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When it’s time to stop writing, don’t

When it’s time to stop writing, don’t

Elizabeth Strout’s success, with, among other things, her Pulitzer-winning Olive Kitteridge and now a Man Booker longlisting for My Name is Lucy Barton, is also a validation. Strout was not an overnight success as a novelist. In fact, far from it. ‘I remember Raymond Carver said that he kept going long after it made sense to stop,’ she told an interviewer recently, ‘and I remember, I did the math at some point, and he had had success way before I did. And I thought, wow, I’m really outpacing Carver here! . . . But yes, I just kept going . . . I was always, always trying to get it right.’  It took her 35 years to get it right she reckons: ‘it’s not like it was overnight. It was a very long overnight!’ For the record, Raymond Carver was never Man Booker longlisted.


Being a late starter was not something J.M. Coetzee had to worry about. Continuing to write at 76 is something that seems to concern others though. When noting Coetzee’s presence on the Man Booker longlist, the Economist made some play with his age, pointing out that he is 20 years older than any of the other novelists on the list. A little ungallant one might think, but then the writer went on to look at Coetzee’s own comments about the three ages of novelists: ‘In the first you find, or pose for yourself, a great question. In the second you labour away at answering it. And then, if you live long enough, you come to a third stage, when the aforesaid great question begins to bore you, and you need to look elsewhere.’ Coetzee’s ‘great question’ had been man’s capacity for cruelty and the future of his native South Africa and he had treated it in many books, most notably the Man Booker winning Disgrace. Now though he has come out the other side and The Schooldays of Jesus is the result.


Graeme Macrae Burnet, longlisted for his murder tale His Bloody Project, found the nitty-gritty of writing more than enough to take his mind off questions of age. He has confessed that for his story set in remote 19th-century Scotland, ‘the hardest thing to research and the most important to get right, was the real minutia of how people lived then. The small details of what they ate, what they wore – the real day to day intricacies.’ He turned for answers to I.F. Grant’s Highland Folk Ways and the writing of James Bruce Thomson who was, at the time of the story, General Surgeon at Perth Prison, then the place where the criminally insane were sent. If such grim reading doesn’t age him, nothing will.


For an instance of Man Booker bizarreness, it would be hard to top the news that Michael Ondaatje, who shared the prize with the late, great Barry Unsworth in 1992 with The English Patient, has had a spider named after him. Brignolia ondaatjei is a reddish-brown colour and around 2mm in length. ‘I thought a small creek would be enough to have my name attached to or a lane,’ said the delighted author. ‘But I am happy with the Brignolia ondaatjei with its dorsal scutum strongly sclerotized. Now the fear is that they might become extinct.’


Ottessa Moshfegh and David Szalay might be in for a nervous October. Both are on the Man Booker longlist and could make the cut for the shortlist (13 September) and so could be looking anxiously ahead to the announcement of the winner on 25 October. They have also though just been named on the shortlist of the Gordon Burn Prize, founded in the memory of the genre-busting and polymathic writer and worth £5,000. One of the judges is the estimable Rachel Cooke, who was also a judge on the Lost Man Booker Prize awarded in 2010 to J. G. Farrell’s The Troubles, one of the books that missed nomination in 1970 due to a change in rules about the timing of entries. Moshfegh and Szalay will be put out of their misery on 7 October and, come the end of the month, might well be in serious need of the second part of the prize – a retreat in Burn’s remote Scottish cottage.