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Man Booker Prize 2011 shortlist: Esi Edugyan interview

Man Booker Prize 2011 shortlist: Esi Edugyan interview

MBP: Congratulations on being longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Can you tell us where you were when you found out and how you reacted?

EE: Thank you! I was sleeping, actually, it was still quite early here. The phone had been ringing and ringing and my husband finally went up to check the messages. Needless to say, when he came down and woke me up with the news I was astonished and thrilled. The entire moment felt like a dream. It still feels like a dream. I keep thinking I might wake up.

MBP: Half Blood Blues is partially set in Berlin and Paris at the start of WWII. Can you tell us a bit more about what drew you to this period? Were there stories from this epoch which inspired you to write the novel?

EE: Between the publication of my first novel and this one, I lived in and traveled widely throughout Europe. Most of my time was spent in Germany, first a year in the south, in Stuttgart, and later on two months in a little Northern town. As a black woman, I began to wonder about the experience of black people who had lived in Germany in the past, specifically during the Third Reich. The novel grew out of this.

MBP: How easy was it to explore issues of race in Europe at that time?

EE: Not especially easy, no. There still are so few sources specifically about black people under the Third Reich. I did find a few excellent books, the best of which are listed as further reading in the back of the novel.

But the lack of sources was liberating, too, in its way - it left plenty of room for the imagination. Of course, sadly, many of the malignant aspects of race hatred continue to manifest themselves in the ways they always have. The attack by Nazis described in the book could be set in any number of places today.

MBP: Chip and Sid's friendship is core to the novel. How did you explore this long relationship? Did you have a clear idea of how it would shift and evolve?

EE: Chip and Sid's friendship was always at the centre of the historical story, but oddly enough in the novel's first draft Chip was largely absent from the 1992 storyline. The layering of that friendship only came about in the rewriting. Though, in truth, it became difficult to keep Chip out of Sid's life - he was always popping up unexpectedly, small and stubborn and offensive. I guess the novel understood, even before I did, that it was going to be about friendship - the kind of irritations old friends can embody, as well as their enormous and powerful capacity for forgiveness. I do think there's something very unequaled about that kind of mercy.

MBP: You wrote your first novel when you were only 25. Did you always know you wanted to write?

EE: Well, 25 didn't feel like ‘only' 25, at the time. I'd been writing that first novel for years, and was already tired. It's only now that it seems to me rather young. I guess I'd known at a very early age that I wanted to write. I was always obsessed with reading. When I was eighteen I decided to study journalism; I lasted all of one semester. In the end, I think I was just too shy. I could never approach people for quotes. So, not a journalist. I turned my attention to poetry and fiction.

MBP: What are you working on next?

EE: Another novel. After I finish one, I'm always so exhausted that my instinct is to write something radically different, like lawnmower instruction manuals or advertisements for toothpaste or something. Or to give up writing entirely. But, somehow, I'm always eventually drawn back in.

Listen to our Man Booker Prize podcast on Esi Edugyan

Esi Edugyan, shot for The Man Booker Prize ((c)Jainey Airey)
Esi Edugyan, shot for The Man Booker Prize ((c)Jainey Airey)