From the Archives: Josephine Hart, author of ‘Damage’ and ‘Sin’, speaks to Eileen Battersby in August 1992
Josephine Hart: novels, she says, “tell the young what life is all about but, like most good advice, they are often ignored”
From The Irish Times on Saturday, August 29th, 1992: The reluctant novelist: Businesswoman turned novelist Josephine Hart speaks to Eileen Battersby. Hart was born on March 1st, 1942, and died on June 2nd, 2011.
It took several career changes and much necessary prodding from her husband, advertising supremo Charles Saatchi, for Josephine Hart – one-time aspiring classical actress, later a successful London magazine publisher and, later still, a West End theatre producer – to agree to transfer the stories and characters which kept “running around in my head” to paper.
Eighteen months ago her first novel , Damage , appeared to mixed reviews and bestseller sales in Britain and, in particular, the US. The cinema version starring Jeremy Irons is due out soon, while her second novel, Sin , is published next week. In 1986 she founded her own theatre production company, having organised many celebrity poetry readings. Two years later while sitting in her smart, if no-nonsense, West End office, she spoke about making the most of life when it was going well.
Now, another four years on, she has streamlined her image. She looks rangier and leaner, admits to having abandoned her prematurely greying hair for its former natural black and has now entered the competitive ranks of the serious literary fiction writer.
The Mullingar-born Josephine Hart is a good talker with a level gaze, a mobile face, a range of expressive gestures and one contact lens. “I am Irish, profoundly, totally Irish,” she says, adding that she does not see herself as an Irishwoman living in exile. London has been very good for her.
She has no difficulty living in England: “It is not a compromise for me, I have great respect for English society. I respect its tolerant attitudes; I like the ‘slow-to-react’ tolerance of the place.”
Even so, she enjoys the fact that she can still shock her English friends who regard her as an outspoken Irishwoman. A natural realist who learnt about loss at an early age – a baby brother died when she was six years old, her sister and other brother died when she was 17 – Hart describes herself as “an intense person”, but the intensity has modified to a practical, open directness.
Although obsession is central in both of her novels, she strikes one as being remarkably non-obsessive and has gone through life enjoying the happiness of the moment, realising that there are no guarantees that anything lasts. Asked about the level of psychological violence in her fiction, Hart agrees with a bright smile that she is fascinated with the evil people are capable of and believes that most of us have sinister secrets.
She also agrees that such an interest in the darker aspects of humanity is not necessarily indicative of a voyeuristic streak. “No. It comes of being curious about people, in trying to discover what makes us the way we are . . . the emotional extremes of life.” It’s a quality which makes her admire novelist and 1984 Booker prize winner, Anita Brookner, for being “a marvellous observer as well as an elegant stylist ... when I think that she has produced a novel a year, every year for the past 12.”
Hart’s plans to go to university on completing her Leaving Cert at St Louis Convent in Carrickmacross – as well as ambitions to become a stage actress – were upset by a double family tragedy which occurred within six months during her final year there. However, the deaths of her sister and brother kept her at home in Mullingar for four years. Four dark years during which she read.
Hart’s conversation is dominated by her two favourite subjects, theatre and literature. Great novels such as Madame Bovary, The Portrait of a Lady, Middlemarch, Red and Black, The Good Soldier are, she says, “our spiritual parents”, adding “I’ve always been so grateful to writers and writing.” Novels, she says, “tell the young what life is all about but, like most good advice, they are often ignored.”
Jus t as her head is full of characters and stories, it is also well stocked with literary references. In Sin , the evil female narrator reacts to news of a drowning by openly hoping that the dead boy is her nephew, not her son who was trying to save him. It’s a moment reminiscent of Waugh’s A Handful of Dust when Brenda Last appears initially relieved that it is her small son John, rather than her lover John, who has been killed in a hunting accident. Some writers might shuffle uncomfortably at a source being recognised. Hart is delighted, she has never forgotten that scene from Waugh. “I’ve always thought it was the cruellest line in literature,” she says.
BOTH of her novels were written in “five or six week bursts of intense work, in longhand as I can’t type”. Editing takes much longer. Hart spent about six months editing both novels. “Once a manuscript has been typed, I test each word, and take out as much as possible.”
She accepts that her style is elegant, highly theatrical, formal, economical to the point of being cryptic. “People seem to either love it or hate it, but it’s the way I write.”
Her writing routine is three hours a day, from 10 am to 1 pm.
At no stage during the interview does she imply that she considers writing either a divine mission or a vocation; but there is the daunting assurance that it has all been written in her head before she sits down to write. “I found being a businesswoman intellectually stimulating, but emotionally undemanding.”
Acting and writing however, she claims, are both psychologically and emotionally demanding pursuits. Describing the classical roles in theatre as “dangerous journeys”, she assesses herself with elaborate mock seriousness as the actress she never became.
“I was incredibly powerful with absolutely no technique ... I would have been an intensely passionate interpreter of three roles: a devastating Lady Macbeth, a fine Portia and a wonderful Hedda Gabler , and that’s it.” Despite the rich, rolling voice with an accent which swings between rural Ireland and the Big House, she appears to have no regrets about fate placing her elsewhere.
Does she have a romantic view of Ireland? “No. Ireland for me is tinged with such loss. I always feel very sad when I arrive here, all the memories. I’ m a hopeless person to talk about Ireland as a country.”
As a girl she can remember feeling that her mother would die of sorrow: “I thought grief would kill her.”
The Mullingar Hart once knew is gone. “When I was growing up it had a population of 7,000, now there are about 24,000 living there.” Having watched her parents live through a marriage based on great love, she feels this explains why she became such an observer and also why she has an enduring belief in romantic, passionate love.
“I don’t think that companionship, which is important, is enough.” She married Maurice Saatchi after both their first marriages had failed. They had known each other for over 20 years at the time , having met in the magazine publishing business in the 1960s.
Bu t back to the evil manifested in Sin . Hart accepts that Ruth is a monster, rendered palatable only by her relentless self-knowledge. Did she like her? “Sometimes I felt like I was Ruth because for over three hours a day, writing in the first person, I had to be her,” she explains.
Ruth is a woman with everything except an essential sense of goodness and it is this quality which Hart believes Ruth envies of her cousin Elizabeth, the tragic heroine of sorts.
IRONICALLY, Hart mentions that Elizabeth’s final utterances, which reveal that she was aware of what Ruth was up to all along, were almost edited out by the doubting author. “I’ m glad I left it in, for two days I wondered about cutting it.”
She likes the Elizabeth character and is pleased that she emerges not as a doormat but rather as a person not interested in fighting for what is no longer hers. When she discovers that Ruth has had an affair with her husband, Elizabeth steps out of the conflict saying, “I had had my day”.
Hart speaks of the power of erotic obsession and its psychological extremes which far exceed simple lust. Speaking of Charles who becomes sexually obsessed by Ruth, while also becoming her puppet master, Hart admits: “I do feel sorry for him though, he is trying to be good.”
Words alone are not enough to express the pleasure which races across the strong, happy features of Josephine Hart when she refers to one US reviewer who has already decided of the dastardly Ruth that should Milton’s Satan return to earth, it would surely be in the guise of Hart’s scheming siren.