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Enchanting and enchanted

Enchanting and enchanted

Hilary Mantel may not have made it on to this year’s shortlist but that doesn’t seem to have put off her legion of highbrow fans. A roster of fellow writers lined up recently to ask her questions to celebrate the publication of her collection of essays, Mantel Pieces. The playwright David Hare, for example, asked if Dame Hilary’s hometown of Budleigh Salterton was as enchanting as it seems: “We are enchanting and enchanted. We are blessed by fresh air and sea foam. We have palm trees. We fish by moonlight. . .”, she answered. “Our clothes quilted and khaki/sludge, but our souls are wearing silk.” Sarah Waters (who Mantel beat to the 2009 Booker Prize) wanted to know if the thought of sitting down to a day’s writing made her want to run screaming in the opposite direction, and was told: “I haven’t the energy for running and screaming but often I want to lie and groan under a tarpaulin.” And the playwright Roy Williams asked what she wishes she’d known at the start of her career: “That being a novelist is no fun. . . Then again, fun isn’t high on my list; it’s more of a self-respect agenda.” The Booker prize omission doesn’t seem to have affected the great dame’s sense of humour.

Here’s an unexpected pairing. Bernardine Evaristo, more used to being the interviewee since her Booker Prize win, is turning interviewer. Her subject is somewhat unexpected though – Dawn French. The comedian has a novel out, Because of You, and that’s excuse enough for the chat. The pair will be talking at the Royal Festival Hall on 19 October and their conversation will later be streamed. How did it come about? It seems the pair have something of a love-in: (Evaristo on French) “I’ve been a huge fan of hers since the 90s and she is so essential to British culture. Her writing is incredibly lively, passionate and compassionate”. (French on Evaristo) “I fangirled over Bernardine years ago when I read the fantastic Mr. Loverman. She’s such a force, I can’t wait.” Both principals seem a bit dazed that the event is happening.

Sarah Hall has the Booker Prize in her DNA. She has twice been nominated as a novelist (in 2004 and 2009) and was a judge in 2017. So, with her pedigree, it is no surprise that she has just become the first author to win the BBC National Short Story Award for the second time. Her tale, “The Grotesques”, scooped the £15,000 prize and, set in a university town, treats the themes of privilege, inequality and mother-daughter relationships; it can be read in full here. Her recipe for a short story? “I like reading stories that give you a huge wallop, one you don’t see on the surface. I don’t like squibs.”