After the “Beast from the East” had prevented their planned visit in March, the two renowned, award-winning authors Margaret Drabble and Caryl Phillips visited UEA on the 25th of October as part of the 2018 Autumn Literary Festival, for what turned out to be a memorable evening full of laughter for the audience. Christopher Bigsby introduces Drabble as a ‘Dame of the British Empire’, and opens the conversation by asking about their experiences of growing up in northern England. Phillips grew up in Leeds and Drabble in Sheffield, and both still feel a deep connection to their hometowns.
Phillips talks about the difficulties of growing up in the only non-white family in a council house with communal toilets. He points out that although his upbringing was not easy and could be seen as traumatic, he did not realise that he had it rough at the time. He explains how it might have been more difficult for his parents, as they used to be a middle class family in the Caribbean before they emigrated to the UK. Drabble on the other hand, explains how even though she grew up in a middle-class family, they were ‘only just’ middle class. She explains how her mother worked hard to give her children a good future. However, this lead to a difficult relationship between the young Margaret and her mother, as the latter was worried her children took the comforts in their lives for granted.
The discussion then moved on to their education. As a young man, Phillips started studying psychology at Oxford because he was ‘very interested in people’. After the first year of study, his adviser suggested to him to maybe study something else, and recommended literature in order to learn about people. Phillips explains how being surrounded by people of different backgrounds shaped him as a person more than the education itself. It was also at Oxford that he made connections to the theatre where he worked as a director and a playwright for many years after graduating. Margaret for her part studied literature at Cambridge, at a time when the study of modern literature did not go past 1937, not including Virginia Woolf and Charles Dickens. She became very involved with the university theatre and moved on to work as an actress after finishing her studies, before fully immersing herself in the literary world.
The authors then talk about how their inspiration to write came through reading certain novels. Phillips explains how Richard Wright’s novel Native Son was important as he had never realised that he could be a writer until he saw a book written by a person of colour. This fact, as well as the cover of the book was what made him feel like he “might belong”. Drabble was inspired by the representation of life in novels, and is now seeking to not only tell stories with her writing, but to also keep a record of how the characters, the world around them, and the social and political circumstances change.
They go on to discuss their latest publications. Drabble’s latest book “The Dark Flood Rises” deals with death and mortality, and tell of the different ways oh how people leave this world. She describes it as a difficult book to write and that she was ‘quite glad’ when she finished it. Furthermore, she talks about how she thinks that our lives are often being extended for too long, which leads to twilight years full of illness and suffering. She explains that ‘it is not a good idea to live forever’, and that she hopes that life will end for more people like it did for her mother, who went to bed in the evening and did not wake up again. Phillip’s latest novel “A view of the empire at sunset: A novel” is the life story of 20th century novelist Jean Rhys. The book was inspired by their shared roots in the Caribbean, and Phillip’s appreciation for Rhys’ literature. The discussion is then drawn to a close and the audience returns into the night, enriched by an entertaining discussion between long-time friends.