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Writing as a form of therapy


Instead of a Letter
Diana Athill Writer
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It came out. I had discovered, unexpectedly, that I could write stories. That just came out, out of the blue. And then there'd been a gap. I wrote nine stories, which sort of proved to me that I could write, which was rather fun. And then no more stories came, but there was one I had begun and didn't go on with. And I found those two first pages about a year later, about a year afterwards. And I thought, 'Well, this could be worked into a story. Perhaps I'll have a go at it tomorrow.' And I put paper in the typewriter and I began to write. Not the end of that story, but Instead of a Letter, that book. It just simply came out of the blue. I never intended it, I never planned it at all. At no stage did I plan it. And I used to come rushing home from the office, dying to go on with it, but not knowing what was going to come next. And I would read what I'd written and say, 'Oh yes, I see', and then I would go. And that's how that book came out. It was the most extraordinary experience of my life, and completely successful.

Having written it, I thought: Oh, you know, what's my mother going to think about it? And so I thought of a way around this, which was rather clever, really. I thought, well, I knew there was an American publisher who wanted it. I said, well, I'll have it published in America and it'll then be a book, a respectable-looking book. So I can then show it to her as a book and say, 'Now look, this has been published in America, which is far away'. I knew she wouldn't mind that, because no one she knew was there. 'If you really can't bear it, I won't give it to a publisher in England, but I would, of course, like to'. And I sent it off to her with that letter. And I got no answer. And days went by, no answer. Weeks went by, no answer. I thought, well, perhaps she didn't get it? But I found myself completely inhibited. I couldn't ring up and say, 'Did you get that book I sent you'? I couldn't. And we were going to meet at my godmother… my godmother who lived just outside London. Mum was coming up and we were both going to be there for a weekend. And then I was going to bring Mum here for a couple of nights. And I said, I'll talk to her about it when we're at Aunt Phoebe's. When we were there, I couldn't… I couldn't. Well, I can't talk to her about it now. I'll talk to her about it on the way back, when I'm driving her back to London. And in the car, and: no I can't. I couldn't make myself do it. And so I thought, well, I'll talk to her… I'll make supper and I'll talk to her about it after supper. And I was in the kitchen next door, making supper, and the telephone rang. And she talked for a moment on it and then she called me and said, 'It's Andrew'. That's my brother. So I came in and picked it up, and he said, 'Di, I've just been talking to Mum about your book. She showed it to me. She doesn't want you to publish it. I've just told her she's talking nonsense. It's a bloody book… a bloody good book, you've got to publish it'. I hung it up and I said, 'He thinks it'll be alright to publish my book'. She said, 'I know, he told me so. I was going to ask you not to, but I suppose I mustn't'. And I said, 'I think perhaps you oughtn't to'.

Then, in an extraordinary way, we had supper and we sat here, in this room, and we talked about it. And there was practically nothing that was in that book that she didn't know. And we talked like two adult women about it, perfectly easily and pleasantly. And I thought, well, this is marvellous. This is a new, sort of, stage of my relationship with my mother. We've now become two grown-up women who can talk about things.

She never, ever said another word about it. Never. I sent her the reviews and things when they were good, and she never acknowledged it. It was as though it hadn't been done. And I thought at first, well, this is really so absurd, it's unbelievably silly. And gradually I came to the conclusion that it was actually a pretty good solution to the problem, because, you know, if you have a daughter, you love your daughter. You want to go on loving your daughter. She has done something that you don't really approve of, but let's pretend she hasn't done it, and then we needn't bother about it. And it worked, you see. I mean, our relationship was always very good. It didn't matter to me, really, that she didn't want to talk about it.

Diana Athill (1917-2019) was a British literary editor whose publishing career began when she helped André Deutsch establish his company. She worked with many notable writers, namely Philip Roth, Simone de Beauvoir, Jean Rhys and VS Naipaul. Following the publication of her memoirs, she came to be 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: writing, stories, mother, publishing, brother

Duration: 5 minutes, 32 seconds

Date story recorded: January 2008

Date story went live: 23 December 2008