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Alison MacLeod Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Alison MacLeod

Alison MacLeod

How to pronounce Alison MacLeod: Mac-loud

An interview with Alison MacLeod

Alison MacLeod discusses Tenderness, and how she saw the influence of Lady Chatterley's Lover in moving the twentieth century from war and censorship to sensuality and freedom.

Is there significance to the title, Tenderness?

In Lady Chatterley's Lover, the once controversial novel which sits at the heart of my novel, Lady Constance Chatterley says to her lover, the gamekeeper Mellors:

'Shall I tell you what you have that other men don't have, and that will make the future? Shall I tell you?'
'Tell me then, he replied.'
"It's the courage of your own tenderness…'

That unexpected word, 'courage', caught my eye. When, I wondered, is tenderness a courageous thing? During the legendary Old Bailey trial of 1960, a barrister called Richard Du Cann made quick notes in the defence team's court notebooks: 'Tenderness,' he wrote, adding asterisks, 'real tenderness.' I lingered over those three words as if they were a scribbled invocation. Tenderness was D.H. Lawrence's original title for Lady Chatterley, and tenderness was its defining spirit.

Could you say a little about the structure of Tenderness?

As a novel, it spans forty-five years, both world wars and the Cold War, but it's not chronological. Time and space in Tenderness are permeable to both memory and the imagination. There's a weaving of stories and histories, and an unravelling of them. Tenderness has what I think of as an organic structure, rather than a linear one. In a poem of 1920, Lawrence evokes the image of the 'unfolded rose', the 'Rose of all the world'. In Tenderness, layers of story unfold and fall away, like the calyx and petals of that rose, to reveal what lies hidden at the heart.

Why did you include Jacqueline Kennedy as a character?

In 2015, I came across a copy of a telegram signed 'J. Edgar Hoover'. What on earth, I wondered, had led the FBI in 1959 to covertly monitor the fate of Lady Chatterley's Lover? I read telegrams that had been sent to and from Hoover himself. A Special Agent was sent to obtain a copy, 'without disclosing the Bureau's interest in this highly controversial book.'

Who else, I asked myself, might have been following the fate of Lady Chatterley in 1959-60? I had a hunch. Before she became an editor, Jacqueline Kennedy was an ardent reader, as well as a reporter. In high school, her declared ambition was 'Not to be a housewife'. She felt ambivalent about even the title of 'First Lady'. In a 1962 conversation with the critic Lionel Trilling, she wanted to discuss Lawrence's novels at length, and she asked specifically about Lady Chatterley.

So it seems highly likely that, just eighteen months before, she would have been following the much-publicised news of the London trial of Penguin books, as well as the struggles of Grove Press in New York in 1959-60. Every story is a story of 'What if...?' What if she and Lionel Trilling had actually met a few years earlier? What if Jackie, when still a junior senator's wife, wasn't where her events-diary said she was on May 14, 1959? Tenderness was born, in part, of this speculation.

Would you say the controversy and the trials helped shine a light on female liberty and helped usher in the sexual revolution?

I first read Lady Chatterley when I was 17. It was a disappointment when I arrived at university to discover that Lawrence had been excised from university reading lists everywhere. Unbeknown to me, Kate Millet had skewered his work in her 1970 book, Sexual Politics. I felt cheated.

I understood—and understand—the case Millet made, yet I couldn't forget that the novel had enthralled and moved me. Its spirit was big. Also, how many male authors, or female ones for that matter, have given such energy, attention and space on the page to the realities of female consciousness? How many male authors have so often looked to female characters for heroic inspiration?

With the 1959/60 publishing victories in the States and Britain, Constance Chatterley and Oliver Mellors 'walked free' after thirty years. A new spirit blew through the twentieth century, bringing with it greater freedom of speech, the right of access to art for all, freedom of the imagination, and the right to a true and unregulated private life.

Through it all, Constance wanted only to feel alive in her life. 'A woman,' Lawrence wrote in Chatterley, 'has to live her life or live to repent not having lived it.' I believe there's a Lady Chatterley in most of us.

How did you weave together fact and fiction in your novel that features reallife iconic figures like J. Edgar Hoover, Joseph McCarthy, Lady Ottoline Morrell, E.M. Forster and D.H. Lawrence?

I spent over three years, on and off, obsessively exploring archives, museums, photos, letters, biographies, histories, legal papers, transcripts and telegrams. It's different for all novelists but for me, the facts of history matter greatly, even if I'll sometimes surrender a fact as I write to reveal what I feel is a bigger truth.

History, over time, is often 'flat-packed' into what we assume we know. Novels which explore historical events can uncover connections we never dreamed were there. When I'm writing and researching, I work in the 'gaps' between the established facts. I'm interested, above all, in that which 'taps into' the preoccupations of the here and now. I want to explore and to imagine the small personal truths of official history; in this way, a novel can lift into the light complexities long gone. It can offer myriad views of those we thought we knew well. Fiction offers questions, uncertainty and curiosity, rather than the bright shine of the 'hard facts'. It gives us back what might have been the half-conscious impulses in a set of historical events; it opens up the private, the taboo or the untold. Novels, at their best, offer us the shimmering hinterland of official 'History'. They make 'old news' fresh, human and mysterious again. That's what I was after—that tantalising shimmer of history's hinterland.

What interested you about the time and culture in the US and UK during this time frame (1959)?

1959 was a fascinating brink of a year. In the US, J. Edgar Hoover's grip on the nation was, arguably, unparalleled in any liberal democracy. After his death, it was found he'd amassed hundreds of classified files on senators and congressmen, the results of decades of covert monitoring of democratically elected leaders and their families—fellow Americans. Here perhaps are the roots of Watergate and 'fake news'. In the same year, we have JFK poised to take the national stage; a President-to-be who would urge writers and artists to speak truth to power; a President who spoke for the rights of African-Americans, if imperfectly; who ushered in a new sense of youth, freshness, eloquence and hope; a Senator full of promise, and also a major figure who was vulnerable to his own secrets. All the while, there in the wings, still largely unknown to the public, was his shy wife, Jackie.

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, the UK was post-war grey and austere in '59. The Old Order was untroubled. The hierarchies of the class system and traditional gender roles—briefly challenged by the second world war—were restored and intact again. Yet in the year 1959- 60, a single novel—a 'dirty book'—by a dead, working-class author was about to blast the once imperturbable Establishment.

What do you hope readers feel while reading Tenderness?

Many things…

Excited, I hope, by the story of Lawrence's daring as he created something big and urgent out of 'airy nothing' against every odd. Moved by the story of the 'real Lady Chatterley' and her struggle to live a full life. Gripped by the highs and lows of legal battles fought over words on a page. Disquieted by the early manifestations of 'surveillance society' and disinformation – and by the parallels with our own time. Above all, inspired by the sense that when we read and imagine any story worth our time, we're part of something bigger. As a witness in the New York hearing said of Lady Chatterley's readers: '…the very fact that this book has been read and admired by thousands of people…would suggest that perhaps there aren't any ordinary people; that when anybody reads a book like this, perhaps they are extraordinary.'

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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Tenderness jacket All the Beloved Ghosts jacket
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