Interview with Peter Ackroyd

By Onega, Susana | Twentieth Century Literature, Summer 1996 | Go to article overview
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Interview with Peter Ackroyd

Onega, Susana, Twentieth Century Literature

Born in London in 1949, of working-class background, Peter Ackroyd - poet, biographer, reviewer, and novelist - won international repute after the publication of his third novel, Hawksmoor (1985), which was awarded the Whitbread Prize and the Guardian Fiction Prize, and was short-listed for the Booker Prize. One of the most original and fertile British writers of the 1980s, on a par with novelists such as John Banville, Julian Barnes, Charles Palliser, Salman Rushdie, Rose Tremain, and Jeanette Winterson, Ackroyd considers his poetry, his biographies, and his novels simply as "writing," the result of the same creative impulse.(1)

Outstanding features of the biographies and novels (as well as of the poetry) are the recurrent tendency to blur the boundaries between storytelling and history; to enhance the linguistic component of writing; and to underline the constructedness of the world created in a way that aligns Ackroyd with other postmodernist writers of "historiographic metafiction" (Hutcheon 1988). Also recurrent is Ackroyd's contradictory yearning for mythical closure, expressed, for example, in his fictional treatment of London as a mystic center of power, the result of the concentration through time of the English cultural tradition, which he defines as Catholic, visionary, and transhistorical. The striving for mythical closure evinces the influence of high modernism, while the visionary and specifically Catholic component of Ackroyd's world view confers on his writing a kind of marginality comparable to that of transition-to-postmodernism experimental British writers, such as Malcolm Lowry, Lawrence Durrell, Maureen Duffy, and John Fowles.

Q: As you have explained in an interview, you were educated as a Catholic and were even altar server as a child. Are you still a practicing Catholic?

A: No, I'm not. I ceased to practice when I left school. I went to a bad school run by Benedictine monks in Ealing, named, of course, Saint Benedict, and I practiced obviously when I was at school, because it was part of the discipline, that we had to, but as soon as I left school, I ceased to practice. But then, of course, I don't believe that stops you from remaining a Catholic but probably takes other forms.

Q: What do you mean?

A:I think there is a difference between sacred and secular writers, or people who believe in the sacred and people who believe in the secular, and I think if you are formed in a Catholic education, you imbibe a sense of the sacred which never actually leaves you.

Q: Which you obviously have . . . ?

A: Yes, I think so. Yes. I certainly do consider myself a secular writer.

Q: Are your parents or any other members of your family artistically gifted?

A: Well, my father is a painter. But I don't think any of the rest of my family were. No. I was brought up in a working-class area and lived in a council house. My grandfather was a lorry driver. So I think it would be hard for me to create any genealogy of talent in that sense.

Q: How early did you start writing poetry, or at least think of becoming a poet?

A: I think from my earliest days. I think, when I was a boy, the only thing that interested me was poetry. When I was a schoolboy, I wrote poetry. And when I was a student, I wrote poetry, and when I was at university or at school, all I really wanted to read was poetry. That was my great ambition, to be a poet. And I believe I kept on writing poetry until my late 20s. I didn't begin a fiction or anything of that kind until after that.

Q: You have told an interviewer that you had not read a novel until you were "about 26 or 27." How did you manage to get an honor's degree in English - a "double first," in fact - without having read any novels? Weren't they part of the curriculum at Cambridge?

A: No, they weren't. We read drama and poetry and classical literature in the English curriculum, and fiction wasn't part of the courses I chose.

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