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Penelope Lively Ponders Pompeii — And Other Stories — In 'The Purple Swamp Hen'

One of the world's most lauded novelists has produced her first collection of short stories in decades. The Purple Swamp Hen and Other Stories is by Penelope Lively, who won the Man Booker Prize in 1987 for Moon Tiger and had a bestseller in How it All Began. Her latest is a collection that looks at life in ancient Pompeii, and modern-day western metropolises. They are often short, even for short stories — and subtly simple, or, if you prefer, deceptively nuanced. Lively tells me that although she hadn't written a short story for decades, "they suddenly came back. They're the most perverse things, short stories," she says, "but they're wonderfully different from writing a novel, which is hacking at the rock face. A short story, the idea comes and then you can get down to it."

Interview Highlights

On how the stories come to her

It's rather ... things like, something seen, something overheard. For instance, the title story, which is called "The Purple Swamp Hen," arose from, there was a wonderful exhibition at the British Museum a few years ago, of a marvelous room with copies of the garden frescoes from one of the buildings at Pompeii. And I saw a bird on it that I couldn't recognize, and I'm quite good at birds ... so I asked one of the curators. He said, "Oh, it's a purple swamp hen." So I went home and looked this up, and the Romans in fact kept them as sort of ornamental birds, rather like small peacocks. And I thought, ooh, there must have been a purple swamp hen around on that day, on the day of Pompeii, and I wonder what it was like for the purple swamp hens. So the story arose from the point of view of the purple swamp hen.

On the questions her story "The Weekend" provokes

That's what I always hope in any story, that it will kind of provoke people thinking about it at the end, what actually was all that about? Was it just a ghost story or was there something a bit more to it than that? I think you can pack a lot into a short story, and I do actually crucially feel that a short story should tell a story. There must be a narrative of some kind.

On how many ideas come to her in a day

Probably none at all! Old age, I'm finding — I'm grateful it's been reasonably productive — I'm not sure that I have any more short stories. I've got a feeling that that particular vein is gone. I'm hoping to write another novel, short novel, a novella. I've finished a book about gardening, not a sort of how-to book, I'm not as good a gardner as that, but a book that looks at the ways gardening and gardens have affected people, and the ways particularly in which writers have written about gardens and gardening. So that was a nice departure — I love writing nonfiction, it's so much easier than fiction.

On the story "License to Kill," in which a young caregiver discovers secrets about her elderly charge

It was trying to make a point about the old and the young, and about the gulf between them — which isn't necessarily a gulf ... I think one of the most interesting things about my generation is that we're much closer to our grandchildren than certainly I was to my grandparents. But I just wanted to show that old people after all are not just what you're seeing now, they're what they've been before. So you look at an old person, and she is an old person, but what you can forget is that she has many, many incarnations of things she may have been that you don't know about.

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.