Monday, July 28, 2008

An Interview with Elaine Feinstein

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of reading Elaine Feinstein's THE RUSSIAN JERUSALEM which I reviewed here.

Today she kindly agreed to a short interview.

Short biography (abridged from her website)

Elaine Feinstein was born in Liverpool, brought up in Leicester, and educated at Newnham College, Cambridge. She has worked as a University Lecturer, a subeditor, and a free-lance journalist. Since 1980 she has lived as a full-time writer. In the same year, she was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. In 1990, she received a Cholmondeley Award for Poetry, and was given an Honorary D.Litt from the University of Leicester. She was awarded a Civil List Pension in recognition of services to literature in 2008.

She has written fourteen novels; radio plays; television dramas, and five biographies; TED HUGHES: THE LIFE OF A POET (2001 was short listed for the biennial Marsh Biography Prize); her most recent biography 'ANNA OF ALL THE RUSSIAS: The Life of Anna Akhmatova came out from Weidenfeld in 2005. Her versions of the great Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva were a New York Times Book of the Year.

She has traveled extensively; in Russia for GB/USSR in 1978; and for the British Council in France, Spain, Italy, Rumania, India, and South East Asia. In 1993 she was Writer in Residence for the British Council in Singapore, and in 1995 in Tromso on the Arctic Circle.

You can hear Elaine Feinstein reading her poem wheelchair here.

General Questions

CD: Do you have any connection with snails?
EF: They eat my clematis, alas, so I have to carry them into the passageway near my garden, where I imagine there is plenty of greenery to sustain them.

CD: What is your proudest moment?
EF: I really don’t know. First child ? First book published ? No. Probably watching my son Martin play the flute at the Wigmore Hall, reading my son Adam’s reviews of his biography of Neruda, or my son Joel opening his letter from Trinity College Cambridge at sixteen to find he had a major scholarship.

CD: Have you ever had a life-changing event - if so what was it?
EF: That was probably the publication of my first novel. The Circle. After that...I was sure I wanted to be a writer.

CD: What is the saddest thing you’ve ever heard of or seen?
EF: Sadness --- that is an emotion for a gentle life.

CD: If there was one thing you’d change about yourself what would it be?
EF: I’d like a completely healthy body

CD: What is happiness?
EF: Love and work--- Freud was right about that.

CD: What is the first thing you do when you get up ?
EF: Put the kettle on


CD: The book is an appealing mixture of memoir, imaginative prose, pictures and poetry. Can you tell me a little about this mixture - how you arrived at it and what came first.
EF: It grew like a patchwork quilt.

CD: You are obviously an expert on Russian history and culture - that is one of the things I liked most about this book - its insight into what for me is a mysterious world. This is clearly a long-term interest. Can you tell me how it arose and why?
EF: the late sixties I began to work on the poetry of Marina Tsvetaeva. For myself only; to learn from her ferocious genius. I sent Lyrics 1 and 8 from Poem of the End ---- which I had made using literal versions of Angela Livingstone---to Grosseteste Review, with a circulation of about 150 and was astonished to have letters from both OUP and Penguin inviting me to do a book of her poetry. Everything followed from that one piece of luck.

CD: You have written several biographies of some fascinating Russian poets, and some, for example Marina Tsvetaeva and Anna Akhmatova, feature in this book. You have also written a biography of the English poet Ted Hughes. Would you say that the lives of great poets have anything in common? What makes a great poet - is it just talent?
EF: Talent plus nerve. And of course dedication.

CD: Your range of work is astonishing: fourteen novels, many radio plays, TV dramas, five biographies as well as poetry. Do you have a favourite medium? Does it change from time to time? Are the challenges different?
EF: Poetry always first. Though novels are more fun..

CD: The illustrations by William Kermode come from a primer 'Moscow has a plan' published in 1931. They seem particularly apt. Did you have any input into the choice of illustrations? Can you tell me any more about this book?
EF: The lovely woodcuts were found for me by Judith Wilson of Carcanet Press.

CD: Writer in Residence for the British Council sounds to me like one of the most interesting jobs in the world. What does it entail? Do you have any choice on where you will go? Do you have any entertaining anecdotes?
EF: First : You have to be invited. And then--- in the old days before cuts--- the British Council would fund your stay. Usually there are very light teaching duties---and you are expected to read your poetry in schools.


Blogger Kay Cooke said...

Thanks for the interview Clare - you ask useful questions - the replies were a little brief (sometimes a little enigmatic). She's a busy woman I guess ... so it's wonderful that she took time for your interview. I am now interested enough to read her latest book. I love her poetry. Again, thanks for the revelations.

Sat Aug 02, 03:57:00 am  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

It is worth reading, Kay! Hope you enjoy it!

Sat Aug 02, 01:09:00 pm  

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