Diane Middlebrook is the author of two highly praised, bestselling biographies, Suits Me: The Double Life of Billy Tipton and Anne Sexton, which was finalist for both a National Book Award and a National Critics' Circle Award. A former professor at Stanford University, she lives in San Francisco and London.
Mark Thwaite What began your fascination with Hughes and Plath?
Diane Middlebrook "Ted hughes was helpful to my work on the biography of Anne Sexton (1991), and readily granted me permission to quote from his and Sylvia Plath's letters to Anne Sexton, whose work he admired (surprisingly). My interactions with him at the time I was writing Sexton's biography made me interested in his poetry and also his entrepreneurial activities -- developing poetry international in the late 1960s, etc. Plath, of course, was an inevitable subject of interest to a professor of poetry, which I was, at Stanford University, from 1966-2001."
MT They are such a well-documented couple - what new light do you think your book brings to their lives?
DM "Ted hughes sold his archive to Emory University in Atlanta in 1997: two and a half tons of paper. I began reading this archive in early 1999, not long after his death. It gave me the story about his marriage to Plath, which is the subject of my book."
MT What do you think the fascination with Plath and Hughes tells us about literary fame?
DM "We know married people as that sealed entity "the couple" but what goes on behind the public or social surface of a marriage is endlessly dynamic, and almost everybody is interested in finding out about it.
Hughes and Plath, I discovered, created an unusual working partnership inside their quite ordinary struggles with money, sex, living space, childcare, in-laws, and other difficult features of a young marriage. It was during their six years together that they became the writers canonized among the most important contributors to 20th century literature. I argue in my book that this creative partnership had ended by early 1962, when their marriage began to break up.
Plath's suicide was the loose screw in the story, the one that everybody who connects with her art has to try to explain -- it was the suicide that supported her "fame," which is to say, the curiosity about her private life."
MT And does this tell us anything about their work in particular and/or literature in general?
DM "I consider biography a literary genre in its own right, one shows the ways in which great talents are both supported and stymied in daily life. We all live in very specific historical/social situations, no two alike, but the marriage of Hughes and Plath takes place at the historical cusp of a change in the relations between men and women, a fact of which Hughes was acutely conscious. Contemporary writers will recognize the kinds of problem-solving Hughes and Plath undertook, and will also recognize the flaws and failures in their arrangements. Nonetheless, their books are in the world, and their words have attained great prominence in our culture. How did they do it? That's what my book is about."
MT Do you think that Plath was a genuinely talented poet or simply a highly vaunted one?
DM "‘Plath was exorbitantly talented; she was also mercilessly disciplined and awesomely ambitious. Hughes tells us that she put her writing before anything else in their lives. I would rank her poetry as comparable to that of TS Eliot in its influence in American culture (where, needless to say, the influence of poetry is minimal, but where certain works achieve immense significance to readers)."
MT Do you think that Hughes ever bettered the Crow poems?
DM "All artists need to surpass their completed work by redirecting their aims. I discuss that subject at length throughout Her husband, pointing out the changing aims of Hughes's art as he moves from fable-writing (of which Crow is the great example) to writing the story of his life (Elmet, his book about Yorkshire, his childhood home; Capriccios, his book about his paramour Assia Wevill; Birthday letters and Howls & Whispers his books about his marriage to Sylvia Plath). The recently published Collected Poems of Ted Hughes makes all of these texts available to general readers for the first time."
MT Which of the two do you prefer as a writer? Why?
DM "I don't see why one has to prefer one over the other just because there are two of them! They are not very much alike, as writers."
MT How do you write? Longhand, straight onto the computer?
DM "Any way that works. I find writing both compelling and misery-making, and have to take advantage of any moment I am able to get it going "
MT What is coming next?
DM "A life of the roman poet ovid (43 bc - 18 ad). I taught Ovid's marvellous epic Metamorphoses for many years in my courses at Stanford University, and came to feel that I had a grasp of the coherent narrator in his work -- enough on which to base a biography."
MT What is your favourite book? Who is your favourite writer?
DM "I'm afraid I'm too promiscuous a reader to have just one. At the moment I am sneaking off whenever I can to rendezvous with Alice Flaherty's The Midnight Disease a beautifully-written memoir by a neuroscientist, about the brain activity that goes on in writers, especially blocked writers."
MT What book do you wish you had written?
DM "The collected poems of Wallace Stevens which was the subject of my phd thesis, and which I find perpetually rich whenever I return to its pages."
MT Do you have any tips for for the aspiring writer!?
DM "Read the journals, letters, and autobiographies of writers you admire. Plath avidly read the diaries of Virginia Woolf; and Plath herself produced one of the great writer-journals of our century -- The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath shows the slow arc of the writer-in-the making. Hughes's autobiographical writing can be found in the essays of Winter Pollen a wonderful book; these essays usefully shed light on the mythic versions of his autobiography published in the books of poetry I mentioned above. "
MT Anything else you'd like to say?
DM "My American home is in San Francisco, but I find my London flat the better place to pursue this occupation of biographer - there are so many sites for the discussion and review of books. I treasure my annual summer sojourns here. There's even a club in London, for the care and feeding of biographers. And in the UK generally, festivals galore. I think a writer can feel closer to readers in the UK than in the USA."
MT Thank you so much for your time Diane - all the very best!