INTERVIEWS
(Click on a title)

Every Book I Write is a Failed Book (22/12/09)
It isn't good ideas that keep Jenny Diski writing but how to transform them into something new, she tells Rosemary Goring.

A writer's life: Jenny Diski (19/04/2004)
The solitary and uncompromisingly clever novelist tells Helen Brown she is trying to re-trieve the Bible from stupidity.

Making a solo voyage Jenny Diski has used her life on the edges of insanity to great and frightening effect in her novels.
Ajay Close finds her only need now is for a good degree of solitude.

Puffing her way around a continent (01/09/2002)
Mark Sanderson reviews Stranger On A Train by Jenny Diski

Critical perspective
British Council comtemporary writers review


A writer's life: Jenny Diski (Filed: 19/04/2004)

The solitary and uncompromisingly clever novelist tells Helen Brown she is trying to re-trieve the Bible from stupidity.

Everything about Jenny Diski is crisply cut. The sentences, the hair, the amount of time she is prepared to spare. As she opens her front door to me, I feel the shambolic drift of a Cambridge afternoon repelled by her blunt forcefield. Stepping into her smart, right-angled terrace house, I ask if she would like me to take my boots off. She looks faintly appalled, as if I've offered to strip naked on the doormat. "Why would you want to do that?" I'm about to speak of mud and her very tidy house, but it occurs to me that Diski might prefer the impersonality of street dirt on her polished wooden floors to any particles of my individual human skin invading her home.

She has written often and probingly about her discomfort around people. Cats, she gets. Diski feels honoured, awed, even - by the relationship she is privileged to share with her pets, relish-ing both the simple physical contact and the bridging of inter-species psyches. But she has been mainly unable to translate that state of awareness to her contact with her own kind. In her award-winning travel memoir, Stranger on a Train, she explains that: "What I experience with most people is my estrangement from them, the distance of mutually unique separation that words or touch never quite bridge. Unlike cats, people interfere with my apprehension of reality, they muddy how I can know myself, confuse my understanding of how I am, which is centred around the notion that solitude is a state of perfection."

She knows what the psychologists would say about that. They would direct her back to a painful childhood dominated by a hysterical mother, while the young Jenny craved only the love of the conman father who walked out when she was a girl. Analysts would - and have - invited Diski to talk about the early institutionalisations. Her expulsion from school. Her suicide attempts. The crystal meth - in medical and "recreational" contexts. The period during which she was fostered by Doris Lessing (they now have an agreement not to discuss each other publicly). The pecu-liarly binding attachments formed on mental health wards. Sex. Motherhood. The "scratchy feeling" that compels her to write. The mild scandal of her first novel, about a sadomasochistic relationship. The fear of attachment and rejection… But Diski has given up on therapy and, she has said, it has given up on her. That's just who she is, how she is. Capisce? Coffee?

As I sit (probably too close) to this uncompromisingly clever writer on her sunlit sofa, I do not ask much about her past. She's already published what she feels (and doesn't feel) about that in her books. And while Diski is entirely in command of this awkward interviewing situation ("Interview me, then"), I am intensely aware of skirting the radioactive sense of restrained emotion she emits. Her manner is at once businesslike and anarchically offhand. We laugh. She's funny. She reminds me of a grieving friend who once said: "Don't you dare touch me, because if you do I'll cry, and one thing I already know is that crying doesn't help." So, crisply, as I sip my coffee, we discuss her excellent ninth novel, After These Things, a reinterpretation of the biblical lives of Isaac, Jacob and his weak-eyed wife Leah. She had tackled Abraham in Only Human (2000) and usually moves on fairly briskly after each book. Yet this time she felt compelled to take on the story and polish off the patriarchs.

" I had absolutely no interest in the Bible as a child," she says. "My parents were pretty secular Jews. I remember Passover in Hebrew. My father read it, but he didn't understand a word. I remember the stories from Ladybird books quite well because of the hideous pictures of people with towels on their heads. The colours were incredibly memorable." She believes that the stories of the Bible "only get good when you read them as an adult. Samson is such a static story when you read it as a kid, but as an adult I find him much more interesting. I mean, he's just a klutz, the town yob, the Bible's Schwarzenegger. He does everything wrong and is always in trouble. Just an ordinary bloke who's been promised to God."

Beyond character, Diski was drawn to the patterns of the Hebrew Bible. "I was intrigued about it as a narrative, put together from three strands of writing and edited into a single text by Ezra. Some people say that's why you get repetitions. Other people say you get repetitions because it's a work of art with a beat to it. I was interested in it as an edited work… the essence of all novel writing is editing."

In Diski's work, the editing is right there on the surface. Is God an editor, she asks in After These Things, or do we edit God as we go along? Do we edit our own lives as a linear process or do we pivot unto death around one self-defining moment, like Abraham and Isaac on the moun-taintop? She shuffles and deals chronology with the cards face up. Let's not be coy, she seems to be saying, about the fact that none of this really makes any sense. Yet because she doesn't see much connection between reading and writing, Diski admits to enjoying a "rattling good tale", although she prefers it on television. And once we move on to the subject of cinema, she talks of directors who subvert linear expectation. "I love Tarantino's films. I loved the total nothingness of Kill Bill. It was just one damn thing after another. I laughed a lot. It's morally empty and I can appreciate that. Although I feel slightly guilty about it, the way I feel guilty for finding Nabokov a great writer. There's something cold there that I seek and respond to."

Didn't she feel any sense of guilt, as a non-believer, about messing with a sacred text? Was she trespassing on other people's territory? "If it's all right for the rabbis to reinterpret it, it's all right for me. Books are available for us to play with. I wanted to retrieve the Bible from stupid-ity, to take it back as an essentially human story."

After These Things is impeccably human. After his father has shown he's willing to sacrifice him, Isaac's life is all blind appetite. His tricksy younger son Jacob echoes "like an empty jar". Neither man experiences God as directly as Abraham, shortchanged instead with dreams and doubt. In Diski's cool prose, they are each locked into a hypnotic formal dance around their frustrations. "I am moved by them all as characters," she says. "I don't think things are interest-ing unless they have an emotional component. It's just that when I write I don't writhe around in the emotions. And Leah? I think the notion of the unloved - unlovable - individual is a powerful and painful idea. The terror of that… that there was nothing she could have done. That seems very much like life to me."
We laugh. I like Diski. Her frankness. For a moment, I really want her to like me too. And then I spill coffee on her dead-square rug. Another line blurred, a thread corrupted, an encounter spoiled. Just another clumsy invasion of Diski's perfect solitude. "It doesn't matter," she says, as I run for a cloth.

'After These Things' is published by Little, Brown