Diana's publicist and I had been haggling for months over an interview date. The Christmas holidays and my travel dates, coupled with the 99-year-old Diana's protracted flu and the case of her dentures being mistaken for trash at the hospital, meant four months went by until we finally met.
Diana sat opposite me, her sparkling eyes matching her gleaming new teeth. We were in her bright, cluttered room in the suburb of Highgate, an affluent London neighborhood now scattered with empty Russian homes. Pink magnolia blossoms peeked through the window. "My magnolias," she said, chuckling. Stacks of books and manuscripts sent by hopeful writers and friends adorned all surfaces; Diana's precious advice remains highly respected and sought after.
Diana Athill is a revered editor, having worked with Simone de Beauvoir, Margaret Atwood, Jack Kerouac, and many others over her decades-long career. She was a prolific writer, too. Diana's unconventional life choices are reflected in her bawdy and humorous memoirs and short stories. She just published her latest memoir, A Florence Diary, a charming recollection of her 1947 holiday to Italy. Diana never married nor had any children, except for a miscarriage she had while living with Jamaican playwright Barry Reckord, which she's spoken of quite candidly. Her notorious romantic partners include Waguih Ghali, a depressed Egyptian writer who committed suicide in her flat, and Hakim Jamal, an American radical and cousin of Malcolm X. Suffice to say, Diana has had an eventful life.
Over the course of three hours, Diana, with her strong Rs and dramatic pauses, guides me through her unbridled and honest views on politics, greed, love, and writing. Age has neither made her soft nor wistful; she maintains the same cheerful yet prosaic temperament evident in her writing. This should not give the impression that she is jaded, merely pragmatic. In person she is a balm, her thought-provoking words as therapeutic as they are instructive.
On a somber day after the Westminster attack in London, so goes our conversation:
Anya Raza: You've lived through many conflicts: WWII, the Cold War, IRA bombings. Do you feel like things have gotten worse recently?
Diana Athill: They have. Before World War II began, there was a terrible feeling in the air. One knew that war was coming. Now I have not quite the same ominous feeling, but I rationally think that this business of West and East is going to get worse. I'm glad, to tell the truth, that I shan't be alive for very much longer. I personally don't want to see what's going to happen next.
WWII was very dangerous, but in a different way. It was very disagreeable, but it wasn't so frightening because you could understand it. You knew that when the war ended, it was going to be over. Mind you, it went on for six years, and I can remember thinking, Oh, God, I wonder if this is never going to end. But then when it finally was over, there was this wonderful feeling of everything being OK.
AR: Does this mean you were interested in politics?
DA: Not as much as I should have been. I wasn't really by nature a political person. When I was at Oxford, all of us knew that England was in a bad way. That there was a great deal of unfair poverty and dreadful things happening to coal miners. The politically minded among us thought that the answer would be communism, and they all became communists. I didn't refrain from becoming a communist for any really intelligent reason. Well, there was one bit of intelligent reason: I did not like the teaching that "the end justified the means," which you were supposed to adopt if you became a communist. I thought it was very dangerous and wrong. But basically I didn't become a communist because I was a frivolous and idle girl, and I thought it would be a lot of hard work and not much fun.