National Life Stories: Authors' Lives

Sarah O'Reilly interviewing Dame Penelope Lively for the National Life Stories project Authors' Lives
Sarah O'Reilly interviewing Dame Penelope Lively for the National Life Stories project Authors' Lives

Authors’ Lives collects in-depth interviews with leading authors working in Britain today.

Published date:

Aims of the project

As a nation we have remarkably few recorded in-depth interviews with authors reflecting on their experiences of living and writing in the 20th and 21st 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 condensed biographical interviews conducted by print journalists, which rarely produce the range of insights that can be achieved through the longer life story interview.

Initiated in 2007 by National Life Stories, 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 unrivalled accounts of individual careers. The archive currently contains recordings with novelists, poets, children’s writers, biographers and historians. Whilst capturing the life story and creative practice of interviewees, the recordings also explore the edifice that surrounds modern writers, including the literary agents, publishing houses and editors vital to an author’s career.

In conjunction with Book Trade Lives which recorded the experiences of those who worked in the UK publishing industry between the 1920s and the present day, and the Oral History of Women in Publishing, which charts this pioneering campaigning organisation for women working within the publishing industry from its birth in 1979 to the present day, Authors' Lives aims to provide an insight into an area of activity which has undergone profound changes within living memory.

Further information about Authors’ Lives can be found within National Life Stories Annual Reports, and in particular the article‘Authors’ Lives: In Their Own Words’ (p. 6-7) and Victoria Glendinning’s reflection on her experience of being interviewed for the project ‘On life stories and biography’ (p. 18-19). In 2011, The Writing Life: Authors Speak, a CD containing edited extracts from the collection, was published and is available through British Library Publishing, and also online at British Library Sounds. The CD was launched at an event at the British Library which featured the authors Philip Hensher, Hilary Spurling and Michael Frayn in conversation with Deborah Moggach, a member of the Authors' Lives Advisory Committee. In 2015 Howard Jacobson reflected on his recording for Authors’ Lives with Alex Clark at an event in the British Library Conference Centre.

Explore the collection

To explore the collection in detail, please search the Sound and Moving Image catalogue. The catalogue reference used for all the recordings in the project is C1276.

Interviewees include: Louis de Bernieres; William Boyd, AS Byatt, Wendy Cope, Anne Fine, Michael Frayn, Victoria Glendinning, Peter Hennessy, Philip Hensher, Michael Holroyd, Howard Jacobson, PD James, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Andrea Levy, Penelope Lively, Hilary Mantel, Ian McEwan, Michael Morpurgo, Andrew Motion, Caryl Phillips, Ian Rankin, Hilary Spurling, Colin Thubron, Jacqueline Wilson.

Project interviewer Sarah O'Reilly has written two essays for British Library Learning Resources, based on Authors' Lives interviews. 'How come England did not know me?': Recording Andrea Levy for Authors' Lives features on Windrush Stories and 'Describing reality as I see it': Recordings from Linton Kwesi Johnson's life story interview features on both Windrush Stories and Discovering Literature.

Authors’ Lives Advisory Committee

  • Stephen Cleary (British Library, Lead Curator, Drama and Literature Recordings)
  • Rachel Foss (British Library, Head of Contemporary Archival & Manuscript Collections)
  • Maggie Gee OBE FRSL (Author, Vice President of the Royal Society of Literature) 
  • Deborah Moggach OBE FRSL (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) 
  • Nicola Solomon (Chief Executive of the Society of Authors)
  • Jonathan Taylor CBE (President of the Booker Prize Foundation)

Partners and sponsors

National Life Stories gratefully acknowledges the support of the following funders for Authors’ Lives:




Sound and video recordings from all over the world

Collection guides

Oral histories of writing and publishing

Recordings with authors and those involved in the press and book trade


National Life Stories

A unique and invaluable record of people’s lives in Britain today

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Artists’ lives and work in their own words

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