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D o r i s L e s s i n g : A R e t r o s p e c t i v e

Barnes and Noble Author Chat Transcript
Wednesday, August 23rd, 2000 - 7pm ET
Ben, In the World
by Doris May Lessing

Moderator: An Interactive Editor is typing for Doris Lessing, who joins us via telephone this evening.

Meg from Barnes & Noble.com: Good evening, Doris Lessing, and welcome to Barnes & Noble.com! It is truly an honor to have you with us for a chat. Where do we find you tonight and how are you faring?

DL: I am at home in my living room and I'm very well and it's wonderful weather which is a nice change. We had a dreadful early summer so we're all feeling lazy & relaxed.

Irma Unverzagt from Luxembourg: Dear Mrs. Lessing, I think I must have read most of your books, except your latest one! The 5th child still makes me tremble when I look around me ... Did you plan a follow-up right away or did it develop later? Thank your for all your incitations to think (Denkanst sse!). Sometimes I am on the way to room 19, sometimes on Shikasta; then investigating the proper mariage or wondering about a descent into hell. Particularly cats make me ponder why I have two dogs when I always preferred cats. Yours sincerely, Irma Unverzagt

DL: Thank you. You see I would like to have dogs and cats which I was brought up with - on the farm there were cats. But in london I just ahve cats. And I yearn for them, and think I don't like dogs in cities. They should be out there running around!

Patti from Washington state: Greetings, Mrs. Lessing. I just finished reading Ben, In The World. Very nicely done... as your usual way! You kept me totally engrossed and I finished it in 2 days, cooking and such in between. I noticed you used an interesting tool inthat you jumped quickly ahead and briefly told the future results in the lives of those with whom Ben had to do. I don't recall you doing this before?

DL: Yes actually i'm using a technique from the oral tradition. I don't know how many people would have heard a traditional story teller. this is something they will do. They will interrupt the main character with a subsidieary character and they will say "we will not see john jackson again, his story is finished, he will go off and marry...he had a long and happy life..." An interesting technique. this wakes up the audience and in some way focuses attn back on the sotry in a more concentrated way so I'd thought I'd use it in this story.

Bronwen Davies from daviesclan@btinternet.com: Dear Doris, I would just like to say that I love your books and look forward to each new one being published, when I first read the four gated city I cried, and felt less alone than I have in years. The innocence and confusion of Ben was so real in Ben of the world. Please keep writing. Love Bronwen

DL: Thank you very much. That was so nice. Thank you.

Meg from Barnes & Noble.com: As part of a promotion we are doing with First Book -- a nonprofit organization that promotes literacy and gets books into the hands of underprivileged children -- I'd like to ask what book you loved most as a child, and why?

DL: That is really a big question isn't it? I spent all my childhood reading and i look back on one delicious discoveries after another. I read all the american girls books when I was growing up oddly enough in the middle of the bush, the Anne of of Green Gables and all that stuff. And the Hobbit which I've discovered has been put on top of the list as kids' favorite books. And lord of the rings, they weren't written when I was a girl, but I would have adored them. What about this Harry Potter craze? I'm told this one that came out is quite long and these kids read it until they finish. People say kids can't read but if they're given something they like, indeed they can read!

L from Boston: Any current authors you could recommend?

DL: The last book I read which I have thoroughly enjoyed was by Malcolm Bradbury a very funny writer, it was called To the Hermitage. I recommend it. It was enormously funny and very education b/c I knew nothing about hte enlightenemnt profesor Diderot that he had created this encyclopedia, so you are educated and at the same time are laughign your head off!

Dave Quayle from Milton Keynes: My boss quoted, or thought she was quoting, in good humour, a comment to the effect, "Never trust a man who's read Doris Lessing." This was one I'd never heard before and she couldn't remember where she'd read it. It's been a source of some frustration for both of us since. Have you come across the quote before? Who was it?

DL: No, I've never heard it. I'd love to know what he meant. I get quite a lot of letters from men about my books, including The Golden NOtebook. I wonder what was meant by that? We shall never know...

Camille Archer from Toronto: Hello!!! I have only read one of your books..."Love,Again", I thought it was really wonderful but I am wondering if it you plan to write something about love and it's better half, if I could say so...or does love have a better half in your opinion?

DL: I don't plan to write anymnore about love as a subject, but then you never know what I might suddenly be taken by, something you have to write. I have just finished a book which won't be published unitl next year called the Sweetest Dream in which there is a love affair between much older people but love is not the subject of the book, just one of the stories in it.

Susan from Philadelphia: You mention being "old". You are past the age of many of the oldest characters in your books (i.e. Maude), yet you are vibrant and full of life and intelligence. Is growing old what you expected it to be?

DL: Well I did not to expect to slow down the way I have. I don't have the energy I used to have. My message to everyone out there is make use of your energy while you've got it. After the age of 60 you ahven't got much left. DOn't think it will go on forever, all that efffortless energy. But it's not as bad being very old as people think. It's no use sitting around thinking oh what a pity I'm not still 25 and very beautiful. There's a certain amt of philosophy that comes into it.

Jennifer from Barnes & Noble.com: Your publishing career has had a longevity that many writers dream of. What are your thoughts about book publishing today? Do you have any opinions on the new technologies of eBooks and the Internet?

DL: Well there are two questions - the electronic revolution: I personally think the book as we know it wil go on simply because of its convience and it's portability where i don't think so far they've made it easy to read books electronically. I think the two things will go on side by side. IF you look back on the inventions of the last 50 or 60 yrs , the new things don't necessarily disposses the old ones but are just extra ammenities. I don't think the book is doomed at all. NOone has ever invetned anything as convenient ast he book for its purpous. publishing - this is a very big question indeed. And I don't really know how to answer it in such a short space as we've got. I don't like the way publishing is dominated by a few big names, it's always dangerous. On the other hand, there are large numbers of small publishers popping up all over the place. ALso, tucked away inside these great empires ruled by accountant, there are people who are passionate about books & good books are being published all the time. IT's complicated. I don't think it's very good for difficult and oddball writers at the moment, yet I myslef has seen and helped with oddball books that do find a publisher.

Moderator: Sadly, our chat with Doris Lessing is nearing its end -- so if you have any last-minute questions or comments, now is the time to send them in.

Steve from Princeton, NJ: Hello, Ms. Lessing -- it's an honor. How do you see yourself, personally, in relation to your creation of Ben? Do you share any of his attributes?

DL: last question - Re; Evolution, you don't have to make it an either or, on the one hand have this great sweep of evolution leading onwards & upwards & at the same time toy with the idea there have been interventions from other planets why not? don't think it in terms of "i believe this". I think it's possible there might be more sense in sci fiction and space ficiton than in some of our older ideas. this question - Well, personally, one of the interesting things about this character, when I go and talk to schools, teachers always tell me the kids like the FIfth Child and I couldn't understand this for a while and then I saw of course adolescents - they're always outsiders, they always feel like creatures from outer space. I was once at a shcool where the most beautiful girl, age 15, I asked her why she like the FIfht CHild, and she said I am Ben . ANd I said right, I understand. I myself was an adolescent and it was easy for me remember how on the outside of everyithing I felt.

Meg from Barnes & Noble.com: You seem to be addressing issues of human evolution in these novels. Have you read The Origin of Species? What are your thoughts on Darwin's theories?

DL: Actually I read it again recently and I was so impressed by the magnificence and scope of the book and the language is marvelous -- the courage of the Victorians, the scope of them It's a fantastic book. About his theories, I'm not a scientist, but I understand there are parts of your population that don't accept evolution which to me seem hard, I don't see how one can accept anything else but some kind of evolution. DOn't forget when Darwin wrote the book Mendel's ideas hadn't been incorporated into general thinking. We're alwasy finding something else, now we ahve all this knowledge aobut our genetic structure and we don't know where this is going to lead.

Leena from Boston, MA: Dear Ms. Lessing: "Marriages Between Zones" was my introduction to your work and I was so surprised by it and moved. I loved how you used the context of other-worldly myth to show something about this world. In your novels you have explored so many varied cultures and countries. Are there any regions of the world, cultures, or religions that are currently sparking your interest?

DL: No, I don't think so. NOt more than normal because I'm interested and involved in things in various parts of the worlds, but the marriages between zones 3, 4 & 5 was really a messs. I know it went under the heading of space ficiton but in fact it was a myth, a legend and I don't think it should be looked at as any certain place. It became an opera last year with PHilip Glass in Germany. I hope it comes on again somewhere.

Leena from New Haven: I also found Ben to be a heartbreaking character in the first book. Do you feel there are more displaced or lost souls in our modern society than there used to be? Thanks for all your wonderful writings.

DL: Thank you for saying that. I should imagine probably there are more displace people because of hte number of wars and the number of refugees and the number of people damaged by war b/c we are always thinking when a war ends of the people who've been killed, but there are also those who've been wounded or psychologically wounded. Looking aroudn the world, you can see these people who can't fit in. I understand there were a lg number of Vietnam vets who can't fit into society. ANd it's not the only war that left behing a great residue of people. I think it's amazing there aren't more when you think of all the stresses we are under, everything is sped up, yet most of us manage to be quite sane --an achievement.

Moderator: We're just past our halfway point in our chat with Doris Lessing. A chat is only as good as its questions, and this one is fantastic! Many thanks to you all!

Ann Marie from Woodstock NY: Hello Mrs. Lessing. I've loved your work since I read the Golden Notebook in college. I loved it so much I stole that copy and still have it... My question is, what is your writing schedule when you are working on a book, and have your writing habits changed much over time, or do they vary from book to book? Thank you.

DL: Well, I think my habits have stayed more or less the same. I like to work as early as I can in the morning. Probably about 8 to 12 or 1. But I run a house you know and the plumber calls and you have to take the cat to the vet, you know it's always very difficult to actually get to work. When I was young I had this totally unreal belief that when I was old there would be all htis time, well it did not turn out to be true.

Andrew Kolstad from Washington, DC: My memory of the Fifth Child is that it was told primarily from the point of view of the mother, which provided the reader with little understanding of what went on in Ben's mind. To me he appeared to be a force of evil. Yet your sequel, from the brief description on the Barnes and Noble site, appears to place Ben at the center and makes him much more sympathetic. Has Ben mellowed? What happened to the evil force in him? What should I be looking for when I read your new book?

DL: Well I never saw Ben as evil, other people said he was an evil force. I thought he was simply a creature in the wrong place. IF he had been a member of a tribe in a hillside or a cave he would've been perfectly ok, but he destroyed this nice civilized middleclass family. OUr culture is so complicated now that very simple people can't cope with it. What has happened to Ben is that he's grown up and he's understood that his violence, his rages, his savage impulses have to be controlled and in the new novel you see moments when he's doing this. He's matured. In a way, he's what we have to do when we grow up. Children are completely wild when they're very young and they have to learn they can't do that. Also I find Ben an infintely pitiable figure. I did before, but I was more interested in the family last time. This book originated, there was a lot of talk about Neandrathals aroudn when I wrote that book and some scientists said that probably Neandreathals mated with our progenitors and i thought if those genes are aroudn, why not other races that perhaps we don't know aobut? wWith both books I have been interested by the effect he had on other people. In this book, you see it thourhg his eyes.

Moderator: Doris Lessing -- author of BEN, IN THE WORLD and a score of acclaimed novels -- is chatting live with B&N.com! Keep sending in your terrific and informed questions.

Jennifer Johnson from Victoria B.C., Canada: Ms. Lessing -what amazing oportunity to actually be on a chatline with you- just a few weeks ago there was a great piece in our National newspaper The Globe and Mail saying you should get the NOBEL PRIZE for LITERATURE and that it is a travesty that you didn't get it long ago-shall I start a petition?

DL: Well now I do honestly think that you know I"ve been on the shortlist for this prize for years & i don't think it's a good idea for writers to sit around worrying if they're going to get prizes or not.

Jennifer from New York: Some people have commented on the "author's note" to Ben, in the World about the Brazilian elimination of the children. Can we assume you meant it sarcastically when you said they remove the children who annoy the tourists?

DL: last question - it also seems to be now a city of young people. when you go around at night any day of the week, it's crammed full of young people. It is very good, very enjoyable. this question - no I didn't mean it sarcastically. I've been told by friends of mine who visit Rio, where there were gangs of children on the street who were often persecuted to the point where they were almost killed. This is not happening anymore, we do not know what is happening behind the scenes. THese children, at least some of them, have been put in decent homes, so I'm told. But I've got a feeling if perhaps one actually lived there one might see something different.

Stefania Straga from Italy: Dear Mrs. Lessing, I am an Italian university student and I am presently writing a dissertation on the role London has had in your work. As far as I can see your relationship to the city has changed a lot from 1949. Is it so?

DL: Well when I first came to London it was a very badly war-damaged city & a very poor one after the war. It was unpainted and cold and the food was apalling. I swear you couldn't get a decent cup of coffee anywhere in the Isles. IT was generally a very dispiriting place & I needed alot of emotional energy to deal with London. But now this is no longer the case, it is a very attractive lively place full of people. THere is a boom going on, a period of affluence. I think everybody is enjoying themeselves. DOn't forget when I first came I had no money & a small child & it was all very hardgoing. Now I live in a very pleasant house and can do all the things I couldn't do, go to the opera, the theater, and so I experience London very differently now.

Jan Hanford from Berkeley, California: I enjoyed "Ben, in the World" tremendously. It was very moving; Ben felt very real to me. The idea of sequels is fascinating. Might there be any more sequels to your books, i.e. the Canopus series? Also, will you be visiting any U.S. cities other than New York in the Fall?

DL: Well I'm always thinking about writing another volume for the Canopus series, but I seem to get sidetracked into something else. Also the one I should write next is very difficult, I suppose that's why I keep putting it off. THis fall I'm coming to NY for about a week and then I'm going to Washington. But I can no longer do these exhaustive trips. I should be 81 next month you know, & i just can't do it any longer.

Moderator: We're chatting live with acclaimed author Doris Lessing -- and offering her new book, BEN, IN THE WORLD, at a 20% discount! Need a copy? Just click here to buy!

Kathy Steele from Wilmington, DE: I know this novel's about a monster -- who is/are the real monsters in the novel?

DL: The people who are unkind to Ben are the monsters and quite a few people have said this to me. Quite a few people have said this to me - poor ben is the innocent & the others are the monsters. ONe lot in London who make use of him - he experiences a bit of unkindness, but this seems to me how we deal with people who don't fit into the normal. We arene't very good at dealing with outsiders. We can't tolerate much difference.

Brigitte from Lyon, France: Good evening, Ms. Lessing. I loved your new novel. I'm curious -- why so long a gap between The Fifth Child and the sequel?

DL: Well I hadn't thought of writing a sequeal at all when I'd finished the first one. But actually it was a joke by my German publisher. The Fifth CHild did very well in Germany, a bestseller for weeks. And he said you should write a sequel & i didn't take it seriously and then I thought about it for a long time. ANd I was writing my two autobiographies & I wrote Mara & Dann & I didn't get aroudn ot it. ANd also I wanted to write a short book & that is why I wrote it now.

Meg from Barnes & Noble.com: You've said that you "loathed" writing The Fifth Child. Was the process of writing the sequel at all more enjoyable for you?

DL: Yes, I found writing THe FIfth CHild almost unbearable because it was such a distressing story. I don't know why the second was so distressing, it was very sad, but it wasn't so destructive. Because Ben destroyed a family, of course it came together later then as we saw in Ben in the World. WHile I was very sad writing the second one, I didn't find it as painful. I suppose it is like a fable. or a legend.

Marianne from Philadelphia, PA: Hello, I enjoyed both The Fifth Child and Ben in the World immensely! I found the sequel to be decidedly more fable-like than the first. Was this a conscious decision?

DL: No, the problem with the second one was that Ben is grown up and I had to decide where in the world there would be people who would cope with him. THat was the problem of the book. SO they would have to be poor people or in some way people who would make use of him b/c of his enormous strenght. OR marginal people in one way or another. ONe other possiblity was rich & eccentric people who could find space for thsi oddball. But i though this would spoil the tone of the book so I kept it with people on the edge of society. One has to remember Ben is now grown up & realized he is the only person of his kind in the world as far as he knows & he is looking for someone like himself. And sometimes his absolute aloneness is shown in the book. I think he's a heartbreaking character, actually. I was so sad writing it.

Ms. Graham from Alexandria, VA: What personal experiences did you bring to the book? How long did your research take?

DL: Well I don't think there were any personal experiences. THis was a sequel to THe Fifth Child so this is an imaginative book, it's not realism. As for research, I didn't need any. It's all invention.

Meg from Barnes & Noble.com: Thank you for taking the time to talk with us tonight, Ms. Lessing. It has been a pleasure. Before we sign off, do you have any parting words of wisdom you wish to share with your many online fans around globe?

DL: Well I think "words of wisdom" can be very dangerous! I'd just like to say thank you so very much, it really has been quite easy! It's getting on to 1 in the morning here so I think I might sleep now...