Possessor of one of the most famous voices in the world (sultry, smoky, confiding), Mariella Frostrup is also one of our best-known arts broadcasters and writers. She’s judged the Man Booker Prize; helmed numerous arts programmes; presents BBC Radio 4’s Open Book; and is the resident agony aunt for The Observer. Her most recent literary project was editing Desire: 100 of Literature's Sexiest Stories, an anthology of erotic short stories.
How did the collaboration with the Literary Review to produce Desire come about?
It was down to a fortuitous encounter. I was at Christmas drinks evening, and I met the editor (she’s also the owner) of the Erotic Review and we started talking about Anaïs Nin. I was ranting because I wanted to make a documentary about her and someone had said "but who would be interested in that?" and it led to us discussing erotica. A week or so later, she called and asked if I was interested in editing a collection of erotic short stories.
And was the process an education?
It was definitely submersive for a couple of months; altogether an extraordinary world for a 50-something mother-of-two to inhabit – not my normal territory at all. It was funny – and ironic, given the subject matter – that, owing to the sheer volume of stories (200 which I needed to whittle down to 100), there I was in bed every night saying, "Not now, I’m reading.”
Do you think the general public attitude to erotica has changed in recent times? It certainly feels more mainstream - and that more female authors are writing honestly about it...
What’s written only reflects societal norms. When I was a teenager in my twenties, women were embarrassed about admitting to having a sex life – the virgin myth persisted and that was quite a tyranny for women. That has changed enormously, and women are far more proactive and take ownership of their desire. It sounds obvious, but in the 1970s that was a radical concept: Erica Jong and Germaine Greer became iconic because they were willing to talk about it. What was most exciting about compiling this anthology was looking at the work of new writers – particularly the huge number of women writing erotica now. It’s fascinating to see the difference 50 years of emancipation makes to how women express their desires.
Eimear McBride recently wrote a conflicted review [of Desire] in The Times Literary Supplement in which she took issue with the misogynistic, violent, shocking content of the final section. But I made a point of weeding out anything which wasn’t consensual and involved crimes against women; there are no stories which aren’t about consensual sex – no matter how bizarre or violent they might be. These aren’t stories which exploit women any further than they are willing to be exploited.
One of the most interesting questions posed, but not answered, by the anthology, is why women find these fantasies arousing. Fifty Shades of Grey was the most incredibly hackneyed story of man as dominant and woman as subservient, a very traditional and gendered situation. And women bought it in their millions. The question is: why do these fantasies still appeal when they bear so little resemblance to our everyday lives – and we’d be pretty horrified if they did? Is it the last bastion of misogynistic culture? Women’s fantasies do involve situations that make people angry: you can’t be angry about it, but you can ask why?
Do you have a favourite story in the anthology?
I liked the ones which made me laugh. Humour a crucial element of what women like in sex – we need a bit of humour, whereas men tend to be afraid of it and consider it not a good bedfellow.
Has your own concept of desire changed over time?
It's not changed dramatically. I have slightly more confidence about what I like and don’t like, but that’s part of being in a long-term relationship.
I think what changes is that you not longer dominated by it. It takes a more manageable place alongside other impulses and becomes tempered by experience and maturity. What changes is one’s susceptibility to total unmitigated, absolute desire. Because you’re also thinking of your kids, your job, your past experience, alongside other impulses.
You've interviewed so many authors for Radio 4’s Open Book - do you have a favourite?
One of the great joys of interviewing authors is that, more than any other artistic pursuit except perhaps painting, so much of what they do involves being locked in a solitary environment. So, by the time they come out of their study to talk to you, they have so many great thoughts that I often pinch myself with pleasure at the nature of our conversation. You know it’s not going to be an anecdote-honed, anodyne chat. The interview circuit is the enemy of conversation; my heart sinks when I get someone hugely famous who’s been interviewed 100 times before.
That said, Salman Rushdie is always brilliant. He’s a great example of how you can now embrace all forms of culture. So you can love Taylor Swift’s lyrics and read Gabriel García Márquez and love Banksy and Monet – there’s permission for us to enjoy as much culture as we like.
Do you have a wish list of future interviewees?
As soon as someone dies, I think, "Damn!" I’m always worried about those wonderful older women who haven’t been celebrated enough, and then they die, and you think, "I wish I could have interviewed her" – like Carol Shields. Alice Munro would be on my wish list; I’d love to go to her small Canadian town that she’s written about for so many years, and sit in her living room. One can never tired of interviewing Diana Athill, she’s so sparky, funny, and entirely unfettered by convention.
Would you ever write a book (or does the reading of so many for work make the task too daunting)?
Anyone who loves books would love to write a book, but what happens is you develop self-censorship. You're so used to reading great work that anything you write pales into comparison.
So no manuscripts hidden in drawers?
No, but I do have approximately 700 false starts! I tend to know I’m on a hiding to nowhere within three paragraphs.
What advice would you give your 18-year-old self?
Be fearless because there’s only one chance and the road Is very long and you’ve nothing to lose. By which I mean, don’t ever be scared of what other people think. The worse thing about that age is you worry so much about what other people think of you and not enough about what you think of yourself.
When are you happiest?
At home with my family - or on a long walk with them.
Who or what is the love of your life?
The family – we’re a unit.
Hush value female friendships - what qualities do all your friends share?
They’re funny, eccentric and hugely loyal.
You can invite six women (living or dead) for supper. Who and where do you go?
Virginia Woolf, Alice Munro, Diana Athill, Michelle Obama, Cleopatra and Jo Brand. We’d stay in and have supper around my kitchen table, because nothing is nicer after a couple of glasses of wine than knowing you don’t have to drive home, be that by chariot or presidential cavalcade!
The last time you laughed out loud?
Every day. That’s the secret to good health: the ability to see the funny side even in the face of abject disaster.
The book you wish you'd written?
Almost every book I read! So even if I pick one today, I’ll pick one up tomorrow and wish I’d written that. If I’d written Alice Munro’s collection Too Much Happiness I could die happy.
The one thing people would be surprised to learn about you?
My favourite habitat isn’t West London, but the West Country.
What - if anything - keeps you awake at night?
Everything! World peace, my Ocado order and all the things I’ve forgotten.
Over or under dressed?
Owl or lark?
Spring or winter?
Word you over-use?
Dream holiday destination?
Desert island luxury?
An avocado tree.
Linen Star Cut Out Tee, Summer Cashmere V Jumper, Joanie Sweat Top.
Desire: 100 of Literature's Sexiest Stories, chosen by Mariella Frostrup and the Erotic Review (Head of Zeus, £12.50), available now!