Life today moves so fast that authors find their novels out of date if they take up to three years to create one, Fay Weldon, the doyenne feminist author of more than 30 novels, revealed at theMarlborough Literary Festival last night (Friday).
She warned too that authors had a difficult time making money, claiming that some publishers’ contracts restrict earnings, a cause she has joined union action to fight against.
And she added that Amazon now filled its warehouse with remainder copies and books bought from library shelves, selling them for a penny a time but making a profit on the postage and packaging.
Still writing at 82 – she has also produced five stage plays and TV adaptations of her novels The Lives and Loves of a She-Devil, The Cloning of Joanna May, as well as Upstairs, Downstairs — Fay was in reflective mood talking to journalist and biographer Valerie Grove.
After references had been made about Downton Abbey, she said: “Writing about the past is a kind of cowardice in a way. “That’s because of the difficulty in writing about the present now, as times change so fast, attitudes change so fast, what is important one day is not important the next.
“I’m a fast writer but for many writers that by the time you have got a commission to write a novel that suits the person who writes the blurb and the one who designs the jacket, which for some people can take three years.
“By the time this happened your novel has no relevance to what is going on today. And so you will find that today a lot of writers are writing about the past, or the recent past or going into the future.”
She explained her own prolific career due to the fact that after her first novel was published she was offered three-year contracts demanding a novel a year, even a six-year contract on the same basis.
“It didn’t occur to me that you didn’t have to do this – I just did,” she said, adding that she would have written anyway, though not necessarily in the same pattern.
“And I’m still doing a book a year, this present contract three books in two years,” said Fay, now Professor of Creative Writing at Bath University.
As to the payments writers received, she revealed: “I have been involved in union activities when writers were getting a very hard time from the publishers, who were refusing to pay for this, that and the other.
“They were getting contracts which looked normal but which actually were done to make sure the writer would never get any money from writing their books — or so it seemed to me.”
A questioner said it was a “real insult” that Amazon was selling books at a penny a time.
Fay pointed out that these could be a remaindered book or those Amazon had bought from shelves of current and closed libraries, which now filled their warehouse.
“They get rid of them at a penny a time making their money from the cost of postage and packing,” she said. “You can look inside some of them and see library stamps and see how often they were borrowed.
“And then you could find your books on Amazon at a penny after about three months. But you can’t worry about these things too much. You just have to put up with it.
“There is a much deal with e-books where you will get 25 per cent of whatever they cost.”
Cold comfort having dinner with Prince Charles
Fay told one amazing story of how she was invited to dinner with Prince Charles at St James’ Palace after she had given £5,000 to his charity, The Prince’s Trust.
The money had come from the Daily Mail after it published what she described as a manipulated an article she had written and reproduced quotes she never made under the headline My Facelift Saved My Marriage.
“Then I had a letter from Charles saying, ‘What can you have done to get money out of that vile newspaper?’ He invited us to dinner in St James’s Palace. It was so cold.
“It was snowing outside and all the windows were wide open. And one was wearing all one’s silks, not woollies, which was a great mistake. There was not even a single bar electric fire.”