Maggie Gee on bringing Virginia Woolf to 21st-Century Manhattan

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Questions by Simon Thomas

Simon: I love Virginia Woolf so much that I felt nervous about reading Virginia Woolf in Manhattan, but I was really, really impressed. Your love of her writing is so evident. Could you describe how your relationship with Woolf’s work started, and how it has changed over time?

Maggie: Yes, I’ve loved her since I read Jacob’s Room when I was 17. Perhaps I didn’t understand it, but it was so alive, so sad-happy, it made my spine tingle and I thought an odd thing: ‘Here is someone who feels life in the same way as me.’ I don’t think I was particularly aware that she was a woman then – any more than I was conscious as a child that I partly loved Hans Andersen’s Snow Queen because it wasn’t the usual story where a prince saves a princess, but a story about how Gerda, a little girl, sets off around the world to find her friend, a boy called Kay. (I do have a character called Gerda in this novel, a teenager who at first thinks Woolf is ‘ a daft old woman’, but who ends up a total fan.)

How would you describe Woolf’s work to someone who hadn’t read her?

That’s a tall order in the half hour before we have to leave for Amsterdam! The novels are formally daring and structured more like pieces of visual art, poetry or music than linear narrative. Woolf strips a lot away, with a boldness that has encouraged us who follow to do likewise. The diaries are a dancing, witty, vivid record of a life lived with intelligence, humour, practicality and hard work. They also capture her skirmishes with, and long, hard campaigns against, mental illness, an occasional but appalling visitor to a life that was essentially happy and productive. I love her polemical writing, which has aged so much better than most political writing – A Room of One’s Own and Three Guineas – and I love her clear, entertaining essays about writers and literature, deeply informed, never shrinking from wider judgements or insights into the life of the writer under discussion. Some of our contemporary reviewers could learn a lot from them.

Did you ever consider other ways of framing a novel about Woolf, or did you always want to write a time-slip novel?

To be honest, everything happened more or less exactly as it does in my novel. With no fictional plans in my mind, I went to the Berg Collection in the New York Public Library to read Woolf’s manuscripts. When I found I was only allowed to access them on microfilm, I felt so frustrated that the idea of her materializing in person burst into my mind. Being forbidden something often makes one creative.

I’ve read that you found ‘Virginia Woolf in Manhattan’ a really difficult and lengthy novel to write; how did the novel and the process change over the years?

Virginia Woolf in Manhattan by Maggie Gee

I did nearly give up. I stopped for a year. It IS daunting, you know, bringing Virginia Woolf back to life…

There were to be two parts only, one set in New York, one in Istanbul. I wanted to compare the two cities, as well as everything else – New York so white and straight, Istanbul so sinuous, watery and forgiving, where a man on his own can still make a living selling mussels on a tray. But after I finished the Manhattan section, I got totally stuck, only partly because we moved house (and the removal men lost the bolts that held my desk together!) Two parts is essentially a static form – whereas three is dynamic. In the end I decided to introduce a bridging section, in which Virginia and Angela fly from New York to Istanbul, and I modeled it on ‘Time Passes’, the bridging section in To the Lighthouse. Also I went back to Turkey, a country I love, where I have friends, and know a little about Turkish students; and their own love of Woolf, and the way they value the intellectual freedom they are losing under Erdogan, inspired me to go on. Plus, it would have been such a defeat. I am so happy the book is out and in the world.

How did you accommodate readers who would love subtle Woolf-references (like the out-stretched arms at the end of ‘Time Passes’, for instance, or the allusions to Moments of Being) alongside those who only dimly know who Woolf is?

I hope I pulled that off, because I don’t believe literature has to be difficult, or a game  for very few players. You could clearly only write a novel like this around a very famous writer – one who has entered public consciousness, albeit in a distorted, melancholy, iconic form. But I made my mantra that it must work even for people who know almost nothing about her – ie there must be enough comedy, and adventure, and I hope human interest, for any reader, no matter how ignorant about Woolf, to be drawn in, and then perhaps go away and read her.

You echo Woolf’s style at times, and put some scenes in dialogue not dissimilar from The Waves, and then there are sections which are simply your own style. Could you talk me through your stylistic decision-making?

I try to make the two voices, Angela’s and Virginia’s, distinct. When Virginia is remembering her real lived life, I often echo the diaries or the letters very closely. When she is enjoying New York or Istanbul, I let something more modern emerge. She didn’t believe in language being static, as we know from ‘Words’, the only recording of her voice that survives – I think she would feast upon our contemporary idiolects, as, since you know, in one of our last sightings of her in Virginia Woolf in Manhattan, she and Gerda are making up rude rhymes. Gerda is another voice I very much enjoyed, a stroppy, clever, modern teenager with heart.

You introduce characters who have appeared in your other novels, as you explain in a note at the end. Was this an homage to Woolf re-introducing Mrs Dalloway after The Voyage Out, or something you enjoy experimenting with, or…?

It began with The Flood (2004). I wanted to bring all my fictional work together, so I in that book I introduce characters from every one of my preceding novels, and made links between them. And they are the age they would be according to the age they were when the original novel was published. Having done it then, I have continued to write partly within this connected fictional world. But no one ever needs to have read the preceding books – they are all self-sufficient. I’m sure most readers never notice, and that’s fine.

I don’t remember Virginia Woolf reading any books during the novel, and wondered if there was a reason behind this?

My fictional Virginia has no interest in what is being  written now. That is all part of the idea that slowly emerges as the novel goes on – the real Woolf’s work ended when she drowned herself, and that was one of the terrible costs of suicide, being unable any longer to take part in the life of letters. Perhaps I am trying to argue a fictional case against the mythifying of the self-destructive female artist ( and there are no more of them than there are self-destructive men.) It’s better to stay alive. My Virginia does not write or read, but she has a message to give to the writers of today, and she does give it at the end.

It’s a tedious but inevitable question to ask how closely Angela resembles you, so I shall add a clarification; what has your experience of literary conferences been like!?

Angela really isn’t like me, though I do use her as a vehicle for some of my own ambivalence about Woolf – ie Woolf has enormous power over us, and she sets a very high standard for us to follow. Yes, the ‘long shadow’. But no, I’m not a bestseller like Angela, nor as selfish – I hope! – and I never sent my own adorable daughter Rosa Rankin-Gee, a writer, to boarding school, though she did supply some of Gerda’s funniest lines. And I’m not separated from my husband, who could not be more different from Angela’s… At the moment in the book, though, when Angela overcomes her chippiness and finally explains why Woolf’s work matters, what she praises is what I would praise. (I am trying not to give away the plot!)

Oh, and literary conferences: I enjoy them, except for the more linguistically inpenetrable theory. I cannot help finding a lot of modern literary theory comic.

And, finally, what are you reading at the moment?

I’m reading Salena Godden’s Poems 1994-2014, just out from Burning Eye. I think Woolf would admire them and be amazed by their freedom, sexual, emotional and linguistic.

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Simon Thomas is a Shiny New Books editor, and would quite like to be best friends with Virginia Woolf. Read his review of Virginia Woolf in Manhattan here.

Maggie Gee, Virginia Woolf in Manhattan (Telegram Books, , 2014), 476pp.

BUY at Blackwell’s in paperback via our affiliate link (free UK P&P)

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