‘I think the challenge with every historical novel is to convey a sense of lived authenticity.’
In this Man Booker 2018 longlist interview Esi Edugyan tells us how she originally set out to write a novel about the Tichborne Claiment story and the challenges that came with writing a historical novel like Washington Black.
You’ve previously been shortlisted for the prize, what’s it like making the longlist this time around?
It was just as surprising – quite an unexpected and wonderful thing. The book hadn’t yet been published when the nomination was announced. I couldn’t have asked for a better way to introduce the novel to readers. I feel very blessed and honoured.
What inspired the novel?
I had set out to write a novel about the Tichborne case, one of the longest-running criminal trials in British history. I wanted to tell it from the perspective of Andrew Bogle, an ex-slave who had been taken off a Caribbean plantation by a visiting member of the Tichborne family to serve his lifetime at their Hampstead estate, and who would become the main defence witness at one of the trials.
But almost from the beginning, the Tichborne Claimant story was abandoned. I discovered that it was actually the voice of its narrator that interested me most, the complicated position of a man who’d been randomly transported from the violent world of his childhood to places that were racially, socially and geographically different from all he’d known. This is what I took from that initial idea.
Your story is set back in 1830 – what’s the hardest part about writing about that time period?
I think the challenge with every historical novel is to convey a sense of lived authenticity. Research will give you the details, but you have to walk a reader through the rooms of the past, convince them that things actually looked, smelled, and felt that way.
Favourite Man Booker-winning novel?
What an impossible choice! I remember that V.S. Naipaul’s In a Free State made a great impression on me when I first read it.
What are you working on next?
Another novel. To say anything more than that would be premature.