SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Penelope Lively was in her late 30s before she began her career writing children's books. And now a thrice nominated and one time winner of the prestigious Man Booker Prize, Ms. Lively's 20th work of fiction has just been released. It's called, "How it all Began." And she explores the capricious role that chance can play in people's lives. NPR's Lynn Neary reports.
LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: Penelope Lively's lifetime habit of storytelling began when she was growing up in Egypt during World War II. She spent a lot of time alone and amused herself by making up stories, which often involved embellishing the classics with her own personal touch.
PENELOPE LIVELY: The Libyan campaign in the desert was raging about 70 or 80 miles away, so I sort of re-jigged "The Iliad" and put Achilles in a tank instead of all that nonsense about chariots and spears and those kind of things.
NEARY: As the war got closer, Lively's family fled Egypt. They landed safely in what was then Palestine. But in a story from one of her earlier books, "Making it Up," Lively re-imagines that event, tragically. In making it up, Lively uses real moments from her own life and fictionalizes them, an impulse that grew out of her own late-in-life musings.
LIVELY: You find yourself looking back over your own life and wondering about where it could have gone completely different. And so this was what I was doing. I was looking at the kind of climactic points in my own life and seeing where they might have gone. So, I was writing in a sense a set of what didn't happen. I was writing the alternative lives that I didn't have.
NEARY: Lively returns to this idea of the randomness of life in her new book "How It All Began." But this time, one event sets many lives spinning in unexpected directions.
LIVELY: It's a game. It's to do with happenstance. It's to do with the circumstantial nature of life, the way in which we get blown off course by unexpected events; that you think you direct your life, but in fact, of course, it's also being directed by all sorts of external factors that you have absolutely no control over. And I was intrigued by the relation of this to chaos theory - the idea that if a butterfly flaps its wing in an Amazon forest, there will be a tornado in Texas.
NEARY: The event that starts the chain reaction is a mugging; as the book begins, Charlotte Rainsford, an elderly woman, has been knocked flat to the ground.
LIVELY: (Reading) The pavement rises up and hits her, slams into her face, drives the lower rim of her glasses into her cheek. She is laid out there prone. What is this? Voices are chattering above her. People are concerned, of course. Bag, she says, my bag. A face is alongside hers. Woman, nice woman. There's an ambulance on the way, my dear. You'll be fine. Just keep still till they come.
NEARY: The fallout from this mugging is plentiful: One love affair ends, another begins. Divorce, bankruptcy and the indignities of old age all threaten to ruin lives. But Lively brings a light touch to the proceedings, and at the calm center of her story is Charlotte. A former teacher who is fiercely independent, Charlotte has to move in with her daughter while she recovers from the injuries inflicted by the mugger. And as she often does, Charlotte turns to books for solace.
LIVELY: She is, in a sense, acting as an observer. And she's someone for whom reading has always been absolutely crucial. She's been a teacher of English. And this remains central to her. And so she's thinking a lot about that and about the way in which she is a product of everything she has read, quite as much as a product of the way in which she has lived.
NEARY: One suspects that Charlotte Rainsford has more than a little of Penelope Lively in her. And Lively depicts the vagaries of old age with the wit and wisdom of someone who has seen a lot in life.
LIVELY: There is one single enormous advantage of being an older writer, which is that you've been there, as it were. I mean, when I started writing, I remember then thinking I want to write about older people but I don't know what it's like to be 60 or 70 or whatever. By the time you're a 70s writer, you have been there, you've been through all the decades. And so that actually is a great help because you can look back and you know what it was like to have been 50 or 40 or whatever.
NEARY: Lively says she writes more slowly now and doesn't work as much as she used to each day. But so far, she says, the writing still comes easily. She may have trouble remembering names sometimes, but language has not failed her. And, she says, as one of the few who is reporting from the front lines of old age, she's happy to say that, aches and pains aside, there is still a great deal that is hugely enjoyable. Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.