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Man Booker Prize 2011 longlist: Jane Rogers interview

Man Booker Prize 2011 longlist: Jane Rogers interview

MBP: Congratulations on being longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Can you tell us a bit about where you were when you heard the news and how you reacted?

JR: I'd been gardening, with my mobile out of earshot, and didn't look at it until I was out in the street. 6 messages and 5 missed calls! When my agent's assistant told me I was on the longlist I asked her how long the list was, and understood her to reply '30.' It was only after some excitement at her end that I realised she was saying '13,' at which point I had to sit down.

MBP: The Testament of Jessie Lamb is set in the (near) future - how did you envisage this world altered by an act of biological terrorism?

JR: I read quite a few future-scenario factual books, looking at potential areas of threat and disaster. I wanted something which would very specifically create a role for young women, I wanted a young female who could be heroic. I come from a family of scientists, and have two siblings in particular who specialise in women's reproductive health and ethics, so I was able to run my ideas past them repeatedly, and my brother provided me with a scientifically plausible potential biological threat. I should credit him with the genesis of the MDS virus, which would actually work in the way I describe, but I must confess I have simplified the science somewhat, in the interests of making the book readable!

MBP: The futuristic world created in The Testament of Jessie Lamb covers some very contemporary issues such as genetic research and anti-vivisection. Did you want to explore the complexities of these debates within your novel?

JR: No, that was not my purpose in writing the book. I was interested in exploring the relationship between a teenage girl at the point of independence, and her protective parents. The relationship mirrors that between Iphigenia and her parents in Euripides' play: I chose to set it in the future because I wanted the girl's decision to take up an heroic role, to be something the reader would not feel she/he already had an opinion about.

Originally, I had thought of making Jessie a suicide-bomber, in order to explore her parents' responses and the way the balance of power changed in that relationship. But I decided that readers might be sidetracked by the politics, and might judge Jessie's behaviour as right or wrong depending on whether they agreed with her cause. By setting the novel in the future, I could avoid readers pre-judging her, and hopefully, avoid issues of ‘right' and ‘wrong'.

Once I started to think about the way young people might respond to a biological disaster, it seemed to me to chime in very much with the way many people feel about the world now, that is to say, that a wholesale rejection of our previous exploitative way of living on this planet is necessary. The introduction of the young people's attitudes to genetic research and vivisection is part of this rejection of the older generation's world.

MBP: In the lead up to the longlist announcement there was a lot of debate on twitter from Sci Fi fans saying they wished the genre was better represented on the Man Booker Prize longlists. Would you see your novel as fitting into the category?

JR: It is mainstream fiction, I hope, but I would be proud to have it described as science fiction in the mould of 1960's new wave sci fi, with its interest in inner space as opposed to outer space. I also love earlier dystopias like Brave New World, and am a passionate fan of John Wyndham. I'll be adapting his The Chrysalids for radio later this year. I would be very pleased if anyone thought of Jessie Lamb in a bracket with his work. Would you define Atwood's Oryx and Crake as Sci Fi? Or Kazuo Ishigoro's brilliant Never Let Me Go? You can argue about labels for books, and I guess this one will appeal to some Sci Fi fans and not to others. But I do believe that the future, or alternative worlds, are great arenas for exploring big ideas, and putting characters through testing experiences.

MBP: You're a prolific writer - novels, television and radio dramas, adaptations. Is there a writing discipline that comes most naturally to you? Do you approach each type of writing project with a different hat on?

JR: I love writing prose above all. I see myself primarily as a novelist, although I have become passionate about the short story over the past couple of years. I like writing for radio because it has the intimacy of a novel, and the interior voice works so well in the medium.

MBP: The Testament of Jessie Lamb feels like it would transfer easily to the big screen. Has the novel been optioned already for film?

JR: It has already been optioned for TV, by the film company RED, I am very happy to say. I think it will transfer extremely well to the small screen.

Jane Rogers, shot for The Man Booker Prize
Jane Rogers, shot for The Man Booker Prize