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Novelist A. S. Byatt Discusses Possession

By Deborah Wexler

Novelist and literary critic A.S. Byatt recently read a selection from her work and answered questions in the final installment of Wordsworth Bookstore's fall reading series. Visiting the United States for the first time since 1957, Byatt is promoting her latest novel, Possession, which won the 1990 Booker Prize.

Possession chronicles the relationship of two British scholars who discover a mysterious connection between the Victorian poets they are studying. As the scholars race to unearth their subjects' romance, they themselves fall in love. Byatt intersperses the double romance with fabricated Victorian poetry, mock Post Modern Language Association (PMLA) papers and academic satire.

After reading a brief selection from the novel, Byatt answered questions about her newfound fame, her approach to writing and the hidden details of Possession.

"I am lucky I was as old as I am," said Byatt. "If I'd had a big success in my twenties it would have thrown me out.... You don't notice [fame] so much in a way, you still spend time on your own. Writing has to be done on your own, alone. You don't take to it unless you like to shut yourself in a room for eight months of a year."

Byatt then discussed Possession. "It's the first thing I've ever written without being interrupted by children or teaching or other things." After filling notebooks with "patterns," she said, "I just sat down and wrote with everything in place except 'Mummy Possessed' and 'Swammerdown' [the two epic poems "written" by the character Randolph Ash]. The language runs through the book from start to finish like one thread--I hope.

"The bits I found difficult were actually the modern dialogue--I got a bit bored with that. I felt as if 'I've been here before.' I tried to make [the modern characters] more interesting." Byatt said that after a year of thinking about the blank verse, the writing came quickly. "The more odd, the easier it was, in a way."

Byatt added that "the English publisher panicked" when it saw the excessive poetry in the manuscript, "but I talked them into publishing it. Then, everybody sort of read it several times and became enthusiastic--at least that's my account."

Possession's tidy ending drew questions from the crowd. "You like a story to finish," Byatt answered. "Stories do end. Relationships end. The idea that something open-ended is more life-like is rubbish. I wanted [Possession] to have the artificial pleasure of the circle being closed."

In response to criticism that Possession's epilogue ruined the mystery of the story, Byatt said, "The person I actually care most about in the novel is Randolph. I thought, I cannot let Randolph just give up. In the novel, the past is more powerful than the present. I didn't want to end in the present. It was being true to Randolph. I felt that his emotion was the one I wanted to end on."

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