The British author Margaret Drabble, at 77, has bought herself a microscope. She’s begun writing a new novel, which includes a character who is an entomologist. “I thought the microscopic view would be interesting, rather than the long view,” Drabble says. “I used to love exploring, but I can’t walk around as fast as I used to. Now I’ll just have to explore what is near.” She doesn’t really know where this new story, set in Oxford, will go. “If you know where you’re going, why bother? It’s an adventure.”
Drabble’s latest book, The Dark Flood Rises, will be published Stateside by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in February. She calls it “thematic.” It is true there’s not much of a plot—she forgets her plots anyway—but the novel, like all 19 of her others, arguably takes the long view, even though the story takes place within two months. At the age her characters have reached, every month is a gift, since they are, for all practical purposes, old. But Drabble reminds us with an epigraph from a D.H. Lawrence poem: “We are all of us dying/ and nothing will stay the death-flood rising within us.”
At least one reviewer has suggested that the novel is apocalyptic. “At one point I thought of ending with an actual earthquake—let’s just have a Margaret Atwood ending,” Drabble says. “[But] it’s the little things—Auden called it cracking the teacup. I think as you get older your sense of fragility increases, your sense of not quite having a grip on the earth. That’s my apocalyptic view.”
I visited Drabble at her house in Ladbroke Grove, near Portobello Road in London. Her front door is red, flanked by a narrow window obscured by a stack, tall as the door itself, of galleys and manuscripts. It had been one week since the American presidential election, and we were both a bit unnerved, which led to talk of a writer’s role in difficult times.
As writers, Drabble warns, we cannot kid ourselves that we’re going to make a huge alteration to the world. Nevertheless, what we do is part of a greater whole. “If you do your work so that you think you’re pushing slightly the right way, then that’s the best you can do,” she says. Drabble is moved by phrases like “he who saves one life saves the world.” She sees truth in that, that each life is of value. “It’s important that we live well, even if the result is not to be measured,” she says. And of Trump, she says, “No manners!”
“I’ve tried to reflect the world around me in what I write, to be a sort of sensor, feeling what’s going on around me, and reporting it,” Drabble says. “I do believe that if you report faithfully and watch very closely, you actually do see some answers. Witnessing, the writer bears witness.”
But Drabble is mindful of concerns regarding cultural appropriation. She brings up manners again: “You can’t just barge in there and assume you have got the right to tell other people’s stories. You have to react sensitively to other people.” In addition, she declares, “you haven’t got the right to walk out on somebody else’s talk. You have to listen to what they’ve got to say.”
Drabble is transported by just about anything she reads, and remembers reading some “pretty incomprehensible novels” as a child. “I was very fond of The Cloister and the Hearth by Charles Reed, set in the time of Erasmus—all about torture and Lutheranism,” she says. “The heroine was called Margaret. I read this book again and again.” She doesn’t read that much historical fiction now, preferring to read about the world she inhabits, which is also what she writes about. Though she admits to having reread Trollope recently, in which “the most important thing in the world is that you’ve got your bonnet on when you go out.” She says she finds comfort, in the face of Brexit and the American election, in these “little rules of life.”
Drabble mentions that her husband, the biographer Michael Holroyd, is just finishing reading a new book by Lee Child, whose writing, she says, is also very comforting, “rather like Trollope.” She adds, “Everything is violent in Lee Child, and in Trollope nothing is violent, but they have this narrative skill that keeps you going along without too much effort.”
Drabble also loves the writer Tessa Hadley, whose books about family relationships, as the Guardian put it, “map the crosscurrents of familial love and spite.” And she’s discovered Sarah Moss, who she says writes about maternal anxiety, and who is, by the way, a very good historical novelist. One can draw a pretty distinct line of literary descent connecting these two British novelists to Drabble’s own oeuvre.
Drabble’s biographer, Joanne Creighton, has suggested that, as a writer, Drabble occupies an important mediating position between the traditional and the modern. “I suppose [my books] are quite traditional but at the same time they’re sometimes quite experimental,” Drabble says. “It’s interesting that editors don’t really like you to experiment, even copy editors. Why can’t I do that? I do what I want and I don’t want anyone telling me what I can’t do.”
Drabble has served tea, but we’ve both forgotten to drink it. We are in the sitting room, what Drabble refers to as the “common ground,” a room that could be nowhere but England—timeless, and without a doubt inhabited by bookish people for whom history and the life of the mind prevail. Uneven wood-planked floors are covered with Oriental rugs, their once-vivid colors and those of the furniture and drapery still beautiful, though probably never making claim to any rhyme or reason.
“This house is too big,” Drabble says, “but I do write here.” She laughs. “I’ve got a study one floor down, and my husband’s study is one floor up.”
Drabble says that she used to write fast, but she’s slowed up. Now some days she doesn’t write at all, some days she answers emails and does the crossword. Some days she does “a very nice paragraph, and some days I run along a bit and do 2,000 words.”
Our conversation ranges over a multitude of subjects. On feminism, Drabble is perhaps less strident than she once was. “The Peppered Moth is all about that, about how Bessie’s life was frustrated by her not being able to work.” But there are characters strewn all about her fiction frustrated by the strictures of being female, so perhaps she’s said what she had to say. “Things are much, much better,” she proclaims.
Later, Drabble remembers to tell me that she’s learning German. She realized it was really annoying not to be able to read German poetry, which sounded so wonderful in English. What did the German sound like? She didn’t wish to speak German, particularly—she just wanted to be able to read a few German poems.
Drabble is also fascinated by human migration, which routes people took to the New World, how they got to South America. “We’ll never know all the answers,” she says. “If I were granted a wish, I’d go back to the early Stone Age to sit there with the family by the fire, and just see what they were doing. I’d just love to know.”
Drabble’s favorite time of year is high spring, but then comes autumn, she muses sadly, and we are back to the subject of The Dark Flood Rises, back to the issues facing her aging characters, and indeed all of us. Fran is the novel’s abiding septuagenarian spirit, the character most determined to hold on to her identity, desperate to keep living a meaningful life. But Drabble’s thoughts turn to her friend Bernadine Bishop, on whom the character Teresa is based, and to whom the novel is dedicated. “She was a birth Catholic who went off on all directions, but in late middle age became a believer again.” The two friends used to talk a lot about faith and the afterlife. Drabble recalls that in Bishop’s last lecture, she spoke of reconciling being a believer with her profession as a psychotherapist. “She said it’s the same map that you’re working with. We just give different names to the islands and inlets. It is the map of the spirit.”
Annasue McCleave Wilson is a writer living in San Diego, Calif., and a frequent contributor to Publishers Weekly.