Born in Liverpool to communist parents, Vickers won a scholarship to attend private school before studying at Cambridge. Before writing novels she worked as a special educational needs teacher and a Jungian psychoanalyst. Her new book The Librarian (Viking, £16.99) follows Sylvia Blackwell, a young woman who moves to a small town to work as a children’s librarian and falls in love with an older man.
In the novel, Marigold makes clear her reservations about being sent to St Catherine’s school for girls, fearing her classmates would all be “goody-goodies”. Did you have similar reservations about your time as a pupil attending St Paul’s Girls’ School?
That is very perceptive! Yes, I did and my dad was very against my going. I recall overhearing my parents having a row about this and worrying that my dad wouldn’t like me anymore if I took up the scholarship. The first day was a great shock as there was, what seemed to me, a row of Rolls-Royces, some with chauffeurs, depositing pupils. I also overheard two girls discussing their “show ponies”. All quite alarming. That said, once I settled in I held my own despite some fairly open prejudice from some of my fellow schoolmates. I remember being asked if I lived in a council flat, which caused my dad to sing My Old Man’s A Dustman for some weeks. A couple of teachers also assumed I would be slower than the other girls because I came from a state primary school, which I remember made me very indignant.
The relationship the children in the village of East Mole share with Sylvia is one of the most interesting aspects of the book. Were you inspired by children you encountered during your time as a teacher?
I have always got on best with children and even at university worked in a nursery. The children I taught were “special”, which meant they were either ill or considered too naughty to attend school and, yes, we had fine times together. But I guess it is my grandchildren who really shaped the relationships Sylvia has with the children in the book. I love the candour of children and the way they appreciate directness and honesty. I had a rule as a parent that I would never lie to my two sons. I never did (though there were times I was tempted) and I have the same rule with my grandchildren. If I don’t like something I tell them, so if asked, I wouldn’t impose my judgement and equally I am very willing to support them against school rules, for example, that I find daft or plain harmful.
Having written a mix of novels, short story collections and poetry, do you find you have a preferred writing style?
I wish I were a better poet because I consider poetry the greatest art form of the written word. But at heart I am a novelist because I love stories and I find telling them very exciting as I never know what is going to happen myself. I’m often astonished at how a thread will unravel.
The importance of reading at a young age is a clear theme of the novel. What impact do you think it has on children?
Reading is food and drink for hungry young minds and imaginations. This is why I respect children’s writers above all – for they lay down the foundations of our future citizens’ imaginations and fundamental approach to life… Books are comparatively cheap and should be freely available, especially to children. Hence my massive support for libraries – one of the beliefs that led to me writing this book.
Have you ever considered writing a novel aimed at a young audience?
I have – but my son Rupert Kingfisher, who writes the Madame Pamplemousse series, is a children’s writer and I don’t want to trespass on his field. We get on extremely well and he is my best reader and critic so I wouldn’t want to do anything to sour that relationship.
Are there overlaps in your career as a Jungian psychoanalyst and as a novelist?
The relationship I have with my characters strongly resembles aspects of the relationship I had with my former clients. When someone came for therapy or analysis I would know very little about them, other than their name, perhaps their age and in those days usually (though not always) their gender. After that it was a process of a very moving unfolding of their inner and secret selves. This, with some differences, is how I approach my characters, who will always arrive with a name and a tone of voice and style of talking but not much more. If I am patient and listen they will begin to reveal who they are and act in accordance with their nature. It is also the case that working in a Jungian way involves finding some correspondence within oneself with the person who has come to consult – a shared language, if you like. This has been an excellent schooling for finding within myself voices and temperaments very unlike my own which evolve into a character.
How have the political views held by your parents, as members of the Communist Party, shaped your own views?
I shall always be a socialist. The people in the Communist Party my family mixed with as I grew up were fine people, with a real belief in equality and a fundamental respect for people of all walks of life. And that I respect and hope I still share. There was a mistrust of anything like a religious perspective, which I think was a pity. I quite often write about spiritual matters – or, as I prefer to call them, metaphysical matters – and that may well be a kind of reaction against the rather militant atheism I was brought up in. I am neither a conventional Christian nor a communist but I do tend to write about those who are outsiders or damaged or at the fringes of society and that I am sure arose from a combination of my parents political views and my own reaction to them.
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