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Five Questions For...
Written by
Kamy Wicoff
December 2009
Written by
Kamy Wicoff
December 2009


The year after she published her first “experimental” novel Dying in Other Words (1981), Maggie Gee was selected as one of the original ‘Best of Young British Novelists’ in Granta. Since then she has published eleven more books. She has been shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction and the Impac Dublin Literary Award, served as the first female Chair of Council of the Royal Society of Literature, and been translated into thirteen languages. Combining a sharp satirical eye with an interest in race, immigration, and class in contemporary Britain, Gee is among those women novelists, including Hilary Mantel, Rose Tremain, and Pat Barker, who in the generation after magical realist Angela Carter and can be called the Skeptical Realists—writers who use the realist form but raise questions about its mimetic accuracy. American readers who want to get to know her work might start with her comic tour-de-force My Cleaner (2005), about the relationship between a white London novelist, Vanessa Henman, and her former cleaner, the Ugandan writer Mary Tendo. My Driver (2009) follows these characters to Uganda, where Vanessa is attending an International Writers’ Conference.

--Elaine Showalter, author, most recently, of A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx

Q: What is your background, and how did you start writing about Africa?

A: My parents were both bright children from working class families - my father’s family were railway workers in the Midlands, my mother’s father was a steel-worker, but my father did an external degree and became a teacher, and they moved south. I went to state schools and then to Somerville College, Oxford; later I did a PhD at the University of Wolverhampton, but I never wanted to be an academic. I went to London, worked as a hotel receptionist and published my first novel, aged 31. I have lived by writing, plus odd bits of teaching and reviewing, ever since then. The experience of changing class in Britain has been a theme in my life and writing, and so has racism in Britain, though mostly I write about the shortness of human life and our place in the universe – I grew up in the country, and the natural world is very important to me. In 2003, I went to Africa for the first time, to Libya, with an Arabic-speaking novelist, Fadia Faqir, two weeks before the war on Iraq. Then I was commissioned to do an exchange with Ugandan novelist Ayeta Anne Wangusa by Cheltenham Festival. I loved Uganda and have been back two or three times - I wrote most of My Driver there. In the beginning I got most things wrong, and had to learn everything again. But I wanted to write about the aftermath of Empire, how the people of a former imperial power inter-relate with those whom they once colonized. My Cleaner and My Driver are both about difficult friendships between two women, one English, who has all my own worst qualities, and one Ugandan—both writers. I stay in contact with my Ugandan writer friends, and I have learned a lot from being an outsider (however warmly welcomed) there.

Q: What is your life like now?

A: My Driver came out in spring 2009 while I was away for a month at Hawthornden Castle, the only free writer’s retreat in the U.K., finishing my memoir, My Animal Life, away from newspapers and the internet. So it was an usually serene publication experience. I was looking forward to a relaxing summer, but it didn’t turn out that way—my husband decided to repaint the outside of the house and sort out the garage; I received notice of a random (they told me) tax audit and had to stare (blankly, for weeks) at piles of receipts and bills: but I got a clean bill of health and since then I have had one of the best holidays in my life with my husband Nick in New York, so I am feeling good.

Q: How do you define or perceive yourself as a writer?

A: I have been called a skeptical realist, and the name instantly made sense to me. I am socially and culturally skeptical, but I also habitually look at the ‘reality’ of the book skeptically. In other words, I belong, in part, to what Robert Alter called “the other great tradition,” meaning self-conscious novelists from Sterne onwards who are holding fictionality to the light every now and then. I wouldn’t define myself as primarily a “woman writer,” or see my writing as gendered. Dickens, Woolf, Nabokov and Vonnegut were the early influences on my work, and I read as many men as women. If you’re asking about the ‘women question’, after three decades in the literary world, I certainly see the persistent marginalization of women’s writing. Male critics still unconsciously look at us as a separate group: “X is the best woman writer this year,” as a fellow Booker prize judge once unwisely said to me. Women are very often reviewed by women, reviewed in bundles, and (this is my special bugbear) reviewed in terms of their subject-matter rather than their art. Male writers are described as “great” much sooner in their careers, while women can win many prizes, publish a huge amount, and still be called “promising” at age forty-two. I feel half-amused and half-annoyed when some women who write dissociate themselves from their sex by saying ‘Unlike most women writers, I…’ or ‘I’m not one of those women who…’ , thus lumping all the other women into an unlovely ball. It is shooting ourselves in the foot.

Q: What do you see as the differences between the American and the British literary scenes?

A: I’m not qualified to say, really, but certainly in the U.K., prizes and awards are very important for the credibility of writers of fiction. Publishers like to see their authors get prizes; for the writer, winning one or several makes you a contender. I’ve been short-listed but never won, and although some writers would see me as very privileged and successful, I still feel short of serious attention from the mainstream. Someday soon I’d like to have a residency at an American university and get a real sense of the milieu. There is also a huge book festival circuit here; I’m just off to perform at Cheltenham.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’ve just checked the proofs and finalized the jacket of my memoir, My Animal Life. I feel that for the first time I’ve been able to be completely honest, that I’m not hiding, as we all do in novels. It records my struggle to understand myself, and my little life on this planet, as a writer, a child, a wife and a mother, but mainly as a human animal. It’s comic rather than tragic, though there is sadness and loss in it. I analyze the literary world as a Darwinian struggle for survival. How will it be received? These days the book market in the U.K. is totally distorted by misery memoirs and celebrity memoirs, so I wonder. For now, though, I have a qualified sense of completeness: my eighth novel, The Flood, brought all my previous work together (it included characters from all my other novels) I have now published the second of my two African novels, my short stories were all collected in The Blue (2006), and my memoir says the things that matter to me about my life, and writing life. So in a way, I am free to do completely new things. Looking at visual art in New York made me think: ‘more art’. Maybe something using words and images? And I’ve just been on a play writing course with the Arvon Foundation in Devon, as a student rather than a teacher. A revelation! Wonderful to be a student, I loved the other people (many very young) on the course - but I was a slow learner: mustn’t give up the day-job just yet.

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  • Kirsten Rue

    I have now added My Cleaner to my "to-read" list. Thank you for this interview!