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Comment from the book world in January 2020


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.


'When I was five, I thought I was a writer'

10 August 2020

‘We say to girls, "you can have ambition, but not too much" When I was five, I thought I was a writer. I didn't just want to be, I thought I was.

One of the things of being pregnant and having a child was that it was a reflective time for me, and I am happiest when I'm creating. I am slowly coming back, but haven't quite settled. When my writing is going well, it's fully absorbing, so it's not "When do you find the time to write?" It's "When do you find the time to take a shower?"'

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, author of Purple Hibiscus, Half of a Yellow Sun and Americanah, and very successful TED talks, including 'The Danger of a Single Story', in the Sunday Times magazine

Writing in a lockdown

3 August 2020

'Well, the first six weeks I was not doing any writing at all. It was all about making sure the kids were all right and everyone was in a good mental state. Then, I thought maybe I can work for an hour or two a day and it was really hard work getting back in the groove. But, hey, the books aren't going to write themselves. The way I think about it is, what if I got struck down by plague or lightning? I'd rather finish the book than not...

There were a lot of small absurdities amid the psychological horror of the pandemic - people fighting over supplies in the grocery store, subway drivers having to breathe in the same air that their passengers were breathing out. That's the stuff of plague fiction. Then, there's the perversity of coughing in someone's face to ridicule them because they're wearing a mask and you're not. These are the kind of irrational things that, as a writer, you couldn't really think up. The strangeness of human nature outdoes you.'

Colson Whitehead, author of The Underground Railroad, The Nickel Boys and seven other novels in the Observer.

‘Dear Aspiring Writer, you are not ready.'

27 July 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 16 novels, romance and general fiction, including Beauty and the Badge and If Only in Our Dreams.


Bestselling book to major TV series

20 July 2020

‘If something in the script did not ring true in the context of early post-independence India - and how could Andrew possibly have known every detail of that? - I pointed it out, and he took it on board. As for plot cuts and changes; it had been a long time since I wrote A Suitable Boy, so I was somewhat teflonised against what happened to every minor incident or character.

I would not compromise with the essence, the core of the book, but I was less bothered about the periphery. There were several occasions where I thought: "That's brilliant, Andrew. It really works. It may not be what I wrote; but it's true to the spirit of the book and the characters.'

Vikram Seth, author of three novels, A Suitable Boy, The Golden Gate and An Equal Music, three non-fiction books, including From Heaven Lake, and eight books of poetry, talking in The Times about his working relationship with scriptwriter Andrew Davies on the dramatisation of A Suitable Boy which is just about to be shown by the BBC in the UK and by Netflix in India.


'Poetry has had an amazing impact'

13 July 2020

‘People have been washing their hands while reciting 20-second poems and lifting their spirits with longer ones. It's clear from social media that poetry has had an amazing impact during the pandemic, offering solace and inspiration. People have been reading poetry, writing poetry, learning it by heart. It's been a grim time in so many ways, but there's no question; the pick-me-up of poetry has made a powerful and positive difference.'

Gyles Brandreth talking in Bookbrunch about his daily Twitter recitals of favourite poems, many from his anthology, Dancing by the Light of the Moon, which have drawn 1.65 million views since March. Online poetry performances by actors Andrew Scott, Patrick Stewart and Helena Bonham Carter have drawn audiences exceeding 20 million since then.

Writing has so much to give

6 July 2020

‘I still encourage anyone who feels at all compelled to write to do so. I just try to warn people who hope to get published that publication is not all it is cracked up to be. But writing is.

Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises. That thing you had to force yourself to do - the actual act of writing - turns out to be the best part. It's like discovering that while you thought you needed the tea ceremony for the caffeine, what you really needed was the tea ceremony. The act of writing turns out to be its own reward.'

Anne Lamott, author of seven non-fiction books, and the forthcoming Hallelujah Anyway, and two novels, Imperfect Birds and Rosie.


Why and How Writers Should Embrace Twitter

29 June 2020

Like any social media platform, the more you use Twitter the more you will get out of it. So keeping your account as active as possible-i.e. tweeting as often as possible-is perhaps the most valuable tip of all. But that raises a common anti-Twitter excuse: "Oh, I wouldn't know what to talk about..."

To pro-Twitters like me, this is perhaps the most frustrating excuse of all, especially when it comes from otherwise idea-rich writers and authors! But admittedly, it's an understandable one: Twitter (if not social media as a whole) finds it hard to convince its detractors that it isn't merely full of cat videos, Star Trek memes, and everyone's everyday inanities...

Paul Jones, author of The British Isles: A Trivia Gazetteer, Haggard Hawks & Paltry Poltroons and its sequel, Jedburgh Justice & Kentish Fire.

A female children’s writer with a boy hero

22 June 2020

‘It was more difficult. I believe very fervently that we overstate gender differences, so a kid that is brave and tough, but panicked, will, in either gender, I think, act in extremis in similar ways. But I was reading about the 1920s and 1930s, and to be a boy in that period was to have demands made of you that I didn't want to blur. Fred's father wanted him to be manly...

The demands that are made of women can be ferocious, but the demands made of men can be equally tough. I don't know what it is to be a boy. I have a lot of male friends and my best friend when I was nine was a boy, but there is an extra imaginative leap you have to make, I know intricately what it means to be a girl and I don't know who gets to say whether a character is real. Do only boys get to say if a boy character is real and a girl if a girl character is?'

Katherine Rundell, author of The Explorer, which she writes about here, Rooftoppers, Cartwheeling in Thunderstorms, The Wolf Wilder and The Good Thieves in The Times.