As It Happens

Remembering Diana Athill, a 'fierce' editor who broke boundaries with her own writing

Diana Athill's editor remembers her as a true friend and groundbreaking writer — who often shared frank, near-clinical descriptions of her sexual encounters.

'I always felt a bit weak sometimes in her company because she knew her own mind,' says editor Ian Jack

Author Diana Athill has died at the age of 101. (Jeff Spicer/Getty Images)
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Story transcript

In literary circles, she was known as the best editor in London.

For decades, Diana Athill worked behind the scenes editing books by some of the most important writers of the 20th century, in and outside of the United Kingdom, including Margaret Atwood, V.S. Naipaul, Mordecai Richler, and Norman Mailer.

But later in her career, Athill became known for her own writing and became an international success in her nineties. 

This week, publisher Granta confirmed Athill has died. She was 101.

As the former editor of Granta magazine, Ian Jack edited several of Athill's books. Here is part of his conversation with As It Happens host Carol Off. 

She worked on so many books of so many well-known writers. But what she is best known as now is a writer herself. That came about late, didn't it?

Yes, she became well-known late in life.

I was editing a magazine, Granta, and it turned out she was writing a book. We published the book. It was a memoir of publishing. And it was unusually and unexpectedly a bit of a success.

And then we published a book of works called Somewhere Towards the End, which was about the fact of growing old. It was beautifully, tenderly, and wisely written. It won a prize and it became a bestseller. 

Athill is pictured here in 1979. (White/Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

And this is into her nineties, when she really got famous as a writer.

She was still writing when she was 99, 100 even.

So she was remarkably strong. If you saw her, you thought, gosh, that's a strong person — very erect, and could be quite fierce. She was extremely down on sentimentality or what she called saccharine writing of any kind.

I always felt a bit weak sometimes in her company because she knew her own mind.

And she knew her own appetites. She wrote this candid, frank work about sexual appetites and was unflinchingly honest about it at a time when women didn't write about such taboos. Nobody wrote about such taboos.

She did, indeed. Sometimes, I'd find it almost too much. She was so distant from the act and described it so well.

In fact, in her most successful book, Somewhere Towards the End, when I was editing it, I said could she cut back on the sex a bit. Because it seemed to be interfering with the theme of the book, which was about now and the sex was then. And it was very odd to be asking a 90-year-old lady to cut back on the sex. 

Did other people agree with you? I wonder if a lot of women...

Other people never knew. That's between me and the listeners of your radio show.

Well, that's a lot of people right now. So you got her to take out sex scenes in her nineties from her books?

Yes. I don't want to kind of exaggerate this, but in this one occasion I just thought it would be better if she just slacked off that a bit and concentrated on the theme of the present now.

Because this was kind of going back to the last time she'd had sex in the '70s. And I thought we needed to establish that fact and then move on to something else.

Gosh, I sound like a kind of Free Church of Scotland minister. I didn't mean to.

Well, you might sound like a man who's talking about a woman's sexuality, which you are. 

Yes, of course. That's what I sound like.

Athill was a renowned editor who found success as an author later in life. (Jeff Spicer/Getty Images)

In Granta, Margaret Atwood wrote about her after she died and described what she meant from a female point of view — that Diana Athill said things that a lot of women over the years felt they couldn't say and talk about. What's her legacy in your view?

I think she became to many women a kind of symbol of feminism really. And I'm not saying she wasn't a feminist, but it was something — that kind of conversation never occurred between us.

I mean, obviously she was a feminist. She had a very successful career at a time when it wasn't easy to have one as a woman. But somehow, I don't know how much it interested her. 

Did you ask her how difficult it was for her to accomplish what she did in her lifetime?

I didn't because she'd written it, really. And I think the question you're asking me now is something, which perhaps because of my gender, or my sloth, or my, I don't know, something — I never asked her.

But I know that women do admire her very much now and think of her in those terms.

Written by Allie Jaynes and John McGill. Interview produced by Allie Jaynes. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 

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