Harry Ransom CenterThe University of Texas at Austin

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Summer 2002 Newsletter

A Conversation with Penelope Lively


Penelope Lively, Oleander, Jacaranda: A
Childhood Perceived
, Viking, London and
New York, 1994.

Penelope Lively visited the Center last spring in collaboration with the James A. Michener Center for Writers. She read from her work, talked to British Studies about her childhood in Egypt and England, and viewed her archive with Center archivists. I had the privilege of spending a few minutes with her ... ­Sheree Scarborough

SS: How did the idea for your novel Moon Tiger come about?

PL: The first words of the novel are, "I'm writing a history of the world." She is the central figure, the protagonist, who is an old woman and is dying. I do remember that those words came into my head. At that point, I really didn't know what this novel was or what it was going to be about. I've never had that happen before, that a novel first defined itself by a sentence arriving.

SS: I didn't know if it was spurred by a personal experience with your own mother or grandmother?

PL: No, not really. But I had always known that I wanted to write about Egypt in some way. I wanted to use my childhood experience in fiction. I knew I didn't want to write a novel, which would be some sort of fictional autobiography. Many years later, I came to write this childhood memoir, Oleander, Jacaranda, which is entirely about my childhood in Egypt. But Moon Tiger came well before that. About three years before writing Moon Tiger, I went back to Egypt for the first time as an adult with my husband and two friends. We did a sort of tourist trip; we went up the Nile and then we had three days in Cairo during which we actually found my old home. We found the house that I'd been born and grew up in which used to be in open country then. It was outside Cairo and was amidst open fields. All this was gone. It was now digested into the slums of Cairo. We did find the battered shell of my house, which was a very emotive experience. I don't think it so much gave me the idea for Moon Tiger, but it made me see how I could use my own memory of it. Being reminded of the place -- the smell and the sound of it -- I remember thinking, "Yes, now I could write about it, now I could write something."

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