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Author Penelope Lively Shares 'The View From Old Age'

Penelope Lively describes her latest book, Dancing Fish And Ammonites, as "not quite a memoir," but rather "the view from old age," a subject she says she can report on with some authority — Monday is the British writer's 81st birthday.

Lively was born in Egypt, where her father was working at the time. She and her mother fled the country during World War II. When she was 12, in 1945, Lively was sent to live with her grandmothers in England.

Lively is known for her children's books as well as her novels. She received the Booker Prize, a British literary award, in 1987 for her novel Moon Tiger. In recognition of her contributions to British literature, she was given the honor "dame" of the British Empire in 2012.

Lively tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross about how she's adjusted to old age.


Interview Highlights

On why she wanted to write about old age

We're the new demographic. For the first time in human history there's a large tranche of the population, at least in the Western world, that is old, that is over 80. ... We're a significant group now, which has never been the case before. There have always been old people around, but as isolated figures, people living to 80 would've been extremely exceptional 200 [or] 300 years ago. So although the old were known, they weren't this army, as it were — this army requiring attention, requiring funding, giving grief to government agencies. ... It's quite interesting to be part of a new demographic.

On adjusting after her husband's death

I was quite good at being alone, anyway. Jack, my husband, and I had both led busy, professional lives rather separately. He was an academic and I was a writer, so I was often on my own. We lived in two places. We lived partly in London and partly in the country, in Oxfordshire, and quite often we'd be in different houses, so I was used to being in a house on my own. That didn't worry me too much. Of course, then I always knew there'd be an end to it — we'd be together again — so that's rather different...

I don't think I could've possibly adjusted to life with another person. I did think about that once or twice: Would I like there to be someone else? And I didn't want that, no.

On how women and men adapt differently to a spouse dying

Looking round my several women friends who are widows, [they] have all adapted very well. One has a new partner, a couple of other close friends who are widows don't. The only friend/acquaintance men I know who have been widowed found new partners with almost disconcerting rapidity. It really did seem as though they couldn't stand to be alone, and you learned with surprise that within six months or so they had set up with someone else and you wondered slightly if this was just simply that they felt they wouldn't possibly be able to adapt to life on their own.

On not wanting to purchase new things in old age

I think the lack of acquisitiveness is, interestingly, a sort of old age thing. I have a houseful of possessions; I don't want any more things. But when you were younger, you often wanted new things, yes indeed. You coveted a lovely new rug or you coveted something new for the kitchen. I don't do that now because in a sense I've — I was going to say, "I've got it all," but no, you can always have something that's even better than what you've already got. But I seem to have lost that feeling of, "Ooh, I really just must have that," whatever it was. It goes, which is something of a relief.

On not getting rid of books

They chart my life. I don't want to sound ponderous, but they chart my intellectual life. They chart everything that I've been interested in and thought about for the whole of my reading life. So if they went I would, in a sense, lose a sense of identity. They identify me. ... Most of them I shall never read again, but you never know what you may want to go back to. And it does constantly happen to me that there's something that I suddenly think, "Oh, I've got that book, let me just look that up." I do it every day.

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Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Today is British writer Penelope Lively's 81st birthday. She describes her new book as not quite a memoir, but rather the view from old age, a subject she says she can report on with some authority. But her book also examines some of her earlier memories. Lively grew up in Egypt, where her father was working. She and her mother fled the country during World War II.

In 1945, at the age of 12, she was sent to live with her two grandmothers in England. Lively is known for her children's books, as well as her novels. She received the British literary award The Booker Prize in 1987 for her novel "Moon Tiger." In recognition of her contributions to British literature, in 2012, she was given the honor Dame of the British Empire.

Lively's new book is called "Dancing Fish and Ammonites: A Memoir." Let's start with a short reading.

PENELOPE LIVELY: (Reading) I've not paid too much attention to old age. To individuals, yes: family, friends. But the status has not been on my radar. Give up on my seat on the bus? Of course. Feign polite attention to some rambling anecdote, raise my voice, repeat myself with patience, avoid - occasionally, I fear - that hazard light worn by the old: slow, potentially boring, hard going. Now that I wear the light myself, I'm nicely aware of the status. This is a different place. And since I am there, along with plenty of my friends, the expedient thing seems to be to examine it and report.

GROSS: Penelope Lively, welcome to FRESH AIR. I'm glad you did report. I like your memoir. What is the status that you feel old age has given you?

LIVELY: I'm wondering now if status is the right word. I think it's more situational. It's that you've arrived at a different place. I don't feel that I have a particular status. I certainly don't much play the old age card, although I might from time to time. So it's more that you've arrived at this completely different stage of life that, frankly, you had never given very much thought to.

And, of course, all the other states, periods in life, all the other decades, you've been used to. But here you are, in this strange decade of the 80s that you'd never really very much thought about. So I think that's what the difference is, not so much status as condition, state.

GROSS: You write that, you know, in some sense you consider yourself a pioneer, part of a new demographic. What's new about old age?

LIVELY: Well, absolutely. We are the new demographic. I mean, it's the first time in human history there's a large tranche of the population - at least in the Western world- that is old, that is over 80. I mean, I forget the statistics now. I looked them all up for the book. But we're a significant group now, which has never been the case before.

There have always been old people around, but as isolated figures. People living to 80 would have been extremely exceptional 200, 300 years ago. So although the old were known, they weren't this army, as it were, this army requiring attention, requiring funding, giving grief to government agencies. And so I thought I'd like to look at this in the book, look at what it's like to be in a new demographic in this way.

And it is - I think it's quite exciting. It's quite interesting to be part of a new demographic.

GROSS: Which is part of the reason why you're reporting on it.

LIVELY: Exactly.

GROSS: So when my parents were older, and I'd visit them, their friends used to say things to me like: never get old. And I'd think, like, that's really not useful advice.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: I mean...

LIVELY: Exactly. The alternative is to stop short at some earlier point. So we don't have much choice in the matter, really. And I have a certain impatience with contemporaries who are not making much of a fist of it, frankly. I mean, I'm well aware that how your old age is depends totally on two things: It depends on health, it depends on income.

And if you have reasonable health and reasonable income, it's not too bad a place to be. Of course, if you're poverty-stricken, then it's an appalling place to be. Equally, if you're particularly struck down by one of the age-related diseases, then it's a bad place to be.

But when I look around my friends, one or two are, seems to me, complaining too much just simply because they have got old, as though this was something unique and different. We're all in the same boat, frankly, and I'm most warm to those friends who are making a good fist of it, even though all of them have - or most of them - have got something wrong.

GROSS: That must be a British expression, making a fist of it. I can't say I've heard that before.

(LAUGHTER)

LIVELY: Oh, you don't know it?

GROSS: No, no. Does that mean, like, being tough? Like...

LIVELY: It means - yes, more or less that, yes. Yes, being tough, really. Yeah.

GROSS: OK. So you mention in your memoir that we wear out before our time. Which parts of your body have been wearing out?

LIVELY: For me, I have spinal arthritis, but I - my back went long ago, when I was still, by my standards now, relatively young. I've had a very bad back problem for 20 years now. And that's sort of managed, but it restricts what I can do a great deal. My sight is not good. I've had cataract operations. I also have macular degeneration. But that may be contained.

My eye specialist says, cheerfully, if you insist on having this disease, you're actually having it at a good time, because there are these injections now which usually manage to contain it. It was, of course, in the past, the main cause of blindness in old age.

So those are the two sort of main factors. I've always had bad eyesight. I've been myopic since I was a child. And the cataract operations have helped. The back is the major problem. Otherwise, I'm not too bad.

GROSS: You cracked a vertebrae four years ago, needed surgery, and you were in intense, unrelenting pain for about three-and-a-half months. The pain went away, or at least that intense pain went away. If it hadn't, do you think you could have lived with it?

LIVELY: No, I couldn't, not that intensity. I can live with the pain I've got now, which is sort of managed by painkillers and physiotherapy, and I'm going to have a small surgical operation in a few weeks' time. But this was of another order. It was - I mean, it was a pain so severe, it could only be helped by pethidine, which is the drug you have in childbirth. It was far beyond the reach of the sort of ordinary painkillers that we take.

No, I couldn't have gone on like that, and I will admit to having had suicidal moments, yes. I felt, you know, that I'm not sure how long I can continue with this and was sustained by, you know, family and friends and a very remarkably physiotherapist, who was absolutely determined that we would get through this. He said we shall get through this, and we did.

GROSS: And is that still the person who's your physiotherapist?

LIVELY: Indeed, yes, yes. He's very much in my life now.

GROSS: You're very lucky. You write about being a widow. Your husband died at the age of 69 in the late 1990s. What did he die of?

LIVELY: He died of esophageal cancer, fairly quickly. It was about nine months from diagnosis, almost exactly what they told us when it was diagnosed. Initially, they said that he possibly might live for four years, but they sounded very unconvinced. And as time went on in the treatment, they said it will be nine months, and nine months it was.

GROSS: I would like you to read a paragraph from your memoir about being a widow.

LIVELY: Right. (Reading) The world is full of widows, several among my closer friends. We've each known that grim rite of passage, have engaged with grief and loss, and have not exactly emerged, but found a way of living after and beyond. It's an entirely changed life for anyone who's been in a long marriage, 41 years for me: alone in bed, alone most of the time, without that presence towards which you turned for advice, reassurance, with whom you shared the good news and the bad, every decision now taken alone, no one to defuse anxieties.

GROSS: That's Penelope Lively, reading from her new memoir "Dancing Fish and Ammonites," a memoir that she describes as reporting from old age. After your husband died, I mean, years after he died - because he died in the 1990s, right - did you ever consider either a new partner or just a roommate? Did you want company at home?

LIVELY: No. I didn't, actually.

(LAUGHTER)

LIVELY: I have family. I have two children. I have - at that point, I had four grandchildren. I now have six. Various friends, lots of friends. I was quite good at being alone, anyway. We - Jack, my husband, and I had both led busy, professional lives rather separately. He was an academic, and I was a writer. And so I was often on my own.

We lived in two places. We lived partly in London and partly in the country, in Oxfordshire, and quite often we'd be in different houses. So I was used to being in a house on my own. That didn't worry me too much. Of course, then I always knew that there would be an end to it. We'd be together again. So that's rather different.

But no, in fact, it was rather the opposite. I don't think I could possibly have adjusted to life with another person. I did think about that once or twice, would I like there to be someone else, and I didn't want that. No.

GROSS: You've said that you think women adapt to surviving a spouse better than men do. What leads you to say that?

LIVELY: Partly, I think, just observation. Looking round, my several women friends who are widows have all adapted very well. One has a new partner. A couple of other close friends who are widows don't. The only sort of friends/acquaintance, men I know who have been widowed, found new partners with almost disconcerting rapidity.

It seemed - it really did seem as though they couldn't stand to be alone, and you learned with surprise that within six months or so, that they'd set up with someone else. You know, you wondered slightly if this was just simply that they felt that they wouldn't possibly be able to adapt to life on their own.

GROSS: You write in your memoir: I don't think much about death. I'm not exactly afraid of it. I'm afraid of the run-up to death, because I've had to watch that. What are your concerns, and especially your worries about death, not having a spouse? Your husband had you. You don't have him.

LIVELY: Well, that is a worry, yes. I do think about that. I just try not to think about it, because what's the point? Whatever happens will happen. I'm - I have children, and I have lovely grownup granddaughters, and I hope they'll, you know, they'll lend a hand. But yes, I will be on my own in a way that he wasn't. And I know that, certainly for him, that was the great solace, that I was there all the time. I never left him for a moment all those last months.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is writer Penelope Lively, and her new book is a memoir about being older. She's 81 now. The book is called "Dancing Fish and Ammonites." Let's take a short break, here. Then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is writer Penelope Lively. Her new book is a memoir in which she reports from old age, at the age of 81. It's called "Dancing Fish and Ammonites." You write that you are no longer acquisitive. And is that in part because you've had to deal, after your husband died, with what to do with his possessions?

LIVELY: Oh, I don't think it's anything to do with that, no. Yes, there was a good deal of getting rid of things, because I was reducing from two houses to one, and so there was a lot to shed. No, I think the lack of acquisitiveness is, interestingly, it is a sort of old age thing. I have a house full of possessions. I don't want any more things.

But when you were younger, you often wanted new things. Yes, indeed. You know, you coveted a lovely new rug, or you coveted something new for the kitchen. I don't do that now, because, in a sense, I've - well, I was going to say I've got it all. No, you can always have something that's sort of even better than what you've already got, but I seem to have lost that feeling of, oh, you know, I really just must have that whatever-it-was. It goes, and - which is something of a relief, I have to say.

GROSS: You have a gazillion books, right?

LIVELY: Yes.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So, here's my question: Like, why hold on to all those books? Speaking for myself, we have books and records on the floor and on tables and couches. I mean, it's just - it's way too much stuff. And you're not going to be able to reread all those books. So what's your answer for why it's worth holding onto them, knowing that you probably don't need to refer to most of them, you're not going to reread them, and you might not get to the ones you haven't already read?

LIVELY: Ah, well, that's an important question, and there's a very good answer to that. It's that simply that they chart my life. They chart my - well, I don't want to sound ponderous, but they chart my intellectual life. They chart everything that I've been interested in and thought about for the whole of my reading life. So, if they went, I would, in a sense, lose a sense of identity. They identify me.

And you're quite right: most of them I shall never read again. But you never know what you may want to go back to, and it does constantly happen to me that there's something that I suddenly think, oh, I've got that book. Let me just look that up. I do it every day. I look for something along the shelves. And if I got rid of them, then I wouldn't have them.

But yes, nowadays we can quickly acquire things on Amazon, or whatever. So that's not the main reason. The main reason for me is this sense of identity, this wonderful sort of familiarity of the way that hands wave from the shelves, as it were, saying: Remember me? You know, remember when you were interested in this? Remember when you enjoyed reading her? And that kind of thing.

So that's what they're there for, and that's why I think I've got about 3,000 books, and I don't want any of them to go. I did think of moving into an apartment a few years ago. I live in a vertical, 19th-century London house. And I could never find any apartment that would have room for about 3,000 books and a lot of pictures, as well.

And I just thought, no. We'll think of something else. We'll have a stair lift, when push comes to shove.

GROSS: Sometimes I go to one of my bookshelves, and I take out a book that I have from my childhood. And I'll look at it, and I'll just be transported back, like to my childhood. And I have all these, like, sense memories. Do you ever do that?

LIVELY: Oh, absolutely. Yes. I've kept - well, actually, most of the children's books that - well, that I've read with my children have gone to a family cottage that we have in the country. I've got, certainly, a sort of basic shelf of my own old childhood books, and I would go back to those from time to time. If I happened to be in that room, I would pull one down and remember, you know, the reading experiences of up to 12, which for me, were crucially important, because I didn't go to any school.

I had a curious kind of home education, which was based entirely on reading, and quite a lot of the books from then are still there. That's crucial. There's a wonderful retelling of Greek mythology called "Tales from Greece and Rome," Andrew Lang. It's sort of a late 19th-century retelling of Greek mythology, with all the stories of Troy.

And I reveled in that when I was a sort of nine, 10-year-old, and I still sometimes pick that up and look at it again, although I know all the stories inside-out.

GROSS: Your parents were British, but you grew up in Egypt. You were born in 1933. Your father worked for the National Bank of Egypt. Is that why your family went there?

LIVELY: Indeed, yes. He'd gone there when he was a young man - he was only 23 - really, because there was unemployment in Britain at that time, and unemployment went sort of up into the professional classes from which he came. There were no jobs. And so a lot of young men went abroad. A lot of them went to India, and went, effectively, where they could get work.

And I'm not - he got a job as the assistant to the governor of the National Bank of Egypt, who was an Englishman. These are the days when Egypt was effectively governed British. It was run and governed by the British. It was a protectorate. And it was before there was sort of full Egyptian independence. So there was a great deal - behind every Egyptian official was a Briton, sort of looking over his shoulder.

And my father worked for that bank for - well, right up until 1945, when he came back to England, and I did, as well.

GROSS: So, you grew up in Egypt as World War II was approaching, and then part of your youth was spent during World War II. When you were a child, there was a map in your home on the wall of the Libyan desert, and you said this was actually in the nursery. And it showed the movement of German and English troops at a time when Egyptians were afraid that the Germans might take over Egypt.

So was that a scary map to look at as a child?

LIVELY: Not in the least, no.

(LAUGHTER)

LIVELY: It's extraordinary how I think how impervious children can be. I mean, for me, war was just simply a condition. It was there was a war on, and there it was. And I couldn't remember there not being a war on, so this was a perfectly sort of normal situation. And I find it interesting. I used to look at this map, and we would move the pins around, and there was constant discussion of how the battles were going in the Libyan desert.

You have to remember that this is only about 100 miles away. This was not far at all. And as Rommel's armies advanced in the big push sort of closer to Egypt, which ended in the Battle of Alamein, which reversed the situation and drove them back, but before that, frankly, any right-thinking person must have thought that Egypt was very likely to fall, because the intention - the German, Rommel's intention - was to push on through Egypt and up through Palestine as it then was towards the oil fields of the Middle East, which was what it was all about, to get to the oil fields.

And it must have looked as though that was the most likely thing to happen. And indeed when it was sort of on the brink of happening, the general headquarters in Cairo, all the documents were burned. There was what was known as Ash Wednesday, when they burned all the documents in anticipation of the German arrival.

And before that, British women and children had been effectively evacuated and left. My father stayed, in fact. He stayed working for the bank, and if the Germans had arrived, he would've been interned and spent the rest of the war in an internment camp.

GROSS: Penelope Lively will be back in the second half of the show. Her new memoir is called "Dancing Fish and Ammonites." Today is her 81st birthday. We recorded this interview earlier this month. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to our interview with British writer Penelope Lively. Today is her 81st birthday. She describes her new book as the view from old age. It's called "Dancing Fish and Ammonites: A Memoir." The book also recounts some of her early memories. Her parents had moved from England to Egypt before she was born. During World War II, as German troops advanced toward Egypt, she and her mother fled the country for Palestine. But at the age of 12, Penelope Lively went to England to live with her two grandmothers.

In 1945, you were sent to England. You went on a troop ship with 7,000 demobilized soldiers and 100 expatriate women and children going home, you say except for me, who was leaving home. What was it like to arrive alone, during the war in England?

LIVELY: Oh, it was extraordinary. I mean, remember that I was coming from the Middle East. I'd really never known anything else. I had been to England once, just before the war, when I was six, and I remembered absolutely nothing about it. The first thing that struck me was the cold, the devastating cold. How could people live with this degree of cold? And remember, of course, that this is a time when no houses had central heating and it was - as you say - before the end of the war, so there was coal rationing. There virtually was no heating.

It was a very difficult time. They were still rationing, and I went to live with a grandmother in London. I was effectively divided up between two grandmothers. I had one grandmother in London, and one in the country, and I went from one to the other. And bless them, yes, they were both in their 70s and they took on this, I'm sure, extremely difficult, sort of traumatized teenager. I was 12 by then, and deeply unhappy and homesick and deracinated, and they somehow coped with this. And I remember it all very clearly, but through a sort of haze of, you know, mainly just being extremely unhappy.

And then I was then sent off to school. Well, it was about time. I had never been to any school. But my father sent me to a boarding school, which wasn't really the best thing to do with a child who'd never been to any sort of school before, and I was desperately unhappy there, yes, completely wretched there. I do remember a sort of very mature thought, actually, when I think I was probably by then abou