Claire Tomalin Meet the Author


Claire Tomalin

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

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with the biographer Claire Tomalin about her new book ...

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Claire Tomalin is one of our great biographers.

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Her subjects have included Samuel Pepys, Jane Austen,

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Now she's done what many biographers don't do -

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A Life Of My Own, is her story, her family and her loves,

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the tragedies and joys in her life; the literary world in

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which she found her calling, her craft, welcome.

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Having spent so much time dealing with the detail

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of other people's lives, trying to sort out truths

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from falsehoods, was it difficult to take the plunge and hold a mirror

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I think it was the most difficult book I have ever tried to write.

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I found it very painful and I asked myself quite often,

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should I be doing this, shall I go on with it,

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There are a lot of tragedies in your life which we might

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touch on but as a whole, it's an extraordinary life,

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Because I had to address, really, really sad things that happened,

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particularly the death of my beloved and wonderful daughter, Susanna.

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I felt she was such a remarkable person.

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And I also feel that the care of depressed young people,

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we all know, it's not as good as it ought to be, and I suppose

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I blamed myself in a way, that I hadn't kept her alive.

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You had to deal with your feelings, you husband, Nick Tomlin,

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who was killed, in the Yum Kippur war, a terrible tragedy but you have

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had ups and downs of extraordinary kind during your marriage and it's

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But I saw, I learned something from it.

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I saw that first of all, probably I shouldn't have married him.

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We were great friends and lovers and we had fun together

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And every time he ran off with a blonde and I was left

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with the children it had a good effect on me, because I thought,

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I've got to cope, I've got make my life, I've got to get

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And if you look at my life, when I came to look,

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I saw that each time he did something really dreadful, I grew

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and progressed so that most sadly, I mean it was terrible

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when he was killed, but I had in a way been prepared to cope.

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And in dealing with your own feelings at the time,

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in the 50s when you were a student through the 60s the tumultuos 70s,

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Fleet Street, the literary world, it must be difficult to write

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about friends and friendships with real honesty?

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Well, I think my friendships with Terry Kilmartin who,

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was literary editor of the Observer, who was a wonderful friend to me,

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with Kyle Miller with Neil Atherton, with Michael Frane, who in the end

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became my husband but for many years was a friend to me,

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with Sarah foreman, who was at the Sunday Times,

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who I must not leave out, Marina Warner, Victoria Glendenning,

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who was a great friend, because we both had children,

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we were both making our way in the literally world

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You moved in that literally world of newspapers,

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magazines, the New Statesman, the Sunday Times, you became

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literally editor and in the late '60s and the 70s these

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were exhilarating times, in that world, weren't they?

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I had these brilliant friends and it was a very

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entertaining world to be part of, yes.

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And newspapers and magazines in those days, to an extent

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which I think it isn't there now, really cared about the original

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poetry, the job of the critic, about what the literary

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I thought to address literature and the arts seriously and write

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seriously about them and entertainingly,

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which he these very, very funny review vorax

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like the brilliant John Cary, I thought that was very important.

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And I thought each week, I must make my pages the best pages.

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There must be something on my pages, that everybody has to,

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people who don't usualally look at the book page, will want to read,

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In some ways, it's a book, in part of course,

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about your family, but also about what it was like in that era.

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Through the '60s when things opened up, when a sort of deferential

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social attitude gave way to something wilder

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I mean I put in the book, the moment in 1963,

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when I'd had my fourth baby, and I went to my gynaecologist

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and he leaned forward over the desk and held up a packet and said

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These are pills that will stop you getting pregnant."

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And I saw at that moment that things had changed between men and women.

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There's a great deal in the book about your growing affection

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for the English language, for literature, your discovery

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of Thomas Hardy, for example, whom you came to deal

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with as a biographer much later in life and the start

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of your journey into Samuel Pepys, and Mary Woolstonecraft of course.

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With Mary Woolstonecraft, I was 40 when I wrote that

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And I fell in love with the whole process with research and writing.

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And I realised at once that I had found my mitre.

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You can't earn your living from writing biographies.

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So I was very lucky to have the job at the Sunday Times and when I left

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the Sunday Times after Wapping in 1986 I was able then,

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in my 50s to start on my career as a writer and for the next 25

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years I wrote historical biographers and I was very,

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Well, there's an enormous amount of happiness in this book,

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despite all the ups and downs and indeed the tragedies,

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you seem to be somebody who is somehow able to cope

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Yes, well, that is true but you do have to cope.

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And I think I learned to cope a bit in childhood.

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I was a child who was disliked by my father and loved by my mother.

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And I had that curious experience as a small child of realising this,

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of being well aware that my father didn't like me, and that my

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mother was my supporter and the person who loved me.

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Your father was French and lived into his 90s.

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I think when he began to realise that I was a clever child.

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When he began to want to have a divorce from my mother,

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he spoke to the family doctor and said, you know,

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She said, "Well you don't need to worry about Claire,

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This had never occurred to my father.

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Very surprised when I got into Cambridge, very

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He said, "That's all very well, you need secretarial training."

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I mean at my wedding to Michael, when he was in his 90s

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to which he came, he said, "You never cease to

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I began by asking you how difficult it had been to decide to do this

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and to write honestly about your own life,

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the difficulties, the joys and the sadnesses, what was it

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like when you finish?ed what did you you feel when you finally sent

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I felt maybe I shouldn't plush this book and I hadn't

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And my very good editor, Anita Butterfield, wrote me

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a letter saying, "look, there are things you haven't said,

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there are things you haven't really said about writing your books

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I mean, when I was young, Andre Doitch said to me,

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"You've had an interesting life, you should write a novel."

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but then I began to think but I have to a story to tell.

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Even if, I mean you have to deal with everything,

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an affair with Martin Amis, which everyone would notice.

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Well, it was an office romance and it was very short

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These are the things that make up a fascinating life.

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Claire Tomalin, author of A Life Of My Own,

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Latest live update and the focus will be on the hurricanes, we have

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three of

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