Vulpes Libris

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.

Vulpes Libris classic: interview with novelist and Virginia Woolf expert, Susan Sellers

sellersI 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 vanessavirginiacontemporaries? 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.

33 comments on “Vulpes Libris classic: interview with novelist and Virginia Woolf expert, Susan Sellers

  1. abigail fisher
    February 17, 2009

    Hi book-foxes! I really enjoyed Vanessa and Virginia, and found it incredibly moving, so it’s great to hear something about what went into writing it. I’ve been thinking all those years fighting it out with my own younger sister when we were growing up. It’s true, you read so much about the importance of mother and father-figures, but hardly anything about siblings. And yet that continual jockeying for position throughout our formative years is surely a crucial aspect of the way our personalities are formed… And that’s certainly one of the really fascinating things about V & V for me – the way that their relationship never really settles – they’re still manouvering around each other even in their late 50s…

    Yes, there does seem to be a lot of fictional biography out there at the moment, or fiction about historical characters might be a better way to put it. Because it surely works by different rules from traditional biography. Though these books do tend to start from a sympathetic and convincing evocation of the characters’ milieu, it’s not ultimately about complete accuracy and fidelity to the historical record. The characters are objects of imaginative recreation by both writer and reader, and in the course of that process they inevitably cut loose from whatever they might have been historically. the ‘truth’ of these books is the kind of truth that you hope to find in a novel – truths of insight, empathy and imagination, not truths of historical fact.

    Looking forward to the next one – keep ’em coming!

    A

  2. Lisa
    February 17, 2009

    Thanks for commenting, Abigail. I agree with what you say about siblings, and i know where you’re coming from when you say “the ‘truth’ of these books is the kind of truth that you hope to find in a novel – truths of insight, empathy and imagination, not truths of historical fact.” Yes, I couldn’t have phrased that better.

    Thanks again to Susan Sellers, who was a delight to interview. I am very much looking forward to her next book too.

  3. Meg89 @ Literary Menagerie
    February 17, 2009

    What a great interview! Please enter me in the giveaway, thanks!

  4. Bex
    February 17, 2009

    I ADORE Virginia Woolf and look forward to reading this book!

    Please add me in the giveaway.

  5. Sarie
    February 17, 2009

    Interesting interview – thanks. Please enter my name for the giveaway.

  6. Bre
    February 17, 2009

    Great interview! I look forward to reading this book. Please enter me in the giveaway! 🙂

  7. Jackie
    February 18, 2009

    I remember the review of V&V and it’s great to get some background on the author, who is an interesting person.She must have a lot of courage to write about a real person, that would be much more difficult than making someone up, it would be a bit intimidating, too. I’m surprised that fiction is harder to get published than non, I would’ve thought it was the other way around. But the trend for fictional bios is one I definitely like, so I hope it continues for awhile.
    Hope that V&V does well and that America welcomes it and it’s author warmly. Thanks Lisa & Ms. Sellers for a lovely interview.

  8. Sharon
    February 18, 2009

    Jackie – nonfiction sells in greater quantity on average than fiction (as we’re learning to our cost at Two Ravens Press, specialising in literary fiction like Susan’s as we do!) and is easier to ‘sell’ within a big publishing company too as it’s more clearly targeted to a specific audience and so they can make their projections more realistic. There is no justice in the publishing world (as we’ve also learned to our cost etc etc!)

  9. Gail Toms
    February 18, 2009

    I really enjoyed the interview and had the privilege of reviewing V&V when it was first release. It is a fascinating read and it was a stroke on inspired genius to take Vanessa as the focal point.
    Susan taught me at St Andrews and continues to inspire me. She is as invigorating in the flesh as she is through her pen. I look forward to the next novel.

    No need to enter me in for the prize drawer as I have my own copy. Great interview. Thanks.

  10. Lyttonpernel
    February 18, 2009

    What an interesting interview – it has spurred me to buy the book, if I don’t win it! Now, I must go and look for those Virginia boxer shorts…

  11. Gerri Kimber
    February 18, 2009

    A fascinating interview. There are many precedents for this sort of novel. One of the most successful was C. K. Stead’s ‘Mansfield’, based on the life of Katherine Mansfield during the years 1914-1918, with Virginia Woolf as one of the characters depicted.

    More recently there has been Linda Lappin’s ‘Katherine’s Wish’, which starts where Stead’s book ends and continues on till Mansfield’s death in Fontainebleau in 1923. Again Woolf makes an appearance.

    Would love to win a copy of the book! Have already added it to my Amazon wish list……

  12. Sarah
    February 18, 2009

    Nice interview. I like the thought of sitting opposite someone reading your book. They’d be thrilled if you spoke to them, so please do so if it ever happens. From a Woolf fan interested in winning a copy of Susan Sellers’ book.

  13. Margaret Gosden
    February 18, 2009

    Would love to add this news to my Virginia Woolf, Current News and Views Blog. I am interested in winning a copy of Susan Sellers’ book. I live in the NYC, US.

  14. Lisa
    February 18, 2009

    Welcome, everyone! Lovely to have new faces here on Vulpes Libris. I’ll add you all to the prize draw (excepting Gail, Sharon and Bookfoxes!).

    P.S You’re more than welcome to add this to your blog, Margaret 🙂

  15. Margaret Gosden
    February 18, 2009

    If I am lucky, my address is ****

    (note from a co-admin – have made a note of your address, and removed from the site, just in case any stalkers/burglars are lurking. Many thanks and good luck! Lisa.)

  16. Pamela Elliott
    February 18, 2009

    would love to win a copy of this book. I have read all Virginia’s novels but know nothing about Vanessa or art. Also I have always wanted a sister and am fascinated by the sisters relationship especially as they were gifted so differently.
    Thanks for writing it Susan. Can’t wait to read it.
    Pamela

  17. Uli
    February 18, 2009

    I am a great fan of Virginia Woolf and of the painter Vanessa Bell. I have been to Rodmell and Charleston several times . The Diaries and Letters of Woolf reveal a deep ,sometimes ambiguous but everlasting relationship between the two sisters. And from the Virginia Woolf Society I know about Susan Sellers. Therefore I would really like to read this novel and this point of view of the two artists, if I were lucky enough and accepted to the prize draw.

  18. Peter Clinch
    February 18, 2009

    Sounds a fascinating book. I quite like fictional interpretations of famous literary figures. In this genre, the recently published ‘the Great Lover’ about Rupert Brooke sounds interesting
    Virginia and Venessa are both strong yet engaging characters. I have read and enjoyed biographies of both of the Stephen’s sisters. Would love to have a chance to win the book. I will certainly hunt it down if I am not successful.

  19. Ruth Leckie
    February 18, 2009

    I’m looking forward to reading the book. My sister and I visited Charleston and Rodmell a few years ago and I continue to be fascinated by the Stephen sisters’ relationship.

  20. Charles Whaley
    February 18, 2009

    Please enter me for the giveaway. I don’t know what to put on your website line. I have no webside, if that’s what you mean.

  21. Susan
    February 18, 2009

    Great to have so many comments! I didn’t know about Linda Lappin’s book so thank you for that – I’ll look out for it.

  22. Alice Lowe
    February 18, 2009

    I’m looking forward to V&V as well as to reading the two of Susan’s 6 current favorites that I haven’t read, as I share her love for the other 4.

  23. Dorothy W.
    February 19, 2009

    Vanessa and Virginia looks great — count me in for the drawing!

  24. Alex Pheby
    February 19, 2009

    Just thought I’d add some more great fictionalised bios for those who are interested:

    Penelope Fitzgerald – The Blue Flower ( German romanticist poet/novelist/philosopher Novalis)

    Janice Galloway – Clara (Clara Schumann – pianist and wife of the famous Robert)

    Alex Pheby – Schreber in Dosen (D.P.Schreber, famous German schizophrenic high court judge)

    That last one isn’t quite finished yet, but look out for it 😉

  25. Phil Neale
    February 19, 2009

    Looking forward to reading this particularly as it is written from Vanessa’s viewpoint, as an artist and not a writer. There has been too much ‘bizarre’ writing, as described, from Virginia’s viewpoint so to have it from the other direction is welcome. It will be interesting to compare the novel to the biographies. Many thanks for the informing interview and good luck with the book. Hope I am lucky with the book.
    Phil

  26. Moira
    February 19, 2009

    Nice subtle plug Alex. Well done. 🙂

  27. Colin parker
    February 19, 2009

    Wonderful interview

  28. Cheryl Heneveld
    February 20, 2009

    I too am a fan of Virginia and Vanessa and a member of the International Virginia Woolf Society since 1993. They were wonderful siblings sharing love and art in a time when they were expected to be” the angel in the house.” I wish to be entered in the drawing. Thank you and thank Stuart for alerting us to the new book.

  29. Patty
    February 21, 2009

    Please enter me in the drawing.
    I’ve always been a fan of Virginia but I know almost nothing about Vanessa.

    Patty

  30. amandasue
    February 21, 2009

    I’d love a chance to read this thank you.

  31. Lisa
    February 22, 2009

    And the winner is…. Uli!

    Uli, if you email your address to vulpeslibris@yahoo.co.uk your free copy of V&V will soon wing its way to you.

    Congrats and many thanks to all of the entrants.

  32. Liz F
    February 24, 2009

    Vanessa and Virginia is a great book. The structure is daring, at times interestingly opaque, a bit like an impressionist/abstract painting. In fact, the episodes and snapshots of Vanessa’s life are very painterly in the way they are written, if that makes sense. The characters Susan builds up are totally believable, I could imagine myself lounging in the garden or at a party with the illustrious, complicated writers and painters of Bloomsbury. Susan does not intervene while exploring these characters in any judgemental way, as a reader you make your own conclusions – admirable! (Though V and V’s mother doesn’t come out of it very well!) Thoroughly recommended.

  33. Pingback: Susan Sellers rethinks Vanessa and Virginia « Blogging Woolf

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This entry was posted on February 17, 2017 by in Entries by Lisa, Fiction: literary, Interviews: authors.

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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