Damon Galgut's Booker Prize year: 'It's been like a literary festival that never ends'

From a global promotional tour to reconnecting with long-lost friends, the author of The Promise explains how winning the Booker Prize in 2021 changed his life 

Written by Sam Leith

Publication date and time: Published

Damon Galgut is all over the place. Literally.  

‘I left South Africa, I think, on the 10th of – where are we now? – August,’ he says, his face over Zoom creasing slightly with the effort of remembering where he’s been. ‘I’ll only be back in the middle of November. I’ve been to Edinburgh, Berlin, Basel, Cologne, Brussels, Oslo, Stockholm. I’m now in Gothenburg, and I’m going to Spain tomorrow. And then I’ll be back in the UK for a month, and then to Greece and Holland and Belgium again before I go home to Cape Town.’  

In short, since he won the Booker Prize last year for his ninth novel, The Promise, the 58-year-old South African has seen the inside of a lot of hotel rooms. That’s the Booker effect. 

The prize first impinged on his consciousness in his 20s. ‘I have no idea how they have built the Booker brand into quite what it is, but even in South Africa it’s a prize that has enormous cachet, and a lot of noise around it. Because I was a writer, one sort of takes notice.’  

Now, he has won it – and is considerably richer, much more famous and a great deal more tired than he was this time last year. 

Galgut had been shortlisted twice previously – for The Good Doctor in 2003 and In a Strange Room in 2010 – so was familiar with some of what comes with the territory. He’d been aware of the good – ‘my first listing was thrilling and very beneficial to book sales’ - and the not so good: his first prize night ‘threw me quite badly… left me feeling vacant, and probably quite depressed, actually’. 

His third Booker ceremony, held during the Covid pandemic, was easier for being a stripped-down affair at a BBC theatre. ‘The actual ceremony was very sparsely attended. That was helpful because what’s truly overwhelming and terrifying for a lot of writers is the big gala fanfare that goes with the dinner. So, it was not as conducive to self-consciousness as the other two occasions.’  

Plus, of course, he won.  

This had been the first time that he’d thought he was seriously in with a chance: ‘I didn’t think In a Strange Room was the sort of book that was going to win the Booker.’ With The Promise, did he think he’d written a Bookery sort of novel? ‘Yes, I did have that feeling. The political and historical currents seemed to be flowing in the same direction as my book - when you think about Black Lives Matter and so on. But also, the book had got an unexpectedly generous reception, critically.’ Nevertheless, ‘for reasons of self-defence’, he had persuaded himself that the prize would go elsewhere. 

Damon Galgut hears the winning announcement 2021

It’s pleasant to be taken seriously by people who would find it easy to overlook you in the past. And it’s pleasant to take oneself a little more seriously

What he couldn’t have been prepared for was what came after. Arriving at his victory party in London’s Groucho Club that night, he says, ‘was the first and last time in my life I’ve felt like a rock star’. But the Ghost of Booker Past, in the shape of the previous year’s winner, Douglas Stuart, was on hand. ‘We didn’t really have a chance to speak,’ Galgut recalls, ‘but the only thing he said to me was: “I hope you know what’s coming.”’ 

He woke up the next morning to two days of back-to-back interviews – ‘absolutely exhausting’ for a Booker winner not yet into his promotional stride – and says he kept ‘a similar schedule for quite a lot of the year that followed’. It gets easier, but ‘it’s really like a literary festival that never ends’. 

‘What I really didn’t anticipate was how many non-literary conversations it brings down on you, because absolutely everyone you’ve ever met in your life suddenly feels a pressing need to get together with you. People you haven’t seen in decades want to have lunch. You get emails from somebody you met in an elevator 40 years ago.’  

Galgut, however, is not complaining. As he acknowledges, riding the Booker wave to promote his book is voluntary. ‘The more publicity you do, the more copies you sell. So, part of me is invested in trying to create what might turn out to be my pension. Still, it’s been a thrilling, very intense year.’  

But getting back to the writing will be welcome. At the time of his win, Galgut was under contract to deliver a collection of short stories. That went by the board. ‘In the beginning, I hoped I could keep my own work going and do this as well,’ he says. ‘Then I accepted that that just wasn’t going to be possible. I took a decision that I would give over this year to the Booker and hopefully reclaim my life when the next Booker monarch is crowned.’  

When all the hoopla dies down, though, and he returns to his desk, there’ll be something that lasts from the prize beyond sales. ‘It’s pleasant to be taken seriously by people who would find it easy to overlook you in the past. And it’s pleasant to take oneself a little more seriously. I’ve yet to discover what it’s going to do to the writing itself.’ 

Last year’s winner, Douglas Stuart presents the award to this year's winner Damon Galgut