Author Q&A: Lara Feigel

Free Woman: Life, Liberation and Doris Lessing
(Bloomsbury, £20)

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The author and academic’s latest book is a bibliomemoir in which she experiments with sexual, intellectual and political freedom while reading, and obsessively pursuing, Doris Lessing. 

As an academic was it a challenge to write a work so personal while retaining the credibility that comes from your day job at King’s College?
No, I don’t think so. There’s as much research in this book as there has been in anything I’ve written – hours spent in libraries and archives. The hope is that I’ve used this research to write something that brings back the early passion of reading that presumably inspired most of our students to study English in the first place. The students and colleagues who’ve read it seem to have found this.

Why are current generations returning to traditional and conventional ways of living that generations past sought to free themselves from?  
Perhaps it’s always cyclical. We’ve seen the failures of the sixties – the failed marriages, the drug overdoses, the crises – and we’ve decided to avoid these, perhaps at the risk of going too far in the other direction. It’s also a luxury to experiment. That generation didn’t have to worry nearly as much about where they were going to live or how they were going to earn money.

Why is maternal ambivalence so demonised today and do you think more open dialogue about it might be freeing for mothers?
I don’t think it’s demonised now. It was when Rachel Cusk published A Life’s Work in 2001. But now I think I’m part of a large group of women who are able to say that motherhood brings its share of rage and boredom as well as delight. Perhaps what matters now isn’t so much saying it as insisting that it’s an interesting, serious subject matter, worthy of great literature. I think there are quite a few writers willing to explore this – Jessie Greengrass and Sheila Heti spring to mind at the moment – and that this will be freeing for women, whether or not they’re mothers.

Marx and Engels wrote that freedom was bourgeois, and you admit that you found freedom in buying a second home in Suffolk. Do you think it’s possible for people constrained by financial hardship to be free?
As I said above, many kinds of freedom are indeed conditional on having enough money to survive. But the main discovery of my book was that freedom was more a mental attitude than an escape from practical constraint. Leaving London for a few months enabled me to see that but there are many other experiences that could have done too.

Lessing advocated free love but found freedom and love to be concepts at odds with each other. Did she ever work this out?
No, I don’t think so. But I don’t think that freedom or love were concepts for her. They were states of mind, and she moved ambivalently between them, sometimes managing to love freely. I think the interplay between the two is enriching as well as limiting.

How can madness be a force for freedom?
This idea comes from RD Laing and the anti-psychiatry movement in the 1970s. His idea was that sanity was a socially imposed norm, and that those seen as mad were in fact often saner than those who were classed as sane, if you saw sanity as an emotionally honest and rational response to the external world. These ideas are a lot less popular than they were then but I got a lot out of reading about them.

Has your obsession with Doris Lessing abated now you’ve published Free Woman?
Yes, definitely. I don’t think about her all that often any more. But she’ll always be there for me, as part of the hinterland to who I am and how I think, like anyone you’ve lived closely with and allowed to change you. I am very glad to have spent all that time thinking about her.

Lara Feigel will be in conversation with Kate Feld at Manchester Literature Festival, discussing whether being in love and living freely are compatible states. Join them on 7 Oct at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation. Tickets are available via Big Issue North is proud media partner to MLF. 

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