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National Life Stories: Authors' Lives

Authors' Lives collects in-depth interviews with Britain's leading authors, writers and poets, together with technical and specialist writers, campaigners and literary journalists.

As a nation we have remarkably few recorded in-depth interviews with authors reflecting on their experiences of living and writing in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, a period which has seen enormous changes in the way in which books are written, published and read. Currently this problem is obscured by the prevalence of short, often publicity-led broadcasts produced for radio and television, and short biographical interviews conducted by print journalists, which rarely produce the range of insights that can be achieved through the longer, recorded, life story interview.

Authors’ Lives is an ongoing project which provides a panoramic view of the literary landscape as it exists today and within interviewees’ living memory, whilst capturing on record accounts of individual authors’ experiences of the writing life. The archive currently contains recordings with biographers, literary and popular novelists, poets and children’s writers, whilst funding from The Booker Prize Foundation has facilitated recordings with authors shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize since 2007.  In addition to documenting individual creative practices, the recordings explore the edifice that surrounds today’s working writers, and look at the relationship between its various components – including the literary agents, publishing houses and editors that are vital to an author’s career.

In conjunction with Book Trade Lives, which recorded the experiences of those who have worked in the UK publishing industry between the 1920s and the present day, Authors' Lives aims to provide an insight into an area of activity which has changed enormously within living memory.

Further information about the Authors’ Lives can be found within National Life Stories Annual Reports, and in particular the articles Authors’ Lives: In Their Own Words (PDF Format, 73KB) and On life stories and biography (PDF Format, 77KB), a reflection on being interviewed for the project by the biographer and novelist Victoria Glendinning.

The Writing Life: Authors Speak, a CD containing edited extracts from the collection was published in 2011 and is available through British Library Publishing. Sarah O'Reilly, project interviewer, discusses the project and The Writing Life: Authors Speak in a British Library podcast. The Writing Life: Authors Speak was launched at an event at the British Library Conference Centre in March 2011. The event featured three authors interviewed from Authors' Lives – Philip Hensher, Hilary Spurling and Michael Frayn - in conversation with Deborah Moggach, a member of the Authors' Lives Advisory Committee.  The event was recorded as is available as a British Library podcast.

Interviewees include:

  • Beryl Bainbridge
  • Wendy Cope
  • Maureen Duffy
  • Eva Figes
  • Anne Fine
  • Michael Frayn
  • Victoria Glendinning
  • Philip Hensher
  • Michael Holroyd
  • Howard Jacobson
  • PD James
  • Penelope Lively
  • Hilary Mantel
  • Michael Morpurgo
  • Ian Rankin
  • Hilary Spurling
  • Ion Trewin
  • Philip Ziegler

The project has so far received funding from the Arts Council of England, ALCS, The Booker Prize Foundation, Charlotte Bonham Carter Charitable Trust, The John S Cohen Foundation, Esmee Fairbairn Foundation, Friends of the British Library and private individuals.

Authors’ Lives Advisory Committee

  • Chair: Penelope Lively (Booker Prize winning author and NLS trustee)
  • Stephen Cleary (British Library, Lead Curator, Drama and Literature Recordings)
  • Rachel Foss (British Library, Lead Curator, Modern Literary Manuscripts)
  • Maggie Gee (Author, Vice President of the Royal Society of Literature)
  • Mark Le Fanu (General Secretary of the Society of Authors)
  • Deborah Moggach (Writer and former Chairman of the Society of Authors)
  • Martin Pick (Founder of the Charles Pick Writing Fellowship at UEA)
  • Lawrence Sail (Poet and former Chairman of the Arvon Foundation)
  • Jonathan Taylor (Chairman of the Booker Prize Foundation)

Partners and Sponsors

  • Arts Council of England
  • ALCS
  • The Booker Prize Foundation
  • Charlotte Bonham Carter Charitable Trust
  • The John S Cohen Foundation
  • The Esmée Fairbairn Foundation
  • The Friends of the British Library
  • The Matthew Hodder Charitable Trust
  • Private individuals

Accessing the collection

To access oral history material:

  • Search for oral history recordings held at the British Library using the online Sound and Moving Image Catalogue (see useful advice on searching the oral history collections).
  • Onsite access to oral history recordings: The Listening and Viewing Service in St Pancras provides free public access to the oral history collections on an appointment basis. Many digital recordings are also available via SoundServer, a computerised listening facility located in the Humanities Reading Rooms.  SoundServer is also available at the British Library’s site in Boston Spa in Yorkshire.
  • Internet access to selected oral history recordings: The British Library Sounds website gives remote access to a selection of interviews from the Library’s oral history collections. Some recordings are currently only licensed to Higher and Further Education users in the UK, others are available for full public access.

Further information

Contact us

Oral History
The British Library
96 Euston Road
London
NW1 2DB
United Kingdom

T +44 (0)20 7412 7405 (Rob Perks, Lead Curator, Oral History  / Director of National Life Stories)
T +44 (0)20 7412 7406 (Mary Stewart, Curator, Oral History / Deputy Director of National Life Stories)
T +44 (0)20 7412 7404 (Elspeth Millar, Archivist, Oral History)
E oralhistory@bl.uk