Author Interviews
2:49 pm
Sat January 14, 2012

Alan Bennett Defies Expectations With 'Smut'

Originally published on Sat January 14, 2012 5:14 pm

Alan Bennett, author of The History Boys and The Madness of King George, among countless other books, plays and memoirs, is a grand old man of British letters.

"I'm getting on now, and I'm thought of in England as being rather cozy and genteel — certainly in the stories that I write," he tells weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz.

So Bennett decided to give his readers a little rattle with a new book of two short stories called Smut.

The British matrons at the center of Smut are Mrs. Donaldson and Mrs. Forbes. Bennett says he was able to get into the mind of a middle-aged woman because his aunts talked endlessly when he was a child.

"It lays down a kind of seam, really, in the mind which I found when I started to write that I could draw on," he says. "I could remember how they spoke and the kind of things that they said. So one mined it and I've been able to mine it for most of my writing life."

The two characters appear to be respectable, but they have what Bennett describes as "rich and alarming" secret lives and diverge from the middle-aged path.

"If a character is all that you see, it's rather boring," Bennett says.

The characters are involved in an intricate dance of secrets and expectations, particularly Mrs. Donaldson, who runs up against her prudish daughter's ideas of proper behavior for a widow.

Bennett says he delights in subverting expectations.

"I think you have an inclination to outflank your readers, to do something that they aren't expecting you to do," Bennett says. "I think that's one of the motives for writing these two stories. They aren't quite what people expect of me."

Bennett says he's always been fascinated by people who want to break out, particularly late in life. And that includes him.

"One or two people have said you can see I am loosening up," he says. "Maybe that's what happens to old men. Maybe they all become, you know, dirty old men."

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Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. Jane Donaldson may look like a middle-aged British matron, but she has a secret.

ALAN BENNETT: (Reading) Mrs. Donaldson's adventure had given her something of a boost. She imagined herself younger. She looked brighter. And ludicrous though she knew it to be, she felt she was still in the game.

RAZ: That's the voice of British author and humorist Alan Bennett reading from his new book of short stories. It's called "Smut," and it's our book today, so brace yourself because there's definitely some smut ahead. And Alan Bennett joins me now from our studios at the BBC in London. Alan Bennett, welcome to the program.

BENNETT: Hello.

RAZ: Let's look at the two women at the center of these stories: Mrs. Donaldson and Mrs. Forbes. They are perfectly respectable on the surface, right, but underneath, there is something quite different going on. Tell me about these two women.

BENNETT: Well, to put it, I'm always fascinated by people who want to break out and particularly people who break out late in life. My last story was about someone who had a passion for reading. She discovered a passion for reading quite late in life, and it took over her life. She happened to be the queen, so it made - it became rather complicated. But the situation is the same of some of these - to both these women diverge from the normal middle-age path, really.

RAZ: You called this book "Smut," but it strikes me that you could almost have called it secrets because almost everyone in these two stories is hiding something.

BENNETT: I suppose so, yes. Well, they then become more interesting as characters. If a character is all that you see, it's rather boring. But they - I didn't think of it when I was writing them. They - Mrs. Johnson, it should be said, becomes a member of a troop of not-really actors, but they're a troop of presenters who work in a hospital where they present cases for the benefit of medical students.

RAZ: She's basically an actress for medical students.

BENNETT: Yes. They present the symptoms of conditions and so on.

RAZ: She is 55 years old. She's a widow. And she actually gets quite into this role-playing. One day, she's a transvestite with knee trouble. The next day, she's someone's mother who has gone into a coma. Eventually, some of the medical students become borders. They come to live with her at her home. She needs the extra income. And soon enough, they can no longer pay the rent, so she cuts a deal with them, a very interesting deal.

BENNETT: Well, they then say we're used to watching you perform symptoms and so on. If we could, instead of paying the rent, which we can't do, if we could perform for you, and she doesn't immediately understand what this involves. And then she realizes, oh, you brought oral - the reader realizes when you actually get into the bedroom.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

RAZ: Yes. And Alan Bennett, you've written about sex before, shows up in "History Boys," which, of course, is your best-known play and several other works of yours. But "Smut" is - I think it's one of the most explicit things you've actually ever written. Why did you decide to go in that direction?

BENNETT: Well, I think I'm getting on now and I'm thought of in England as being rather cozy and gentile, I suppose, in a way, certainly in the stories that I write. And I think you have an inclination to outflank your readers to do something that they aren't expecting you to do, and I think that's one of the motives for writing these two stories. They aren't quite what people would expect of me.

RAZ: Another theme that seems to run throughout these stories, aside from secrets, is expectations, the way people expect each other to behave, at least publicly, what people think is expected of them.

BENNETT: Mm-hmm. I haven't thought of that, but hopefully that is the case. The fun is in diverging from that, thwarting that and suddenly swerving from it, I think. Like, for instance, in one of the incidents, you mention about her, you know, she suddenly announces that she's actually a transvestite, she's presenting a transvestite as one of the case histories, which is the last thing you're expecting. But it's the joy of writing prose that you can suddenly do something like this. If you were writing it on the stage or for a film, you'd have to prepare for this scene and ready yourself for it. But you can do it in a sentence when you're writing prose, and I find that very liberating.

RAZ: Mrs. Donaldson is a very sympathetic character. She's very easy to like. And yet, your other character in the other story, "The Shielding of Mrs. Forbes," Mrs. Forbes is not that easy to like. She is this adoring mother of a very narcissistic son, Graham, who also has a secret. Tell me about Mrs. Forbes.

BENNETT: Well, Mrs. Forbes is very outspoken, very downright and very full of herself. And she has a rather henpecked husband, who seldom speaks, really, except certainly not to her.

RAZ: And her son, Graham, he has a secret, which I don't think we'll spoil it. He's gay, we find out pretty early on...

BENNETT: Hmm. Hmm. No.

RAZ: ...and yet Mrs. Forbes and Graham's wife, Betty, they are trying to keep up appearances.

BENNETT: Everybody's trying to keep up appearances. Nobody knows that everybody else knows what the situation is. But everybody assumes that Mrs. Forbes has to be shielded from this knowledge that her son is gay. In the end, you find out that she knew all along. And I think that's quite true to life, really. One spends a lot of time considering other people's feelings, when in fact there's often no need for it. The habit of straight talking would - in every sense, would do better.

RAZ: Alan Bennett, you are known for your command of character voices, and I'm wondering how you get inside the mind of a middle-aged, you know, woman from England.

BENNETT: That comes from childhood, really. My father was quite shy, and he didn't speak very much. And my mother didn't talk a great deal, but she had two sisters did - who were very valuable. And when I was child, I used to hear them talking, as we say, endlessly, and it lays down a kind of seam, really, in the mind, which I found when I started to write, I could draw, and I could remember how they spoke and the kind of things that they said. And so one mined it, and I've been able to mine it for most of my writing life.

RAZ: So you know Mrs. Donaldson. You know Mrs. Forbes.

BENNETT: Well, I know people like that. But whether they have the rich and alarming secret lives I've wished on them, I don't know. I wouldn't like to say.

RAZ: How do you actually approach the language, the writing? I mean, there are so many moments in this book that - and words that I intend to use. You describe Betty's decision to marry Graham, you say: she wasn't wholly infatuated. Though she liked the way he looked, but so, too, did he and that unfatuated her a bit.

BENNETT: That just came to me as I was writing. That was just a similarity of infatuated and unfatuated. I don't think unfatuated is a word.

RAZ: No, it's not. It should be, though.

BENNETT: It ought to be. The way I write, I suppose, I never start at the beginning. I write the parts that I enjoy writing, and then I often start in the middle and go back and pick things up rather than start writing at A and end up at B. And that way, it still gives me a lot of pleasure.

RAZ: Now that you have written about smut, have you - is this a slippery slope? I mean, is there where you're headed?

BENNETT: I don't know. One or two people have said, oh, you can see I am loosening up, I think they put it kindly. Maybe that's what happens to old men. Maybe they all become, you know, dirty old men, really.

RAZ: That's the acclaimed playwright and author Alan Bennett. His newest book is a collection of short stories. It's called "Smut." He spoke to us from London. Alan Bennett, thank you so much.

BENNETT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.