AH: I was thinking about the unusual shape of your career as an author - having written a collection of stories during the war when you were in your late teens and not published them for thirty years, then later publishing two books, one of which is almost entirely about the period of the war. The war seems to be a magnetic subject in what you've written. I wondered what sort of war you'd had.
FW: I had very much the same sort of war as is described in the books. I was in my teens. I was first at Oxford, then called up, invalided out of the Army, and did a TB cure. So the theme of those first stories in Out of the War, and to a certain extent of The Other Garden, is the war as seen by people who aren't participating in it. The reason I wrote about it then was that it was what was going on at the time, and the reason, I think, why I write about the war now is because it isn't what is going on at the time. I sent a few of those stories to publications but they were rejected, and the whole collection was turned down by a publisher. I thought, well, they aren't any good, so I forgot about them, and wrote other things - reviews, interviews. Then when I came back again to try and write fiction in the late Seventies I didn't feel that my responses to what was going on around me in the present were fine enough. It seemed to me much easier to write about the past, partly because so much of art is selection, and memory and forgetfulness have done the selection for you in a way - what I did remember, I remembered for a reason. Also, though I don't think my stories are particularly libellous, I felt a sort of embarrassment at writing about people I know, which was solved simply because most of the people I wrote about in Mrs Henderson and The Other Garden are dead. It's not so much that I'm obsessed by the war or by that period of my life. In a way, the theme of those books and of the early stories is a side of life which is boring and vacant, but which was rather dramatised by the fact that the war was going on. People like myself were immobilised in one way or another. So that's a ready-made paradoxical situation. I think what I've always wanted to do in fiction is to write about that - the hours and hours and hours, the enormous proportion of life which is spent in a kind of limbo, even in people's active years. It seems to me that isn't sufficiently celebrated in fiction. The obvious reason why it isn't is that it's so terribly boring.
LRB 4 August 1988 | PDF Download