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Comment from the book world in January 2020


Booker Prize winner on his debut novel

23 November 2020

‘Growing up as the boy I was and now the man that I am in New York, they feel like two very different people. And so, though this is on-the-back-of-a-cornflakes-box psychology, it was a good way for me to make sense of the whole of me and to sort of stitch myself together. I love the boy I was. It wasn't always easy but I wanted to conjure that world. Fiction allows you take control of a situation that you might not have control over in real life. On the west coast of Scotland, we are never allowed to think of ourselves as exceptional - never exceptionally great or exceptionally hard done to. And a memoir is thinking there's an exception there that is worth sharing...

(He was acutely aware of writing "poverty safari" for a largely middle-class readership.) People like to come through for a tour and then they go back to worrying about oat milk. I thought, "Well if we are going to do that, then you are coming for a stay." We are going to look at a woman drinking. You are going to be in the room with these people to the extent that you are going to leave the book with some sense of understanding them.'

Douglas Stuart, author of debut novel Shuggie Bain, which has just won the 2020 Booker Prize, in the Guardian



'Why does the writer write?'

16 November 2020

'Why does the writer write? The writer writes to serve - hopelessly he writes in the hope that he might serve - not himself and not others, but that great cold elemental grace which knows us.

A writer I very much admire is Don DeLillo. At an awards ceremony for him at the Folger Library several years ago, I said that he was like a great shark moving hidden in our midst, beneath the din and wreck of the moment, at apocalyptic ease in the very elements of our psyche and times that are most troublesome to us, that we most fear.

Why do I write? Because I wanna be a great shark too. Another shark. A different shark, in a different part of the ocean. The ocean is vast.'

Joy Williams, author of The Visiting Privilege, The Quick and the Dead, Ill Nature, State of Grace and The Changeling


'Culture is what's left when you've forgotten everything'

9 November 2020

‘We can't really take in everything we read in a book. When you think about what you remember of a book a month or a year later, it's a distillation - sometimes you remember an image or a scene or a moment in the plot, or an idea in an essay. You don't actively remember the entire experience, at least not consciously. My father used to say that culture is what's left when you've forgotten everything...

What we retain from our reading is that it's all there. It comes back to Proust and his madeleine - you don't know what moment will bring you back experiences or memories, whether they're things you've lived or things you've read.'

Claire Messud, author of The Emperor's Children, The Burning Girl, The Last Life and The Woman Upstairs in the Observer


Writing biography

28 October 2020

‘You write a biography from the vantage point of where you are: your gender, your race, your class. It's not a love affair or a marriage: it's a job. You're not writing autobiography; you're writing about some other person, usually a dead person. You can only access them in as far as you have materials and witnesses to allow you to access them. You are at the mercy of what you can find and read and hear and see. You become as intimate as you can with the life and work of this person... But there is always going to be a gap...

At the beginning, you don't know what you're looking for. The shape comes at you as you get deeper into the archive, and a strange force field starts to grow, as you concentrate intensely for years on end on one person... Stuff oddly comes at you in ways you don't expect.'

Hermione Lee, author of many books including biographies of Virginia Woolf, Edith Wharton, Penelope Fitzgerald and now Tom Stoppard, her only living subject, in the New Statesman.


Writing scripts

19 October 2020

‘Get on top of the computer program Final Draft. It's expensive and buggy, but it's the industry standard and for a first-time screenwriter like me there is something magical about the way it makes everything look like a Hollywood movie script. The other thing I have learnt is, the better the scene the less of it there is on the page. It's what your characters aren't saying that's important. Subtext is all.'

Daisy Goodwin, scriptwriter for Victoria, the TV series, and author of several novels, including My Last Duchess and The Fortune Hunter, and of 8 anthologies of poetry.


'If you aren't growing as a writer, you are dead'

12 October 2020

‘Dear Aspiring Writer, you are not ready. Stop. Put that finished story away and start another one. In a month, go back and look at the first story. RE-EDIT it. Then send it to a person you respect in the field who will be hard on you. Pray for many many, many red marks. Fix them. Then put it away for two weeks. Work on something else. Finally, edit one last time. Now you are ready to sub your first work.

Criticism is hard to take at first. Trust me, I've been there. But learn to think of crit marks as a knife. Each one is designed to cut away the bad and leave a scar. Scars prove you've lived, learned and walked away a winner. Any writer who tells you they don't need edits is lying. I don't care if they have 100 books out. Edits make you grow and if you aren't growing as a writer, you are dead.'

Inez Kelley, author of Sweet as Sin, Turn It Up, Taming the Alpha and 11 other books.


‘Is the screenwriter... really an artist?'

28 September 2020

‘Is the screenwriter, set the task of adapting a novel, whether a famous or forgotten or recently published novel, really an artist? Is there an "art" to adaptation? As someone who has done a fair amount of adapting I have to say I suspect not - the artist is the one who has created the work you're transforming. Adaptation is a craft, rather than an art, I believe. But craftsmen and craftswomen are not to be sniffed at.

We are artisans de luxe, if you like, operating in a ruthless industrial medium that not only imposes stringent artistic constraints, but also stringent constraints of budget and ideology and temperament - you often have to work with very difficult, stupid and demanding people. The fact that, at the end of the day, a long novel has been rethought and reconceived as a good film (if you're very lucky) is no mean achievement. We toil in an unforgiving vineyard, but sometimes the wine we manage to make can be heady.'

William Boyd, author of many screenplays and 16 novels, including Trio, An Ice-Cream War, A Good Man in Africa and Any Human Heart, in the Sunday Times Culture

'You only find out what you ought to have known by pretending to know at least some of it already'.

21 September 2020

'Every article and review and book that I have ever published has constituted an appeal to the person or persons to whom I should have talked before I dared to write it. I never launch any little essay without the hope - and the fear, because the encounter may also be embarrassing - that I shall draw a letter that begins, 'Dear Mr. Hitchens, it seems that you are unaware that...' It is in this sense that authorship is collaborative with 'the reader.' And there's no help for it: you only find out what you ought to have known by pretending to know at least some of it already.

It doesn't matter how obscure or arcane or esoteric your place of publication may be: some sweet law ensures that the person who should be scrutinizing your work eventually does do so.'


The late Christopher Hitchens, author of Hitch 22: A Memoir and 18 other books.


Translating Elena Ferrante

14 September 2020

'The first draft is the words as they are, more or less in the order they appear. It is pretty straightforward. But most of the time there is then some shaping of that language into an English that reads like English but still contains some suggestion of the Italian. In my first draft I look at the Italian; in the second I am still working with the Italian and trying to solve problems I couldn't solve first time around. Then, eventually, I try to read just the English, without the Italian, but I never can, because there's always something I need to go back to check. Sometimes I find I've gone too far away from the Italian; sometimes I find I need to go further away...

Definitely more attention is being paid to translators and they're getting more credit, but there's a long way to go. Now this is something I don't really care about, but it's often a battle to have your name on the cover of a book.'

Ann Goldstein, who has worked with Elena Ferrante for 16 years and translated the work of Primo Levi, Jhumpa Lahiri and many other great Italian writers, and is also head copy editor at the New Yorker, in the Observer


Should my books stay white for the rest of my life?

7 September 2020

‘The majority of my books are set in north London, and it began to seem like an omission or a lie that when I open my door I'm in a multiracial neighbourhood, yet I haven't written about that. Should my books stay white for the rest of my life? I don't think so. That's all I can say, I wanted the book to represent my city...

You write yourself out the further you go. The women thing started like that. I came to believe that women had more problems than white me, and white men's problems are mostly internal. That's certainly the case with High Fidelity and About a Boy. I tried to do the best I could with them, but there is something inert about that...

I'm thankful I'm not 30 years younger and having to make my way in the world...

My 17-year-old is supersmart and he's probably read about four books. But does it matter? Does it matter if you watch five seasons of The Wire as opposed to reading a so-so Booker novel? What are you not getting?...

I know why I read - because of the time I was brought up in. I was clinging to a lifeline and was never bored when I was reading. But my kids are never bored. Good luck to them.'

Nick Hornby, author of 21 books, including 7 novels, amongst them Just Like You, published next week, About a Boy, Fever Pitch and High Fidelity in the Sunday Times' Culture.

'My intense love of history'

24 August 2020

‘A lot of people start studying history from my books - I can't tell you how many people have told me that they read one of my books and then they started reading history, went to university and are now graduating...'

I don't wish to be vain about it, but it brings me great pleasure that my intense love of history has spilt over to other people reading history and historical fiction who came to it though my books...

I could not write these books without being a feminist. I'm interested in women's success, in women's struggle, and the Tudors are a period when women are legally, politically, socially, culturally and religiously massively oppressed. Any women's story in that period is going to be a story of struggle. That speaks very clearly to us who, though we have come a very long way, feel that we have some way to go.'

Philippa Gregory, author of 27 novels, including Tidelands, The White Queen, The Constant Princess and The Other Boleyn Girl, in The Times.


'I didn't just want to write ordinary detective stories'

17 August 2020

‘I'm always interested in trying to use whodunit and murder mystery forms to do something a bit more profound than, after 400 pages, saying the butler did it, thank you, goodbye. Effectively, I didn't just want to write ordinary detective stories...

They are the only form of literature that deals in absolute truths. When you read a whodunit, the joy of it is that you know that at the last chapter every ‘i' will be dotted, every ‘t' will be crossed, everything will be solved. Perhaps now, more than ever in an age of 24-hour news, fake news, when we often no longer know what to believe, the I enormous comfort in coming to a world in which everything is completely explained and closed off.'

Anthony Horowitz, author of 73 books, which have sold 7 million print copies, including the Alex Rider series, the just-published Moonflower Murders, Magpie Murders and 14 TV series, in the Sunday Times Culture.