Few authors could be more qualified to comment on the joys and trials of writing than Lessing, author of more than 25 novels, including the Grass is Singing and The Golden Notebook, and an avalanche of non-fiction, poetry, opera and drama.
The 85-year-old was in Cork on Saturday for the World Writing Series, the literary backbone of the Cork 2005 celebrations, which has also featured Dervla Murphy, Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney, Paula Meehan and Paul Muldoon.
Standing a little over five-foot, with her grey hair loosely gathered in a bun and her tiny hands heavy with chunky rings, Lessing held the crowd in the Trinity Presbyterian Church in thrall. In an unwavering voice she read passages from The Grandmothers, a collection of four short stories published in 2003.
Explaining that three of the four stories are based on real events, she first read from the title story, in which two women, who are close friends, fall in love with each other’s teenage sons. She told the audience, composed largely of women, that while the perception is that predatory older women pursue younger men, in real life it is usually young men who set out to seduce older women, who ultimately tire of them because “very young men are rather tedious”.
Born in Persia (now Iran) in 1919, Lessing spent her early years on a farm in southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and dropped out of school at 14.
She married at 19, but feeling trapped some years later, she left her husband and two young children to take up during the war with a German communist refugee, whom she married. When that marriage failed, she left for London in 1949, a single mother with a third young child and the script of her first novel, The Grass is Singing.
Her fiction is deeply autobiographical and often concerned with the clash of cultures and the gross injustices of racial inequality.
After her reading on Saturday, she took questions about subjects ranging from her life at the age of 80-plus to Zimbabwe’s reviled leader Robert Muagabe - “a good old-fashioned bad man” - before being asked whether she had any tips for writers.
“Work hard is the very best advice I can give you. People think that because all you need is a pencil and paper, writing should be easy. It isn’t easy. It’s very hard work.”