You are here

Longlisted author Q&A: Individual Questions

Longlisted author Q&A: Individual Questions

Individual Questions

Tash Aw: Your own “emigration” from Malaysia brought you to England, was China ever an option?

Not really. Twenty years ago, when I moved to England, China was a very different place – things have changed so quickly in such a short space of time. I came to England to attend university, which wouldn't have been possible in China for numerous reasons. Now, China offers many more possibilities. When I lived there in 2009-2011, I felt very at home in Shanghai; it had an energy that made it seem appealing and liveable. But London is still the most culturally mixed city I know – I've been based here for nearly two decades and it's difficult to move on.

NoViolet Bulawayo: Your book has been called a “State of the [Zimbabwean] nation novel”, is that what you set out to write?

We Need New Names was definitely born of Zimbabwe's lost decade and I wrote it precisely because of what the country was becoming, and eventually became. It would not be what it is without the country's dynamics as we know them in the past decade, so yes, the label fits. That said, half of the novel is set outside of Zim, in the US, so it definitely transcends the Zimbabwean border and will need more names than State of the Nation novel.

Eleanor Catton: The Luminaries is set in 1866 and has the size and sweep of the Victorian novel. Did you immerse yourself in the likes of Wilkie Collins, George Eliot, Dickens, Trollope to get the right historical voice?

Yes: I tried to read as much Victorian fiction as I could, especially in the very early stages of writing the novel. There’s so much more to voice than idiom, and the values and conventions of an historical age are codified in language in all sorts of sly and subliminal ways. I took a lot of notes, mostly to record syntactical patterns and turns of phrase. There is a line in a Henry James novel, for example, where a character strolls the streets “at hazard” – meaning that he walks without direction or purpose. I wrote that down. For the more material details – how much things cost; brand names; types of mustard and so forth – I read 19th-century newspapers, available online courtesy of the National Library of New Zealand.

Jim Crace: You have said that as novelists age they face the diminution of their skills and so Harvest would be your last novel. Your longlisting shows that others don't agree with your judgement of yourself, has it perhaps changed your mind?

I don’t think I have ever claimed that novelists would face the diminution of their skills as they age – consider Philip Roth and Molly Keane – but I have said that novelists cannot expect to retain a readership and command wide critical interest once they have reached their late career and have already published 10 or so books (even though they might be producing their best work.) Readers will be moving on to newer, younger voices. And so they should.

In my own case, the longlisting will make no difference to my plans. What might make the difference are the nagging and tempting plot and subject ideas that are bubbling up each and every day. I can imagine retiring quite contentedly from writing, but I’m in no hurry to retire from thinking or from telling stories to myself. Does that mean I’m bound to write more novels? I’m old enough to make no promises and feel no pressure.

Eve Harris: I imagine there are some parts of the lives of ultra-orthodox Jewish girls that you envy – what are they?

There are three that spring immediately to mind, although they don’t all apply just to the girls. In a world that is over-sexualised and obsessed with bodily image, the fact that “frum” girls manage to preserve their emotional and sexual innocence is a beautiful thing. Second, is their steadfast ability to hold on to customs and rituals that are thousands of years old, some of which may not necessarily have relevance to modern society, but which are nevertheless pure and profound. Finally, their lives have a rhythm and an order that remains constant year on year. The secular world is in a state of flux (some would say chaos) and there is comfort and safety in knowing what comes next.

Richard House: The Kill was first released as an ebook and with added digital content – why did you decide to go outside the traditional print-first format?

It happened naturally. The third book is an independent volume from which all of these narratives spin out. I write on primarily on a computer and I figured out early on in the writing that the fractured nature of the books, the reorganising, restructuring, repetitions, were very much part of how it should be read. Digitally you’re able (in one section) to choose how you read the work (by date or by character), so digital publishing efficiently answers craft and presentational issues that paper publication can’t. I’d also written sections that were very much part of the story, but couldn’t be included in the main narrative, because the idea of showing someone’s state of mind or a specific history, would slow down a more propulsive narrative, so it made sense to have these suspended outside of the main story, which suited digital publication. Plus, it’s just a joy to work with images and text.

Another thing I’d done very early in the development was to make images of the characters in The Kill, blurred composite faces, and in talking with Picador, we liked the idea that these faces would bleed in and out before you read about them as a way to assert the individual characters, set a tone, and help locate the reader – so that decision uncorked everything (plus, I think, more fundamentally, the books are digital in sensibility right through to their heart). There was a team at Picador I could bounce ideas off, which is exactly what I had when working in Chicago with Haha. I love working like this: ideas first, content, then form.

Jumpha Lahiri: Will the wide sense of passionate, personal politics felt around 1968 ever come again?

It’s impossible to predict the future, and history can never repeat itself. But I believe that political passion is still alive. People are still protesting injustice, whether in the form of the Occupy Wall Street movement, or in the context of Arab Spring. And these protests have had a considerable impact. One thing that characterised the late 1960s was a sense of ideological unity, broadly speaking, across the globe: from Paris to Berkeley to Latin America to Calcutta. It was a sea-change both culturally and politically, and my sense is that there was a greater sense of solidarity world-wide. In many ways the world is a far more connected place now, but political activism seems more local, more contextualized.

Alison MacLeod: Before you started Unexploded were you daunted by the existing body of Second World War fiction?

Oddly enough, I didn’t set out to write a “Second World War novel”, at least not in the usual sense. Nor have I read much of WW2 fiction, if honest – with one great exception being Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair. What drew me to the situation in Brighton was not the War itself, but rather, the long wait for the invasion. I was interested in that limbo state and the impact of fear in our lives. I wanted to explore life-force really – as grand a notion as that is – and what compromises it. Then the July 7th bombings happened and, as I walked through London the next morning on my way to the BBC, the fear was almost palpable.

It would have been too “head-on” to explore, in long fictional form, anything of our contemporary experience of terror.  The oblique approach often yields far more.  I remembered the brief diary accounts I’d come across in Brighton from the Second World War, including a few lines from Virginia Woolf: “Nobody in their senses can believe it. Yet nobody must tell the truth. So one forgets. Meanwhile the aeroplanes are on the prowl, crossing the downs.” The world then had turned surreal as ours had – if in a far more limited sense – on July 7th. The Germans had particular strategies designed to “soften up” coastal populations – to terrorise them. Sometimes I wonder if, collectively, we’re in danger of reducing the Second World War to “Blitz spirit” and the jolliness of nostalgia. I wanted to undo something of those narratives perhaps. But above all, I was interested in the intimate connections between the private and the public; between cycles of violence and the unseen intimacies that compose our daily lives.

Colum McCann: The lot of Irish women has been a hard one for the past 150 years. If you were to add an extra generation to TransAtlantic in 50 years time do you think your future women would still relate to those now in the book?

Absolutely. I think they will always relate. I believe that’s the way life operates. We become who we are through the industry, the grief, the joy, the struggle and the victory of others. Whoever we are is whoever went before us. We understand ourselves by understanding our pasts. And we can also liberate ourselves too. I suppose it becomes a problem when we don’t listen to the past. But I don’t think that will happen. Peace is always shaky, but this one in Northern Ireland will last. 

Charlotte Mendelson: Your novel is about adolescent mortifications – do you think we ever really outgrow them?

No, we just become better at hiding them. And an adolescent is only one of the protagonists; the other is adult, but just as continually mortified, humiliated and hopeless. Adult life isn't much easier, is it?

Ruth Ozeki: Your novel centres around the diary of a young girl – do you keep a diary and, if so, are you honest in it?

I do keep a diary, several, in fact. I keep a process journal, which is like an ideal writing friend who reliably keeps track of all my ideas, listens patiently to all my neurotic fears, offers suggestions, and never gets bored when I go on and on. In addition to this, I keep a five-year diary, which is a logbook of my days. And finally I have a book that’s more like a dump or an emotional compost heap. I am as honest as I can be in all my diaries, which is why they’re not terribly interesting to read.

Donal Ryan: Your novel is told through 21 different voices – was it difficult to come up with so many different personalities?

Perhaps worryingly, I found it quite easy to create multiple personalities. At times the characters clamoured and shouted and I could hardly keep up; at other times I had to prise their tales from them, but their voices were always quite distinct. Some of the characters, Lily especially, arrived at the front of my mind almost fully-formed. It was as though she always existed in my imagination but I hadn’t noticed her before. I think because of the almost truncated, elliptical nature of each chapter and the gradual building of a wider story through a series of asides punctuating the individual stories that I was able more fully to concentrate on the characters’ voices than I might have been if using a more direct structure. I wanted to create an impression of a place and time through the thoughts of the people living there and to look at the routes we take to arrive at conclusions about ourselves and the world around us.

Colm Tóibín: Did you hesitate before writing the book, for fear of upsetting devout Christians?

No. Maybe I should have. But I was too worried about getting the tone of the book right.