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Man Booker Prize 2011 longlist: Yvvette Edwards interview

Man Booker Prize 2011 longlist: Yvvette Edwards interview

MBP: Was it always your ambition to be a writer?

YE: I have always written. My two equal passions are reading and writing, always have been. I don't think I ever thought that writing for a living was realistic or achievable, but it has always been a dream and a hobby. I lacked the confidence and self-discipline to see any of my earlier projects through to the completed, edited end. In addition I've always worked full time, so I never really had the time to have a serious go at making a career of it.

MBP: What was the turning point that encouraged you turn this dream into a reality?

YE: It was probably my 39th birthday. That was definitely the most reflective year of my life. Suddenly I became aware that I might have arrived at the halfway point in my life, or even, unbeknown, passed it. I wondered that year about the dreams I'd had since childhood, and recognised that if they continued to remain unfulfilled for much longer, I might pretty much just as well accept they were never going to happen. I went on that year to have what has been the only truly 'selfish' year of my life. I worked two days a week and wrote on the others. I left the laundry and the cooking and the cleaning, ignored my phone and wrote till my novel was finished.

MBP: Do you have an ideal writing environment?

YE: I'm not that precious about the environment I write in. I often write on a laptop, so I end up wherever I fancy on that particular day, sometimes in the garden in the summer, or in my bedroom in the winter. But I do need to be comfortable. I like quiet and zero interruptions, (which is a virtual non-starter if there are children in the house!). My most creative hours are probably nine til one. After lunch I do other things, like editing, or supermarket shopping lists.

MBP: How did the idea for A Cupboard Full of Coats come about?

YE: The seed was sown decades ago when someone I know, who had extricated themselves from an especially difficult relationship, showed me a newspaper article in which their former partner had been convicted for the murder of his next girlfriend. I have serious difficulty letting go of things that trouble me, or actions I don't understand. Why people are motivated to act in particular ways is a kind of nerdy obsession I dwell on, even small things, and this was a biggie. Eventually, I knew it would work it's way into my writing. But straightforward domestic violence wasn't a meaty enough plot. Over time, other characters sprung up in my mind, who were more complicated and interesting, who had stories and motives of their own to contribute to the mix. Then, one day, suddenly, I had a novel in my head that was ready to be delivered.

MBP: Are any of your characters based on people you know?

YE: No, but the character who bears the strongest resemblance to anyone I know is Lemon. He has many of my late grandfather's attributes. My grandfather was a great teller of stories. He could have you in fits of laughter, or shock you to an extent that it was impossible to speak. Sadly, he died about seven years ago. I think he would have recognised some of his traits in Lemon, and though he would never have admitted it, he would probably have been quite chuffed.

MBP: How did you feel when your agent pointed out that there are no white characters in your book?

YE: I have to confess I was shocked. Her observation was entirely correct. Somehow though, till it was pointed out, I had failed to notice it. My characters are like me and my family: black British. It was so natural to craft characters I identified with when writing, that I never gave the matter even the first thought. I love reading books and I strove to write the type of book I enjoy, one that transcends colour, culture and class, that is accessible and explores issues that affect everyone. I hope readers will recognise that my book is about people, not black or white ones, just the organic human kind.

MBP: With which character do you most sympathise in A Cupboard Full of Coats?

YE: Funnily enough, I come down on the side of the women; Jinx, her mother and Lemon's wife, Mavis. Each of their lives has been relegated to the realm of ‘making do', salvaging what they can from the rubble left over. I think many women's lives are like that, their personal desires left to idle, while everything else, the children, the men, the daily demands of life, come first.

MBP: What do your family think of the fact you've been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize?

YE: They are absolutely delighted. Everyone is really pleased. And proud. My mother has been talking about my novel since the first draft in the same sentences in which she mentions Shakespeare! Particularly, Othello. She's probably the British citizen least surprised by my nomination. My husband has overnight become a Booker Prize process guru. My eldest daughter finally accepts there may be something 'cool' about me. I've had jokes about my sudden 'celebrity' status from my stepson. My youngest daughters could only have been more impressed if my nomination had been given to Jacqueline Wilson!

MBP: Which nominees do you most admire?

YE: I have enormous respect for all the nominees and their books. I went on holiday about 12 hours after the longlist was announced, which has, unfortunately, delayed the start of my Man Booker Longlist Reading Marathon. But I expect to have read them all by 6th September.

Yvvette Edwards, shot for The Man Booker Prize
Yvvette Edwards, shot for The Man Booker Prize