Interview: Susannah Clapp

by Marion McLeod / 23 March, 2012
Angela Carter’s imaginative flights were not confined to the page, the writer’s friend and literary executor Susannah Clapp reveals in a new memoir 20 years after her death.

Angela Carter came to New Zealand in 1990, a guest at Writers & Readers Week in the International Arts Festival. She was a striking figure, tall, big-boned, with streaming grey hair, unusual then for someone knocking 50.

With her came her boys – husband Mark Pearce, “my young man” (18 years her junior), and six-year-old Alexander, their fair-skinned, dark-eyed, plump-cheeked son. They had a good time in Wellington.

She laughed a lot – peals (that really is the word) of tumbling, wheezy laughter. I recall, especially, at the end of the week, a cruise on Wellington Harbour, the three of them sitting close until Alexander edged his way over to sit on poet Charles Causley’s knee.

Carter was generous in interview, self-deprecating, funny. Her work on her novel Wise Children was progressing slowly, she told me, but she was happy to slow down, happy to let writing take second place: “All my life to write books in but only one year of a six-year old.”

The lung cancer diagnosis came the next year. Carter asked her friend Susannah Clapp to act as her literary executor: Clapp had helped to found the London Review of Books and frequently commissioned Carter to write long essays. Carter’s instructions to her executor were relaxed: Clapp was to do what she could to “make money for my boys”.

As Clapp tells it in the preface to her new memoir, A Card from Angela Carter: “There was to be no holding back on grounds of good taste: she had no objections to her prose being turned into an extravaganza on ice: on the contrary. Her only stipulation was that [schlocky film director] Michael Winner should not get his hands on it.”

Shortly after the news of her illness had broken, Carter was talking to a friend on the phone. “A man’s coming to the door.” Pause. “It’s all right. I’ll let him in. He hasn’t got a scythe.” She wanted news of parties and literary gossip. She did a long interview with Clapp, which informs Clapp’s book. She arranged her funeral down to the last detail, although even she could not have foretold the spectacle in the crematorium grounds.

“It was as if Birnam Wood had come to Putney Vale,” writes Clapp. “The surrounding trees rearranged themselves. They shifted and they sprouted feet. They marched and dispelled, shaking themselves free of foliage.” Then they changed into Special Branch men, moving forward to enclose Salman Rushdie, a speaker at the funeral.

“The previous year, when Angela was working on the strongly secular television documentary The Holy Family Album, Rushdie had offered her advice on how to deal with blasphemy. ‘I don’t think,’ she had gleefully retorted, ‘I need any help from you.’” She died, aged 51, on February 16, 1992. Twenty years later, to the day, Clapp published her memoir, a tribute to her friend.

I phoned her the day before, at her home near London’s King’s Cross. “I didn’t set out to write a book about Angela. I’ve always collected postcards. I buy them all the time, and because of my obsession I get sent a lot. I’m a theatre critic [for the Observer] and so I buy old Edwardian soubrettes. But all sorts interest me. Postcards are always slightly mysterious – they’re more spontaneous than letters, they have a curious intimacy.

One day, looking through cards I had kept, I realised I could map my life through them. “A friend at [BBC] Radio 3 said, ‘Why don’t you do something about your weird preoccupation with postcards?’ So I did five programmes, ranging from the Russian Revolution to Bruce Chatwin.” (Clapp’s first book, With Chatwin: Portrait of a Writer, was published in 1997; she is also his literary executor.)

“Bloomsbury approached me to make the five programmes into a book, which I’m working on. And then another friend said, ‘Have you thought about taking that programme on Angela and expanding it?’” Clapp wrote her memoir in a hurry so it could be released on the 20th anniversary of Carter’s death. She agrees that was probably an advantage – the book’s compression (105 pages) and spontaneity make it an intimate and lively read.

“I did hardly any research at all, so it’s quite different from a biography. Some biographers think it’s important to bring out disobliging things. Of course there was a little bit of vanity – she was very proud of her cheekbones – but she talked about that and I quote her.

There is no authorial comment. I just wanted to capture what I saw.” Clapp is pleased Edmund Gordon is working on the authorised biography, to be published in 2015. “I’m pleased that it’s a man of a different generation [he’s nearly 30].

Angela is so often labelled a feminist writer but a large number of men come up to me to say how much they love her.” The memoir reproduces 14 cards Clapp received from Carter. How did she go about ordering them, turning radio programme into book? “I made a list of images. Then I made a list of what was on the back. Then a list of what I remembered about her, based in part on my interview. There were complicated crosses from one to another, until suddenly a sequence swam into place.”

The cards function as springboards. Neither the cards nor Clapp’s memories of her friend are ordered chronologically: “It’s probably a refl ection of my impatience. I’m much easier with this sort of form.” A postcard from Austin, Texas, sent in 1985 – a black cauldron “bubbling with beans and frighteningly red beef” – sparks a discussion of Carter’s attitude to food. A large and pudgy child, she had become anorexic by 18: she lost about 38kg in six months. The chronic condition continued until, after Alexander, she steadily put on weight.

A “geisha boop” card sets off thoughts on Carter’s first marriage, on her years in Japan, her Japanese lover. From Stratford, Ontario, came a card bearing the slogan: “So I haven’t written much lately! So what? Neither has Shakespeare.” It was 1988. Carter was working on Wise Children, her Shakespeare book. She read him like a novel, writes Clapp. Measure for Measure was a page-turner to her. She thought his stuff worked perfectly well without all that language: “People weep and gnash their teeth over Ophelia in Peru.”

She was also dismissive of the popular notion that had he been alive now he would have been writing for television: he would more likely have been a car salesman. A card sent from Auckland in 1990 sadly omits to tell us what she thought of New Zealand. But Clapp uses it to discuss Carter’s take on myth, legend, fairy tale and journalism. The comic-style card depicts the battling mountains Ruapehu, Taranaki, Ngauruhoe and Tongariro and the creation of the Whanganui River. “A likely story,” writes Carter on the back.

Likely stories were her stock-in-trade, of course, and they were not confined to the page. “She liked to put it about that the Queen had a secret black love-child, claiming that you could see the gleam in the monarch’s eye when she was surrounded by Commonwealth heads of state.” Carter liked to say journalism ran in her blood; her father was a journalist: he got her her first job, on the Croydon Advertiser, where she was quickly marked down as a feature writer rather than a newshound. “I had a demonic inaccuracy.”

And a demonic disregard for a deadline: “The only time I ever iron the sheets or make meringues is when there is an absolutely urgent deadline in the offing.” As her editor on the LRB, Clapp was one of the biggest victims of Carter’s procrastination. “Still, it was well worth it. I’d ring and ring, I’d send cards. But the copy itself – apart from the typing and spelling – was always terrific. There was no other author whose copy I was keener to read.”

As executor, Clapp had hoped to discover in her friend’s filing cabinet an unfinished masterpiece, “though I knew I wouldn’t”. The files bulged with drama. Unproduced scripts include fragments of a libretto for an opera of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando to be set to music by Michael Berkeley, a script for a cowboy morality film, Gun for the Devil, and another screenplay titled The Christchurch Murder. Peter Jackson beat her to the draw on that one, although the script is now available in The Curious Room: Plays, Film Scripts and an Opera.

“Many of Angela’s scripts bore both the benefit and weight of her rich language,” says Clapp. She had more luck with radio, which she had loved from childhood: “She claimed that the wireless was ‘the most visual of mediums because you cannot see it’.”

Does Clapp think Carter will be remembered? “Oh yes. She cracked open fairy tales for people. She makes you think carefully about the way you read and hear anything. She had such a distinctive voice: that bravura scorn, but celebration – which is much more difficult – too. And the high-velocity pungency of her language! She was fearless about speaking her mind, so forthright, idiosyncratic and humorous.”

A CARD FROM ANGELA CARTER, by Susannah Clapp (Bloomsbury, $27.99).

Mark Pearce has remarried, to novelist Rosie Boyt, a daughter of Lucian Freud. Alexander, now 28 and an English graduate, lives in Sheffield with his girlfriend, a social worker.
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