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November 5, 2013

Margaret Drabble at IFOA

drabbleThe seed of Margaret Drabble’s 18th novel The Pure Gold Baby was planted years ago during a trip to Zambia, Drabble explained to interviewer Eleanor Wachtel during her appearance at the International Festival of Authors on Saturday afternoon. Zambia, she described as “a beautiful golden country”, and countered that Africa was in fact “the heart of sunlight”. It was impression that stayed with her through decades, though was so apart from the rest of her life that she wasn’t sure how she’d ever use it in her fiction. Even still, the Zambian landscape “became part of the hinterland of my thinking.”

Drabble would return to Zambia years later, “in search of an ending,” she says, for The Pure Gold Baby. Or not an ending exactly, she clarified, but a sense of resolution. The novel isn’t spoiled for knowledge of this Zambian return, which mirrors its introduction, in which anthropologist Jessica Speight observes a group of children playing by the side of a lake, the fingers on their hands fused together in a deformity that resembles lobster claws. The Pure Gold Baby, Drabble says, is not a novel of revelations.

She had seen these same children herself, and was struck by them, by their indifference to their disability, “imperfect children having a perfect time.” Eventually, as her narrator does, and not until years later, she was able to trace her fascination with these children to a childhood friend whose hands had been disfigured after an accident. This connection said something to her about “the mysterious workings of the memory.”

This is vintage Drabble, the broad treatment of history, fascinating with anthropology, autobiographical elements, this story of a young single mother in 1960s’ London. Though underlying the story is that of David Livingston, the famous British missionary to Africa who only ever managed one convert. He was just as successful in his quest to find the true source of the Nile, dying nowhere near where he wanted to be because he was going the wrong way. Drabble was intrigued by his misplaced journeys, this story of life’s alternate directions, of where you end up when you’re going the wrong way, and she wanted his journeys to underlie Jess’s story, though motherhood had put an end to her own actual travels.

This missionary’s story connects too to what Jess refers to as the unfashionability of Christianity during the 1970s. Jess in the novel and Drabble herself considers what system has replaced it. What system makes us behave better toward one another? A question to which neither Jess nor her author have an answer, except that we must strive for a culture that is less cruel.

“I don’t have opinions,” says Drabble. “I have reflections.”

The map has shifted, Drabble says, from the 1960s, from Jess’s time, in that we realize now how much is inherited. There was a focus on nurture instead of nature in that time, she says, which meant more responsibility and more blame (upon mothers in particular). Even in the most benign circumstances, she notes, we try to explain away our inheritances, the family members who note that such-and-such a trait certainly doesn’t come from our side.

There has been a shift too in how we treat those with disabilities, from institutionalized care to community-based solutions. Both options come with their drawbacks, and Drabble acknowledges that there is no perfect solution. There are advantages though, she explains, for having the disabled living among us, and she fears what would happen if a disability like Down Syndrome managed to be eradicated. Those with Down Syndrome show us, she says, a different way of being in the world, a sense of human nature that is without guile.

Pure-Gold-Baby-200x300Wachtel suggested that Drabble was perhaps romanticizing the reality of disability, but Drabble is adamant that she knows such people, she has seen their example, and wouldn’t write about it if it were otherwise. These stories are common really; both in her book and in the interview, she cites examples of writers whose disabled family members were hidden away from the world–Jane Austen, Arthur Miller. And it was the uniqueness of her narrative structure allowed Drabble this bit of latitude in her book, enough distance for some literary gossip.

“And what about Doris Lessing?” Wachtel asks her, who also comes into the story. And at this, Drabble stops talking.

“Doris is still alive,” she says quietly. And so the conversation moves on.

The Pure Gold Baby was originally going to be told in the 3rd person, but instead a common group voice began to emerge. Drabble’s narrator is a chorus figure, but a participatory one rather than the Greek variety. Is her narrator reliable? Wachtel inquires, and Drabble replies that she is (they are) about Jess’s story, though she is curiously evasive about her own life. And any reader has the right to see it differently.

The narrator is Jess’s friend, part of a group of young mothers supporting one another in 1960s’ London. It was the kind of community that Drabble herself was part of at the time, and she remembers organizing a cooperative nursery school when her own kids were small. The attitude of the young moms, she says, was “Let’s help ourselves, because no one else is going to.” It was the era of Dr. Spock, and they all felt children knew best. “We were very permissive,” she says, “but we did like a bit of the evening for ourselves.”

These days, childcare is so much more expensive, motherhood itself has become professionalized. (“In the UK, we have something called Mumsnet,” she says. “I looked at it once and my computer broke down. Everybody was talking about penises.”)

Drabble has written about the 1970s before, but it is different to write about it now than when she was actually living it. Her approach to the time and its characters has become anthropological, she says. “I’m looking at small people in a faraway landscape. Now, it all seems long ago.”

Wachtel noted the Rodin sculpture that makes an appearance in The Pure Gold Baby, and Drabble admits her fascination with aging flesh. “And now we live forever and ever,” she says. “It’s almost unfortunate.” A discussion about death and downsizing leads to a mention of Drabble’s pronouncement in 2006 that she was retiring from fiction. She was wrong it seems, and it was during her previous visit to the IFOA in Toronto that she got the urge to return to fiction.

She says she is grateful for Toronto and the festival for providing space in her life in which her laptop started looking friendly again.

One thought on “Margaret Drabble at IFOA”

  1. Tanya says:

    I’m glad you got to see Drabble. Wachtel does such great author interviews too. I hope it was taped for the CBC and that I’ll be able to download it!

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