Diana Athill on How to Age Gracefully

Ninety-four-year-old Diana Athill became famous as an author only late in life. Her new book, ‘Letters to a Friend,’ charts that success. She talks to Lucy Scholes about why losing her sex drive is really a form of freedom.

04.30.12 8:45 AM ET

Diana Athill had a long and successful career as a publisher at André Deutsch before she found surprising fame as an author herself, in retirement. Her publishing memoir, Somewhere Towards the End, released in 2000, proved unexpectedly popular, but despite additional volumes, including those charting her childhood and experiences of love as a young woman during the Second World War, it was still that memoir of old age that solidified her position as the doyenne of English letters. Now, at age 94, she has published the most-recent addition to her autobiographical collection. Letters to a Friend comprises over 30 years of her letters to American poet Edward Field and his partner Neil Derrick.

The collection contains only the letters written by Athill; she didn’t keep the ones Field wrote to her. “Edward is a tremendous keeper, and I’ve always been a tremendous thrower-awayer,” she said. “I’ve always lived in rather small flats, so my feeling has been to get rid of stuff.”

“When I was young, we always wrote letters all the time,” she explained. “It was like talking. They were something ephemeral. One didn’t really think of them as things to keep. You read them, and answered them, and threw them away.”

What makes the letters interesting is that they chart Athill’s rise to fame.  After the publication of Somewhere Towards the End, she wrote to Field that she would love to do more personal appearances, if she only knew how one went about getting involved. But now she finds herself in the opposite situation, deluged with requests for interviews, appearances, and reviews. “What little did I know!”

Even now she still seems shocked by her success, especially the fact that Somewhere Towards the End, her “little book about being old,” is by far the most popular of all her writing. “When I was younger and worked in publishing, you couldn’t publish anything on old age and death or love or money. Booksellers just wouldn’t consider it. I took it for granted after years as a publisher that old age was a very unpopular subject.”

“Letters to a Friend” by Diana Athill. 352 pp. Norton. $25.

But a growing aging population means that the question of what one will do in retirement occupies people’s minds much more than they used to. “Reading an account of it by someone who’s actually having quite a nice time as an old person must be sort of encouraging.”

This isn’t to say, however, that Athill’s readers are all members of the aging populace; she also has a huge fan base in the younger generations. “I absolutely love it when young people love my book,” she says with a chuckle. “I don’t particularly understand why they should, but it gives me enormous pleasure.”

Long ago she was a publisher, and she recalls working with V.S. Naipaul on his first books, which were set in Trinidad and used Trinidadian slang. “People didn’t know anything about Trinidad then. It was difficult to get them interested in this remote place,” she said. “He said, ‘But you know what? I think that if you get things right, if you get them like they really are, then they are nearly always accepted by people as like this.’”

Jean Rhys had the same preoccupation. “She was terribly upset when she was writing the middle bits of Wide Sargasso Sea. She could easily get the early stuff how it really was, because she took it from her own childhood … ‘I know what being mad is like.’” But certain bits of dialogue she just couldn’t make up, and it gave Rhys a “fearful headache.”

Athill began writing short stories when she was still working in publishing years ago. “A few of them are entirely made up,” she admits, “but that’s about as much as I can do. Most are based on reality.” One was recently long-listed for this year’s Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Award.

“I haven’t written short stories for a long time,” she said. “I’m rather thinking I might try again, as I’m sure I haven’t got a book left to write. I haven’t had the energy to do it yet, though. I am very old now.”

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When she moved into the old person’s home she has lived in for the last two years, she dreaded having to choose what few books to take with her to her small room. It made her so ill, she ended up in hospital for two days.

One of the most refreshing things she confesses in the introduction to the Letters to a Friend is how in old age she became “free to love men without wanting to go to bed with them.” The loss of one’s sex drive is really a freedom. “One thought it was going to be a terrible loss,” she said. “The thing is, if you stop wanting something, you don’t mind not having it.” This type of “letting go” (and she includes giving up alcohol in this category, as it now makes her ill) is one of the good things to discover about old age.

“I’m quite a late developer,” she said. “I never thought I was at all good-looking, but people say that I’m a good-looking older woman.” In a society that’s still so obsessed with viewing women in terms of youth and beauty, it’s refreshing to hold Athill up as a role model. She’s “jolly glad” this fame didn’t happen to her when she was young, as she thinks it would have gone to her head. She still feels faintly disconcerted when people come up to her to praise her books. “I thought, oh dear, that’s a bit corrupted,” she said cheekily. “But think how boring retired life would have been if I hadn’t published the memoirs!”