Orange Prize-winning author Linda Grant publishes We Had It So Good - interview
On writing her fifth novel and being part of a spoilt generation
A deflated optimism pushed Linda Grant towards the themes of her fifth novel. Nicola Meighan talks to the author about being part of a spoilt generation
Orange Prize-winning author Linda Grant was glad to see the back of Christmas. ‘I’m delighted to have reached the end of the great annual close-down, when your toothache can’t be mended and your boiler can’t be fixed,’ she reflects from her North London home. ‘Those items are top of my list for today.’ Heating and dental malaise notwithstanding, Grant has much to smile about. The Liverpool-born, well-travelled writer has attracted myriad literary plaudits since her first book, Sexing the Millennium: A Political History of the Sexual Revolution, was published in 1993; not least a Booker nomination and South Bank Show Literature Award for 2008’s The Clothes on Their Backs, and the aforesaid Orange accolade in 2000 for her second novel, When I Lived in Modern Times. ‘It allowed me to take a long time off journalism to write another novel,’ she says gratefully of the latter decoration, which came with a £30,000 prize.
Grant’s fifth novel is We Had It So Good. A vast, transatlantic, generation-straddling tale, it delves into our shifting assumptions and dreams – about family, work, people and life – via a late middle-aged American protagonist, his English wife, their alienated offspring and forebears. Marilyn Monroe, LSD, anarchism, Andy Pandy and geraniums also feature. ‘The idea first came to me a day or so after 9/11,’ she recalls of the book’s creative genesis, ‘when I believed that there would be a catastrophic attack on London next, probably on its transport network.’
This dread was permeated with the realisation that Grant (who was born to Russian and Polish Jewish immigrants in 1951) and her fellow baby boomers had grown up in fortuitous times, yet had taken their lot for granted. ‘I was part of an incredibly lucky generation, one which had been born into unparalleled peace and prosperity, no conscription and expansion of university education. We had everything. It seemed obvious to me that the world was going to change and we spoilt princes and princesses would be facing a darker future. Still, there was also our idealism. What had happened to that? We wanted to change the world, so why had we not?’
This sense of punctured optimism resonates throughout We Had It So Good, and it’s a familiar leitmotif in Grant’s wider work. ‘I think the theme of idealism and its disappointment is there in several of my novels,’ she agrees while identifying a further common element as ‘families and their secrets’. That subject is explored at length in her fiction and non-fiction work, most affectingly in 1998’s Remind Me Who I Am Again, which chronicled her mother’s decline into dementia and assessed the importance of memory in the construction of family history and folklore.
Despite its characteristic themes, however, We Had It So Good marks a notable departure in Grant’s ever-questioning, life-affirming fiction: the central character is male and, for the first time, it’s written in the third person. ‘I usually like to get to the voice and hear it tell a story. This time I was outside their heads.’ Her narrative viewpoint may have changed, but Linda Grant remains as likely to get under your skin and linger inside the brain as ever.
We Had It So Good is published on Thu 20 Jan by Virago.