Penelope Lively

Penelope Lively on her Booker Prize win, turning 90 and her extraordinary career

In this exclusive video interview, Penelope Lively talks about winning the Booker for Moon Tiger, how the book’s heroine was decades ahead of her time, growing up in Egypt - and the challenges of writing for children

Please note: the video contains significant plot details about Moon Tiger.

Publication date and time: Published

When Penelope Lively won the Booker Prize in 1987, it was for a novel - Moon Tiger - that featured an ambitious, uncompromising heroine, as easily located in the 21st century as in her own Second World War context.

‘The central figure is a woman named Claudia Hampton,’ recalls Lively in our video interview with writer Jo Hamya. ‘She is the protagonist, the narrator; she’s old, ill, she’s dying, and she’s effectively telling the story of her life. But into it flicker all the people who have been central to her life, above all a figure she knew when she was a war correspondent in Egypt in 1942, when Rommel was advancing.’

As Hamya observes, it is striking to the modern reader that Claudia is so ahead of her time. ‘She was,’ agrees Lively. ‘I was interested in creating a person who, if I knew her - if she was an acquaintance or friend - I’d have a great respect for her. I might not entirely like her, but that’s the kind of woman I admire. I’ve known several ersatz Claudias and have distinctly respected them all.’

In this wide-ranging interview, Lively looks back at the writing of her Booker-winning novel, and explains how it was inspired by her own experiences, from her personal fascination with ammonites and how they represent ‘deep time’, to her childhood in Egypt, where she spent the first 13 years of her life. ‘We lived outside Cairo and lived this rather tranquil life,’ she recalls, ‘with my parents having drinks served in the garden every evening, and Sunday lunch parties. My mother was great on entertaining the forces so there were always officers staying for the weekend, in an extremely relaxed and casual way. And it seemed extraordinary when I realised what had been going on 70 or a hundred miles away.’ 

Penelope Lively

As she approaches her 90th birthday, Lively also talks about her acclaimed body of work, from short stories to children’s fiction. ‘I always felt passionately when writing for children that you don’t write down to them,’ she says. ‘What you’re trying to give them is the essence of what fiction can do. I felt - slightly like the short story - that you must grab the child on the first page of the book. If you don’t, you’ve failed. The child, above all, wants a story, but you can pack a whole lot else in as well. So I never felt I was abandoning adult interests and concerns. I think it’s more difficult than writing for adults in some ways.’

She also speaks about her memories of her Booker win, and how her husband had told her he didn’t think she would win, but that she shouldn’t have too much to drink at the prize ceremony, just in case. As it turned out, she didn’t drink at all - until, at the very end of the evening, after making a speech and being swept off to fulfil her media obligations. ‘Eventually I came back, when everybody had gone, and I remember saying, pathetically, “I wonder if I could possibly have a glass of wine?”’  

Watch the full video here and at the link above. 

Penelope Lively at the 1987 Booker Prize ceremony

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