Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

I Have No Sense of My Age; Every Day Is Groundhog Day-But I Live in a State of Perpetual Excitement

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

I Have No Sense of My Age; Every Day Is Groundhog Day-But I Live in a State of Perpetual Excitement

Article excerpt

I'm no good at telling tales about myself. Tales about other people, however, are my bread and butter.

I discovered this when I was nine and read my first biography, which was about Jennie Churchill, the American mother of Winston. It was a transformative experience, and not because I was interested in the character of Jennie herself It was the genre that pulled me in, the way in which biography dignifies chance events, wrong turns and sliding-doors decisions, allowing the chaos of daily existence to seem as choreographed as fiction.

I went on to read other biographies, of film stars mainly, and found that radically different narratives could be reduced to similar patterns, that a life could be plotted as if on a graph: this year was a low point, this one was a high point, this was a turning point. The most readable biographies were those that involved a dramatic rise followed by a fall.

I immediately knew two things: that this rising and falling line bore no relation to my own experience, and that I wanted to write biographies. I liked tracing people's plots precisely because I didn't have one of my own. Other people seemed attached to some bigger story, their lives had narrative momentum, but I occupied a perpetual present tense with no reference to yesterday and no investment in tomorrow.

I experience my life as a series of unrelated episodes, which is why I anchor it to narratives. I am a narrative obsessive: I write them, teach them, read them, plug them into my ears when I'm walking and sit glued to box sets every night. …

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