That McCarthy's own views were outwardly at odds with my feminist reading of her fiction posed obvious questions. Could the writing be feminist and the author not? Was she a feminist in denial? Dr John, my tutor in American Studies, suggested I ask her directly, which at first seemed absurd: a literary giant consenting to be interviewed by a student from a provincial English university? Not very likely. And yet, as Dr John pointed out, she had accepted an honorary degree from Hull in 1975, which he thought might be a useful angle of approach, adding that if you don’t ask, you obviously don’t get. So I wrote to her in Paris in September 1981 and, to my immense surprise, she agreed to meet me at her apartment on the Rue de Rennes in January 1982.
It was a cold but sunny afternoon in Paris when I called on Mary McCarthy. I was a bit late because of a hold up on the metro, and, as she’d been quite precise about the timing of our meeting over the ‘phone – ‘at 2, for just an hour’ – I had to hurry out of the station exit and was sweating by the time I found the address.
Despite McCarthy’s reputation for caustic wit and razor retorts – a construction by male critics, which she famously dismissed as ‘Balls!’ – I found her to be a patient, polite and positive interviewee, whose replies to my often awkward questioning were always carefully considered. As far as ‘outing’ her as a feminist, my mission was not as unsuccessful as I’d feared - it’s appealing to speculate about what she might have gone on to say, had we not run out of time at an interesting point in the conversation.