Everything you need to know about Prophet Song, winner of the Booker Prize 2023
As Paul Lynch becomes the fifth Irish writer to win the Booker Prize, here’s the lowdown on his winning novel, Prophet Song
Juliet Mabey’s independent publishing company Oneworld now boasts a hat-trick of Booker wins. We asked what she looks for in a novel, and what’s in store for Paul Lynch
Prophet Song marks a hat-trick of Booker Prize wins for Oneworld and for you personally, after Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings and Paul Beatty’s The Sellout. Many people will be asking ‘What’s her secret? How does she do it?’ How would you answer that?
Literary prizes have been described as ‘posh bingo’, and obviously there is a huge amount of luck involved. I think I’ve been very lucky that on three occasions, my taste has coincided with the taste of the Booker judges. I’m also very lucky that, as the co-publisher of an independent, I can publish the books I am passionate about, and don’t have to justify my choices to a corporate board with sales and marketing concerns at the front of their minds. It gives me the sort of creative freedom a lot of editors would love to have.
Does it feel different, winning the Booker for the third time, compared to your other two triumphs?
The first two wins were obviously a huge surprise. In both cases there was a very strong favourite from another publisher, so we went into the promotional week of activities feeling incredibly privileged to be on the shortlist, free to enjoy the experience, the camaraderie and the wonderful dinner in the Guildhall without any expectations. This year some of the bookies had Prophet Song as joint favourite and, even though they are seldom right, it definitely increased the tension.
You founded Oneworld in 1986, with your husband Novin Doostdar. What led you to set up a publishing house, and what were you doing before that?
My husband and I set up Oneworld soon after university, with the mission to encourage academics and experts to write for the general reader. There was no internet in those days, and we wanted to help make ideas and information more accessible, while also bringing an international approach to the authors we publish and the issues we explore, hence the name of the company. I had just had two children, so was very much a stay-at-home mum, but this is something we had talked of doing while still students at Edinburgh University.
You only began publishing fiction in 2009, starting with Marlon James’ The Book of Night Women. What made you want to expand beyond non-fiction?
In the early 2000s I read so many novels that I would have loved to publish if we had had a fiction list. I’m thinking of novels like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus and Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, and most of the novels in the first year of Richard & Judy’s TV book club, like Monica Ali’s Brick Lane and William Dalrymple’s White Mughals, which I absolutely loved. So I began to think that if I could find novels like these, they would fit well with the international approach we bring to our non-fiction at Oneworld, and give us the opportunity to champion underrepresented voices. After some hesitation, I took the leap at the Frankfurt Book Fair in October 2008 and began telling agents what I was looking for. The first agent to respond was Claire Roberts at Trident Media, who said, I think I have just the novel for you. It was Marlon James’ The Book of Night Women, which I published in the autumn of 2009.
What do you look for in your fiction acquisitions? Can you spot a novel with prize potential at an early stage?
I have quite an eclectic taste – I studied Social Anthropology at university, and love to discover new voices from around the world. I’ve just published a Chinese time-slip novel by Pim Wangtechawat, The Moon Represents My Heart, that is about to become a Netflix series, and a feminist historical pirate novel by Katherine Howe, A True Account, that will be the Radio 2 Book Club pick this month, while last year a standout novel on my list was Tess Gunty’s The Rabbit Hutch, a literary masterpiece set in poverty-stricken urban America that won the Waterstones Debut Fiction Prize and the National Book Award. However, what I generally look for is strong writing, an interesting voice, and a novel that takes me somewhere unexpected, or looks at the world or a particular issue in interesting ways. I have a penchant for novels that have something to say, that speak to readers and move them, and if they are also commercial, and also attract the attention of prize judges, then that is of course wonderful.
You have also published two of Paul Lynch’s other novels – Grace and Beyond the Sea. What initially drew you to him as a writer?
I absolutely fell in love with Grace the minute I started reading it; Paul’s language is lyrical and mesmerising and the story itself is incredibly moving. In Grace Paul explores the metaphysical aspects of the human condition, and he introduces us to the Irish Famine through the eyes of a young girl making her way in the world in extremely challenging circumstances. The Washington Post described reading it as ‘like a hybrid of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road’, both really powerful books that I loved. It went on to win the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year and was shortlisted for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction. Beyond the Sea, Paul’s fourth novel, was a compact, sublime philosophical study of two fishermen marooned far out at sea pushed to the brink, a hallucinatory and immersive read.
As the industry has consolidated with multiple acquisitions, independent publishers have proved themselves both ambitious and nimble in seeking out new authors and breaking new ground
When we asked Paul what it’s like to be published by Oneworld, he said: ‘Juliet continues to publish authors who play to the edges [like good tennis players who play to the edge of the court], whether or not they deliver commercially. Many imprints at the major publishing houses are more risk averse and this is why Oneworld and other exciting indie houses continue to garner acclaim and prizes.’ How would you respond to that?
Obviously I’m not alone in publishing riskier literary fiction, but I do think I have more freedom to follow my tastes and intuition than perhaps I would have if I worked for a corporate house. So I realise I’m in a very privileged position, though of course, if I back the wrong author or book, it is my own money I’m likely to lose, which brings its own pressure to the commissioning process.
What was the editing process like for Prophet Song, and how closely did you work with Paul on the text?
I see the role of editors as more like midwives, with the editor offering a multi-functional support network for the author and – in independent publishers at least – acting as the team leader, championing the book in-house and liaising with all the different departments to ensure their book gets the attention it needs at every step of the way.
For me, at least, the actual editing process involves putting yourself in the position of the reader, trying to ask questions and make suggestions that perhaps they would put forward, but I’m very aware that the book belongs to the author, and it is they who have the creative vision for the novel, and have to make any editorial suggestions work within the whole. The last thing an editor wants is an author who gives up that responsibility and blindly adopts any and every suggestion. Paul has a very mature sense of who he is as a writer and what he wants to say, and of course we’d worked closely together before, so our relationship was very much based on mutual respect and we had some healthy discussions, but I’d be the first to say that Prophet Song needed very little structural input from me.
What did you expect the reception for Prophet Song to be when it was first published? Did you think there was something different about it compared to Paul’s other works? Did you know you had something very special on your hands?
Prophet Song is Paul’s most ambitious novel to date, so having worked on Paul’s previous two novels I was expecting its reception to be even bigger, but obviously winning the Booker Prize represents the pinnacle of achievement for English-language authors, so I couldn’t be more pleased for Paul.
At what point did you think Prophet Song could win the Booker?
I thought it had a chance from the moment it was picked for the longlist. From the judges’ comments it was clear they ‘got’ the novel and what Paul was trying to do with it. However, I’m also very aware that even being selected for the shortlist is no guarantee, and I genuinely felt that any of the brilliant shortlisted novels could win. While some of the bookies picked it as the favourite, that isn’t always a good indication of likely success – in the past many bookies’ favourites have been passed over for a novel that is more under their radar, so to speak. And while online readers gave it a very high rating, some reviewers had their doubts, so I think it was always going to come down to the wire.
Based on your Booker Prize experiences with Marlon James and Paul Beatty, what do you think the future has in store for Paul Lynch?
I think Shehan Karunatilaka gave very good advice to Paul in his speech, which is that Paul is in for a very, very busy year, and is unlikely to have the time or peace of mind to work on his next novel. He has already received multiple festival invitations, including to the Auckland and Sydney Writers’ Festivals next May, and I encouraged him, as I did Marlon and Paul, to take advantage of the opportunities this year will bring, to accept as many as he can, and to really enjoy the experience, tiring though it will inevitably be. In addition, his agent, Simon Trewin, has sold 15 language rights, with three offers in the pipeline and interest from a further nine territories, so Paul will find himself very busy discussing his book with translators from all over the world, and attending launches when the foreign editions are ready for publication. This prize is utterly transformative for authors, and nothing expresses that as much as the sudden surge in interest in foreign rights that Simon has had to deal with, in addition to the ongoing media frenzy.
Oneworld is an independent publisher and a very successful one at that. What role do you think indies play in the industry? Is it harder now than when you started? Or are people more appreciative of what indies can do?
I think as the industry has consolidated with multiple acquisitions, independent publishers have proved themselves both ambitious and nimble in seeking out new authors and breaking new ground. I’m thinking of indies like Profile, whose new Viper imprint has made a huge impact on crime publishing in a few short years, and Fitzcarraldo, which boasts a phenomenal five Nobel Prize for Literature winners. Often fielding lower overheads, they can sometimes take risks that corporates perhaps avoid. I don’t think it is harder today, but I do wish I knew in the Eighties and Nineties what I know now. I think we could have done some of the things we are doing today much earlier!
And finally, what’s next for Oneworld?
We have never been ambitious to grow larger, or to acquire other lists or publishers, but we have always been ambitious to learn more and to publish better, and that ambition drives us today.