Appreciations: An Interview with Doris Lessing

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In this 2003 interview, Bill spoke with Nobel-prize winning novelist Doris Lessing about what she called her “compulsive” passion for writing, growing up in Africa, the flower children of the 1960s, her time as a communist, the lasting impacts of war and how she handled accusations by her friends that she was “narrow-minded and an old grouch.”


There was quite a stir in my neighborhood the other night at the Barnes and Noble bookstore on Broadway here in New York.

People were lining up to meet Doris Lessing and to listen to her read from her latest novel, THE SWEETEST DREAM.

At 83, Doris Lessing is one of the world's celebrated and distinguished writers.


DORIS LESSING: And a couple of girls said that they read the story, and they found it very shocking.

And I said, "Yes, it was very shocking."

And they said "Mrs. Lessing, why didn't you send the husband and wife to the marriage counselor?"

Well, now, that is a very good question.

I said, "It never crossed my mind to send these characters because then there would be no story," I said.

And they said, "We think that you're very, very irresponsible."


MOYERS: Born in Persia, and raised in Africa, Doris Lessing has transformed her remarkable life into a literary tour de force, first gaining worldwide attention in 1962 with her novel THE GOLDEN NOTEBOOK.

All in all she's written 24 novels, two operas, three plays, six works of non-fiction, plus a two-volume autobiography, one book of poetry, and 14 collections of short stories.

In this new novel she is at the top of her form, creating a motley crowd of unforgettable characters like those who passed through her London home in the 1960s.

Before Doris Lessing returned to London where she's been living since 1949, we talked about her life and work.

Do you never stop writing?

DORIS LESSING: No. I'm compulsive. And I deeply think that it has to be something very neurotic. And I'm not joking. It has to be. Because if I've finished a book, and this wonderful release, which I'm now feeling-- it's off, it's in a parcel, it's gone to a publisher. Bliss and happiness.

I don't have to do anything. Nothing. I can just sit around. But, suddenly it starts, you see. This terrible feeling that I am just wasting my life, I'm useless, I'm no good. Now, it's a fact that if I spend a day busy as a little kitten, racing around. I do this, I do that. But I haven't written, so it's a wasted day, and I'm no good. How do you account for that nonsense?

BILL MOYERS: Was there what we call an "a-ha moment," a eureka moment when you knew that you were going to spend your life writing, whether successfully or not? Was there such a moment?

DORIS LESSING: Well, I was writing all my childhood. And I wrote two novels when I was 17, which were terrible. And I'm not sorry I threw them out. So, I wrote. I had to write. You know, the thing was, I had no education.

BILL MOYERS: You left school at age 14, right?

DORIS LESSING: Fourteen. Yeah. And I wasn't trained for anything.

BILL MOYERS: What was there in a young girl, you know, 12, 13, 14 or 15, that said "I want to write?"

DORIS LESSING: I was, at that time, being what we now call an au pair. I was a nursemaid. And it was pretty boring. So I thought, "Well, let's try and write a novel." I wrote two. I went back to the farm, and wrote two novels.


DORIS LESSING: This was in Africa.

BILL MOYERS: Where did that idea come from? Had you read a lot? Had somebody...

DORIS LESSING: I never stopped reading. You know. I read and read and read. And it was what saved me. And educated me. So, writing a novel seemed to be a way out. But you see, I was too young.

BILL MOYERS: So, a bored little girl.

DORIS LESSING: Very bored. And, you know, being a nursemaid is very tedious, you know. Small children are very tedious, over the long term. I think probably I've never been so bored in my life, as pushing a pram round the park, on those interminable afternoons. Composing poetry in my head. And thinking, "Well, this will come to an end, at some point."

BILL MOYERS: How was it you started reading as a very young child? How did that happen?

DORIS LESSING: Well, my mother, I have to thank for that. She ordered books from England. You know, this is the middle of Africa. She ordered books by the bushel for me. When I look back, and think of what she bought, I am very impressed.

BILL MOYERS: As you talk I think of the traumatic century you lived through, all those events. You were born right at the end of the first great war. You lived through the Great Depression. You lived through the Second World War. You lived through the nuclear era, the Cold War, the genocide, the collapse of the British Empire. I mean, does anything remain of the world you knew when you were young?

DORIS LESSING: Nothing. Nothing at all. The World War I, I'm a child of World War I. And I really know about the children of war. Because both my parents were both badly damaged by the war. My father, physically, and both, mentally and emotionally. So, I know exactly what it's like to be brought up in an atmosphere of a continual harping on the war.

BILL MOYERS: Your father couldn't stop talking about it?

DORIS LESSING: No. He was obsessed with it. He talked and the other old soldiers in, you know, the district I was brought up in — there were half a dozen of them. The obsessive talking about the trenches, and their generals and so on. And I used to listen, it was terrible, you know? These men were...had been so traumatized. Though, of course, outwardly, they were very civilized and good and kind and everything. But in actual fact, they were war victims.

BILL MOYERS: I was touched when we asked you to bring some pictures, and you brought several photographs of your father. Would you tell me about these?

DORIS LESSING: I look at him, and I think that's a young man. When I was a child, there was a soldier. That's what I saw. A soldier. But in actual fact, it's a very vulnerable face, isn't it?

BILL MOYERS: And this one?

DORIS LESSING: Well there, he was in the Royal Free Hospital in London when they'd cut off his leg. And the sister there is my mother. She was a ward sister. And so, they got married.

BILL MOYERS: You said that the war destroyed your mother, too?

DORIS LESSING: Well, my mother was going to marry a young doctor who was sunk in a ship. And I don't think she ever really got over that. I think she was very marked by it.

BILL MOYERS: You seem to struggle in all of your work with idealism and illusions versus human nature and reality.

DORIS LESSING: Yes, I suppose I do. Don't forget, I went through this period in my 20's, when I was full of unreal optimism. I was a Red.

BILL MOYERS: A communist. That's a term we don't hear much in America anymore.



DORIS LESSING: The reason I became one was because the local Reds were the only people that ever read anything. And you know, they read all the books that I did. This is a time when the communists read everything. I don't think they do now. And they also...they were the only people I ever met who knew, like me, that it wasn't going to last. I mean, the idea no one could possibly say, you know, this is a ridiculous system, and it's not going to last. A tiny little handful of whites holding down the blacks.

BILL MOYERS: In Rhodesia.

DORIS LESSING: Yes. Rhodesia. The whole white/black thing.

BILL MOYERS: You didn't remain a Communist for long, did you?


BILL MOYERS: What happened?

DORIS LESSING: Well, what happened, happened to everybody. You know, there's an old joke over there. That everyone has been a Communist but no one is one. We were mad. We genuinely believed that sort of like 15 years after the war, Paradise would reign in the world, you know, Utopia. Everything bad would be banished, you know, capitalism, and that cruelty, and the unkindness to children, and unkindness to women, and you name it. And we believed this rubbish. Now, we were not stupid. How was it that we could do that?

BILL MOYERS: How was it?

DORIS LESSING: I don't know.

BILL MOYERS: But dreams are not rubbish.

DORIS LESSING: They're rubbish if they lead you to very unrealistic actions. That's what's bad about them. If you're dreaming about wonderful Utopias, and great horizons, and great dawns and all that, you're not really seeing what's there, and what could be done.

BILL MOYERS: Well, of course, you spent a lot of time trying to undo the British Empire. And I would say that you were successful. You and history.

DORIS LESSING: You know, when I was a girl, the idea that the British Empire could ever end was absolutely inconceivable. And it just disappeared, like all the other empires. You know, when people talk about the British Empire, they always forget that all the European countries had empires. You know, the French, and the Portuguese, and the Dutch, and you name it, excepting Germans, because they lost theirs. But they all had empires. And that's one of the themes of THE SWEETEST DREAM.

BILL MOYERS: I'm intrigued by this character … Old Julia. She's the matriarch of the household where the young people are gathering. And she says, "You can't have two dreadful wars, and then say, 'That's it.' And now, everything will get back to normal. They're screwed up, our children. They're the children of war."

DORIS LESSING: I think terrible events, like war leave a kind of bruise on the national psyche. You know, you can't have a war as terrible as World War II and say, "Right, we're now finished." That's... "Now we're all going to be sweet and kind now." It isn't like that. You have people who have been formed by war, and are frightened and are damaged. And it takes some time for that to work out. I think the 1960's young people, not all of them, of course, obviously not. A lot of them were, had been damaged by war. And a lot of them came right afterwards. You know we've forgotten the heavy toll of the 60's. There were an awful lot of damaged young people around. The people in my house were in trouble with the police, or they were trying to get them off drugs and so on and so on, and they'd dropped out of school.

You can see the 1960's casualties around now. If you look, you meet them. They're easily recognizable by a kind of "oh, everything is wonderful, it'll all come right in the end" ethos, which I find very irritating. But they're very often vague and fuzzy. And I'm...often think, hang on a minute. Was that too much pot? But, that's just an old woman speaking.

BILL MOYERS: Too much pot?


BILL MOYERS: An older woman speaking.

DORIS LESSING: An old woman speaks. Too much pot, because they... some of them are very wooly. But you know, I have been told by good friends that I am very narrow minded and an old grouch. They say that they remember the '60s with complete pleasure. They discovered sex. And you know, because every generation's gotta have sex for the first time. And there was always music and they were liberated and they got away from their parents. And I talk rubbish. This, I've been told this. So maybe they're right.

BILL MOYERS: Conservatives I talk to despise the 60's as the time all convention and order came crashing down — a time of drugs, and free love, and a rebellion against all tradition.

Of course, they're people you write about to look at it as a time of self-discovery and liberation. So, looking back now, all these years later, do you see it as the best of times, or the worst of time?

DORIS LESSING: I certainly don't see it as at best of times, because there were so many damaged people around. But there were very positive things to it. I mean, you can't just damn a whole period as unhistorical, surely, it's not how life is. You can't say it's all bad. It was partly very good, and partly bad.

Well, surely, a lot of these conservatives were flower children themselves. If they're now middle-aged, and probably become excessively respectable and have forgotten that they ever smoked pot.

BILL MOYERS: It's not the '60s I lived, I was in government.

DORIS LESSING: I was going to say, yes, you were not living that life at all. You've never been a flower child. Well, you missed out, perhaps.

BILL MOYERS: What did I miss?

DORIS LESSING: They seemed to have quite a lot of fun.

BILL MOYERS: But you said they were damaged children.

DORIS LESSING: They were, but they had fun, too. They had all of the music. They used to go off to these rock festivals and things like that. They did have a good time.

BILL MOYERS: Did you set out to recreate that world in THE SWEETEST DREAM?

DORIS LESSING: Yes. I wanted to create that feeling of the easygoingness of it. And the kind of mad generosity of the whole time.

BILL MOYERS: You remind me of something you said in Volume One of your autobiography. Quote, "Nothing in history suggest that we may expect anything but wars, tyrants, sickness, bad times, calamities. While good times are always temporary. Why are we so bitterly surprised," you write, "when our country, the world, lurches into yet another muddle or catastrophe. Why is it that so many people in our time," you write, "have felt all the emotions of betrayed children?"

DORIS LESSING: Well, now that fascinates me. Where did it come from? Particularly the 1960s kids onwards. Everyone seemed to think that they had been promised paradise. Well, who promised it to them? And you meet people... I meet people who are genuinely aggrieved that things are not perfect. That they haven't had paradise.

But where along the... do you think it could advertising? Possibly. If you have... kids who have been generations are now growing up with everything promised to them on the box and newspapers. Maybe it's that.

BILL MOYERS: Maybe they haven't lived long enough, like you. I mean when you've lived that long, you see the cycles.

DORIS LESSING: You certainly do. And it's rather frightening at the moment. You know, I was thinking this morning, when there's a war, we have war memorials to the dead, and once a year we deal with that. And we might even remember the wounded. But nobody ever thinks about the psychologically wounded. And there are enormous numbers of them after every war.

Nobody thinks about them. Or that cost, when they start a war. When you see the faces of some of your warlords, full of elation, which is a horrifying thing to a war, elation and excitement. And you think, are you actually thinking about the results of this? They're not, you know. They're not thinking.

BILL MOYERS: As I listen to you talk, I think of what to me is perhaps for me, the most moving and revealing of your works. It's THE FIFTH CHILD. I mean, this infant in Harriet's womb, who turns out to be a savage thing. A monster. I can't read that, without being reminded of what you're talking about. The fragility of happiness. You create this attractive family. And then you destroy it.

DORIS LESSING: I wanted to write a version of that very ancient fable. You know, the fairies put an alien into the human cradle. That was... only, instead of being a fairy, he's a throwback to some past race. And someone would be perfectly viable on a hillside, in a cave somewhere. Put him into a civilized life. And of course, you would destroy it. So, I created Ben. Which... well, it's a pretty horrible book, isn't it?

BILL MOYERS: It is a horrible book. He's a monster. He's deformed. I couldn't help but think about, you know, Mary Shelley's FRANKENSTEIN. Adolf Hitler and his mother. I mean, here's a story of an upper middle class family, whose benign view of the world is shattered by the violent death of this child, who is monstrous in appearance, insatiably hungry, abnormally strong, demanding and brutal. And everything is upended because of that.

DORIS LESSING: Well, you see you must have known families where a child that doesn't fit in is born. And then the entire family is taken over by him, her. Not that I was thinking about that when I wrote it. But it's true.

BILL MOYERS: I wondered, was Doris Lessing writing out of an act of pure imagination? Pure speculation, and the joy of just making something up? Or, is this the way she sees the world? The idealism that we expect becomes the cruel savage that destroys us?

DORIS LESSING: No, you see, people always read messages and things, which I don't intend. When I wrote that book, the journalists came and said, "Oh, well, of course it's about the Palestine situation." "Oh, of course it's about genetic research."

And I kept saying, "No, no. It's a story. I'm a storyteller." One of the things that sparked it off was, I was sitting in a dentist's waiting room. And reading stuff, as you do. And there was a letter from a woman to some agony aunt. And the letter went like this.

It said, "I know you can't do anything to help me, but I must tell someone or I will go mad. We have three children, and my fourth was born, this little girl. She is a little Satan. Our lives have been completely destroyed by her. She is a little devil. But sometimes at night I go into the room and I look at that pretty little face on the pillow, and I long to cuddle her. But I daren't, because I know what would come up into my arms would be a spitting, hissing little devil." Now, that got to me. Notice the religious language in that, which she probably wasn't conscious of. So, I just had to write it.

You know, it is very enjoyable, writing a story. You get this idea. It takes hold of you. And then you spend day and night thinking about how to do it. And then you do it. And much later, you think, "Oh, yes. That's an interesting question."

BILL MOYERS: See, I don't think I'm that far off, then, when I say that there is meaning in this. Not only for me, the reader, but for you, the author. I mean, we do what you did with Ben with all of our dreams and hopes, very often. God, whatever you mean by that, does that. I took this to be a metaphor for God.

DORIS LESSING: I wasn't going in for metaphors, you know. You know, if you're going to start thinking like that, you'd never write a word.


DORIS LESSING: Because you write out of a different part of the brain. I think actually, you write from here somewhere. In your solar plexus. If you're going to start examining everything you write, I mean, "My God, that's that message," and that, then you wouldn't be able to write anything."

BILL MOYERS: You'd be a Communist writing a pamphlet, or a Christian writing a Gospel.


BILL MOYERS: Isn't it the mission of writers to give us a vision?

DORIS LESSING: No. I don't think writers should have missions… what we forget is that novels continually introducing areas of life which we haven't thought of before, that haven't really been in public consciousness until that novel. It's happened particularly in America. I remember some of your great novelists. Who would have known about the Deep South, without your great Southern novelists? I mean we know all about Russia because of the novelists. And I think that is a function of the novel we forget.

BILL MOYERS: You said this is a frightening time. We're a few days or maybe weeks away from a decision about the President to attack Iraq. What makes it so frightening as you sense it?

DORIS LESSING: Well, The mental set of the world is affected by Westerns. It's the scenario that good sheriff riding into the town and he takes out the baddies in town and returns to its former good state and the sheriff rides away into the sunset. Well, this is how people think, I think. Politicians and war leaders. Bush is going to ride into Iraq with guns blazing. And then everything will be cleared up and then he will ride out again. But it's not going to be like that.

The casualness of it is what is so terrifying. You see, we've been watching this war build up in Europe, and it's absolutely obvious this man wants a war. The President wants war. For whatever reason, and he's going to have it, I think.

BILL MOYERS: With Tony Blair's help.

DORIS LESSING: Well, you know I don't approve of Blair. Blair is a little man in a little country. It's not the same thing as Bush wanting war, and going to war.

BILL MOYERS: We keep having wars despite the fact that great novelists tell us the truth about wars.

DORIS LESSING: Well, we don't have much effect, do we? Do you know when I first recognized that horrible truth, I was standing in Southern Rhodesia, I was very young…

And watching the night's bag of prisoners, the Africans who were being caught out without passes. Handcuffed, walking down the street. With the jailers, white, in front and back. And I looked at that and I thought right, well, this is described in Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky and all the others. So what have they achieved is what I thought. Didn't stop me writing novels though. I think we might have a limited effect on a small number of people. I hope a good one.

BILL MOYERS: But you keep writing.

DORIS LESSING: Yes I do. I have to.

At the time of the interview, the US was on the verge of invading Iraq.  This is what she said, less than two months before the war began: “Bush is going to ride into Iraq with guns blazing. And then everything will be cleared up and then he will ride out again. But it’s not going to be like that. The casualness of it is what is so terrifying.”

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