Claire Tomalin talks to James Naughtie about how she came to write about her own life in new book A Life of My Own after years of writing biographies of well-known people.
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On Meet the Author this week Jim Naughtie talks
with the biographer Claire Tomalin about her new book ...
Claire Tomalin is one of our great biographers.
Her subjects have included Samuel Pepys, Jane Austen,
Now she's done what many biographers don't do -
A Life Of My Own, is her story, her family and her loves,
the tragedies and joys in her life; the literary world in
which she found her calling, her craft, welcome.
Having spent so much time dealing with the detail
of other people's lives, trying to sort out truths
from falsehoods, was it difficult to take the plunge and hold a mirror
I think it was the most difficult book I have ever tried to write.
I found it very painful and I asked myself quite often,
should I be doing this, shall I go on with it,
There are a lot of tragedies in your life which we might
touch on but as a whole, it's an extraordinary life,
Because I had to address, really, really sad things that happened,
particularly the death of my beloved and wonderful daughter, Susanna.
I felt she was such a remarkable person.
And I also feel that the care of depressed young people,
we all know, it's not as good as it ought to be, and I suppose
I blamed myself in a way, that I hadn't kept her alive.
You had to deal with your feelings, you husband, Nick Tomlin,
who was killed, in the Yum Kippur war, a terrible tragedy but you have
had ups and downs of extraordinary kind during your marriage and it's
But I saw, I learned something from it.
I saw that first of all, probably I shouldn't have married him.
We were great friends and lovers and we had fun together
And every time he ran off with a blonde and I was left
with the children it had a good effect on me, because I thought,
I've got to cope, I've got make my life, I've got to get
And if you look at my life, when I came to look,
I saw that each time he did something really dreadful, I grew
and progressed so that most sadly, I mean it was terrible
when he was killed, but I had in a way been prepared to cope.
And in dealing with your own feelings at the time,
in the 50s when you were a student through the 60s the tumultuos 70s,
Fleet Street, the literary world, it must be difficult to write
about friends and friendships with real honesty?
Well, I think my friendships with Terry Kilmartin who,
was literary editor of the Observer, who was a wonderful friend to me,
with Kyle Miller with Neil Atherton, with Michael Frane, who in the end
became my husband but for many years was a friend to me,
with Sarah foreman, who was at the Sunday Times,
who I must not leave out, Marina Warner, Victoria Glendenning,
who was a great friend, because we both had children,
we were both making our way in the literally world
You moved in that literally world of newspapers,
magazines, the New Statesman, the Sunday Times, you became
literally editor and in the late '60s and the 70s these
were exhilarating times, in that world, weren't they?
I had these brilliant friends and it was a very
entertaining world to be part of, yes.
And newspapers and magazines in those days, to an extent
which I think it isn't there now, really cared about the original
poetry, the job of the critic, about what the literary
I thought to address literature and the arts seriously and write
seriously about them and entertainingly,
which he these very, very funny review vorax
like the brilliant John Cary, I thought that was very important.
And I thought each week, I must make my pages the best pages.
There must be something on my pages, that everybody has to,
people who don't usualally look at the book page, will want to read,
In some ways, it's a book, in part of course,
about your family, but also about what it was like in that era.
Through the '60s when things opened up, when a sort of deferential
social attitude gave way to something wilder
I mean I put in the book, the moment in 1963,
when I'd had my fourth baby, and I went to my gynaecologist
and he leaned forward over the desk and held up a packet and said
These are pills that will stop you getting pregnant."
And I saw at that moment that things had changed between men and women.
There's a great deal in the book about your growing affection
for the English language, for literature, your discovery
of Thomas Hardy, for example, whom you came to deal
with as a biographer much later in life and the start
of your journey into Samuel Pepys, and Mary Woolstonecraft of course.
With Mary Woolstonecraft, I was 40 when I wrote that
And I fell in love with the whole process with research and writing.
And I realised at once that I had found my mitre.
You can't earn your living from writing biographies.
So I was very lucky to have the job at the Sunday Times and when I left
the Sunday Times after Wapping in 1986 I was able then,
in my 50s to start on my career as a writer and for the next 25
years I wrote historical biographers and I was very,
Well, there's an enormous amount of happiness in this book,
despite all the ups and downs and indeed the tragedies,
you seem to be somebody who is somehow able to cope
Yes, well, that is true but you do have to cope.
And I think I learned to cope a bit in childhood.
I was a child who was disliked by my father and loved by my mother.
And I had that curious experience as a small child of realising this,
of being well aware that my father didn't like me, and that my
mother was my supporter and the person who loved me.
Your father was French and lived into his 90s.
I think when he began to realise that I was a clever child.
When he began to want to have a divorce from my mother,
he spoke to the family doctor and said, you know,
She said, "Well you don't need to worry about Claire,
This had never occurred to my father.
Very surprised when I got into Cambridge, very
He said, "That's all very well, you need secretarial training."
I mean at my wedding to Michael, when he was in his 90s
to which he came, he said, "You never cease to
I began by asking you how difficult it had been to decide to do this
and to write honestly about your own life,
the difficulties, the joys and the sadnesses, what was it
like when you finish?ed what did you you feel when you finally sent
I felt maybe I shouldn't plush this book and I hadn't
And my very good editor, Anita Butterfield, wrote me
a letter saying, "look, there are things you haven't said,
there are things you haven't really said about writing your books
I mean, when I was young, Andre Doitch said to me,
"You've had an interesting life, you should write a novel."
but then I began to think but I have to a story to tell.
Even if, I mean you have to deal with everything,
an affair with Martin Amis, which everyone would notice.
Well, it was an office romance and it was very short
These are the things that make up a fascinating life.
Claire Tomalin, author of A Life Of My Own,
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