You are here

One voice at a time

One voice at a time

How writers go about their business is always fascinating to outsiders. Some novelists have walls covered with Post-it notes each with a different plot detail, others draw an elaborate family tree linking characters to the narrative, while some go freestyle – writing as things take them and trusting to the muses to help to tie it all together later. Guy Gunaratne, however, had a novel method when writing his Man Booker longlisted In Our Mad and Furious City. It is a many-peopled book so Gunaratne decided the best process “was really just writing each character consecutively, in full, and then threading them together against a thematic arc. I wrote each in full because I was mindful of consistency. I wanted to be listening to only one voice at any one time during the writing.” It is a method more akin to cinema that novel-writing, where directors shoot a series of scenes of one actor that can then be used anywhere in the beginning, middle or end of the film. “Blending them together afterward,” says Gunaratne, “was more a case of making sure the peaks of the narratives aligned.” He makes it sound so easy.


Esi Edugyan, author of the longlisted Washington Black – the story of a black slave and his white master – recently gave a vivid example about why she chose to write a novel about slavery. “When I was researching Washington Black,” she said, “I read historical accounts of people who would come to the plantations in the Caribbean – visitors coming for a nice warm-weather holiday from England – and would sit down for dinner and then hear screaming coming from outside and just be shocked and horrified. But the people who had been living on the plantation for years would just be casually eating – it’s just part of the landscape, like birdsong or something.” The reason to return to such a difficult and emotional subject as slavery is, she says, that “everybody has the capacity within them to be hardened against human suffering. And that’s something that we have to guard against.”


Literary festivals are dominated by “in conversation” events – an author and questioner on stage chewing the fat. A new initiative, however, plans to shake things up. Story Machines Productions, run by a Norwich publisher, Sam Ruddock, will use actors, musicians, filmmakers, dancers and artists to bring books to life off the page while remaining “100 per cent” faithful to the text. This new way of presenting books is supported by, among others, the Booker Prize Foundation. Story Machine Productions' first performance will be in honour of the double Man Booker winner J.M. Coetzee's Life & Times of Michael K at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on 15 August.


A piece about the Man Booker prize in Cherwell, the independent student magazine of Oxford University, shows that some Man Booker myths remain deep-rooted. “That the prize resembles a lottery in many ways seems almost inevitable when taking into account the selection process,” says the writer. “Starting with an advisory committee, which usually consists of a writer, two publishers, a literary agent and a bookseller, amongst others, there is already a hint that, as the UK publishing industry sets out to benefit from the prize, the prize is not solely concerned with identifying the ‘best’ book, but also the most marketable.”


What the author of the piece might not realise is that the advisory panel in fact consists of 15 people who together “represent all aspects of the book world”. The selling of books is only one aspect and logic would suggest that publishers, agents and booksellers are indeed the very types to see a wide selection of fiction on a daily basis. Most importantly, the advisory committee has no say as to which books the judges choose, and the judges who do make those decisions are selected for their critical expertise.