Apr 29, 2021
An alienated youth travels to remote rural India, where his great-grandmother lived in 1929, in Sahota’s hushed and subtle third novel
It’s a decade since Sunjeev Sahota published his debut novel, Ours Are the Streets, a bravura piece of imaginative intensity that took the form of a journal written by a would-be suicide bomber, a British Muslim of Pakistani descent, for his wife, a white British woman, and their child. The reader never discovered whether the planned explosion in a Sheffield shopping centre took place; that was peripheral to Sahota’s primary aim of exploring the cultural alienation and isolation that, in this instance, led his protagonist to radicalisation and violence.
The occasional narrator of Sahota’s third novel, China Room, is also alienated and isolated, though his response is to turn his violent unhappiness inward; at 18, he is in the throes of heroin addiction. His account of a summer spent in rural Punjab is interspersed with the more substantial third-person story of a young woman in 1929, whom we later learn was his great-grandmother. Continue reading...
Apr 24, 2021
His Booker-nominated novel Reservoir 13 was a quiet portrait of rural life. Now he has taken on the peril of the Antarctic. He talks about discovering the thrill of page-turning tension
In 2004, the novelist and short-story writer Jon McGregor went to Antarctica. As is so often the way when fiction writers find themselves in unexpected places, the trip was part of an initiative – in this case, the writers and artists programme run by the British Antarctic Survey and supported by the Arts Council. There was no specific expectation or obligation to write about the experience; then again, why wouldn’t you?
But it was easier said than done. Over the intervening years, McGregor – who in 2004 was the author of a single novel, the impressive debut If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things – has built up a striking body of work, including the novels Even the Dogs and Reservoir 13. The latter was an intricate, cyclical portrait of rural life that spawned a series of pieces for radio, The Reservoir Tapes, which themselves became a collection of short stories. Yet still the Antarctic box, an assortment of notes, ideas, photographs and sketches, sat there, resisting the translation to fiction. Continue reading...
Apr 10, 2021
More than 15 years in the writing, Ross’ new novel This One Sky Day is a glorious achievement. So why did it take so long?
There is the difficult second novel, but for some writers there is also the far more difficult third novel. And so it was for Leone Ross, who in the 1990s published two well-received works of fiction, All the Blood Is Red and Orange Laughter. The first, a visceral group portrait of four women that moved between London and Jamaica, was longlisted for what is now the Women’s prize for fiction; the second, which tells the story of a man descending into madness in the tunnels of the New York subway as he reckons with the legacy of the civil rights movement and his upbringing, appeared on Wasafiri magazine’s list of its 25 most influential novels.
Then, although their author worked steadily and productively as an editor and as a teacher of creative writing, and although she continued to produce pieces of short fiction, the novels ceased to come. As Leone Ross prepares to publish This One Sky Day, a novel at least 15 years in the writing, I ask her what happened to keep her quiet for so long? Continue reading...
Feb 26, 2021
The novelist talks about the heartache and hedonism that inspired her debut – and how writing helped her find a way out of the chaos of young adult life
Megan Nolan is weighing up how she feels about her relatives back home in Waterford, Ireland, reading her first novel, Acts of Desperation. She is not, she says, looking forward to it. I tell her that she might have to get used to it; I don’t live far from Waterford, and have noticed that she has already made the local newspaper (not to mention previews of 2021’s notable new voices in the Irish Times and the Observer). Anyway, what’s the problem? Everyone has been so supportive, she replies, “as soon as they heard that I was writing this book, and was having the book published, you know, everyone is so nice about it. And they’ll say, ‘I can’t wait to get it, and we’re going to have such a party when you get back.’ And then I just think: ‘Oh my God, they’re all going to buy it and be really moved that they’re buying it and then they’ll get home and have to read that.’”
“That”, she elaborates, is not exactly the sexual explicitness of Acts of Desperation’s depiction of a young woman’s life in Dublin, nor even its portrayal of prodigious boozing and partying, “but just that it’s so unhappy. You know, it’s quite a painful book to read. I just think, ‘I wish I could have given them a good experience.’” Continue reading...
Feb 07, 2021
Whether reporting from the trippy heart of 1960s counterculture or covering the trial of the Central Park Five, the legendary essayist brings a spirit of restless inquiry to all her writing
- Read an exclusive extract from new essay collection Let Me Tell You What I Mean below
To think about Joan Didion, you have to confront two things before you get to the words: the pictures and the anecdotes. If you’re interested in certain aspects of the culture – American counterculture in the 1960s, California, female writers – the pictures are familiar, if not ingrained. There’s Didion in her long dress with long hair, smoking, leaning against her Corvette Stingray; standing up in its sunroof; lolling out of the driver’s window, in Julian Wasser’s 1968 shoot; inside, pictured with her daughter Quintana on her lap (her favourite of that day), or staring straight at the camera. Wasser remembers her as “a very easy person to talk to. No Hollywood affectations” – but the photographs themselves had such star quality that the fashion house Céline not only recreated one in its 2015 ad campaign, but also featured the then 80-year-old writer herself, in black sweater and enormous sunglasses.
And the stories: the parties at the same rented house, on Franklin Avenue, to which Janis Joplin might turn up, asking for a glass of brandy and Benedictine (musicians, Didion noted, never wanted ordinary drinks); the Malibu beach house she later lived in, where the carpenter was Harrison Ford; the first assignment the neophyte writer did for Vogue, a piece on self-respect that only came to her because the original journalist failed to deliver and they’d already put the strapline on the cover. Continue reading...
Dec 31, 2020
We follow a young woman’s thoughts and feelings over a single day, in this perceptive depiction of power and agency
Rebecca Watson’s debut novel started life as a piece that was shortlisted for the White Review story prize in 2018; in it, we follow the narrator’s thoughts during her lunch break, as she ladles canteen soup into a takeaway cup, goes blank when a colleague asks her what she’s read recently and then repairs to the office loos to scratch – and try to stop herself scratching – the skin on her legs until they bleed and, eventually, scab over. Afterwards, she returns to her soup, and reads a corporate email about sexual harassment, which provokes a stream of thoughts and feelings that seem connected to the scratching.
The story was a glimpse into the two different systems of being that most people experience simultaneously most of the time: the scheduled, material, almost mechanical flow of time (here, a lunch break, a conversation, minutes spent at a desk); and the private, interior anarchy of emotion, sensation and semi-articulation that unfolds in each moment. It was rendered in daringly disrupted form: prose that fragmented into something more like poetry; sudden shifts in the typography; staccato repetitions and bracketed text; a narrative that appeared to split, like a peloton of cyclists separating to go either side of a roundabout, before reconfiguring, subtly altered. Continue reading...
Oct 30, 2020
A girl longs for her absent mother in this frank, witty tale about power and gender roles from the author of Kintu
Kirabo is an inquisitive child. She has even more unanswered questions than other girls in the run-up to puberty, the greatest and most mysterious of which is: “Who is my mother?” In the small Ugandan village of Nattetta, nobody seems to want to tell her, least of all the grandparents who have loved and protected her throughout her life; fleeting visits from her father, Tom, who is busy making his mark in Kampala, yield no further insight. So Kirabo, already unsettled by her ability to depart her body and soar above her neighbourhood, decides to consult the village witch, Nsuuta.
Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s first novel, Kintu, explored the complex effects of masculinity and its limitations on the relationship between fathers and sons; its canvas took in both the pre-colonial period and its long-lasting legacy. Vivid and ambitious, it suggested a writer unafraid to juxtapose past and present, the mythological and the modern - a scope that Makumbi reprises in her second novel. Here, she focuses on the origin myths of motherhood, the contested ground of women’s sexuality and the intersection between personal, public and political power, in a style that is frank, funny and direct. Beginning in 1975, in the middle of Idi Amin’s dictatorship, the story captures the surrealism of living in unpredictable and violent times, folding awareness of vast events into the minutiae of daily life. Continue reading...
Sep 26, 2020
As his third novel is published, the television presenter talks about growing older, Eurovision and resuming his talk show in a pandemic
Graham Norton is chipper as we chat in West Cork, where he spends much of his time when his eponymous BBC TV show is not on air, and to which he has repaired during lockdown. Despite the disappointing weather – Storm Ellen is about to wreak havoc on the west, and the following week will bring flooded roads and power outages across the area – and the daily waves of worse and worse news, he’s been quietly getting on with his other career, and the publication of his third novel, Home Stretch. “You know,” he says, “when I was rereading the proofs, it was in lockdown, Black Lives Matter and the world going to hell in a handcart, and I sort of thought, I’ve written an incredibly Pollyanna version of the world. But even if I have it’s a version of the world I like.”
It’s a lighthearted characterisation of his writing, but not entirely accurate. Although his novels are undoubtedly story-based, plot-driven and warmly entertaining – he described his first, Holding, as a “yarn” – they are not without darkness. His second, A Keeper, described the lengths that those in rural isolation will go to in the search for a partner, and Home Stretch is centred on the devastation visited on a small town after a fatal car crash. Beginning in 1987 and bringing us up to the present day, it focuses on an abiding theme of Irish life and literature – the relationship between those who remain and those who leave their families and communities – and also contains a vivid portrait of the evolution of gay life in Ireland. Continue reading...
Sep 19, 2020
A sharp-eyed satirist of the banalities of office life in her novels The New Me and Jillian, the US author talks about the frustrations of work and finding success through writing about failure
Sometimes, writers chime with the times in ways more serendipitous than they could have imagined, let alone planned; and the results can be a mixture of blessing and curse. When Halle Butler named the woman she describes as “the villain” of her novel The New Me “Karen” and its protagonist “Millie”, she hadn’t any particular connotations in mind. “It’s very strange. Karen, and Millie the millennial, it’s like Caspar Goodwood or something,” she remarks wryly, referring to the wholesome suitor in Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady. “It’s almost too direct.” She pauses. “I mean, she is a little bit of a Karen.”
She is, in the sense that that frequently contentious shorthand sobriquet – seen by some as a way of simply mocking women, and by others as a way of exploding privilege and the abuse of power – denotes officiousness, self-importance, entitlement. But in The New Me, it also comes with a healthy side order of pathos. Karen is a receptionist at the designer furniture showroom at which Millie finds herself temping, but imagines herself to be on a corporate ladder that will eventually lead to her running the company. For now, she restricts herself to finding fault with the way Millie collates promotional junkmail and requests that she time her bathroom breaks to align with her lunch-hour, unaware that those higher up the food chain find her laughable. Millie, meanwhile, simply tries to get through the days: “I wake up ill. I feel trapped in a loop. I stare at the big pile of clothing on the floor. I eat some dry cereal. I wash my armpits. I go to work. I think things on the train. I ride the elevator. I walk to Karen’s desk. I am either calm or hollow, hard to say.” Continue reading...
Sep 19, 2020
The novelist’s musings on his life, art and loved ones are humorous, grumpy and utterly compelling on grief
Inside Story is a deeply curious book, in both senses; it asks a lot of questions, and it often asks them oddly. It’s a second go, for a start: a partial autobiography that describes itself as a novel and which is built on the ruins of an abandoned project of a decade or more ago, a book called “Life” that died a death before it could see the light of day. It is a true story that clearly takes liberties – recasting historic conversations so that they read as little playscripts, slipping between real names and pseudonyms, darting back and forth in time. And, of course, there has already been a memoir, 2000’s Experience, which focused more directly on Amis’s parents, Kingsley and Hilly.
Related: Martin Amis: 'I was horrified that Trump got in. Now it’s looking scary' Continue reading...
Aug 29, 2020
The Norwegian author’s powerful new novel, Unquiet, grew out of a series of conversations she recorded with the film director not long before his death
When Linn Ullmann’s father was well into his 80s, he began to refer to the life that he was now experiencing as “the epilogue”. Lying in bed in the mornings, he would tot up his ailments, allowing himself one per decade: if there were fewer than eight, he would get up; if there were more, he would stay put. But these strategies denoted realism rather than appeasement, and his determination to continue work remained largely unshaken.
Ullmann’s father was the great Swedish film director Ingmar Bergman, and the work that he fixed on in his last years was a collaboration with his daughter, a book that would capture something of his life and thoughts as he approached the end. Recalling the beginnings of the project as she talks to me from Oslo, Ullmann emphasises the centrality of the creative process to Bergman’s life. “When it’s work, you know, then we know what we do. We’re working: good. We had so much fun discussing when we were going to write the book, how, what form it would take.” His preferred title, he joked, was “Laid & Slayed in Eldorado Valley”, a phrase that he’d always hoped to use for the name of a film. Continue reading...
Aug 07, 2020
Ahead of her latest, unnerving novel Sisters, the youngest ever author shortlisted for the Booker discusses her fascination with horror, family and growing up on Harry Potter
Daisy Johnson and I are talking about compost. She never thought she’d write about the Fens, she explains, but she ended up revisiting her childhood landscape in her debut book, a short story collection that won the Edge Hill short story prize. She also didn’t anticipate reworking the Oedipus myth that had so enthralled her in her schooldays, but it formed the bedrock of her first novel, 2017’s Everything Under, which made her the youngest writer, at 27, to be shortlisted for the Booker prize. “Maybe it’s just time,” she ruminates, “and maybe the things I’m reading now will circle back in 10, 20 years … I sometimes think of ideas as a sort of composting and that they just need to compost for long enough, and then you can think about them and write about them.”
But the thing with compost, I say prosaically, is that you have to choose what to put in, when to add water and to turn the heap. Johnson likes that idea, and firmly says she’s not the kind of writer that turns away from reading fiction when she’s working on her own books, or steers clear of anything that feels too similar. She is, instead, a magpie, of the belief that “nothing is sacred, and I think we should take everything that we possibly can and make it of our own and send it out into the world”. Continue reading...
Jul 03, 2020
The bestselling author’s new novel Utopia Avenue dives into London’s 60s music scene. He talks about writing cameos for Bowie and Zappa, world-building and not repeating his greatest hits
David Mitchell and I are talking – nerdily, greedily – about a moment in popular music when prog rock, folk rock, acid jazz and psychedelia all bubbled jauntily to the surface of the cultural pot. I’m telling him about how the guitarist and songwriter John Martyn ended his days in the small town near where I live in rural Kilkenny; he’s filling me in on how Jimi Hendrix’s bass player, Noel Redding, lived out his life in Clonakilty, the seaside town in County Cork where Mitchell lives with his wife Keiko and their two children. Redding, he says, continues to dominate conversation: “In people’s memories and anecdotes, he’s still walking the streets now.”
But neither of us was there for the heyday we’re remembering, and which provides the setting for Mitchell’s eighth novel, Utopia Avenue, its title the name of his invented four-piece band. In the late 1960s, both of us were just being born. So why the fascination with recreating this precise period? Continue reading...
Mar 18, 2020
From Nora Ephron to Thomas Mann, here are 12 books to entertain, challenge and inspire if you’re confined at home due to Covid-19
If you are the type of person who is tormented by the thought of all the books out there still waiting to be read, you are likely, for the worst of reasons, to have some time on your hands. Nobody would choose these circumstances in which to tackle their to-be-read pile, but books have a distinct role to play in times of trouble. The best of them absorb our attention, enlarge our sympathies and understanding and provide not merely simple distraction but a more complex way of engaging with the world and our place in it. These books – individually brilliant and absorbing – also try, in very different ways, to examine how we function as human beings. Continue reading...