible for calculating profit-margins: a job I can only imagine will get harder in the current financial climate. I don’t think it’s only new writers who are affected either – I was talking to a crime novelist recently who told me that when she was first published it was considered perfectly respectable for a first novel to sell 1,000 copies, but that these days you have to sell at least 10,000 copies before a publisher will invest in you again. I do worry that all this means that some of the more interesting, unusual books simply aren’t making it into print – or that if they are, the authors don’t then sell enough to continue. There was that story, wasn’t there, about Doris Lessing being rejected by her UK publishers – until she won the Nobel Prize!
Has there been a particular highlight of your writing career? – and was it what you expected it to be? (For me, one of the best moments was seeing Prince Rupert’s Teardrop available in various libraries. Spotting the novel in bookshops was rather terrifying!)
I’ve often wondered how I’d feel if I found myself sitting opposite someone reading my book! Would I confess I was the author, or would I keep quiet? Vanessa and Virginia is being published in America in May and the trip to New York will certainly be a highlight. It’s also being translated at the moment and I’m very curious to see what it will look like in Russian or Korean….
What are you writing at the moment?
I’m writing another novel, purely fictional this time. It’s about a woman who runs her own artists’ agency so perhaps I haven’t quite let go of Vanessa….
Please recommend five of your favourite books.
I always find this question impossibly hard. I’m also aware that whenever I answer it I come up with a different list! Anyway, today, my answer is:
Virginia Woolf’s The Waves
Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea
Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace
Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice
Gabriel Josipovici’s Contre-Jour
Helen Dunmore’s Mourning Ruby
Oh, dear, that’s six already….
Susan Sellers is an editor of Virginia Woolf’s writing for Cambridge University Press and a Professor of English at the University of St Andrews. She has published many non-fiction books, including A History of Feminist Literary Criticism, a collection of interviews with the French writer Hélène Cixous, and a study of Myth and Fairy Tale in Contemporary Women’s Fiction. She lives with her composer husband and ten-year-old son near Cambridge and is currently trying to learn to meditate. For more details, including a list of forthcoming appearances, please visit her website here.
We’re off on our summer holidays for a few weeks, but will be back rested and raring to go on August the 20th.