AS challenging as she is charming, AS Byatt tells Stuart Kelly why she will never write 'me-novels'
DAME Antonia Byatt is considered the grande dame of the English novel – formidably intelligent, unflaggingly serious, unwilling to suffer fools gladly. The 72-year-old, who won the Booker Prize in 1990 for Possession, has commented caustically on Martin Amis's teeth, JK Rowling's prose and the endemic philistinism and sexism of British intellectual life.
It's as if her lifelong passion for Victorian literature has lent her a shade of that queen's inability to be amused. So it's a strangely charming experience to be sitting in her front room in Putney in fits of giggles. She's very wry, almost flirtatious with the photographer, and unashamedly enthusiastic about everything – from the way the light hits a very fine Anne Redpath oil painting above the fireplace, to sci-fi films, televised sport and, of course, books.
Her new novel, The Children's Book, is similarly compendious. Set between the end of the 19th century and the end of the First World War, it incorporates the V&A, anarchism, the 'New Woman', pottery, the rise of city finance, puppet theatre and children's stories. "All my novels come about when two things which appear not to be connected come together. In this case I observed that this was the period of both all the socialist initiatives in Europe and a generation that found children's fantasy the most exciting literary form." Through the fictional Olive Wellwood, Byatt conjures the period of Peter Pan and HG Wells, Fabianism and Wind In The Willows. But the emotional core was her realisation that "children's book writers seem to be quite bad for children. They're immensely liberating for the children that read their books, but they're not good for the children actually born to them. The thought of Kenneth Grahame's son (who committed suicide] haunts me daily."
It's a book that's wary of idealism and idealising in equal measure, and she sees the process repeated in cycles. "I was an undergraduate when Tolkien came out," she reminisces, "and we were a pragmatic generation. We were the 1950s people who believed that the war had been fuelled by a lot of crazed idealists and now was the time to make life liveable. I was sort of terrified when all the 1960s political structures came about. My brother was at the Grosvenor Square riots and he and his South African friend went out to throw bricks while quoting Tolkien to each other in Elvish." She ruefully notes another connection between nave politics and escalation in children's fantasy: Tony Blair and Harry Potter.
Having recently recovered from a back operation, she shows no sign of retiring. "I began so late I suppose I'm terrified of suddenly discovering I've had to slow down. I'm writing a story about a monk at the moment, just to be writing. He's a 12th-century monk who finds himself in a modern apartment in 2009 in Tooting Bec and what he can't stand is the noise. It's as near to autobiographical as I get." She's also working on another long novel, about "surrealists and psychiatrists… It's a huge swathe across peculiar male behaviour."
Her anger is just as undiminished. She's riled by DJ Taylor's "immense scorn" in writing that "you can hear the novelist thinking" in her work. "What is wrong with a novelist thinking?" she snaps. But she's touchingly shy about not going on a celebrity University Challenge. "Suppose one was overtaken by nominal aphasia." Very few people can say "nominal aphasia" un-self-consciously. Although she feels that "female writers are much more self-confident now" – she singles out Ali Smith and AL Kennedy as favourites – "there are a lot of other women who are just writing me-books."
The Children's Book is not a me-book, but it is personal. Olive Wellwood's beloved oldest son, whose bedtime stories are her greatest success, dies before the war; the others die in it. Byatt's 11-year-old son was killed by a drunk driver nearly 40 years ago. She grows quiet when we touch on the subject. "I don't think my writing killed my son," she says, with hard-won sincerity. "Even before I lost my son I always knew writing was dangerous. The thing I don't understand is why writing's always seen as a form of killing in all my books. I don't know where it comes from. Maybe my Quaker upbringing. The Quakers knew that there were things in the world more important than art." Art doesn't save the Wellwoods, but The Children's Book is a consummate work of art.
• AS Byatt, The Childen's Book, Chatto & Windus 18.99