Christmas Awards 2011

Thursday, 14 June 2007

Interview with Wendy Perriam

Wendy Perriam hasn't been reviewed by us yet, but we hope to have something from her soon, Anne
Tell us a little about yourself
I live in a top-floor flat in Pimlico, with a reclusive husband and an imaginary dog. Real pets are forbidden. I spent most of my life in the suburbs (where many of my novels are set), so I’m delighted to have moved to central London. From my study window I can see the top of Westminster Cathedral and the flag on Buckingham Palace.
I reckon I’m a cross between Woody Allen (worried) and Walter Mitty (escaping into fantasy), with perhaps a dash of Jane Eyre (surviving a strict boarding school only to struggle with the perils of love).
Although I wrote from early childhood and finished my first "novel" before I was twelve, I wasn’t published till the age of forty. Lots of things got in the way, including the loss of my Catholic faith (which proved extremely traumatic), two miscarriages and several bouts of illness. But, paradoxically, those things were fruitful in the end, by giving me experiences I could utilise in my fiction.
What do you write?
I’ve published 15 novels and 4 short-story collections. I used to write poetry and also articles for newspapers and magazines, but my favourite form is the short story.
All my fiction tends to feature characters who are living on a knife-edge, or struggling with inner conflicts. I’m fascinated by the secrets in most people’s lives, the private fears or longings we often hide even from our nearest and dearest. Love and relationships are important in my books, but I’d never describe them as romances, because for me love is a dangerous force.
Why do you write?
I find writing wonderfully therapeutic. Constructing a novel is a process of bringing order out of chaos. By drawing on experiences that might have been dark and difficult in reality, the writer can transform such things into satisfying plot-lines, or use them for character development. And the actual process of writing is so thoroughly absorbing, it distracts one from day-to-day problems and is the perfect cure for loneliness or boredom.
One of the reasons I wrote my new short-story collection was to explore the way that people use the power of the imagination to provide solace and satisfaction, or compensate for lacks and limitations in their lives. We may not always have the courage to be "the person we were born to be", to use a phrase from my novel, "Second Skin". Instead we often follow precepts laid down by our parents, school or society, regardless of the fact that these don’t fulfil our needs or honour our individuality. But at least we can live out the role in fantasy, as many of my characters do in "The Biggest Female in the World", indulging in fantasy food, fantasy romance, and even fantasy weddings and babies.
What are you writing now?
I’m halfway through my fifth short-story collection. One of the joys of the short story is that it can be prompted by the smallest thing – an odd item in the newspaper, a conversation overheard on a bus, a dusty old book in a junk-shop. Something of that nature will jump out at me spontaneously and I’ll suddenly feel a narrative building up around it, taking me way beyond those particular circumstances.
Several of the stories in "The Biggest Female in the World" sprang from personal experience: a wasp sting that swelled my arm to twice its normal size; a train halted by a suicide on the hottest day last year; a visit to the Hackney Empire to see a production of "Paradise Lost" featuring a naked Adam and Eve.
I have a sense of almost playing when I write short stories, compared with the more serious business of plotting and constructing a full-length novel. However, I do have a new novel planned, and hope to start it soon.

What kind of clothes do you like to wear?
I loathe fashion and its dictates, and am not keen on clothes at all! I’d happily be a nudist, were the British climate more favourable. Failing that, I wish I could spend all day in pyjamas – even wear them to smart parties, or the grandest of grand balls.
I can’t write if I’m all dressed up, and in fact I wear a full-length quilted dressing gown to work in – perhaps the nearest I’ll ever get to a nun’s habit, although it’s not black but brilliant red. I love bright colours and have a whole range of dressing gowns in purple, puce-pink, emerald, turquoise ... As for the famous ‘little black dress’, I don’t possess one and never have. There was too much black at school.

Are you in love? Have you ever been?
Oh, dear, yes, I have been, but usually with highly unsuitable men. I’m attracted like a moth to a flame by dominant, controlling males who invariably spell trouble. My best period, as regards love, was when I was a devout little Catholic girl who loved only God and ponies.
Sometimes I fall in love with my own male characters – for example, Caldos de Roche, the protagonist of my first novel, "Absinthe for Elevenses" (which was re-titled "Bourbon for Breakfast" when it was published in America!) And, yes, he’s dominant, controlling, and makes life pretty difficult for the woman he’s involved with, yet also sweeps her to the dizziest of heights.
Do you have a dream lover – and what does he look like?
My dream lover is an ex-priest – someone who has suffered and struggled and fought his inner demons. He’s not young – indeed he looks rather ravaged, but in a lean and handsome sort of way. He’s controlled, contained, scholarly and deep, but capable of sudden romantic tendernesses, such as kissing the inside of my elbow or the spaces between my fingers. Aaaaaah!

What kind of comfort food do you like best?
I adore rice pudding – the old-fashioned kind with brown skin on top. One of the characters in my stories imagines herself floating face-down in a vast rice-pudding lake, tonguing up its sweetness, having first chewed a hole in that delicious caramelly skin.
Another of my favourites is peanut butter, eaten straight from the jar in large gloopy spoonfuls, not spread thinly on bread. I prefer the unhealthy variety, full of sugar and palm oil, which makes it voluptuously bland and creamy.

What makes you laugh? Cry?
I love Roman Catholic jokes. There’s something about nuns and priests, sacraments and sins, that lends itself to humour.
David Lodge is my favourite funny author, and a Catholic, too, of course. If I have to fly, I always take one of his novels with me on the plane, to distract me from my fears.
What makes me cry? Old people struggling with loneliness and ill health. Long ago, in my twenties, I used to work with the elderly and, ever since then, I’ve been saddened by their plight.
My father, who died last year at the age of 97, was wonderfully courageous, despite the fact that his legs had begun to weaken and he’d had several nasty falls. Returning home from seeing him, I often used to sit and cry, thinking of his grazes and bruises, and the valiant way he’d dismiss them as ‘nothing’, so as not to worry me.

What do you do to amuse yourself when not working?
I love gatherings with friends, especially old friends from my school and college days who know the real me. I also enjoy going to the gym, although less on account of the exercise than because I meet such a wide variety of people there – every size, shape, type and profession. My third short-story collection was called "Virgin in the Gym"!
However, reading is my greatest love. I derive great pleasure from losing myself in different worlds and living vicariously through the characters. Reading is the perfect escape.

What is it in a man or woman that turns you on? The clean version please!
Despite my own hatred of smart clothes, I’m attracted by men who are elegantly dressed, preferably in a suit and a crisp white shirt, worn over their bare skin. Vests are a real turn-off, as are anoraks, and yes, pyjamas. (How inconsistent I am!) Voices are very important. The perfect male voice is a mixture of Cognac and black velvet. And I like short hair, superbly cut. Ponytails on men are anathema to me. I’m intrigued by enigmatic men who possess depth and subtlety, and are full of internal contradictions.

What do you hate about life?
Its injustice – the way some people have to endure extremes of pain and suffering, while others romp through life with barely a graze. This is all the more upsetting when it applies to children – those, for example, who’ve had no proper home and been passed from pillar to post, moving from one set of foster parents to another, or landing up in care. I intend to deal with this subject in my new novel.
On the more trivial side, I hate computers that crash (mine did last month), buses that never come, and mail-order-companies that keep you hanging on for hours, yet continually play you recorded messages saying, "Your call is important to us". One of the stories in my new collection, called "Happy Ending", is my attempt to get revenge on such a company!
What do you hope to achieve in life and when will you know that you have been a success?
I’d like to feel that I’ve made a difference to at least a few people’s lives, whether these be the students I teach, or friends and relatives. I’d like to publish many more books and be still writing on my deathbed.
I don’t think I’ll ever feel I’m a success, having been told so often in my Catholic childhood that I was a sinner and a worm.

What are you going to write next?
Well, it should be that new novel I’ve planned, but I may get tempted to do another book of short stories. Short stories may be short in actual page-length, but they’re "long in depth", to use Flannery O’Connor’s phrase, containing a whole world in a restricted space. In fact, I can echo John Updike, a much greater writer than I’ll ever be, who said of his own short stories, "More closely than my novels, these efforts of a few thousand words each hold my life’s incidents, predicaments, crises, joys."

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