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Writer or engine driver?

Writer or engine driver?

Graham Swift’s 1996 Booker Prize winning Last Orders tells the tale of a group of friends who meet in a Bermondsey pub and head for the Kent coast to commemorate the death of one of their number. The novel is now 25 years old and Swift, now 71, has recently been looking back at both the novel and his own writing life. The idea of becoming a novelist, he says, arrived early and had no real source: “Not much thought would have gone into this and of course it had nothing to do with any known ability, so it was no different from wanting to be an engine driver.” Most boys and girls don’t grow up to fulfil their childhood dreams but Swift did, through sheer effort: “I wasn’t born a writer – is anyone? – I had to become one.” It is a course he’s never regretted, he says, not least because of his own definition of fiction as being “fundamentally an act of sharing, of intimate human communion”. In his telling, a novel is a profoundly intimate thing: “There’s no limit to its intimacy, nor its candour. To be drawn into a story is like receiving an embrace, to know you are not alone. Readers may begin a novel feeling at first that they’re entering a foreign country. Who are these people? What has all this got to do with me? But then, if the story works, there will be a point when they say to themselves: ‘Hold on a moment, I’ve been there too.’”

Olga Tokarczuk, the 2018 International Booker Prize winner and subsequently Nobel laureate, writes ­– as you might suppose – grown up fiction. There is, however, something fabular about her prose and an adherence to the time-sanctioned traditions of storytelling. Perhaps that is why it shouldn’t be a surprise (though it is) that Tokarczuk has written her first book for children – or as the publishing trade likes to put it, “readers of all ages”. The Lost Soul centres on a man who “worked very hard and very quickly, and who had left his soul behind him long ago”; he “has forgotten what makes his heart feel full. He moves to a house away from all that is familiar to him to wait for his soul to return.” The story is said to be a “deeply moving reflection on our capacity to live in peace with ourselves, to remain patient and attentive to the world”. The book has been translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, illustrated by Joanna Concejo, and will be published by Seven Stories Press in March.

Never let it be said that Booker writers aren’t a forward-looking bunch. A cluster of them have thrown in their lot with a new multi-media app, Alexander, which is looking to push the boundaries of storytelling. Primarily a vehicle for non-fiction, Alexander combines the written word with short films and audio narration (by the likes of Helena Bonham-Carter, Bill Nighy, David Tennant and Daisy Edgar-Jones) so that a work can be experienced on various platforms and in various complementary ways: “A single immerse experience. Three different ways in” as the blurb has it. Among the Booker alumni who are contributing works this year are the current International Booker Prize winner Marieke Lucas Rijneveld on identity and virtual worlds; the 2020-shortlisted Tsitsi Dangarembga on Black Lives Matter and David Livingstone's body; the 2020-longlisted Colum McCann on where we come from and where we are going. Meanwhile, the former shortlistee and current Booker Prize judge Chigozie Obioma has already contributed a work about his unhappy experiences of the Nigerian university system. For a writer, everything is about spreading the word.

Congratulations to the new Booker Prize winner Douglas Stuart, who is joined by his fellow 2020 nominee C Pam Zhang on the longlist for the Rathbones Folio Prize. Shuggie Bain and How Much of these Hills is Gold are part of the whopping 20-strong first winnowing ­– which includes fiction, non-fiction and poetry – with the shortlist to be announced on 10 February. Whether they will make the cut will at least be a distraction for Stuart and Zhang – something to take their minds off world events.