Brenda Maddox is one of the few writers who bridge the gap between art and science, so it was no surprise that her Christmas party was a happy meeting of the two worlds. My first conversation was with a collector of mediaeval musical instruments who owned several crumphorns; my second, with two lighthouse experts.
Among the guests was Antonia Fraser, whose forthcoming memoir of Harold Pinter I mentioned in an earlier entry. She revealed that she had written 100,000 words of it in ten weeks, which set me thinking about speeds of composition. I consider 1,000 a good day’s work; Graham Greene would always stop at 500; Evelyn Waugh could manage 3,000 when he was in full flow. A memoir is probably the ideal format for rapid writing, since it involves neither the imagination of fiction nor the detailed research of most other genres – though of course one has to dredge one’s memory and check facts. In my experience momentum is an important factor – if you take up a book after weeks of neglect the first couple of hundred words are likely to involve a long struggle; on the other hand, the quality of your work is bound to suffer if you try to do too much.
As for slow writers, there are no end of stories, but my favourite was told to me by a distinguished publisher. Falling into conversation at a party with an author he had known for some time, and find him very interesting on a particular topic, he suggested that it would make a good subject for a book. ‘Actually,’ said the author, ‘you commissioned it from me thirteen years ago.’
Antonia Fraser has just started reviewing crime fiction for The Lady in a column ingeniously entitled (her suggestion) Lady Killers. Might she write a new whodunit herself? ‘I wouldn’t rule it out.’
Meanwhile, her niece Eliza Pakenham has made a change of direction: her next historical work – which has a nineteenth-century subject – will be for television; her next book, a children’s adventure story set in Ireland.
Another guest at Brenda Maddox’s was Frances Osborne, who is following her biography of her great-grandmother Idina Sackville, The Bolter, with a novel about a house in Park Lane during the First World War. It is due to be published the year after next; will she finish it before she and her husband George move into 11 Downing Street?