Read the Booker Prize 2023 longlist: an extract from Pearl by Siân Hughes
Siân Hughes contemplates both the power and the fragility of the human mind in her haunting debut novel, which was inspired by the medieval poem of the same name
With Pearl longlisted for the Booker Prize 2023, we spoke to Siân Hughes about her lifelong obsession, and how the book is rooted in her home village
Read interviews with all of the longlisted authors here.
How does it feel to be nominated for the Booker Prize 2023 and what would winning the prize mean to you?
Every time someone tells me they have read my book I feel moved that they have given it their time and attention, and that is the first thing that I thought when I heard the judges had selected my novel to be on the longlist. I thought, thank you for taking the time to read my book and think about it. Thank you for seeing something good in it. It makes me very glad I managed to write it, and very grateful to all the people who had faith in it to turn it into a book.
Being on the Booker longlist is the ultimate acceptance into the world of novels, a world that has kept me company all my life, and where I have had hours and hours of pleasure. I am so happy to be a part of it, and to be taken seriously within that world. I have always believed in this book. I have spent most of my life trying to write it, and learning the craft of writing in the process. When I read reviews from book lovers online and in the Times and the TLS saying the project was finally successful, I feel really grateful that they gave it their time and attention, and so pleased that I persisted with creating it. I hope that I can now move on to finish writing the sequel, and that those readers will want to find out what happens next to the characters.
In my poetry as well as in this novel I try not to shy away from difficult subjects, to open taboos and be honest about shameful feelings. When I teach creative writing I always tell my students to be as open as they can be with the page, to allow the writing into the darkest corners, and that this will not make the poem or story miserable, only shed light on the human heart. I hope that people reading the book will feel it is possible to talk openly about some of its more troubling subject matter – about the loss of children and of parents, about feeling unable to go on with life, about post-partum and other mental illness, about the loss of a home.
As for what happens next, I am trying to enjoy each part of the process, and not try to guess what might happen next in case that spoils the fun!
I suppose in retrospect I could say that writing the book kept me sane, but at the time it didn’t feel that way. Perhaps even the opposite
How long did it take to write Pearl, and what does your writing process look like? Do you type or write in longhand? Are there multiple drafts, long pauses, or sudden bursts of activity? Is there a significant amount of research and plotting before you begin writing?
Okay, well this is embarrassing. I first invented the characters as a teenager, then I became obsessed with the Medieval poem ‘Pearl’ and with trying to write about the death by drowning of a good friend. I wrote the entire book in long-hand first. Or the first version. I have written more versions – all totally different with different narrators and with timelines varying from 24 hours to 32 years – than I am going to admit. All I can say is, I don’t exactly recommend this method of lifelong obsession, but this was the project that would not leave me alone. I felt it was mine, somehow, that it belonged where I belonged, and that my relationship with it defined me as a person.
Where exactly do you write? What does your working space look like?
I don’t have a desk, let alone a room. I wrote most of the book sitting up in bed with my young son asleep on the other half of the mattress, keeping the light on low so as not to wake him and staying up so late I was absolutely useless in the morning.
What is it about the medieval poem ‘Pearl’ that resonated with you?
For as long as I have tried to write this book it has been a response to the poem, so much that I cannot remember how the two first became entangled. I love the poem. It might be the most perfectly complex and yet emotionally direct and simple poem every written. I realised that my story and the story of ‘Pearl’ both had a parent and child separated by a river of death and trying to communicate with each other, and that although the poem promises consolation in the form of religious teaching, the narrator does not feel consoled, in fact he remains despairing. What fascinated me about the poem was this interplay between raw emotion and the cage of intricate stanzas in which it is expressed.
Several novels on this year’s Booker longlist concern characters overcoming grief or a traumatic experience, often by turning their experiences into something positive or creative. To what extent was writing Pearl a way of processing difficult situations in your own life?
I suppose in retrospect I could say that writing the book kept me sane, but at the time it didn’t feel that way. Perhaps even the opposite. I suspect that if a writer understood how their writing was processing parts of their own lives, they would lose interest in it pretty quickly. It only makes sense in that way later. Much later.
One of the books on last year’s shortlist, Treacle Walker by Alan Garner, is rooted in rural Cheshire. The poem ‘Pearl’ was written in a Cheshire dialect too. Do you see yourself as a Cheshire writer, and how much is your writing inspired by a sense of place or home?
I feel very strongly that I have a home village, a place I come from, and a place whose stories and traditions are therefore my myths. When I talk to people my age from Ireland or Spain they speak in a similar way about a particular place, where their grandparents or family are from, even if they live somewhere else. Not many people in England do that. I have always felt I was particularly privileged to have that experience, to have that sense of rootedness where a hedgerow is not only a hedgerow but a story and a character and a history too. My story is entirely inspired by the landscape, the buildings, the stories, rituals, superstitions, ancient songs and playground rhymes of my home village of Tilston in Cheshire. When I wrote it, I felt almost as if I was surrendering to my home landscape, and letting it guide me through things I found too complicated to express on my own.
It’s been said that one of the locations in Pearl was inspired by an old house that you used to cycle past every day as a child. What was it about that house that sparked your imagination when you were younger, and why do you think it stayed with you?
The old house was on the road to my boyfriend’s. It was down a boggy overgrown track, and it was made up of several different parts that seemed to be leaning on each other for support. I could not work out how it was holding itself together. I wondered how many different generations had gone into creating it, and enjoyed making up stories about how it came to be the patchwork that it was. When I returned to live in the village decades later I found it had been torn down. There is nothing there now.
You’re one of several poets on the Booker longlist. Do you see any similarities between your own book and the novels by other poets on the list, and how would you say your experience as a poet shaped Pearl?
In my experience, poets all obsess about form. They count everything. They want every word to matter. Every syllable. I think my experience in writing poetry did shape the novel in that I wanted the book to follow a pattern and have visual as well as verbal connections to the poem that inspired it. But in the end I think trying to impose poetic forms and constraints on the book was one of the reasons I struggled to complete it. When I let go of that level of control and let it be itself, it came to life.
Which book or books are you reading at the moment?
I have started reading all the other books on the longlist, as I will have a chance to meet the other writers at the end of September, and I think it would be rude not to have read them. I started with Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ’s as I loved Stay With Me for the way it used an ancient belief in a modern setting. I am also finishing off Laline Paull’s Pod, which is book of the month in my little bookshop’s reading club.
Do you have a favourite Booker-winning or Booker-shortlisted novel and, if so, why?
I absolutely loved Damon Galgut’s The Promise. It broke all the rules about narrative and still worked with a kind of slippery surreal magic as it moved from one person’s viewpoint to another. I loved Shuggie Bain, too. I have a warm affection for Glasgow stories as my wonderful late mother-in-law, Maria Fyfe, was an MP for Maryhill, and I loved her stories of the city.
What are you working on next?
I am writing a sequel to Pearl, with the same narrator Marianne now living on a canal boat in the company of a cat called Jonah who keeps disappearing for three days at a time. It is called Patience, after another poem in the same manuscript as ‘Pearl’. It has another title as well – Great Aunt Hilda’s Floating Eyeball – but if I tell you why it will be a bit of a spoiler and I probably won’t get away with calling it that anyway.