All quiet on the western front

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THE two-hour drive south from Glasgow to the home of Sara Maitland is a journey from tumult to tranquillity.

Down the roaring, rain-slick M77, then edging the west coast, Ailsa Craig looming lonely from the Firth of Clyde as a symbol of the solitary life the writer leads, and finally plunging inland to an area of Galloway that, like something from a medieval atlas, is marked on my map as The Moors. To Maitland, who has lived in the area for almost two years, it is the "Huge Nothing" and she loves its wild, empty vastness.

"Hello!" she greets me with a shout before yelling at her dog Zoe, a young border terrier she recently inherited somewhat unwillingly, to get back from the gate. It's an unexpectedly noisy start to the interview. Maitland came to national prominence in 1978 with the publication of her debut novel, Daughter of Jerusalem, which won the Somerset Maugham Award and established her as a leading feminist thinker. Her new work, the non-fiction A Book of Silence, chronicles her journey towards a quieter life, a quest that has brought her here to Dirniemow, a converted shepherd's cottage miles from anywhere, accessed by a thin ribbon of road with more sheep than cars upon it, and a final steep climb up a muddy track.

The rolling countryside feels aquatic, wind blowing the brown grass in rippling waves, and Maitland's schedule is almost as empty as her view. She prays for three hours each day, reads, smokes and sews, and says as little as possible. Tuesdays and Thursdays are spent in total silence – the phone is unplugged, the computer switched off, and she speaks to no one at all. Each Sunday she drives 22 miles into Newton Stewart to attend Mass and pick up groceries. Once a month she does a big shop and stocks the deep freeze. She tries not to leave the hill at all during the week, but sometimes she goes out and walks for miles on the Merrick and other hills in the area. She has spent the last two Christmases alone, and hopes that her son Adam will not want to visit this year. Her life is, by modern standards, one of extraordinary isolation and self-denial. Maitland lives more like an early Christian monk or biblical hermit than a 21st-century woman. When she mentions the credit crunch it sounds anachronistic; I'd be more prepared for her to discuss, as if it was hot news, the martyrdom of St Bartholomew.

She is a small, slender woman of 58 with long, straight hair and eyes which wane to tightly closed crescents as she tries to explain how and why she came to live this way. As she has decided not to pay for heating this month, it's cold in the cottage, and she's wrapped inside a hooded jumper. Her home is basic. The front door opens directly on to the main living area – a combination of kitchen and lounge with orange walls, log fire and a bookcase. You will look in vain for a television or a radio. As for mobile phones, those are "a major breakthrough for the powers of hell". Often the only person she sees or speaks to all day is the postman. She thinks of him as an insurance policy; if she were to have some sort of accident at home, she knows he would find her.

Maitland makes tea and we sit down at a wooden table. She acknowledges straight away the contradiction in being interviewed about the pleasure and profundity of not talking, but says there has been enormous media interest in her book and she hopes this burst of publicity will sell enough copies to finance a long period of quiet.

Recently, in preparation for meeting journalists, she spent a fortnight in total isolation, storing up silence as a squirrel hoards nuts. She thus feels able to spend two hours and more than 7,000 words explaining her position to me. I had half-expected her conversational skills to have withered like an unused limb, but her long periods of silence seem not to have affected her ability to talk. "No, so far it has had the reverse effect. All the talking gets intensified. My friends find it baffling. When I'm with them I talk all the time, so it's hard for them to imagine me as someone who doesn't talk." She speaks very excitedly, laughing a great deal, and sometimes almost shouting in her eagerness to make points. She seems like good fun; if she was my friend I'd be sorry to see her leave to become a hermit.

Maitland's journey into silence began in the early 1990s when she separated from her husband, an Anglican vicar, with whom she had two children. He continued to live in London, while she moved to a cottage in Northamptonshire. She found her new life deeply satisfying, relishing the slower pace, the independence and the solitude, and coming to realise that what she loved most of all was being silent. A convert to Catholicism, she began to pray more intensely than ever before. Her great discovery was that she was experiencing silence not as the absence of sound but as a presence in its own right. Silence, she felt, was not just an empty space, it was something into which she could wallow. Although there is an important spiritual dimension to this, Maitland makes her experience of silence sound hedonistic, even erotic. It is surely no coincidence that this all started as her marriage was ending.

Does she see her relationship with silence as a sort of affair? "Yes, I do," she says, exhaling smoke from one of many cigarettes. "Partly because of the intensification that goes with silence. It takes three or four days to kick in, but it does something quite physical to you. You have very heightened sensitivities. You feel things very strongly and in that sense it is very like a love affair. I'd like it to be very calm, like a marriage, but I haven't got there yet, and at the moment it feels more like being in love. When I'm miserable, I'm terribly, terribly miserable, but mostly I get very high on it."

Is she now, as a result of her reclusive life, closed off to actual romantic relationships? "I can't imagine any context in which it's likely to happen," she replies. "My spiritual director told me I'd have to start by buying some high-heeled shoes to go to a singles bar in Newcastle. The reality is I meet very few new people now, and anyway a relationship doesn't offer me anything I want. I saw someone the other day who I thought was extraordinarily sexy, but it didn't occur to me to pursue that. Luckily, I don't seem to have inordinate sexual desire at the moment. It's interesting to me that I don't; all those desert monks seemed to spend their time being hideously conflicted about their sexuality, but maybe that's blokes."

Delighted and intrigued by the taste of silence she had in Northamptonshire, Maitland decided to gorge herself upon it. She turned 50 in 2000 and her son finished school and left home. She was suddenly free to do as she liked, so she moved to a house in rural County Durham, high on a hill. She still felt too close to civilisation, though, and so in late October – in order to immerse herself in total silence – she rented an isolated cottage in Skye, under the Black Cuillin ridge, and stayed there, unspeaking, for 40 days, the period of the biblical flood. It was a deluge of silence, and within it she experienced several different things.

First was an intensification of physical sensation – food tasted better, when she got wet she felt very wet, when she felt cold she was chilled to the marrow. Emotionally, there was something similar – a magnification of feeling, and even moments of epiphany when she felt joyfully at one with the world around her. She felt disinhibited ("overwhelmed by seriously bizarre sexual fantasies and vengeful rages"), lost her sense of time passing, and began to experience difficulty in telling the difference between what was actually taking place and what she had merely imagined. "When I went to Skye, a lot of people were really worried that all this silence would drive me mad," she says, "and I must say that I was a bit worried too."

She had good reason. Maitland has a history of... well, how to put it? "Lunacy!" she says with a big laugh."When I was an undergraduate I had a brief, extremely disagreeable spell in a mental hospital for what I suppose one would call hysterical depression. There are people for whom depression makes them zomboid, and there are people who rush about screaming." She chuckles jovially. "I would put myself in the latter category."

This was in the late 1960s while she was a student at Oxford University. Though reluctant to discuss in the detail what caused her breakdown Maitland will say it may have had to do with the tension between her upbringing in an upper-class Scottish family (as a debutante, she danced with Prince Charles at the Oban Ball in 1967) and the political and personal radicalism of Oxford in the hippie era.

As a student she discovered some of the concepts and practices that have come to define her adult life – Christianity, socialism and feminism. She was introduced to feminism in 1970 via her close friend Bill Clinton, also a student in Oxford at that time; he invited her to accompany him to a lecture by Germaine Greer whom he had heard had great legs. Maitland was taken under the wing of Clinton and his set of anti-Vietnam war students, most of them Rhodes Scholars, and became radicalised through them. She lost her virginity, smoked dope and started attending political demos. When she had her breakdown, Clinton visited her in hospital every day for weeks.

Was theirs a sexual relationship? "I've not answered that question, and I never will." When Clinton first ran for president, she declined a five-figure sum offered by a newspaper that wanted her to dish the dirt. "It was a particular time in history, the 1960s, when lots of people had sex with lots of people that wouldn't now count," she continues. "But people were very prurient about it when Bill was running for president. My son, who was five, picked up the phone to a journalist one day and he said, 'Mummy doesn't want to talk to you,' and then he dropped the phone. I asked him what had happened and he said the bloke had said to him, 'Did your mummy f*** Bill Clinton?' I just think that was so improper. So if I get a bit defensive about the question it's because it goes back to a defensive time."

Maitland's Oxford breakdown was not the last time she experienced psychological difficulties. In 1982, quite soon after her son was born, she began "hearing a set of voices, of which the content was fairly bizarre and highly dictatorial – telling me what I could and couldn't do – none of which was violence towards others. It was more violent towards myself."

She worried that the voice-hearing would affect her ability to look after her baby, and was terrified she was going mad. "Mostly what they were telling me was not to tell anyone they existed. That's problematic. There was something frightening going on in my life and I couldn't tell anyone."

Curiously, she has had no experience of this kind in the eight years since she began introducing silence into her life. You might have expected the opposite to be true, for the voices to rush to fill the void; that is certainly one reason why Maitland and her friends were concerned about the retreat on Skye, but their fears proved unfounded.

"As you get older there are things that keep you weighted," she says, "like my children. They are all grown up but they are still there. So I have a very strong investment in coming back from the places in my own head. I like to think I know myself well enough to stop before I go too far. I may be wrong. Next year you may be writing the obituary of someone who hurled herself off the Merrick because she thought she could fly. But I don't think so. I'm much less frightened of myself than I was ten years ago."

Still, Maitland considers insanity the greatest risk of the way she is living, greater than any physical danger associated with being a woman approaching 60 living alone in rough and exposed terrain.

I'm keen to understand what the silence she experiences is like, and so when she pauses before replying to questions I listen carefully. Wind is the dominant sound. There's also the noise of rain slamming against the window, Zoe whining and the regular ping of a wrought-iron bell outside the door moving in the gale. Other than that, nothing. Maitland assures me that the fridge and computer make slight murmurs, and that while she prays she can hear her stomach rumbling.

Does she hear God speak? "When I'm lucky," she laughs. "I mostly don't hear God speak in words, like voice-hearing. It's not at all similar to that. More often, I feel the presence of God, which is extremely lovely, but you don't realise you've felt it until afterwards. It's an overwhelming feeling of joy."

But why has Maitland chosen to live like this? She insists that it's simple: "Silence makes me happy." She swears that, though she does enjoy being alone and independent, it's not because she's misanthropic. What she finds tiresome are "thin" friendships; her own relationships and conversations with friends are intense and intimate. Visits to big towns and cities, because of the noise levels, make her panicky and exhausted. "I don't like being in big groups of people any more. I mean, I go to Mass, but that's not exactly a cocktail party."

If her motivation isn't misanthropy, could it be a kind of self-defence, a desire to avoid emotional pain by cloistering herself away from people? "No, I don't think it's about not getting hurt, I think it's to do with not getting overwhelmed by people." Throughout her life she has attempted to conform to what was expected by those around her, suppressing her own personality in the process. This started while growing up in Twynholm, near Kirkcudbright, one of six children close in age, and seems to have continued as she became a radical student then a wife then a mother. In order to assert her own identity she has had to create a way of life with a minimum of outside influence.

That makes sense. It's also easy to understand the attraction of a bit of peace and quiet, some time out from a deafening, demanding world. But I can't help feeling unsettled by the extremity of the way Maitland lives. It seems to me like suicide by stealth; she is removing herself from the world a little at a time, and with all the praying seems already to have one foot in heaven. We talk about this for quite a while and it seems to fascinate her. She says that she has no history of suicide attempts, and that her self-esteem is, if anything, rather too high. Though she is drawn to the self-abasement of the religious mystics Therese Martin and Simone Weil, both of whom died young, the latter effectively starving herself to death, she also finds something chilling in it. "I don't think I desire death. I like being alive, actually," she says. "But a part of silence for me is like going to the gym. It is about getting fit for that adventure of death and finding out what happens next."

Of course, living the way she does means that Maitland must face the possibility of dying alone. How does she feel about that? "Sad," she says, instantly. "It must be a very scary and lonely thing to do. I would rather not die alone. No matter how solitary you are at heart, there are times when you need somebody's hand to hold, and I suspect that dying is a big deal." She laughs. "But I haven't done it yet, so I don't know."

A Book of Silence (Granta, 17.99) by Sara Maitland is published on Thursday