Gabriel Krauze speaks about his novel Booker Prize-longlisted novel Who They Was.
Gabriel Krauze on how Nas’ songs ‘are undoubtedly works of literature in their own right’ and the boundary between fact and fiction.
How does it feel to have your debut novel longlisted for The Booker Prize?
It’s an honour.
Who They Was draws directly on your own life. How did you tread the boundary between fact and fiction in the writing of this novel?
Everything in the book actually happened in one way or another, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to tell this story. Names have been changed and certain details of events have been changed to protect myself and others legally. But by using the power of literature – of the novel form – I have been able to convey the unrestrained truth of a world that is often hidden, misinterpreted, even fetishised, and usually always observed from a detached distance.
Your novel is unflinching in its depiction of violence, trauma, and toxic masculinity. Did you find these subjects difficult or cathartic to write about?
A mixture of both. My writing is concerned with truth, and the truth can often be an ugly and disturbing thing. The catharsis came from being able to spill out a no-holds-barred account of my experiences, and the experiences of others, and in doing so, it was as if I was releasing myself from those experiences. There was also a traumatic aspect to my writing process at times in terms of reliving moments and emotions in a highly visceral way in order to be as truthful and real as possible. Fortunately, having left that part of my life behind, I can now recount what I experienced because ultimately, when that life is over, when things fall apart, all that is left is an echo of that world and those experiences. My book is that echo trapped on the page.
Which authors have influenced your own writing?
There are two people who have been the biggest influences on me as a writer. One is Russian Jewish author Isaac Babel, whose writing had an almost life-changing effect on me, in particular his Odessa Stories and Red Cavalry Stories, which manage to weave a tapestry of life that displays both the beauty, savagery, and ultimately the tragedy of human experience in a world that is permanently located on the brink of change. The other is legendary New York rapper Nas, whose seminal albums Illmatic and It Was Written had a huge impact on me as a 13-year-old who’d decided that one day I would use writing to evoke not just the reality of life, but also the feelings, smells, sensations and moods of a certain time and place. Tracks like Take it in Blood, New York State of Mind and The Message, among others, convey an almost indescribable feeling of immersion; lyrics transporting the listener to a reality that remains physically out of reach to most. They are undoubtedly works of literature in their own right.
What can we expect from you next?
I’m currently working on two novels; one a magic realism novel that tells an almost supernatural story about the fears of inner city life. The other is a semi-autobiographical story about memory and the transgenerational traumas we inherit from our parents and ancestral histories. There’s also a collection of short stories, an EP that could potentially become an album, and a film script based on an amazing but largely unknown holocaust novel in the works. So it’s not like I’m busy with much at the moment.