Writers & Company

Diana Athill: looking back at a remarkable literary life and career

Writers & Company looks back at the amazing life and career of editor and memoirist Diana Athill. She died on Jan. 23, 2019, at the age of 101.
British editor and author Diana Athill worked with many of the great authors in literature, including Norman Mailer, Mordecai Richler, Jack Kerouac, V.S. Naipaul, Philip Roth, Mavis Gallant and Simone de Beauvoir. (Jeff Spicer/Getty Images)
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Sharp, uninhibited and charming, Diana Athill was one of England's top fiction editors for more than 50 years, with a list that included V.S. Naipaul, Norman Mailer, Philip Roth, Jean Rhys, Molly Keane and Mordecai Richler. She was instrumental in the completion of Rhys's 1966 classic Wide Sargasso Sea, among many successes during her career with the British publisher André Deutsch.

But what was really striking about Athill was her own beautiful, seemingly effortless writing, combined with an honesty that took readers by surprise. Published when she was in her 90s, Athill's memoir Somewhere Towards the End discusses sex and aging with unusual frankness, reflecting on romantic relationships, family and, ultimately, death. The bestselling memoir won a Costa Book Award and a National Book Critics Circle Award.

Athill published a total of nine memoirs, several of them focusing on troubled romantic affairs. But in 2000 she came out with Stet, a book that looks back on her career as an editor. A booklover's delight, Stet: An Editor's Life was a surprise hit and established Athill's celebrity as a memoirist.

Eleanor Wachtel talked to Athill twice, including this conversation from 2001, shortly after the publication of StetShe died on Jan. 23, 2019, at the age of 101.

A reader from a young age

"My grandparents were bookish people. My maternal grandmother's father had been a master of an Oxford college. It was absolutely taken for granted that books were everywhere. Everybody read all the time. If you weren't outside riding, who were indoors reading.

"My grandmother started us all off. She was the most wonderful reader aloud. When we were children, she used to read every evening to us when we were in her house. She could read quite grown-up and complicated books with lots of description in them — and she could cut the bits that bore children so smoothly that we never knew she was cutting. She was a brilliant reader and I think she did a lot to make us bookish."

Being an editor

"We were arrogant enough to think that if we thought a book was a good book, that it was a good book. And very often it was.

"'Less is more' has become more and more my feeling about good writing. This is partly a matter of taste. It doesn't necessarily mean that I'm right about that. Exuberance in language gives some people a lot of pleasure. But I like people to get their effects in very small touches."

The moment she became a writer

"I was taking my dog for a walk in the park early in the morning. As I went across the road, a car slowed for me to go cross. And I got across and then he stopped. There was this little man who looked rather like a friend of mine. I thought for a moment it was him. He leaned out and said, 'Excuse me, would you like to come and have coffee?' I laughed and said, 'No, thank you very much.'

"It made me think about Marcel, this old friend of mine, and for some reason it triggered the impulse to write. I got home that evening and I started to write about Marcel. I very much enjoyed doing it, but it didn't turn into a story. But I got going somehow. Then I suddenly thought of somebody else I remembered. I thought, 'Well, I'll write about him, he'll make a good story.' I sat down and I whizzed through it.

"And I wrote a story that was, in fact, quite a good story."

Why the memoir is called Stet

"What I had been doing was trying to let stand a large patch of my experience, which was all gone, which was going to be wiped out at any minute now because I'm quite old. I remembered the expression stet, which I used a lot, of course, as an editor. I thought, 'That's it. That's what the book will be called.' It's about letting stand a patch of important experience, or important to me."

The future of books

"I think [changes] are inevitable and I don't think that they are the end of the world. There are always going to be some people who are real book lovers, who feel that that's their way of expanding their imaginations. But masses of other people get stimulus in other ways now.

"I think that if someone's dumb, they'd be dumb with books, just as they are in other ways. And if someone's not dumb, they would be getting a lot out of the new methods, new ways of living and thinking. I don't think books will die right out, ever."

Diana Athill's comments have been edited for length and clarity.