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George Saunders's monkey business

George Saunders's monkey business

One factor in George Saunders's ascent to the very top of the literary tree that has yet to be mentioned is the part played by scatological monkeys. Before Saunders became a writer he was a geophysicist and while based in Sumatra he found himself working shifts of ‘four weeks on and two weeks off, in a jungle camp that was a 40-minute helicopter ride to the nearest town’. The situation gave him a lot of time for reading. He got even more time when he became ill after swimming in a river polluted with monkey faeces: ‘I remember looking up at about 200 of them, sitting on our oil pipeline, crapping away,’ he recalls, ‘and thinking: I wonder if swimming here is OK?’ It wasn't and he returned to the United States to recuperate and the idea of writing instead of geophysicking took root in his head. It gives a new twist to the old saw about ‘give enough monkeys enough typewriters…’

Saunders also noted that the idea for the cacophony of voices in Lincoln in the Bardo came about when instant messaging on social media became a thing. ‘I loved the disjointed, almost dissociative way that (and other, newer social media) looks on the page. It’s sort of like a lot of minds cross-firing narcissistically – a pretty good definition of any human gathering.’

Still on gatherings, book group members in search of inspiration need look no further. Where better to go for recommendations that the top – the venerable Royal Society of Literature? This club of the bookish great and good asks its Fellows for reading-group suggestions and among the stellar names that have obliged are various Man Booker stalwarts including the two times winner Hilary Mantel (Kate Summerscale's The Wicked Boy and The Wives of Los Alamos by TaraShea Nesbit being just two of hers), Jim Crace (The Conservationist by Nadine Gordimer and The Lives of Animals by J.M. Coetzee) and Sarah Hall (A Sport And A Pastime by James Salter and The Hunter by Julia Leigh). Saying where you came by your choices will give you bragging rights over the wine and nibbles for years to come.

Patrick deWitt, Man Booker Prize shortlisted in 2011 with The Sisters Brothers, looks to have a busy 2018 in prospect. His new novel, French Exit, a ‘tragedy of manners’ that recounts the tale of a wealthy widow, her adult son and their ageing cat, who leave New York for Paris amid scandal and impending bankruptcy, is due for release in August. The publishers Bloomsbury came out on top after a seven-way auction. Also impending is the film version of The Sisters Brothers, a Western set in Oregon and California in the 1850s, starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Joaquin Phoenix, Riz Ahmed and John C. Reilly. DeWitt will have to get use to switching from warm book-launch plonk to the red carpet in the blink of an eye.

Another adaptation due next year is that of Andrea Levy's 2010 Man Booker Prize shortlisted The Long Song. The novel, set in Jamaica in 1838 in the dying days of slavery, follows the travails of July, a plantation slave who eventually becomes the mother of a gentleman. The book was initially optioned for a feature film by Film 4 but is now heading to BBC One as a three-part series under the auspices of the Harry Potter producer David Heyman.

Jeet Thayil, Man Booker Prize shortlisted in 2012 with Narcopolis, has an unexpected take on the novelist's greatest curse: ‘Writer's block is nothing more than the psyche repairing or recharging itself. Telling yourself you have writer's block is a way of giving yourself a holiday.’ So no need to feel sorry for a writer struggling to express themselves, their brain is in fact lounging by the pool with a pina colada in hand. 

George Saunders