undefinedSketch by Rosalie Seidler, 1957.

 

A London apartment in Dolphin Square, just downriver from Chelsea. Dolphin Square—and this came as something of a surprise—is a huge block of service apartments, with restaurant (where we ate lunch), indoor swimming pool, shops, bars, etc.—the layout and decor of this part strongly reminiscent of an ocean liner. The apartment itself, on the ground floor and looking out on the central court, was small, comfortable, tidy, uneccentric; there were books but not great heaps of them; the pictures included a pair of patriotic prints from the First World War (“The period fascinates me”). For Wilson it is just a place to stay when he has to be in London: his real home is a cottage in Suffolk, five miles from the nearest village (“I find I hate cities more and more. I used to need people, but now I can be much more alone”). The electric fire was on, although the late September day was fine and quite mild. Wilson explained that he had just got back from Asia—Japan (where he had been a guest of honor at the P.E.N. conference), the Philippines, Cambodia, Thailand—and found England cold.

Although one does not think of Wilson as a small man, he is rather below the average height. His face is mobile but somewhat plumper than in most of the published photographs, the hair white at the front shading to gray at the back, the forehead lined, the eyebrows rather prominent, the eyes pale gray and serious—but not solemn: Wilson’s manner has a liveliness and warmth that is immediately engaging. He talks quickly, confidently yet unaffectedly, eagerly—obviously enjoying it. The conversation before and during lunch was mainly about Japan—it had been his first visit to Asia and he had clearly been impressed—and about other writers. Now, after lunch, Wilson agrees to talk about himself.

 

INTERVIEWER

When did you start writing?

ANGUS WILSON

I never wrote anything—except for the school magazine—until November 1946. Then I wrote a short story one weekend—“Raspberry Jam”—and followed that up by writing a short story every weekend for twelve weeks. I was then thirty-three. My writing started as a hobby: that seems a funny word to use—but, yes, hobby. During the war, when I was working at the Foreign Office, I had a bad nervous breakdown, and after the war I decided that simply to return to my job at the British Museum would be too depressing. Writing seemed a good way of diversifying my time. I was living in the country and commuting to London then and I could only do it on weekends. That’s why I started with short stories: this was something I could finish, realize completely, in a weekend.

INTERVIEWER

Had you never thought of becoming a writer before that time?

WILSON

No, I never had any intention of becoming a writer. I’d always thought that far too many things were written, and working in the museum convinced me of it. But I showed some of my stories to Robin Ironside, the painter, and he asked if he could show them to Cyril Connolly, who took two for Horizon. Then a friend of mine at Secker and Warburg said, Let us have a look at them, and they said that if I gave them twelve stories they would publish them. This was The Wrong Set. They told me there wasn’t much sale for short stories and so on, but the book was surprisingly successful both here and in America. After that I went on writing—reviews, broadcasts, more short stories. The thing grew and grew, and when I came to write Hemlock and After I had to do it in one of my leaves. I did it in four weeks. But when I wanted to write a play—that was a different matter. I knew it would take longer to write and that I’d have to revise it, attend rehearsals, and so on. And I was still a full-time civil servant at the British Museum. To resolve the conflict I resigned. It was rather ironic really. When I left school I wanted a permanent job, and I got it at the museum. Now at the age of forty-two I no longer wanted a permanent job. It meant giving up my pension, and that isn’t easy at that age. But so far I haven’t regretted it.

INTERVIEWER

Do you find writing comes easily to you?

WILSON

Yes. I write very easily. I told you Hemlock took four weeks. Anglo-Saxon Attitudes took four months, and an awful lot of that time was taken up just with thinking. The play—The Mulberry Bush, the only thing I’ve rewritten several times—was different again. My latest book of short stories, A Bit Off the Map, took longer too, and my new novel is proving a bit difficult. But I’m not unduly worried. When one starts writing it’s natural for the stuff to come rolling off the stocks—is that the right image?—rather easily. And, of course, the fact that it comes harder doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s worse. When Dickens published his novels in serial form he always added in his letter to the reader: “I send you this labor of love.” After Bleak House he couldn’t; it hadn’t been a labor of love. But the later Dickens novels are certainly none the worse for that.

INTERVIEWER

Do you work every day?

WILSON

Goodness, no. I did that when I was a civil servant and I don’t propose to do so now. But when I’m writing a book I do work every day.

INTERVIEWER

To a schedule?

WILSON

Not really. No. I usually work from eight to two, but if it’s going well I may go on to four. Only if I do I’m extremely exhausted. In fact, when the book is going well the only thing that stops me is sheer exhaustion. I wouldn’t like to do what Elizabeth Bowen once told me she did—write something every day, whether I was working on a book or not.

INTERVIEWER

Do you usually work on one book at a time?

WILSON

Oh, yes. I’ve never worked on more than one book at a time, and I don’t think it would be good.

INTERVIEWER

About how many words a day do you write?

WILSON

Oh—between one and two thousand. Sometimes more. But the average would be one or two thousand.

INTERVIEWER

Longhand, typewriter, or dictation?

WILSON

Longhand. I can’t type. And I’m sure it wouldn’t work for me to dictate, though I did think of it when I was doing the play; it might help with the dialogue. But the trouble is I’m too histrionic a person anyway, and even when I’m writing a novel I act out the scenes.

INTERVIEWER

Aloud?

WILSON

Very often. Especially dialogue.

INTERVIEWER

Do you make notes?

WILSON

Books of them. The gestatory period before I start to write is very important to me. That’s when I’m persuading myself of the truth of what I want to say, and I don’t think I could persuade my readers unless I’d persuaded myself first.