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Tue, 09 Dec 2008 11:38
Mark Thwaite: What gave you the idea for La Grande Therese?
Hilary Spurling: Therese Humbert was one of the great con queens of all time - her exposure very nearly brought down the government of France in 1902, and all but destroyed the family of the painter, Henri Matisse. His connection with her turned out to be the skeleton in the family closet (though when I stumbled on it by accident half a century later, & brought it out & made it rattle, the skeleton looked in fact more like a feather in his cap). Therese fought me for control, page by page, while I was writing the first part of my biography of Matisse - I had the greatest difficulty in confining her to 2 chapters so, when that was done, I thought I'd give her a little book of her own.
MT: How long did it take you to write it?
HS: 20 days nonstop.
MT: Now that you've put your massive Matisse the Master to bed, do you miss Matisse?
HS: No - the whole book took me 15 years from start to finish, something I never would have believed possible, and - though it was wonderful in a way while it lasted - I can't tell you what a relief it is now that it's over.
MT: How do you write? Longhand or directly onto a computer, straight off or with lots and lots of editing?
HS: Directly onto the computer (sometimes with a scrawled rough plan first in writing like hen's tracks that even I can't read) - I write slowly with lots of circling round & crossing out & doubling back but, once a paragraph or a page is fixed, that's it - I don't go back over it again, & I never do first drafts that have to be rewritten later.
MT: What do you do when you are not writing?
HS: I like swimming, walking, travelling, seeing friends & going to the proms.
MT: Did you have an idea in your mind of your "ideal" reader? Did you write specifically for them?
HS: I don't have any ideal reader in mind while I'm writing (it's really me I'm trying to please) - but once a book is out, I always know them by the marvellous letters they send, which make you realise why you wrote it in the first place - so I write back to say you were the reader I was writing for. One of Anthony Powell's characters said that reading novels needs almost as much talent as writing them, & I think the same is true of biography.
MT: What are you working on now?
TE: It's going to be a short Chinese book about Pearl Buck.
MT: Who is your favourite writer? What is/are your favourite book (s)?
HS: Impossible to say - my favourite writer changes all the time, depending on who I'm reading at the moment - perhaps just now it's Peter Hessler, whose Oracle Bones is by far the best book (hardest to put down, most imaginative & by far the most surprising) I've read about China today. Impossible to pick a favourite book but again perhaps it would be V. Nabokov's Lolita - which I read when it came out - I was very young then & it changed my life - I still think it's the most astonishing love-song to America & the 20th century that i've ever read.
MT: Do you have any tips for the aspiring writer!?
HS: The only way I know of to learn to write is to read other writers.
MT: Anything else you would like to say?
HS: No thanks - except that, frightful as it is trying to write a book, I never understand how people get through the days if they don't.
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