The author of Washington Black talks to us about the tireless research she conducted for the novel, her passion for the classics – and why she’ll always return to The Catcher in the Rye 

Publication date and time: Published

Tell us about a book that you loved as a child. What was it about this book that captured your imagination, and has it stayed with you?

I was 11 or 12 when I read Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, and I grew obsessed with its world-weary voice, the breeziness of Holden Caulfield’s misanthropy and – for me, as a girl from a prairie city – its unvarnished glimpse into the lives of glamorous, troubled New Yorkers. It became a kind of comfort read for me, something to pick up and put down in moments of uncertainty, its prickliness familiar as an acerbic friend.

Was there a book that defined your teenage years or early adulthood? In what ways did it shape you, or your worldview?

I came to Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina dutifully, in my final year of graduate school – feeling I should have read more of what we called the Classics then. But very soon its astonishing, mottled human landscape drew me in. I loved Stiva’s rather charming lack of remorse, the slow erosion of Anna’s emotional centre, Levin’s inability to break out of his conservative shell and act with ease. These were not characters on a page, but people. I revelled in the explosion of life.

Tell us about a book that made you want to become a writer. How did it inspire you to embark on your own creative journey, and how did it influence your writing style or aspirations as an author?

When I was an undergraduate student, a professor gave me her personal copy of Toni Morrison’s Beloved. It wasn’t on the course syllabus, but she just had a feeling I might enjoy it. I remember setting it aside that first night, embarrassed by the declarations of love scrawled on the inner front cover by an apparent old flame of hers. But the next morning, I found myself settling down with it over a cup of green tea, and being carried away. How could Morrison write like this, how could she sustain such exacting poetry across hundreds of pages? The book was a revelation. She remains for me a master, an example to fumble after.

Which book you are currently reading, and what made you pick it up?

I’m reading an amazing memoir by a writer who is new to me: The Leaving Season by Kelly McMasters. For Spring Break my family travelled down to Oregon, where we landed, predictably, at the gargantuan Powell’s Books. I’m not sure exactly how, but I ended up with this jewel of a book in my basket. Sampling some pages, I was immediately taken by its precise, arresting writing.

Esi Edugyan

How could she sustain such exacting poetry across hundreds of pages? The book was a revelation.

Is there a particular book that you return to time and time again, and if so why? Do you find different things to love about it each time you revisit it?

During my teen years, I returned endlessly to The Catcher in the Rye; my twenties were all Tolstoy and Dostoevsky and Toni Morrison and W.G. Sebald and Halldor Laxness and George Eliot and Michael Ondaatje; my thirties were Gitta Sereny and Janet Malcolm and Cormac McCarthy and more Toni Morrison; my forties have been about reaching for everything. I’ve been nourished by the brilliance of Elena Ferrante and Shirley Hazzard and Ta-Nehisi Coates and etc, etc.

Is there a book you wish you had written yourself? What aspects of this particular work, and its author, do you admire most?

I have so much admiration for Elena Ferrante’s elegant Neapolitan Quartet, which I inhaled in one furious breath a few years ago. It hit every register – earthy and stately, harrowing and slyly funny. A staggering achievement that makes it hard to read anything else for weeks afterward.

What would you consider your all-time favourite book? How has it left a lasting impression on you?

Impossible to choose a single work!

Your novel Washington Black, a work of historical fiction set during the final years of slavery in Barbados, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2018. Where did you draw your inspiration and references from? Were there any particular accounts from the time – or other works of fiction – you used for research?

Washington Black came out of a strange confluence of interests – a fascination with a Victorian-era criminal trial centering around the disappearance and supposed resurrection of the wealthy scion Roger Tichborne; an interest in 19th-century scientific conventions, especially the cataloguing and depiction of marine creatures; the realities of plantation life in Barbados; the classic bildungsroman journey from innocence to experience. The research could have gone on forever – looking at old documents online and in libraries, reading memoirs and histories and scientific treatises and the novels of Jules Verne. And of course, returning to Morrison’s Beloved.

The Story of the Lost Child

You were the Chair of the Booker Prize judging panel last year. To what extent has that experience changed you as a reader, and what could other readers (the rest of us!) learn from the way Booker judges read and engage with fiction?

My fellow judges and I read over 160 works in less than a year! It was a real privilege to be asked to Chair, fascinating to see how the concerns of our age are being grappled with by some of the finest novelists publishing in English. To get to discuss these works in-depth with other critical readers was especially great, as everyone came at things with a different sense of what the novel can and should be doing. I think we all emerged from it with an appreciation for how far a novel can be stretched, but also about its possible limits, and what ultimately makes for an exquisite work of art. As a writer, I took away thoughts on craft in general, but on structure in particular – thoughts on beginnings, endings, narrative connections. As a reader, I was left encouraged by the health of the novel!

Lastly, is there a hidden gem from the Booker Library – an underappreciated title from among the 600+ books that have been nominated for the Booker and International Booker Prizes over the past half-century – that you would recommend to others, and if so why?

Javier Cercas’ genre-bending The Imposter was an enthralling read from start to finish. I deeply admired Damon Galgut’s In A Strange Room. And Mordecai Richler’s St Urbain’s Horsemen and Alice Munro’s The Beggar Maid are Canadian classics. These books delighted and stayed with me.

The Impostor