Robin McKinley: Imaginary Interview

There's a fairly idiotic column... our Sunday paper which interviews a different semi-famous person every week. The questions cycle through a fairly short and predictable series although not all of them turn up with every interview. It seems to me that writers have been rather poorly represented so I have been mulling over some answers I might give if they ever talked to me. (Any Guardian readers will recognise the format at once.)

— Robin McKinley

What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Are you talking to my good self or my bad self here? My good self would go for a seven-mile run and spend the rest of the day at the British Library. My bad self would curl up on the sofa with a bottle of (very cold) champagne, an enormous bowl of popcorn (hey, did you know that organic popcorn doesn't pop nearly as well as the impure kind? It's like if you're going to go for vice you might as well do it) and a large block of dark chocolate to follow, and watch tapes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel till my eyes fall out of my head, or I run out of things to eat and drink, depending on which comes first. Buffy and Angel I'm afraid have totally routed my previous fave, Deep Space Nine, because once Kira got it on with Odo she went all fatuous, and I never liked Odo much anyway.

I know I'm supposed to say something soppy here about my husband, but there's a limit to what I will hang on a public web site.

What is your favourite word or phrase?
Aren't you listening? Champagne, popcorn, chocolate.

Runner-up is probably, "Hi, Robin, Ginormous Megalith Movie Company has just made a $1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 offer for the rights on your new novel." Although this is problematic, since I don't like movie companies' attitude to buying rights ("We Own Not Only Your Book, But You, Your Body, Soul, And All The Thoughts In Your Head You May Ever Have") but since I like my only semi-whopper-humungous publishing company I don't really want to be bought out from under them.

Should the monarchy be scrapped?
No, only the House of Windsor. I'm sure there's someone taking out the garbage in Des Moines or chanting 'Oooooooooooooom' on the foothills of Annapurna right now who has a better claim to the British throne than the current lot do. We just need to find them. And then talk them into it.

What historical figure do you identify with?
Don't make me laugh. If I'd had any decent role models I might not have grown up to be the nasty, cantankerous gremlin you see before you. (On the other hand, I might have anyway.) No doubt there were interesting women back through the ages but golly gee whiz are they hard to find, and it's identifying with guys all the time that ruined my temper early. Take, say, Athaliah. You haven't heard of her, have you? No one has except people who know their Old Testament extremely well, including occasional non-believer nut cases like my husband, who likes odd or striking stories. Athaliah was queen of Judah for a while, by virtue of killing a lot of princes after the king conveniently died in battle. They get her later, of course. But the imagination-catching story about her is that after the young surviving prince is brought out of hiding and crowned, she comes alone to the courtyard crowded full of the priests and soldiers that are her betrayers and stops the celebration merely by her presence. Now that's strength of character. (You can read about her in my husband Peter Dickinson's City of Gold, which is a collection of retellings of stories from the Old Testament. <shameless plug alert>)

The thing is, she's a villain, at least according to the patriarchs of the Old Testament. (One of my unfavouritest stories is about poor old Vashti, Ahasuerus' ex, who, merely by declining to be paraded in front of her husband's boys-only party like a prize cow, is declared a danger to the realm, and gets stripped of her queenship and her dowry. Are we talking major fear and hatred of women here or what? This is in Esther, which I don't actually remember being obliged to read in Bible School when I was a kid, but the grey blanket of depression that shuts down over me when I read it now sure feels familiar. Bible School is the place where I first really met the gender double standard in a way that I had to recognise. Novels and stories I could try to rearrange to suit myself, and what was happening in my life in the real world was probably my fault, but the Bible was taught as The Truth, and honey, you better believe it. So, Rule Number One: guys who kill people for honour and glory are brave generals to be decorated with medals and kingships at every opportunity; women who do this are sick and depraved. [Okay: there are exceptions: Jael managed to kill someone and still be a heroine. But it's rare, and she also didn't make a habit of it.] Rule Two: any powerful-looking woman not instantly damnable for serial murder must be a slut. This is nothing like confined to the Bible, of course, that's just where I first met it as The Law. What's the one thing you think you know about Catherine the Great, for example? That she did it with a horse, right? Guys who ravish anything that moves are, of course, merely virile, and don't forget that popular exemplar, the harem. Which arrangement, just by the way, must have been a nightmare for what I would like to call a normal guy but I may be living in a [feminine] fool's paradise there. But it's the same old double standard and unfortunately we didn't leave it behind in the Old Testament.) You've noticed, I assume, that strong women in history have a habit of being villains, when they appear at all, and they all come to bad ends, or anyway I don't remember many who died peacefully in their beds. There's a new salvage operation going on right now about Cleopatra, for example, along the familiar lines that she was actually one hell of a political tactician and not even pretty, but the fact still remains (unless they're repealing more of the standard version than I know) that she needed to use Female Wiles to get where she got to, including sleeping with and having the odd offspring by whom it was expedient to do so, and she still ended up topping herself to avoid being dragged through the streets of Rome in chains. Joan of Arc was chaste (presumably: although the British propaganda machine of the time put it out that she put out: which is to say that she wasn't only sick and depraved because she was committing major serial murder, she was also a slut) but mad. (Depraved, a slut, and mad. Poor old Joan.) The hearing voices part doesn't bother me — I hear voices myself, although dauphins have never figured largely in what they say — but I'm inclined to believe the 'mad' part because she seems to have been so determined not to understand anything about how the real world works, with the result that her bad end came a lot sooner than most. Or maybe that's the standard version too: but she did die young.

Okay, Elizabeth I died in her bed at an advanced age, although I'm not sure I'd describe it as peacefully. And I just don't much like Eliz I. There's such a thing as being too political, perhaps. I give her full points for power and survival: I just don't want her as a role model.

What living person would you most like to meet?
Joss Whedon. Creator of Buffy and Angel (see above). Although I admit this is problematic too. I stay away from fan sites on pain of losing my adrenaline high about the whole Buffy thing. It would be just too down-bringing to find out that Sarah Michelle Gellar relaxes by inscribing the Gettysburg Address on the heads of pins and whose life goal is to row across the Atlantic in a double-ended dory, or that David Boreanaz has a PhD in modern philosophy from Yale. (Shuuudder.) Or vice versa. Joss Whedon may collect recipes for Best Lemon Meringue Pie (you only need one, and I have it) and spend his spare time compiling his bird watching life list and entering Iron Man Triathalons. But I think I'd risk it.

There are a few (book) writers I'd like to meet, but most of them I have some kind of tenuous contact with that I still have hopes of spinning into an actual thread I can follow to the heart of the labyrinth some day, so I'm not going to jinx myself by mentioning any names.

What single thing would improve the quality of your life?
That reviewers — all reviewers, from ordinary readers who hang their star ratings on to acquaintances who know you're a rabid reader with whom you occasionally exchange book recommendations to paid professionals who bloody well ought to know better — would learn the CRUCIAL difference between "This book didn't work for me" and "This book sucks dead bears".

What is your greatest fear?
That it will become generally known that I have been to a live Mötley Crüe concert.

The thing is, when I was a genuine teenager, I was so busy having a really bad time that I didn't have much chance to act out and be stupid and have seriously politically incorrect sordid disgusting fun. So I had to do it later, in my thirties. I'm grateful at least that I was acting out in an era when black leather merry widows were hot. Sigh. I still get the black leather mini out occasionally for library conventions [sic] but I just don't have the nerve for the merry widow any more.

You're joking, of course.
I never joke about black leather.

Of course not. I knew that. What would your motto be?
I suspect that in my dreams it's something like Have at 'em and take no prisoners which explains why in practise it works out as There must have been an easier way.

What is the most important lesson life has taught you?
"Life is uncertain. Eat dessert first."

I have this on an apron. My favourite sofa cushion reads, "My idea of housework is to sweep the room with a glance", a shared philosophy our house resplendently reflects. My favourite refrigerator magnet says, "No, life isn't what I wanted. Haven't you got something else?" Refrigerator magnet runner-up says, "If you can't be a good example, you'll have to be a terrible warning." All words to live by. (Peter's favourite magnet says "What part of no don't you understand?", but he says it depends on the rhinoceros [sic].)

I don't know, maybe the fact that I like them written down means I haven't really learnt them yet. Hmmmm.

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