Esi Edugyan talks about a childhood immersed in horror stories - and why she believes there is no such thing as ‘a Booker book’
Esi Edugyan is the internationally bestselling author of Washington Black, which was shortlisted for the 2018 Booker Prize, among others - and won the Scotiabank Giller Prize. Born and raised in Calgary, Alberta, Edugyan is a graduate of Johns Hopkins University and the University of Victoria, where she now lives. She has held fellowships in the US, Scotland, Iceland, Germany, Hungary, Finland, Spain, and Belgium, and judged prizes including the Giller Prize with Margaret Atwood and Jonathan Lethem.
Why do you think the Booker Prize matters and what’s special about it? What sets it apart from other literary awards, and how does the impact of the prize differ from, say, traditional book reviews or social media recommendations?
I think the Booker directs our reading in a way that differs hugely from, for example, a curated table in a bookstore or online recommendations. Every prize has its own intricate process. Perhaps uniquely, the Booker jurists are not all fiction writers but astute readers from across many fields – esteemed actors, scholars, poets, et cetera. This broadness of perspectives, along with the vast geographical reach of the submissions, give the prize its particular texture. You feel you are reading the best of world literature.
Tell us about your reading habits under normal circumstances. What type of books are you usually drawn to for pleasure?
My reading preferences pretty much mirror my reading for the prize – literary fiction – the volume of course being much different! I also adore narrative nonfiction.
Tell us about your path to becoming a reader. What did you read as a child? Was there a book or author that made you fall in love with reading or that has stayed with you for many years?
Every Saturday morning, my father would load me and my siblings into our ramshackle Impala and drive us to the Shaganappi branch of our public library. We were allowed to borrow anything we liked. Invariably, I would emerge into the bright afternoons with a stack of books I could never hope to finish, many from sections beyond the kids’ aisles (all those lost afternoons reading Dean Koontz and V.C. Andrews!). I read a lot of horror novels, but I also read Elizabeth Levy, L. M. Montgomery, Carolyn Keene, Judy Bloom, Betty Ren Wright, and Ann M. Martin.
What the judging experience has really given me is a larger sense of our era of fiction, its collective concerns, what is haunting us now, what matters
Tell us about one of your favourite Booker Prize-nominated books from previous years, and why you like it.
How impossible to choose just one! I distinctly remember reading V. S. Naipaul’s In a Free State, and having such a visceral reaction to it. It is a work of great brutality, giving an unvarnished view onto lives corroded by inequity, humiliation, the long shadow of colonialism. His characters are living out the pain of history with a viciousness that is almost too unbearable to read. For this reason, too, I was also deeply struck by J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace.
Judges of the Booker Prizes have to read several books multiple times. Away from this year’s prize, is there a book that you’ve re-read more than any other and, if so, what makes you keep returning to it?
Every phase of life has a book that speaks to it. The books I’ve returned to have necessarily changed across the years. As a teenager, I loved The Catcher in the Rye. In my twenties I used to read Crime and Punishment every fall, at the turning of the weather – it was a compulsion, a comfort. Also Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, and Morrison’s Beloved. My thirties seemed to lack a defining work as I inhaled everything. My forties are haunted by Shirley Hazzard.
What are you particularly looking forward to or already enjoying about the process of judging the Booker Prize, and is there anything that’s surprised you so far?
I am hugely enjoying the discussions we’re having – the warm, collegiate atmosphere of the judging panel, the insightful and considered readings of the books. We’re having a wonderful time. The surprises are what one might expect – books that shock you into loving them, books that aren’t what you imagine they will be. It’s a process of being surprised and surprised afresh.
What are you hoping to find in selecting books for the Booker Prize longlist? Are there certain qualities or attributes that you’re looking for?
The thing about the Booker – which I think its past shortlists and winners exemplify – is that there’s no such thing as a ‘Booker book’. There’s no particular set of attributes that define it. It can be anything.
Has the experience of judging the Booker Prize changed the way you think about the act of writing fiction, or the way readers engage with it? Has it changed the way you read personally?
In judging the prize, you acknowledge that you’ve been given an opportunity to direct a large number of readers towards books that are fully deserving of attention but that, in some cases, might have been overlooked. And that feels both thrilling and like an enormous responsibility.
Has it changed the way I write? Only in the sense that I have less time for it because of all the reading! What the judging experience has really given me is a larger sense of our era of fiction, its collective concerns, what is haunting us now, what matters. These novels are a portrait of this moment.
There are over 600 books in the Booker Library, the archive of titles that have been longlisted or shortlisted for our prizes over the past 54 years. Is it possible to say that there are common characteristics that unite them all? In other words, what makes a Booker book a Booker book?
What makes a book a Booker book is excellence.