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Writing as a form of therapy
Diana Athill Writer
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[Q] Do you think… I mean, is there something rather unusual about that book, in terms of… I mean…

Well what…

[Q] As a woman and as a woman of your background, and…?

I had written about sleeping with someone before I was married to them. I had written about having an abortion later on, actually put it down in black and white. Well, those were things that she did not like the idea of anyone talking about in public. I mean, the thought that her friends would read that, no. She herself didn't mind knowing it, but she didn't want other people to know it. And she felt it was unseemly to talk about such things. There are plenty of people who still think that, who still think that there's no reason to talk about such frightful things. I mean, there are people in my family who think that. Barbara downstairs, who writes for The Economist about foreign affairs and has done for years, but wouldn't dream of writing about her private life. We're very, very, very great friends, and it took a long time for it to be quite said between us that she didn't like the books I wrote. Once it was said, it became very much easier to go on being great friends, but I mean she said to me, 'Do you know, it's impossible for me to imagine how someone I love can do something that would kill me'. She would find it so difficult to write a personal book. And I think my sister-in-law would probably find the same thing. My sister-in-law is very conventional.

[Q] Did you have to think, at the time, though, about whether it was unseemly to write about?

Well, I didn't think that, because as I say, I didn't think anything about it when I was writing. I just wrote it. I mean, it came out. And then when I did think about it, later, it seems to me that if you are going to be writing about personal experience, there's absolutely no justification for doing it unless you do it as honestly as you possibly can. I mean, you've got to keep doing... What Jean Rhys used to constantly say about writing, you've got to get it right. And, you know, a lot… this was a very… a lot of the things that we weren't supposed to talk about were the most important parts of one's life. But I think that it's valuable to try to get to the bottom of how things really were. It's certainly valuable for the writer. And I think it's also value for some… you know, people have responded to reading it as being valuable. I got more letters after that book than most of my writers that I published ever got. I got hundreds of letters. Because they were letters from people who had similar sort of experience, saying, 'What a relief to see it being described and written about'.

[Q] I don't know who said this, or exactly what the phrase is, but it's some famous dictum about the unexamined life being not worth living or something. Have you ever heard that? It's from Socrates. Something like that.

Yes, it does sort of… it rings a bell, but I don't…

[Q] Do you know what it means? You say it's valuable for the writer to… what are your thoughts about…? I mean, because there is a risk, isn't there, of self-indulgence. I mean...

There's a risk of self-indulgence, but what I found was that it simply got rid of… I mean, the first book was so valuable that it god rid of the sense of failure, that was a foolish sense of failure. And then I wrote two other books, which were both written deliberately. Having made that discovery, and these two other books were deliberately to get rid of distressing things. One was about poor Waguih Ghali, who was a friend of mine, who I knew stayed here for a long time, committed suicide, and everyone of course… and that was awful. But, you know, it got… it stopped being so awful once I'd really, sort of, written it out. And another was another extraordinary situation I'd known, which had ended up distressingly. And so I thought, in the end, that obviously my motive in writing was therapeutic. It must be something that I depended on. I never felt like a professional writer, because I thought that it was somehow just a sort of therapy, as far as I was concerned. And it wasn't until I was quite old, I'd retired, that I then wrote two books just for fun, which was Stet, and instead of… Yesterday Morning and realised I could also write. I didn't have to be writing to cure myself of something, always. I could write just to remember pleasant things.

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: Instead of a Letter, After a Funeral, Stet: A Memoir, Yesterday Morning: A Very English Childhood, Jean Rhys

Duration: 5 minutes, 5 seconds

Date story recorded: January 2008

Date story went live: 23 December 2008