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Madame Bovary: an over-romantic, unfortunate and silly woman

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My own writing
Diana Athill Writer
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I like language to be very clear and very accurate. It must be fairly much the way that comes to you naturally, but I very… I was influenced by… by writers like Vidiadhar Naipaul, and Jean Rhys, who both used to say the same thing: the important thing is getting it right. And Jean was very emphatic about cutting. Cut, cut, cut. You don't need to say very much if you're saying… if you're using the right words, you don't need to say very many of them.

On the whole, I write short rather than long, but there would be evidence… I mean, there wouldn't be evidence of important cuts, but there would be a great many little ones. Little ones where I suddenly thought: well, why do I put it that way, when I could put it that way, which is four words shorter rather than… so it's the detail that I have to cut to get it to suit me. And the other thing I think important is some rhythm. And I think it's important to read things aloud and see how it goes, because I don't actually try to write rhythmically, but I'm very conscious of whether writing is… how much… I mean, the rhythms in prose can be very subtle. And one of the interesting things about WG Sebald is he writes in this extraordinary way, sometimes, with no paragraphs. Page, after page, after page, after page with no paragraphs. So at first, you think: how difficult. Read it aloud and you find that you cannot go wrong, because the rhythms are so exquisitely right. And that was writing… he was writing in German, so it must be partly his translator. But really, his… it worked… it simply works without adding the paragraphs, because it's… he had this sense of rhythm.

Born in 1917, Diana Athill is a British literary editor whose publishing career began when she helped André Deutsch establish his company. She has worked with many notable writers, namely Philip Roth, Simone de Beauvoir, Jean Rhys and VS Naipaul. Following the publication of her memoirs, she is now hailed as an author in her own right.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is a London-based television producer and director who has made a number of documentary films for BBC TV, Channel 4 and PBS.

Tags: VS Naipaul, Jean Rhys, WG Sebald

Duration: 2 minutes, 3 seconds

Date story recorded: January 2008

Date story went live: 23 December 2008