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Pat Barker
You understand art and painting so well – did you ever study these subjects?
Not in any systematic way. I do enjoy working with clay, but I don’t pursue it very seriously. It‘s easier writing about artists than about most professions since essentially you’re trying to convey the fact that they look at the sights and textures of the world with greater freshness and attention than most people. In the process of conveying that the writing becomes more visual and more tactile.
Were John and Paul Nash an inspiration in the creation of Paul Tarrant?
I did have them in mind as a starting point, though Paul Tarrant’s social background is very different from theirs and unlike them he does not succeed in enlisting, so his war history and his war paintings are completely different.
Elinor is very convincing, and yet she is not a cliché: a talented art student, envied by lesser lights, fancied by most of the boys and yet emotionally and intellectually immature, insecure and needy. How do you construct such a complex individual?
It’s difficult to say why some characters have greater depth than others. Elinor came to life during the first draft on her trip to see Paul at the front. Something about her evasiveness, her blatant use of Ruthie’s friendship - she knows she’s doing wrong, knows she ought to stop and yet can’t - and her incorrigible need to pretend to be some romantic heroine or other. None of these are good qualities, but she does take her art with total seriousness at a time when all the pressures on a young woman were to regard it merely as an accomplishment. Above all, her decision to ignore the war, to refuse to accord it the importance it claims, struck me as interesting and different. It isn’t just frivolous and silly – she has a real point.
Your novels are very balanced and well constructed. When you begin a novel do you have an overall plan, or does it grow and develop as you get involved with the characters?
It grows and develops. In this book the chapters in Part One where shifted around several times before I got them in the order I wanted.
LIFE CLASS is well named. Do titles come easily? Also, the cover is inspired: did you have any input in that choice?
Titles often come to me rather late in a novel, but I generally know when I’ve got the right one. Of course the infuriating thing is when the ideal title has been used already by another writer! My next book is currently nameless because everything I think off has been used already. Penguin are very good about consulting on covers and I agree this one is very good. The final decision on a cover has to be with the publisher because it’s marketing tool, but it’s a good feeling for the writer when you think they’ve got it right.
We are told at school and college to write about “what we know”. You have written a superb novel at two generations removed. What do you think of this advice?
I would say write about what you feel passionate about - whether the passion takes the form of anger, pity, enthusiasm, delight, laughter, love. You must be moved yourself before you can move others. For many people this passion is intimately linked with personal experience but for others it is not. Try to be alert for the writing idea that comes to you in several different guises i.e the settings and characters are different, but the basic event or relationship is the same. Somewhere in there is the spark that has set your imagination alight. When it comes to settings there is a lot to be said for writing about settings you know or can acquire knowledge of. It makes it easier to flesh out the character if they are grounded in a known place. Once again though look for the setting that intrigues and inspires you, that means something, rather than one which you know well but find boring.
LIFE CLASS is timely. All wars are bestial, caused as often as not in the first instance by some vainglorious ass massaged by national hubris. What are your views on the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan?
I was opposed to the war in Iraq but that is almost irrelevant now in the face of the immense difficulty of disentangling ourselves without making a bad situation worse.
Do you believe that real genius exists, or is it that old cliché about sweat and tears after all?
It would be difficult to deny the term genius to Mozart for example, composing while out on a walk then writing it all down while carrying on a conversation on some other topic! For almost everybody else months, sometimes years, of sweat and tears take over after the initial flash of inspiration. Though it can also be fun - when it’s going well.
Who are your inspirations?
Poets and composers rather than novelists. John Braine once said that novelists are like fleas, creatures incapable of deriving nourishment from each other. Perhaps slightly exaggerated – but he did have a point.
Pat Barker

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