Margaret Drabble was named a dame of the British Empire in 2008 for her contribution to contemporary English literature. Her 17 novels have mirrored the changing lives of women over the past 50 years. In 2009, she announced in the Guardian that she would not write another novel, because she is afraid of repeating herself. However, the complete short stories of Margaret Drabble have just been published in a volume called A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman.
The collection gathers 14 stories from what Drabble herself calls "a lifetime of really not writing short stories."
"My problem is that when I write a short story it usually grows into a novel," Drabble tells Liane Hansen on Weekend Edition. "I'm not very good at a short length."
Many of the stories were previously published in periodicals, and a Spanish academic name Jose Francisco Hernandez gathered them together and presented them to Drabble.
"He wrote to me and he said, 'I've assembled all your stories' ... and he edited the text, and he'd just done it out of pure love," Drabble explains. "It was a bit like a fairy story, to find a handsome young man who really loved your work and wanted to see it in print."
She hadn't seen the stories arranged in that chronological order before and says that it gives a kind of emotional biography of herself, from the breakup of her marriage in the '70s, the rise of her career, and the care and raising of three young children. Some of the stories, like "A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman," which gives the volume its name, go over tough emotional territory. In that piece, a woman on the precipice of a breaking point struggles to maintain the illusion that she has it all, even though she's abused at home and at work.
Drabble says she couldn't write that story today, because its distinct message of being combative and fighting on was tied to its time, when women lived in a different social context. But she felt strongly that it should not be altered or revised in any way for the new publication.
"That is a reason for not altering stories - you leave them as they were, and they remind you of how you felt then," she says.
Eventually, she sees her writing moving on to what Hernandez calls in the introduction to the book "a mature, idyllic sense of the English landscape" — though there's always anguish, she qualifies.
"I don't know how mature and idyllic I feel ... But I can certainly see a movement that reflects the stages of my life."
Though Drabble did declare in 2009 that she wouldn't write another novel, she has reconsidered that notion. Writing for her isn't the most pleasurable process - but she says she feels she needs to be writing, "even though it's difficult and I don't always enjoy it."
Drabble also works as a journalist and says she likes the finality of knowing a piece is complete after a requisite 2,000 words. In fact, she says, she'll be in the countryside writing a piece on the British artist David Hockney while the royal wedding happens next weekend.
"I may turn on the telly, and I may not," she says.