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Longlist author insights

Longlist author insights

Today’s longlist author insights is the first in a series of five as we approach the shortlist announcement for this year’s prize - 11th September. We interviewed our longlisted authors on their reaction to being selected, their reading choices, more about their book and what they’re currently working on.

Do you play golf and if not what is the appeal?

Nicola Barker: I don't play it. I have no coordination and lack the requisite self control with which to play even adequately. But I love watching it. And I will wear plaid and tank tops without too much active persuasion. Why did I write a book about golf? Because it's a game which requires huge amounts of mental toughness, and at some level the book is entirely about the various strategies people develop to bolster and maintain their mental toughness in golf and in life (be they booze, faith, psychology, sex, art, you name it). Golf is a game which you play against yourself. It's lonely and it's merciless. Not too different from writing for a living, I guess.

Where would you most like to live - 1931 Berlin, 1935 Los Angeles or 1691 Venice?

Ned Beauman: Definitely 1935 Los Angeles, so I wouldn't fall victim to either Nazis or typhoid. I hope I could still get longlisted for some sort of prize, though. As Brecht wrote about Hollywood, “In these parts/ They have come to the conclusion that God/ Requiring a heaven and a hell, didn't need to/ Plan two establishments but/ Just the one: heaven. It/ Serves the unprosperous, unsuccessful/ As hell.”

Where did you come across the story of Philida?

André Brink: I visited my friend Mark Solms, vintner and professor of  neuropsychology on his beautiful farm between the towns of Stellenbosch and Franschhoek near Cape Town, and learned from him that almost two centuries ago the place had been owned by the  brother of one of my ancestors, one Cornelis Brink, whose son Francois had had a long relationship with a young slave woman, Philida. This triggered the writing of the book: in a country like South Africa, how could I not feel driven to write about it?

Is the Malaysian Emergency under-represented in fiction?

Tan Twan Eng: It is. I’ve only come across Han Suyin’s … And the Rain My Drink, written in the late 1950s. There are a number of non-fiction books on the Emergency, however, and one of them, Noel Barber’s The War of The Running Dogs, is concise, well-researched, objective, and reads like a novel.

What is the appeal of farce?

Michael Frayn: It makes a change from serious literary labour, such as answering questionnaires like this.

Was goodness difficult to write about?

Rachel Joyce: I think I didn’t know that I was writing about goodness even though that is what it became. I was writing more about what happens when you take away all the stuff that stops us from connecting. Maybe that is what goodness means to me.

Did you worry about approaching a genre like "the villa novel"?

Deborah Levy: When it became clear that I was going to hitch a ride on what might appear to be a familiar genre - and then subvert it in my novel - it was the films of David Lynch that were most influential. For example, in Blue Velvet, set in American apple pie suburbia, Lynch shows us how stability and order (manicured lawns, neat white picket fences) is usually built on repression and lies. With Swimming Home, I set myself the oddest of tasks:  I wanted to write a novel about madness and sorrow - and make it a page-turner. These are confronting and devastating themes, so I dared myself to design a narrative that appears to be a light hearted story about a family holiday in an affluent villa.  It was my intention to write a novel that could be read on any level at all and hopefully still be compelling.

Was your Man Booker success in your mind as you worked on Bring Up The Bodies?

Hilary Mantel: Winning the prize for Wolf Hall gave me a burst of confidence and energy. The effects were wholly positive, because I was in the middle of a big project and didn’t have to ask myself what I should write next; I just pushed on. I am conscious that since the win in 2009 I have a much bigger, more cosmopolitan and diverse readership, and I wonder sometimes what readers in distant countries might make of what I write. But I think that when you go to your desk and actually engage with the task, these issues recede. Past successes and failures don’t matter as much as what you’re going to write next. Though I had been thinking about Bring Up The Bodies for some years, it was written quickly. I concentrated fiercely and was totally immersed. I didn’t think of the reception it might get, only how to serve the complexities of the story. As usual, in the last few weeks of writing, I didn’t feel like the story’s author, more like its slave.   

How did you settle on the motif of the lighthouse?

Alison Moore: I’ve always been drawn to lighthouses and remember paying particular attention to one during a coastal walk in Cornwall in autumn 2008, although I wasn’t at that point anywhere near starting this novel. When I did start writing it, there was this idea of places and people associated with safety or shelter or comfort but simultaneously having the potential to do great harm. I liked the idea of a confusion between a light to guide you home and what the beam from a lighthouse signifies.

What was your thinking behind using so few paragraphs?

Will Self: Life isn't divided up into paragraphs - any more than it is chapters, which Umbrella also lacks.

Why did you want to write about "the lowest of the low", people "who don’t usually find themselves portrayed in an Indian novel in English"?

Jeet Thayil: I wanted to do something that hadn’t been done very much in Indian writing in English. There are enough books about the middle and upper classes of this country. I’ve read a few and I found very little in them of the life I see around me, that is, life in a brutal Indian city. To learn to live here you have to harden yourself to horror, but you wouldn’t guess it from the fiction. Also, I wanted to make a memorial to the people I knew, the people who vanished, who’d been laid in earth by poverty and addiction. I made a list at one point of the names of the dead, and I was surprised at how very long it was. I thought the best way to remember them and honour them was in the pages of a book.

You tell the story of a city in “10 chapters”, did you think of doing it in one?

Sam Thompson: Yes, I started off with a single narrative which eventually became the second section of the book. But I found that the imaginary city I was writing about contained more possibilities than I could explore in that initial story, and so I began to put together a series of different voices that gave contrasting versions of the place. This felt like a truthful way of writing about cities, in as much as a city is a mosaic of individual narratives which share the same space, but which often misunderstand one another: they don't work by a single set of rules, and the story of the city emerges from their contradictions. When I realized this was what the book was about – and that the city itself was a kind of character in the story – I knew I needed more than one chapter.


Image of 2012 Mana Booker Prize Longlist