INTERVIEW: Alison Macleod on imagination, self-surveillance and ‘Tenderness’

As part of my interview series Writers on Research, I spoke to author Alison Macleod on the research process behind her novel Tenderness (Bloomsbury, 2022).

First off, I feel like Tenderness is an absolute goldmine for an interview series based on research. The breadth of historical and literary reference is reflected not just in the many anecdotes from which the novel draws but also in your careful characterisation of DH Lawrence, Jackie Kennedy and the other real-life characters. I know that your work on Tenderness covered several years, but I’m curious to know where you found the spark of your original idea. Was the novel founded in the literary ‘detective work’ you refer to in your Author’s Note, or in a more personal place?

Yes, the research was immersive – for me, vast, deep and revelatory.  Others used to remark on how disciplined I was to undertake such work – across archives, locations, countries and years – but, for me, it was absorbing and gripping, so little discipline was required.

Nor did I feel alone in that labour – and don’t get me wrong, it was a huge labour.  From the start, I felt the presence – or the generous company – of a story that wanted to be.  It already existed in some dimension, and my role was to usher it across, from something like that which Aristotle dubbed ‘the potentia’, into the here and now.  To draw it down.  I don’t engage in a major project until I have an almost visceral, across-the-back-of-my-neck sense that a story already has a form of life independent of me.  I and it then work together to give it expression.

It’s this act of faith that sustains me through the labour of writing – and the business of surviving as I write, often against the odds.  It is, in one sense, madness to spend five years researching and writing a book for which – if the work were costed per hour and the payment assessed – one would be earning far less than the national minimum wage.  Yet, as I say, it is fundamentally an act of faith.  Such instincts form a daily part of the real and grounded experiences of writers.  They also defy – and exceed – academic descriptors for research that characterise institutional exercises, such as the REF.

But I’ll back-track a bit.  In terms of that ‘spark’ you mention, yes, there was a decisive moment when I knew there was a book to write: the moment I discovered the little-known fact that J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI had tried to prevent the 1959 American publication of the complete/unexpurgated manuscript of D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover.  Ultimately, the Bureau failed in its censorship efforts, but it did go on to support the British Prosecution team’s case, in the infamous 1960 trial of Penguin Books, the ‘Lady Chatterley trial’.

It struck me as extraordinary that a novel – an act of the artistic imagination – could preoccupy the FBI in the middle of the Cold War.  I wanted to know why.  It ran deeper, I think, than even the issues relating to freedom of speech.  In many censorship cases, where government power drives the ban, it’s clear what the perceived threat is.  But while the explicit sexuality  of Lawrence’s final novel threatened mid-century societal norms, it seemed to me that something more had to be going on in the FBI’s efforts to shut down the book.

The imagination is the gateway to self-invention; to the creation of our own inner lives and worlds.  Lawrence himself genuinely couldn’t understand the threat posed by what he saw as the honest depictions of human sexuality.  Yet still, he called Lady Chatterley’s Lover a ‘bomb’ of a book.  He believed that the most radical content was the story of two lovers who succeeded – through the honesty of a loving union – to give up on social and class convention and to determine the shapes of their own lives.  For Lawrence, the novel itself, as a literary form, was ‘the bright book of life’ because of its unique capacity, not merely to mimic life, but to engender life in its rhythms, flux and pulse-beats of language, image and consciousness.

For reasons I’m not altogether sure of, the power of the imagination – and society’s neglect of that power – is the concern that drives my work.  It is a portal, and life is diminished when we cease to recognise it.

The actions of the FBI in the 1950s lay the ground for the erosions to democracy that shock us today: election manipulation, surveillance of citizens and cries of ‘fake news’.  When we neglect the power of the personal imagination – and the curiosity about the world that it inspires – society becomes vulnerable to the dark imaginations, reductionism and manipulations of those who, for systemic reasons, can more readily climb to power.  This state of affairs has long been a personal concern for me.  I’m not sure why – except that I’ve been aware since childhood that the gifts of the imagination are a birth right of all.  When it is ‘attended to’ it is a ‘receiver’: a state of deep consciousness that connects us, acutely and thrillingly, to everything from the stillness of the stone on a beach to the pulsing stars overhead.

To put those very powerful words about the imagination aside for the moment, I’m interested in your choice to integrate non-speculative (that is, already extant) material from DH Lawrence’s prose, poetry and letters into Tenderness. An interchange between your words and his runs throughout the entire novel, separated only by discrete typefaces, which opens what you call a ‘dialogue’ with Lady Chatterley’s Lover and other texts. Perhaps you could tell us a little more about what brought you to the decision to open that dialogue, and about the opportunities and challenges you found as you worked with the source material.

Initially, my plan was simply to introduce enough of the text of  Lady Chatterley’s Lover into Tenderness that any reader who hadn’t read LCL wouldn’t feel excluded from the experience of my novel.  Indeed, I hope it does look after the reader in that way.

But that working plan quickly gave way to something more.  I realised I could involve readers, at a dramatic level, in an active experience of Lawrence’s creation of LCL.  I wanted to offer them the line-by-line exhilaration and struggle of the making of a story.  I wanted to acquaint them intimately with the influences behind it, the beauty, the betrayals, the mean-mindedness, and the love.  I wanted my reader almost to see the wet ink on the page.  In this way, not only would they be given an intimate experience of creation, they would also understand just how much was actually at stake by the end of Tenderness, when we arrive at the scenes of the 1960 Old Bailey trial.  In my novel, Lady Chatterley’s Lover becomes, I suppose, a palimpsest through which I can show the reader the other stories, poems and experiences that fed, stream-like, into that watershed moment.

In opening up the story of the day-by-day writing of Lawrence’s short story ‘England, my England’, I also hoped I’d be able to show the reader how Lady Chatterley’s Lover is actually less about sex than about Lawrence’s long preoccupation with the trauma of the First World War.  For example, in Tenderness, I initially give the reader the little-known story of his story ‘England, my England’ (especially the first version), which reveals his horror of what he sensed, from 1914, would be mass ‘industrialised’ slaughter.  At the time, Lawrence was recovering from a breakdown brought on by the declaration of war.  Twelve years later, as he begins to write Lady Chatterley’s Lover, he is writing ‘England, my England’s’ conclusion or its ‘book-end’ – a vision of how his traumatised nation might heal itself after war through a radical form of tenderness.  This vision has, it seems to me, never been adequately explored in criticism or in popular discussions of LCL.  Yet he was dying as he wrote LCL, and that was the hope he held out, torch-like, to the future against his own despair – and vision that another war was coming.

Also, in the course of my research into the circumstances surrounding Lawrence and ‘England, my England’, I came to understand that Frieda Lawrence was not the most influential ‘model’ for Lady Chatterley, as is generally assumed.  Of course there are loose parallels, but the actual model was a woman called Rosalind Baynes, with whom Lawrence had a brief affair in 1920.  In working ‘close-up’ with her privately published memoir, with the text of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and with Lawrence’s ‘San Gervasio’ poems, I was astonished to see the degree of her influence and inspiration.  I wanted to share this with the reader.  I wanted to give her or him a sense of how vibrant and multi-layered any powerful act of creation is.

Issues of what we now call ‘research ethics’ are an explicit theme in Tenderness, explored most obviously through the background behind ‘England, My England’, as mentioned. Lawrence was of course notorious for cannibalising the lives of his friends and loved ones for use within his narratives, causing repeated upset in his appropriation of their public and private sufferings. I’m curious to know how you handled the use of real-life material in Tenderness, and whether you had ethical concerns in drawing from the lives of those whose families (or at least descendants) may still be alive.

Yes, I certainly gave it a lot of thought.  I admire Lawrence’s single-minded daring –  for the sake of his work – and I dislike him for it.  His imagination usually needed to be fuelled by living models.  Lawrence, as you say, often cannibalised the outward details of a person’s life – as he did for the main characters of ‘England, my England’.  His specific cruelty, in my view, lay in the often flagrant distortions he then introduced into his rendering of their inner lives or personal worlds.  In other words, a character could often be easily identified as an actual friend or individual in literary circles; yet that outward characterisation would often be ‘filled’ with a nature or motives that Lawrence invented.  For example, the (in reality) loving couple in ‘England, my England’ are depicted as characters with a hollow, bitter sham of a marriage.  He also used, as a plot device, a secret, private tragedy experienced by that family, one he had learned of while staying with them as their guest – while enjoying their very generous hospitality.  The result, ‘England, my England, is a powerful story but, for the family, the wound ran deep across generations.

In my depiction of that same family, I was lucky to be aided by one of its members living today.  In my novel, I show them in an unfailingly generous light – simply because there is no evidence, even from Lawrence, that they were anything but generous.  I also depict the character of the child Mary and her genuinely fond relationship with Lawrence – to show that no situation is homogeneous.  Lawrence wasn’t only exploitative, in other words.  He was generous with Mary.

In an incidental way, I probably wanted, in some small way, to expose the injustice of Lawrence’s depiction – and that dark aspect of creation.  I can’t – and don’t believe I should – claim to know what the ethical stance of other writers should be.

Unlike Lawrence, I won’t distort or falsify for the sake of a story.  It’s straightforward for me.  I’m simply not interested in falsifying history because I’m vitally interested in what did happen.  If I want or need to invent – to show wider truths – I simply invent a character, as I did with my lone FBI agent Mel Harding, although, even for him, I relied on extensive research into FBI training and culture in the 1950s.

I felt a little sad revealing what I did about Rebecca West’s real-life efforts to put the defence team off the case.  It wasn’t her proudest moment.  But I had found the letters that proved it, and I had permission from her executor to use them.  Even if I hadn’t, I probably would have found another way to introduce that information because it was 1) true, 2) fascinating, given that it runs counter to the received picture of West as a star witness for the Defence – complexity is what I’m after; and 3) it was an important and overlooked part of the literary-historical record.

I often get this sort of question in relation to Jackie Kennedy – I find that interesting.  I myself usually feel it might be more relevant, for example, in relation to the child character of Mary, who was a real-life private individual.  For her character, for example, I took immense trouble to compile the miscellaneous accounts of her that are scattered across letters, diary entries and the biographies of others.  I wanted to be scrupulous about Mary – and to convey her delight in life, above all – because she was a private person I wanted to honour and here, a child.  Mary is only a delight in my handling.  Had that handling not been possible, I probably would have excluded her from my story.

My approach to Jackie Kennedy is not dissimilar.  I had few qualms about drawing her into my story because, in life, she was a great admirer of Lawrence’s novels.  She was only ever to be a heroine of sorts in Tenderness, willing ‘Lady Chatterley’ on in spite of the government and the FBI’s efforts to ban her.  Jackie Kennedy also functions as the character who bridges the otherwise seemingly disparate narratives of Lawrence and Hoover.  I say ‘seemingly’ because, as strange as those names sound in one sentence, I realised that history connected these two figures – and I still love the surprise truth of that.

Yet even with these (benign?) intentions, I was mindful that I wanted to remain true and attentive to the details of Jackie Kennedy’s life and marriage in the period of my novel.  To build up a sense of her personal, pre-White House life, I introduce the facts of John F. Kennedy’s war record, his serial philandering, his well-documented sexual appetites, and the Kennedys’ little-known and largely forgotten agreement to separate had he not won the Democratic nomination in 1960.

By spending time ‘inhabiting’ the truths of this period – all of it on the historical record – I was able to evoke how Jackie Kennedy is likely to have felt as she read Lady Chatterley’s Lover, the story of another lonely, young wife with a powerful war-hero husband.  I’m speculating, of course, but, crucially for me at least, I’m not distorting what was known, even at the time, about the Kennedy marriage.

I think what would surprise most readers about Tenderness is how much is not invented.  I worked intensively with historical details and timelines no reader will ever know I’ve been faithful to.  Still, I did so – out of respect for the lives of real individuals and because it’s the reality of extraordinary facts that, often, makes me want to write.

I’ll then evoke and recreate those histories as meaningfully as possible, using all the talent and energy I have.  To dream up or distort a set of facts simply to be sensational or dramatic would bore me, frankly.

As I suggest above, I will, very occasionally, allow myself to speculate scenically on the page: e.g. what if Jackie Kennedy, as a former journalist, slipped into the back row of a hearing for the sake of an author and a book she loved?  I allow myself to speculate in this way because 1) it won’t break with – or break – any actual historical/public timeline; 2) it will be a ‘scene-based corollary’ to Jackie Kennedy’s actual admiration of Lawrence’s work – i.e., she is not distorted in the process, and 3) this is the ‘bridging action’ that is going to allow me to show the reader something much more significant and truthful, i.e. the FBI’s dark history of censorship, citizen surveillance, intimidation, blackmail and political manipulation.

I admit I worry sometimes about all the fear for emerging writers around issues of ethics and sensitivities.  When I work with these writers, such issues are often, today, the first questions that come up in discussions of creativity.  It really saddens me to see the anxiety and the instinct, first, for self-surveillance rather than risk-taking, experiment or delight in the play of ideas.

I worry that, in both the academy and in wider society, we are losing sight of what ‘artistic transformation’ means – about its potentially redemptive power.  I worry that the academy – along with government policy in 2023 – is playing a role in the downgrading of those very qualities that underlie the Humanities and humanity – imagination, curiosity, artistic insight and vision.  I’m very much involved, as I think I’ve shown above, in original research discoveries that can be accredited in one’s academic life.  Yet, as thrilled as I am by, say, a research discovery I make in an archive, and by my ability to interpret it, I remain conscious that this form of ‘knowledge production’ is easier and less significant work than the infinitely less ‘describable’ labour of imaginative transformation on the page.

The question of ethics is complicated, and it should be.  Nevertheless, I fear that, if the writing of the lives of others is increasingly problematised or frowned upon by authorities such as ethics panels, we’ll all soon be locked into writing auto-fiction only; that we’ll be encouraged to disparage male writers, such as Lawrence, who made female voices and female consciousness his central interest; that we’ll be told we must only research the lives of those of our own gender, race, class and time; that the vitally wild mind of art and literature will be impoverished through ‘supervision’; that, eventually, the extraordinary power of the human imagination will be less and less understood, even in – or perhaps especially in – the academy.

I have to say that so many of the descriptions of McCarthyite America, as well as the eras of Lawrence’s international censorship battles, resonated with my own feelings of disappointment and fear, specifically in 2020s Britain. Building on your insights above, did you intend to shine a light on our current political climate? And if so, did your research into the structures of power that hang over Tenderness alter your view of how contemporary society is managed and maintained?

Absolutely.  I’m so glad that came through for you from between the lines of Tenderness.  Whenever I’m writing of a certain historical period, I’m also writing about ‘now’, if aslant.  It was the reason, above all, that I wanted to write Tenderness.  Here was another time, the 1950s, when democracy was being threatened, not by external states, but from actors and actions within the democratic body politic – by authoritarian ‘strong men’ leaders, by the manufacture of counterfactual ‘facts’, by populist rhetoric.  I was writing Tenderness at a time of Brexit campaign lies, ‘take back control’ rhetoric, Cambridge Analytica, the rise of Trump, pro-Trump election interference by the Russians, and so on.  I’d never known a time when we’ve become so preoccupied by facts versus ‘fake news’ – and so ill equipped to discern the truth behind the political lies.  Tenderness is, for me, the story of the struggle between freedom of speech and freedom of the imagination, and authoritarian impulses within democracy – for me, a crucial concern in the 21st century.

I believe that the human imagination, across all fields – and curiosity, the wellspring of the imagination – is our innate ‘detector’ for the truth, in all its complexity.  But we find ourselves increasingly divorced from this natural divining rod as we doom-scroll through 24/7 newsfeeds; as we pivot from tweet to tweet; from uncertainty to polarised position; as we lose the attention spans needed to hold (and to co-create) complex creations and truths in our minds; as we lose our eons-old understanding that imagined worlds are about more than entertainment or social lessons fed to us on screens.

This said, I remain ever hopeful.  Stories are somehow bigger than we are – brighter and wiser too.  In spite of the times in which we live and the challenges we face in 2023, the imagination will, I believe, prevail.  I think it will, not only because it has a life and an intelligence of its own – for which writers and artists are mere conduits – but because our survival might depend on our ability to live and work together on the same small planet.  It’s a situation that demands nuance and understanding, and that begins with your story, my story, his, hers and theirs – with one great web of stories.  I believe we’ll have to rediscover that even the facts, as crucial as they are, must sometimes give way to truths, and that the imagination has its own urgent, very real wisdom.  It’s not escapist.  It takes us deeper into the complexities, knots and marvels of reality.

Finally, and tied to the above, I feel as though the sense of verisimilitude in the novel is partly rooted in the large web of influence and consequence you build around Lawrence and Kennedy. At the centre of this web seems to be a maxim that you give to the literary critic Professor Trilling, that ‘the emotional sphere [cannot] be separated from the political sphere, and that the political [cannot] be separated from the world of art and literature’ (p.226). In some ways I think your handling of your research reinforces this dynamic, but I’d like to ask specifically whether you experienced this sense of interconnectedness in your writing process. Do you feel there is any duty for writers to reflect this dynamic, or is interconnectedness an intrinsic, perhaps unconscious, manifestation of a wider truth?

It always seems obvious to me that politics and public history are intricately entwined with the personal histories of its players and even with the history of intimacy itself; that we are either naïve or false to pretend otherwise.  Our inner lives are the products of our psychologies, but they are also created by us, and are the products of our desires and our imaginations.  I very much agree with Lionel Trilling in the above.  (He did believe that the honing of the imagination was crucial if we weren’t to fall prey to the predatory imaginations of those seeking power.). For me, ‘giving life’ on the page to the idea that public history is steeped in private histories, and vice versa, is the imperative or drive – if not the duty – behind each of my novels.

If a writer is committed to honesty on the page – a more demanding thing to capture than one might think – and if that writer succeeds, then this interconnectedness will emerge, naturally as you say, and in myriad ways.  It will emerge differently for every writer; one can never be prescriptive or even think of one’s ‘duty’, I’d suggest.  The process has to be organic and, at least initially, ‘wild’, untamed or ungoverned.  The story must be given the space to steer itself.

For example, my novel Unexploded explores a particular period in the Second World War in relation to the issues of ‘casual racism’ that were disturbing me in the period that was about to give way to the Brexit campaign period.  In that novel, as in Tenderness, it was, for me, as important that I pay as much attention to the private or intimate history of my characters as to the public history of 1940-41 in Brighton, while the town awaited an enemy landing on the beach.

Why was it as important?  Well, it seems to me that the healing force against any darkness within the body politic must begin with a certain radicality in the heart of an individual or individuals.  Art and the imagination are restorative, not because they represent ‘civilisation’ or some cherished ideal of it, but simply because they don’t turn away from the truth.  They hold it.  They enact it.  They allow us to engage deeply with its complexity, along with a dynamic sense of life and how extraordinary life really is.

Few will read Unexploded and wonder if I was trying to explore a society that was about to turn inward towards its darker aspects that coalesced around the Brexit campaign.  Few will read Tenderness and wonder if I was actually troubled by Cambridge Analytica and social-media manipulation of the referendum.  No one needs to, I hope – even though I was.  A novel shouldn’t preach.  It’s not a lesson or a sermon.  It’s an experience.  Yet I do hope that, in the midst of that experience, my readers will feel that my novels resonate, between the lines, from the events of history to the very heart of Now.

Alison MacLeod is the author of four novels, including Unexploded – longlisted for the Man Booker Prize – and Tenderness, a New York Times Historical Fiction Best Book of 2021 and a Sunday Times Best Paperback of 2022. She has also published two story collections. The latter, All the Beloved Ghosts, was shortlisted for Canada’s Governor General’s Award for Fiction and the Edge Hill Prize. MacLeod is a Fellow of the Royal Literary Fund and an occasional contributor to outlets such as BBC Radio 4, The Sunday Times, the Guardian and the Telegraph. A senior academic and Professor of Contemporary Fiction at the University of Chichester until 2018, she now contributes to Chichester as Visiting Professor.

Joe Bedford’s interview series Writers on Research is made possible with National Lottery funding via Arts Council England.

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