This is my interview with Laura Thompson.
What was the best thing about writing this book? Being in the company of the Mitford sisters. I had to write the book quite quickly, without any days off, so I was with them continually… which became somewhat addictive. Whatever else one might say about them, they are incapable of being boring. And their attitude to life, the humour that rippled through everything that they did, the lightness with which they treated even the most terrible events – I have to admit I found them rather refreshing.
What was one of the best things that happened because of this book? Honestly, going to Australia!!! I hadn’t realised that the Mitfords were quite well-known in other countries (I also went to New York with the book) and it was a glorious surprise to be asked to speak in Perth and Adelaide last year. I’d never been to Australia and absolutely adored it. The Adelaide festival is the nicest I’ve ever done.
What do you admire most about any of the Mitford sisters? They were all immensely brave. Some of the dreadful things that happened to them were self-inflicted, but a great deal was not – Jessica in particular suffered appalling losses, yet she maintained an energy, a curiosity about life and a capacity for pleasure that I found utterly inspiring. And then Diana making jokes when she was in prison, Deborah making jokes about her miscarriages, Nancy making jokes when she was dying… it wasn’t that the Mitfords thought these things were funny, it was simply their nature to take them lightly. I suppose some people might see this as strange and possibly twisted, but I admire it.
I also admire, and rather envy, the Mitford confidence, which supported them in even the most inappropriate of circumstances. They really didn’t much care what other people thought about them – so unlike today!!!
What would you most like to ask any of the Mitford sisters? All the sisters were complex, but Diana was the great enigma, and the one with whom I would most have liked a very long, no-holds-barred conversation. I did meet her, the year before she died, but although she couldn’t have been nicer to me I was naturally cautious about what I asked her… I was there to talk about Nancy (for an earlier book) and didn’t feel I could throw in questions about Hitler, or whether she had genuinely supported Fascism/Nazism, or whether she had simply fallen in love with the British Fascist leader, Mosley, and been seduced by the creed along with the man.
What I wanted to know, in short, was how far Diana truly believed what she claimed to believe. Also whether, in the end, she regretted having allied her fate with that of Mosley. But possibly she herself didn’t know the answers to those questions.
What is something you’d like to do? This is not going to happen, but what I’d like is to see the Rolling Stones in a small club – the sort of place they played when they started.
What are you working on next? I’ve just finished a memoir of my grandmother, which was very hard but a joy to have done, and am now writing a book about a trial in the 1920s – the conviction of two lovers, Edith Thompson and Frederick Bywaters, for the murder of Edith’s husband – a huge cause célèbre in England. I don’t usually enjoy research, but reading the trial and prison files on this has been riveting. There was huge prejudice against Edith because she was eight years older than Bywaters and regarded as the prime mover in the murder – in fact she almost certainly had no foreknowledge of it.
What are you reading now? I read heavier stuff when I’m not writing – for instance I read ‘War and Peace’ during my last break – but when I’m deeply into a book (as above) I read known quantities, to soothe the brain. I can re-read detective fiction with no trouble at all, especially Agatha Christie, whose biography I wrote and whose apparent lack of literary style absolutely fascinates me. At the moment I’m re-reading my beloved Patrick Hamilton, a novel entitled ‘Slaves of Solitude’, set during wartime England, miraculously comedic and atmospheric.
When you go into a bookshop, which department do you head straight to? I try to avoid going to biography and looking for myself. Too depressing if one isn’t there. Usually I go to the new fiction, and look forward to the day when I will be avoiding myself in that department instead… I long to write a novel.
Do you collect anything? One day I hope that I’ll have enough space to collect (as it were) unwanted dogs and give them a home. My dream is to live surrounded by dogs. On a rather different note I collect editions of Agatha Christie with the 1970s covers by Tom Adams – I think they are genius.
What is something that most people might be surprised to know about you? I was educated at a ballet school and still take class regularly. Of course I was nothing like good enough, but I would have loved to make it my career. I think ballet is an undervalued art form – at its very best it is transporting, subtle, almost infinitely expressive.
Website address: www.laurathompson.co.uk
Read my review of ‘Take Six Girls’ here: http://www.readmeblogsite.net/2017/04/07/great-books-mitford-sisters/