Penelope Lively – still writing at 84

One of my book clubs read The Purple Swamp Hen this year, a collection of short stories by British author Penelope Lively. I’m not a fan of short stories, however, several of these have stuck with me including the one on which the book’s title is based. Lively’s writing is … lively. Her observations of people and situations are insightful and she uses the short story form to advantage.

A New York Times review says: “Lively’s prose is sharp, precise, perfectly pitched, but shrinks from flashiness in a way that has sometimes been mistaken for cozy or middlebrow.” For the record – I don’t think her writing is ‘cozy or middlebrow’ at all!

I found an interview with Penelope Lively published in The Guardian and thought I’d share a few bits with you. After all, someone who is 84, has more than forty books to her credit as well as the Booker Prize (for Moon Tiger) and the Carnegie Medal (for children’s books) must know a thing or two about writing.

Writing a novel is like hacking at the rock face. Somewhere within the daunting but inviting mass of the general idea that you have had, the inspiration, is the careful, sculptured construction of the finished narrative. Two or three years of hacking, usually, for me.


I write in longhand, always have done, then type up later on, which is ideal, to my mind, because that way you make all sorts of corrections and additions in the process; it is an editorial stage.


Writers have to goad themselves throughout a writing life; you are your own employer; there is no one else to see that the job gets done.


The whole thing about stories [she’s referring to short stories] is the idea — once you’ve got that, you’re three-quarters of the way there. Stories arise much more from life lived than the novels do — something overheard, something you’ve seen, which you then sort of mull over and see a way it could become a story.

I’ve now downloaded Moon Tiger so I can experience more of Lively’s writing. I’m sure I’ll learn a thing or two.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION follow A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website

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6 Responses

  1. think I will love this writer. Another want to read book(s). Her comment on writers goading themselves certainly fits me. I’ve been goading all week to finish a chapter. Problem is I’m having trouble following the action in the battle I’m writing (fiction) about. I need to be fairly close to what really happened. As for the age thing. I’m 71 and working on only my 5th book. Sigh.

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